Making A Pilgrimage To GTO Engineering’s Magical Ferrari Workshop
Photography by Ted Gushue
We’re no strangers to GTO Engineering here at Petrolicious. Our friends at their Los Angeles location have grown almost in lock step with Petrolicious just two miles down La Cienega Blvd. It’s been tremendous to watch their expansion stateside, but even more so it’s been a delight to watch what the modern day alchemy of their workshop, which has earned a reputation for producing “Restorations” that are arguably of higher quality than the originals. Here’s an example that I photographed with Steven Kittrell earlier last year, and if you’ll stay tuned there will be a bit of a story on what my experience was like driving their 250GT SWB Competizione.
During my last trip to the UK I finally made a pilgrimage to their home base, where it should go without saying, I liked what I saw. Sitting down with Mark Lyon I was able to get a better sense for how their business was built, and where it’s headed.
Ted Gushue: Mark if I’m being honest you’ve created Santa Claus’ workshop here. It’s an exceptional place. How did it all begin?
Mark Lyon: Well, it all began when I was a car mechanic working for a Ferrari garage around their workshop for a number of years. Then I worked in a dealership in London on high-end stuff, but all sorts of cars too. Then I set out on my own, just over 20 years ago, working from a small garage in my back garden.
TG: That was out here?
ML: That was towards London, but out here sort of, yeah. After some time in the garden, I rented my first premises, which was in a small town near London.
TG: Were you always called GTO Engineering?
ML: We were. We were always GTO Engineering. I started the business, actually, in 1992, but I was subcontracting to people—I was still employed, but I was also subcontracting with my then-employer’s knowledge. And then we started employing people. Kevin, who’s still with me today, was my first employee. His son Lee works here as well now, in addition to all of my children to give you an idea of what our group looks like.
TG: Having just spent a bit of time with Lee, I get the impression that you’re all one big family.
ML: We try to make it that way. I’m a great believer in relationships, and most of the staff here have worked for me for a long, long time, which I really like. So we trust and know each other very well. We know what we’re all good at and what we’re not so good at, so we know who to give what to. And yeah, it does, by and large, work well.
TG: When did you make the transition from being a low volume workshop to being a worldwide supplier and manufacturer of OEM-quality Ferrari parts?
ML: We started making parts not long after we started actually. So I would say 18 years ago or something. Mainly because cars we restored needed parts. And if you’re gonna go and make one part, and you say, “Well, actually, it’s more economical to make three, four, five parts.” And then you start thinking, “Well, I need to sell the parts that I’ve made that I’m not using.” And by definition you become a parts business. And that went along very casually for a number of years until I started employing parts people. And then it just exploded from there. Once we launched the online catalog, that’s when it really started taking off.
TG: Yeah, it’s interesting to see the business from where it is today, and from where it must have been very early on. You’ve never taken on capital to scale it, have you?
ML: No. It’s always just been a solely-owned proprietorship.
TG: When was the moment that you realized you could make your own car?
ML: We’ve been through a few boom-and-bust cycles in my life in the car industry. You know, we went through the ’70s, which was the oil crisis. And then there was the bad crash in the ’80s. When 2008 came and everything started to go wrong, I knew how to handle it. People don’t run out of money who’ve got a lot of money. They just don’t do anything for a little while. So, we were already making a lot of parts. We were running quite a few cars still during that period, but mainly we were just trying to stay sustainably afloat by making new parts and replacement engines and stuff like that.
I said to the boys, “I know that we’re gonna have a tough year this year. The workshop’s gonna get quiet. So why don’t we just go and make a whole car?” And everyone went, “Oh, great. Let’s do that.” So we were all very excited by it, and of course there were lots of difficulties along the way. But we started doing it, and that’s where we began. It was a brave time to start.
TG: What was that first car?
ML: The first car was a short-wheelbase. It was a three-and-a-half liter, and fairly standard, actually, apart from that. Because the early cars we kept very standard—we were kind of finding out what we were doing with the first one. We’ve developed it since then though, of course.
TG: And now you’ve reached the point where a customer can walk in and … almost to the degree that you could with our friend Rob Dickinson at Singer, have their car customized it to his or her heart’s desire.
ML: We haven’t customized it to the extent that Rob has yet. I’m good friends with Rob, by the way, and we talk to each other a lot. I admire what he’s done. Don’t be surprised when we keep our fairly original cars as they are and then move to an additional, Singer-esque product alongside.
TG: Yeah, at what point do you start making SWB bodies out of carbon fiber?
ML: [Laughs] I’ll let you know when it happens.
