Retrace The Evolution Of One Of England’s Premier Restoration Garages
Photography by Florence Walker
Trust is the oil that keeps the car industry ticking. You might not be able to trust that your Alfa will start up tomorrow morning if the temperature’s fluctuated more than a degree overnight, and without trusting that there’s someone out there who’s going to pick up the phone or reply to your forum posts, there’s not much you can do. There’s a lot of uncertainty in life, and doubly so with cars, but if you’re lucky there’ll be some fine folk you can rely on for some advice and a chin wag to power you on through the missteps.
Trust can be difficult to come by, but fortunately for Neil Twyman, he’s has a great group to tap that resource: his family. Neil’s seen his son, Joe Twyman, thrive in historic racing, while Neil and his brother Craig run a restoration business that specializes in historic race cars like pre-war Alfas and post-war Ferraris—quite an apt family business.
Based in Potters Bar, in the north of London, their workshop is in an industrial park that from the outside looks unpromising, like most other industrial parks. But you’re soon eating your words when you get through the door and up the stairs. Their office is a veritable Aladdin’s cave of memorabilia which branches out in labyrinthine paths into a connected hub of garages housing beautiful cars in the middle of having life breathed back into them through restoration. In the office you can find everything from a complete collection of Goodwood members’ tags from every year, to a miniature working model of a jet engine.
I got to snoop around for an afternoon and pick Neil’s brain about what it takes to build a restoration company like theirs, and how to keep it going.
Florence Walker: Let’s start with how you got into restoring cars.
Neil Twyman: So my parents ran, in the centre of Potters Bar, a family-owned garage business which my grandfather started and my parents were continuing with. And that’s kind of how it was; the business was fairly successful, so Mum and Dad had earned a little bit of money and they decided that they would like to get my brother Craigy and me a really good education. We went to a minor public school called Aldenham with 360 other boys, and it was a fabulous school because it was really good in sports and our teams punched above their weight so that when we used to go to Eton and Harrow we used to do very well. I think it’s because we were just such a tight unit, our team. My brother and I, we were sportsmen and not really academic, so we just had loads of fun there of course! But when you go through that system, at the end of it they start talking to you about careers.
FW: And cars were the only thing in the cards for you I take it?
NT: Having put me through public school, my parents wanted to offer me an alternative career to working on cars. They were talking about all kinds of things and using words like stock exchange, insurance, civil engineer, all that sort. Not many people in those days went to University, and so they wanted me to get a job that made use of our education. So Craigy had gone before me and he’d gone off and gotten a job in the city, which in those days was obviously, you know, if you stuck with it, it was going to be a very well paid job and a good profession and everything else that comes along with that.
FW: So you followed big brother into the city, just in time for the Big Bang when the financial markets were being deregulated?
NT: Just before the Big Bang, yes. But all the while at home we had a workshop and Dad was restoring vintage cars throughout all of this. In fact, I used to fall asleep to the sound of Dad’s bandsaw quite a lot back then… I remember, you know, his compressor going, spraying things and machining things and he had a lathe too that he used frequently. He really was a good engineer.
Anyway, I started to buy cars off of places like Exchange & Mart, crashed cars usually, kind of started from nothing you know? So, I was working on anything that had crashed, repairing it, straightening it, so I learned these skills from a very basic level. I was doing all that in the evenings and weekends, but during the days I was at the Stock Exchange. And I used to go into the work and everybody else was…different. I had to wear a suit, but if you’d look at my hands they were really out of keeping with everybody else’s. Everybody had nice nails and were all cleaned up and mine were, you know, anyway…
So I didn’t stay. I stuck it out for a little bit though and the reason I did was that I ended up on a deal that was full of motor racing enthusiasts! Some of the guys were so wealthy they’d collaborated with Rob Walker and they ran a race team together. So, this stock broker was running a race team. And Dick Wilkins was the chairman of the company, and also had a Monza, funnily enough. So, they used to talk to me about stock broking and they could tell my heart wasn’t in it. They said, “You should really go and do what you want to do.” And I said, “Well…Yeah. I think I probably should.”
You know, I felt bad about Mum and Dad and what their hopes were for me, but I just got to a point where I couldn’t stand it anymore and I thought, well, I’ll just try working on cars. I didn’t, believe it or not, know these cars really existed because if you’re not going to race meetings and stuff, you don’t seem to get near them all that often do you? They’re not accessible.
