Building Hotter Hatches, Running Motorsport Teams, And Restoring Classics With Tolman Motorsport
Photography by Will Broadhead
Oh Dr. Beeching! The scourge of Britannia’s railways and grim reaper for many a local branch line. Thanks to him there is a network of old railway cuttings throughout the UK, long bereft of any track or rolling stock, the only sign that anything ever ran along these routes is the telltale embankment and the odd parcels of land that once catered to sidings and stations. The demise of the old railways is not lacking in opportunity however, and the repurposing of these defunct sites over the years means plenty of new beginnings. One such cutting lies between Leamington-Spa and Rugby, at the foot of the Midlands, and nestled in among various industrial units in the old station yard is Tolman Motorsport Ltd, a mechanical engineering company that are fast making a name for themselves in motorsport both current and historic.
I say fast, but in reality Christopher Tolman and his team have been on site for just over ten years now, and in that time, they have expanded from a single unit into around five, and what began as Chris and just a handful of machines has become something more. It isn’t just the impressive expansion, but the sheer variety of work that Tolman is successfully involved in that’s really impressive. There is of course the auto engineering that began it all—everything from wonderful engine work (130 bhp out of a humble Coventry Climax engine, for example—to bespoke solutions.
Then there is the motorsport side, with Chris having run Ginetta and McLaren machinery in the British GT championship, and in doing so developing both cars to the point where the factories were distributing the Tolman updates as bulletins to other customer teams. Trophies have naturally followed Tolman’s tremendous reliability—even in the Ginettas—and a lap record on the difficult Oulton Park circuit that stands to this day. The workshop also boasts a historic arm, covering off everything from faithful restorations to classic racing series preparation. Throughout the Tolman premises, historic single-seaters and GT machinery abound.
It is a great breadth of work for a small team, one that might see other such workshops stretched too thin, but here, despite the impacts of the virus on Chris Tolman’s operations, there is a seemingly serene atmosphere and a sense of calm in every corner. “We have a set way of doing things” Chris explains, “we might be working on a great many different projects and cars, but we approach them in the same way.” This approach seems to deliver a consistency and level of quality and detail that Chris demands, and it’s not just the guy with his name on the door who cares, as some time spent with his team proved that the philosophy runs through every level. This methodology is deeply entrenched in Chris, who, like many of us had his love of motorsport sparked as a child and that first opportunity to sit in a racing car—in Chris’s case, a Group 2 Talbot Sunbeam rally machine. “I just wanted to be a rally mechanic” he recalls, something that he would achieve in due time, but through a slightly different route than most take to get there.
The apprenticeship that Chris undertook was conducted under the gaze of the Ministry of Defense, and it opened up a world of opportunities and lay the bedrock of a way of working that clearly influences the way in which Tolman conducts its business. “I worked on all sorts of things, and did a lot with aircraft, prepping Hunters at Boscombe Down. You had to be on time and things had to be done right, no corners could be cut.” Chris even worked with 22 Squadron and on the development of special technologies, but his heart was still set on motorsport, and his journey would take him to M-Sport next, where he worked on the Ford Mondeo Super Touring Car program.
Whilst the military influenced Chris’s rigorous work ethic, the motorsport realm proved to be much more intense, and his tenure with M-Sport—although thoroughly enjoyable, he assures me—left him a bit burned out. But after a short break, an opportunity presented itself, allowing him to achieve his childhood ambition of becoming a rally mechanic. “I heard about a job with Ralliart” says Chris, who leapt at the chance to work under the stewardship of Andrew Cowan, the former Scottish Rally Champion and London to Sydney Rally winner, who also happened to be one of Chris’s heroes. “I thought it was great when I got the job, of course” he tells me, “I was going to be a rally mechanic!” So began a seven-year career as an engine technician with Mitsubishi’s rally arm, working with the likes of François Delacour and Tommi Mäkinen, and on the Evo VI and Lancer WRC, a time Chris remembers with exceptional fondness before Mitsubishi pulled back on its WRC activities.
The next adventure for Chris would of course be setting up his own company, and I wonder how the transition from hands-on engineer to managing director has been for someone who clearly likes to get in there. “It’s something I’ve had to learn to do. An ideal day is one where I can get the office work out of the way in the morning and then have my hands in an engine in the afternoon. It’s helped that it’s been a gradual transition, starting as a small machine shop and growing to the point where we were running a racing team and had ten engineers on site before the pandemic hit.”
The virus has been a source of frustration for Tolman Motorsport like so many other businesses, but Chris and his company are determined to keep going, and it’s clear that they’re ready to pick up the pace again when normality starts to creep back into the picture. “My team has so much capability, there are some real geniuses in there,” he says proudly, and their talents are backed up with the right facilities.
Still, even during the relative downturn in activity, within the workshops there are some exciting projects underway—you may have seen the quite ridiculous yellow and green Talbot Sunbeam doing the rounds on social media, but there are also more-than-meets-the-eye pocket rocket Peugeot restorations with what Chris calls “non-invasive modifications,” as well as a very special and faithful restoration of a Lotus Elite with Le Mans history, and, somewhat appropriately considering Chris’s Ministry of Defense history, some other projects that aren’t ready to be revealed to the world just yet.
“We will see what opportunities arise,” he tells me before we part ways, “Whether we are working on cutting edge racing cars or classic machinery, as long as we stick to our principles and approach the projects in the same way we can always achieve superb results.” From what I saw on this visit—we’ll be back to feature some of the cars on their own later—I have no reason to doubt that Tolman will continue cranking out excellent work, whether it be for a classic rally stage or a modern GT circuit.