TG: Having driven quite a few, what do you think that’d be like if something like that were ever built?
ML: I think you have to be careful to not make the cars too light. Because you’ve got to bear in mind, you’re still running on relatively thin tires with quite a lot of power. A Porsche 964 is a much more modern car than a short-wheelbase anyway. So it’s already got a lower-profile tire, and it’s a wider one too. You can do a lot more with it. If you made a short-wheelbase too light—and they’re quite light already—I think it would just become too skittish. But what it does do, if you start using carbon fiber, in let’s say a monocoque CAD design, is that it increases the rigidity, which is something that is unique to doing a short-wheelbase.
TG: Besides evolving your 250 SWB and TR offerings, what are you not doing today that you want to be doing in a few years’ time? Are there particular models that you want build that you aren’t now?
ML: We’d like to build a California Spider. We’ve had a lot of interest in doing that from clients, and we’ve got most of the information to do one right. We’ve made some of the tooling already. There’s a problem though: it’s been quite busy here, which I guess is not the worst problem to have!
TG: Can you walk me through the process of how one of your “new cars” is produced? Does it have to be a Ferrari donor?
ML: So one of our clients brings to us a wrecked car. And it can be—within reason—virtually anything. Not a really new car though, and it has to be a Ferrari. We then take this wrecked car and we “restore” it into whatever they ask us to do, which might be a short-wheelbase or a Testarossa or whatever it may be.
TG: Who else in the industry do you look at with admiration or for inspiration?
ML: Well, there are people who do Land Rovers and that sort of stuff, and I think some of their work is very nice. It’s not my area of the business, but I think some people are doing a really good job in that category. I think there’s some very low-volume people out there that are really skilled, but that’s not really quite what we are. What I mean by that is we don’t do one car at a time. You know, we tend to make cars in a slightly more structured and production line-focused way. I don’t want to say there’s nobody that I respect, because that sounds really arrogant, but I can’t really think of anyone who does quite what we do either. You know, I think what Rob’s done is very cool and similar in certain ways.
TG: How many “restorations” are you doing a year now?
ML: It varies. Probably between six and eight. That’s enough for now. With our staff of mechanics, or engineers I should say, because they’re not all mechanics—but for the engineering side, it’s just under 40 people, so this production pace is good for our size.
TG: That puts you close to the top of the heap in terms of scale I would imagine, at least in the Ferrari world.
ML: Sure, but there are one or two places that are the same size or even bigger. Mainly in America.
TG: I have to ask: what’s in your personal car collection?
ML: I don’t have one.
TG: That’s pretty surprising! So then more appropriately then, what do you drive daily?
ML: An Audi. I had an FF, though I sold it very recently, and I’ll buy something else sooner or later, but I don’t collect cars.
TG: Interesting. Which of your cars that you’ve produced here have you enjoyed driving the most?
ML: I really like the Testarossa. I know I’ve been persuaded, finally, by my boys that I have to make a TR for myself. Not the next one, but the one after that, the next TR at the moment is ours. But of course, everything’s for sale!
TG: Is there anything about GTO that you’d like people to know that perhaps they don’t already?
ML: I think it’s about relationships, about having a good experience for customers. It’s not always easy. I think we’re very open and very unbiased with our customers. We don’t resell cars. So people feel comfortable coming to us for impartial advice and inspections. We don’t want to try to sell them something we’ve got in stock because we haven’t got anything in stock.
And we do a lot of work for the trade on that basis, because they know that they can come to us and it’s all very clear and unbiased, and there’s no agenda for selling cars to people. I’d like people to know that we’re excited about our LA division, which I think is an great project for us. We’ll be opening another location before long as well.
TG: Where’s that going to be?
ML: We have looked at a few places, including Florida. We already have a large warehouse facility in Atlanta too. But we’d really like to move that somewhere else, so we’re gonna try to move it somewhere closer to the east coast. I know Atlanta is east, but further east. We’ve been asked to look at the Middle East as well. I don’t know if that’ll work. I’ve been there, but I’m not sure.
TG: Good thing some of your cars have air conditioning.
ML: Yeah, and of course if you’re going to the south of France or California or Florida, you kinda need air conditioning, unfortunately. I hate it. The first person that asked us to do it, I was like, “No, we won’t do it.” They said, “Well, I won’t buy the car without it.” And I said, “Let me look at it.” Eventually I gave in, “Yeah, okay, we’ll do it.” And we did those early ones in a slightly different way than we do now. But one of my absolutes is that it can’t be visible under the bonnet. It must be invisible. We might modernize these cars a little bit with things like AC, but that’s not something that needs to be front and center either on cars like these.