FW: And this is before the Internet as well, so I can only imagine.
NT: Exactly. Where do you see wonderful cars like that? There are no galleries and pages of information waiting for you whenever you feel like doing some research. There was a place in Barnet called John Brittens though, and they used to have Morgans and Lotus Sevens and that was the nearest thing I’d ever seen to a real race car, so naturally I used to go down there and waste their time a bit.
So then I started to try to work on normal cars and, you know, I used to paint and do bits and pieces like that and I sort of got going but I wasn’t doing what I really, really wanted to do yet (but I didn’t actually know what I wanted to do at this point if I’m honest), until I came across a guy called Paul Grist, in Waltham Cross. My father heard about him too; he was a guy that restored old cars, and he worked on quite a few Monzas. I went down to see him, and I suppose entering his shop was a bit like what it’s like to come to mine for the first time. I remember saying, “Can I come to work here?” and I remember his answer too: “Yes, sure, I’ll give you a job.”
So that was when I was 21. So from 18 until 21 I was at the Stock Exchange, then I left and I was trying to earn a living another way, but couldn’t do it. And then I went to work for Paul Grist and became a Race Mechanic. I worked on the cars and like my son Joe, everything I was taught I picked up immediately because if you’re enthusiastic you’re just like a sponge aren’t you?
FW: Learning how to restore cars is one thing, and undoubtedly an impressive accomplishment if it’s at the level you work on, but what about getting into the community to find the work? That must be a different set of skills, right?
NT: I started to go to a lot of race meetings, and in that, I ended up meeting a few people. Some of which I’m working for now actually! For example, the blue Monza in here belongs to Chris Mann who I’ve worked for for years. That’s also where I got my passion for Alfas I think, from Chris.
So anyway I’d be at these race meetings and eventually somebody comes up to me and says, “Oh, you know, did you do that?” Or else they’d start to hear my name and associate it with the cars I’d worked on. By this stage I’d managed to buy a property in Brooklands Park, next to a railway station which had, attached to it, an L-shaped group of lock-ups. My wife, Helen, and I bought a maisonette in the corner. The maisonette had a really big lock-up garage, so I just started to work in there. And then eventually somebody offered me a car. The second car I got in this shop was a P3 Alfa Romeo Grand Prix car, so things were off to a nice start. Then the third car I got was a 330 LMB Ferrari, a Le Mans Ferrari. I was off and running. And that was in ’84.
Then I moved here; I got one unit in this complex in ’89, and then bought another, and then another. It was very organic.
FW: It terms of quality control, do you find from clients that they’re keen on the speed of the work or the quality of it?
NT: Well, it sort of varies. It’s quite a funny business too; the cars are first and it doesn’t sound right, but customers sort of come a little bit second to that. So we’ve got an attitude where we have fallen out with some people because we won’t accept doing a shoddy job on something. We refuse to cut corners on cars. We won’t botch them. And in the early days I paid for stuff myself because I just couldn’t stand work going out that wasn’t just right.
Obviously when you need work, the people that come to you are dealers because they know you’re good and they also know you’re in need of the work. So they push cars onto you and then they give you a hard time over time or cost and often both. You know, “It’s got to be done by then, it’s got to be done at this cost.”
And we’ve had to do that. But now we don’t have to. I don’t want to sound too flash, but we can pick and choose our customers at this point, which allows us to do work to our standard. And then the car goes out and of course it’s pretty damn good! We haven’t fallen out with many people but we’ve had to take control of our work.
FW: So skip forward 20 years, how many people do you employ now?
NT: It’s probably about 10, on average. But for instance we have a really good trimmer that comes when we need him. And we’ve got a few painters here and there for certain jobs, and then we’ve got another painter who’s come in to do work for us for years, and another panel beater who we use sometimes as well.
Lots of people ask me, “Well what’s going to happen when you don’t do cars?” or, “What’s going to happen if the younger generation no longer want work on old things?” Well, I don’t know if you noticed, but Phil the panel beater is teaching his 17 year old the craft too and both of them are quite good at it, so there’s at least a few people left who are entering the industry at a young age in today’s atmosphere.
