Visit A French Workshop Where Bodywork Is Still Formed By Hand And Hammer
Photography by Robb Pritchard
The humble hammer is possibly the least refined tool of the artist, but when you are a master of metal it’s the tool of choice. Hubert Haberbusch is one such master. Since 1989 he has run HH Services Carrosserie in the city of Strasbourg, France, restoring, and recreating from the ground up, some incredible classic cars. Seeing as this is one of the few places where panels are still beaten by hand, I took some time to visit Hubert’s workshop on the outskirts of the city to see the weird, the wonderful, and the sublime.
Between his slightly unkempt white hair and a nervous energy that keeps him thumbing through reference books and folders of photos, there is a little of Back to the Future’s Dr. Emmett Brown in Mr. Hubert Haberbusch. There is also the time travel element in his workshop, filled as it is with huge antiquated metal machines. The clang of hammers and anvils and metal becoming artwork make up the percussive sounds of automotive workshops from a century ago, but it is 2019 and Hubert has plenty to keep him busy.
And despite the time warp scene given off in the first impression, I’m taken aback by how young most of the people are in the workshop. A few years ago, handcrafted bodywork for cars seemed all but a dead trade, but with the massive popularity of classics today—and more so, a continually evolving appreciation for restorations done correctly—HH Services Carrosserie has more than a long waiting list. Indeed, Hubert’s skills have been recognized by the French ministry of culture. Now as an honored Master of Arts, he can teach apprentices the ancient craft of making beautiful cars from sheets of metal.
Hubert began learning the trade back in 1966, when crashed cars were wheeled into repair shops and fixed rather than simply scrapped as new lease models might be today. He did this work for some twenty years until the last metal workers closed shop. With a few months free from the shackles of regular employment that followed, Hubert took a step back and thought about what he wanted to do… and decided to build himself a Bugatti Brescia.
The end result was done so well that word of his work go around quickly, and soon enough a couple of local guys with large collections of less-than-perfect classics took their fleets to Hubert to have their bodies worked out. He never looked back. In 2002 he took on some of the Schlumpf Museum projects, all of which are on display in Europe’s biggest collection of classic cars. For example, the museum’s Bugatti Type 28 Torpedo, 1937 Tatra, and 1954 Pegaso are all wearing his work.
After a coffee so strong it needed putting in a bigger cup with some water, it was time to look around the workshop. We start at the huge 1933 Bugatti Type 50 Landaulet, which came to Hubert with no body. Apparently, only six such examples were made in period, and as none survived, the only reference Hubert has to go on was a couple of grainy old photos. “Without the blueprint plans, or the same type of car to match your work to, there’s no chance you can make a 100% accurate replica. So I say that this is ‘inspired by the original.’”
From the wooden box frame to the long tapering rear wings, when it’s finished Hubert and his team will have put about 3000 hours of work in it. The back of the cab has an unusual partial soft-top which will be sent off to the interior specialists to be taken care of before the exterior package comes together again for a second life. “The owner trusts me that in the end he will have something very special.”
Next, we take a look at the 1953 Peugeot 203 sitting nearby. It’s elderly owner had a large collection of cars that were sadly left in a condition far from concours, and when he passed away, his son, who remembers driving around in this Peugeot in his childhood, wanted this one restored. At HH, as much of the good original metal as possible is kept, with patches of repair being welded in. Too delicate to be sandblasted, the paint was stripped from the body by hand, which is why it’s covered with these impressionist-esque patterns.
The gorgeous art deco-era 1937 Delahaye 135MS was the next to get our attention, and how could it not? The sleek flowing lines serve no other purpose than to look stunning, to demonstrate to those outside of the car that anyone inside of it was part of a selective slice of society. Despite the intended opulence of the Delahaye, at some point in this car’s history someone took the back off to make it shorter. Its current owner brought it to Hubert to rectify that sacrilege, and as its obvious to see, Hubert’s done an amazing job restoring its full stately shape.
The yellow 1925 Diatto Type 30 that we pivot to is another car that came into HH without a body. Formerly part of the Rosso Bianco collection, its owner didn’t just want the open-wheel boxy look for this Diatto, and when Hubert found a contemporary sketch with the elegant wings you see here, the owner decided to go with that look. The original had a rather odd-looking and bulbous rear end though, so Hubert created this much smaller and neater looking variant. Because of this, a small liberty, it will never find a place in a museum, but it will be a head-turner. The name Diatto, defunct since 1929, might not mean too much to most car enthusiasts in 2019, but in the same small Italian workshop where Diattos were developed was an apprentice named Alfieri, who went on to have a little more success and notoriety. His family name was Maserati.
Hubert’s shop doesn’t only deal with time-consuming restorations and re-bodies however, and he brought me over to show some of the shop’s shorter term work, like the 1927 Talbot M67 that was on the premises while I was. It isn’t really valuable enough to warrant having a full restoration, and was just in for some scratches in the roof to be repaired. The Mercedes 300 SL will always be worth restoring I’d imagine, but this example was just in for some accident repair. Nothing too serious, the owner just forgot about the open gullwing door when he pushed it into the garage… Certainly nothing HH can’t handle, especially since Hubert completely rebuilt this one a few years ago.
One job that he’s rightly proud of, ahead of most others he should also be chuffed about, is the Ferrari 735 Mondial, one of just three. Over the years, this car had had a hard life, and was involved in at least one very bad accident in period. The major repairs that followed hadn’t been done too faithfully to the original spec. For example, someone had seen fit to add a scoop in the bonnet to make the straight-four-powered Ferrari look like it was packing a V12, and so Hubert did his best work to get this stunning and rare car back looking as it should. Once a few mechanical details are sorted it will enjoy having its legs stretched in top historic events like the Mille Miglia… where it will be driven hard for the first time in 55 years.
Like all the cars that pass through his capable hands, Hubert had a part in getting this piece of history back on task, and though he isn’t a spry young kid himself anymore, he’s as competent with a hammer as anyone you’ll meet.