And then downstairs there’s Paul, who’s our foreman and there’s Dan too, his son. So we’ve got two fathers teaching two sons their trade. To me, that’s the future and it couldn’t be better. It’s quite hard taking an apprentice on because there’s all sorts of health and safety stuff and the problems associated with that, but you’ve got the dads teaching their sons still, not only about the work but about common sense about working properly in general. So, I think that’s very satisfying and, in a way, I guess I too have influenced my son Joe in some small way.
FW: Have you ever tried to take on apprentices?
NT: Yes we have.
FW: But you would say that it’s not as successful as bringing on a family member?
NT: I think to bring on a family member is the best way to add to our operation. I worked for Paul Grist as an apprentice for three years and then set up on my own. You go in there, learn the trade, pick up the contacts, and then they’re off and running on their own. It’s not a reason to not take anybody on, but that kind of tends to happen, this “learn and leave” dynamic.
FW: So blood is thicker than water?
NT: A little bit. Yeah. But that’s not the only reason we like keeping it in the family. The true reason is that it’s kind of easier for us to say that fathers are responsible for their boys.
FW: It seems that you take as much care with the relationships among your workers and you and your clients as you do with the work on the cars themselves. Is that accurate?
NT: I’d say so. I don’t always say it, but, I’ve noticed that great cars are built with strong relationships. If you don’t have a very good relationship with your customer and he’s always querying or doesn’t trust you, querying the bills, giving a beating about who knows what, the car’s not going to be very good. And it’s the same with your staff. It’s kind of a natural thing and if you’re working together in harmony everything’s great. If you’re working against each other, it’s going to be a nightmare isn’t it? It takes longer and it won’t be as good either.
FW: And there are some private projects that you work on in-house as well?
NT: I’ve always tried to have private projects on the go, yeah. If I was very wealthy I probably wouldn’t work on cars as much as simply owning them, but in my circumstance, to get to the cars I love I’ve got to have a company that works on them. But for instance I’ve got the Ferrari project and a few other bits and pieces I’ve been doing for myself.
And if you do something and it doesn’t work—because sometimes it doesn’t—it doesn’t look right or whatever, you can just start it again if it’s your own project. And you don’t have to explain to anyone either! I did a Ferrari that I remember well, the one that’s a GT car, we built a roof for a Ferrari 250 TR. It’s one of the cars I love the most.
And we had three goes at that, to try to get it right. It was like building a prototype. We couldn’t have done that if we’d waited for a client to bring one in though, no way.
FW: Have you found that the technology for restoring cars has improved over the last 20 years?
NT: Yes, certainly in terms of machining because a lot of the cars we work on are probably not one-offs but maybe there are only half a dozen of them in the world. When I first started you couldn’t buy anything, there was nothing around apart from original parts. But now, if you need some machining for custom parts, there are a couple of companies we use that are nice to have in the phonebook. We used to have to do it in-house and it was very slow and laborious. But there’s so many specialists now and I think part of that is certainly because of the tech improving; people are taking more advantage of it, and are also trying to push it further.
FW: But that’s pretty much the only thing that you do out of house? The odd machined part?
NT: Yes, as much of the work we can possibly do is carried out in-house. We’re not big manufacturers. Ideally we’d spend all of our time restoring, but a lot of the restoration work has been done. There’s not many cars that need it; there was a period where, in the ’80s, where a lot of stuff that got restored poorly the first time needed redone, but a lot of those cars have been all buttoned up and restored properly by now. All the really top stuff has been done too. It’s all so valuable that it’s just mainly sitting in garages, meaning the cars don’t really wear out and they never get smashed up unless someone’s doing some vintage racing events.
So the company has naturally evolved into doing a few replicas at this point. We’re doing those Monzas for example, which we try to use as many original bits on as we can, but there’s a limit to what you can find, which makes sense: why wouldn’t anybody else be using that piece in a project already? I’d like to think we’re not a company that builds replicas, though we have built them along with our work restoring some of the best cars in the world.
So we’ve had to evolve but we’ve just kept going, you know? It’s just been a great way to … I wouldn’t even say “work,” it’s just doing what I love. I’ve found a way to work on cars and earn a living doing it, and that’s not so bad I guess.