Video: see inside the UK's best-kept classic car secret
You might not have heard of them, but you'll be amazed at what Envisage Classic & Bespoke create – from D-type continuation bodies to stunning one-offs
Just a typical building on a typical UK Midlands industrial estate. Nothing to see here. The reception is small and unassuming, the receptionist typically Coventry in her open friendliness – even when she demands that all phones are placed in sealed bags to prevent photography.
There are perhaps more security measures than you might expect, but nothing to prepare you for the surprise on opening the second code-protected door…
It’s the noise that hits first, despite the earplugs usefully handed out at the entrance. The clanging and banging of hammers, the whirr of sanding equipment, the crackle of welding, the inevitable blare of the radio.
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We’re in the workshops of Envisage Classic & Bespoke, a rare privilege because it’s usually out of bounds for media. This is where magic happens – a ridiculous cliché that still sums up the way we feel when we see the process of creating complicated, deeply curved body panels by hand.
Maybe you thought these skills were dying, or reserved only for dark, dusty restoration workshops deep in the English countryside. Well if you did, the sight of multiple wheeling machines and panelbeating workstations – not to mention the 33 craftsmen and six apprentices employed – at Envisage Classic & Bespoke will soon negate any such thoughts.
In fact, this is where one-off and low-volume cars are created. We happen to be allowed in because there aren’t any top-secret industry projects on the go on this particular day, though there are still a couple of cars here that we can’t mention.
Still, we can show the D-types being built for nearby Jaguar Classic, the David Brown Automotive Speedback and the Bensport La Sarthe, and they’re fascinating enough. Another division of the company, Envisage Technologies, build many of the industry’s new concept cars and prototypes – and we’re definitely not allowed to see them, sadly.
There’s a fascinating Coventry carbuilding history here. Jaguar bodies, from 1948 to 1988, were built at Abbey Panels, later succeeded by Coventry Prototype Panels, which was bought in 2012 by the Envisage Group.
Many of the employees at Classic and Bespoke started out at Abbey Panels, CPP, Standard Triumph or Project Aerospace – including managing director Andy Hunter and workshop manager Alan Holden, who still both muck in with the manual work when needed.
‘We’ve found where our niche is, with the skills we’ve got,’ says Alan. ‘We use CAD for reverse-engineering of classic-style bodies with modern technology and tolerances, which guarantees consistency and repeatability of build. We can turn a bodyshell out in three weeks, ready for paint.’
Some jobs are straight recreations of usually-iconic cars, such as the D-type, but even then the challenge is to work out exactly how the body would have been created originally, how it went together, in order to manufacture to the original specification or better.
Other customers come to Envisage Classic & Bespoke with little more than ‘a sketch on a sheet of A4’, and it’s down to the engineers to work out the structures needed, as well as perfecting the designs and considering how lights, trim, glass, seals and all those hundreds of crucial additions to the basic shell will be fitted.
What’s fascinating is that all the work at Classic & Bespoke is based around the wheeling machines (or English wheels, as they’re referred to in the USA). There’s one small press, only recently bought in, for manufacturing small items such as headlight surrounds, but really it’s all about the wheel.
Aren’t these dying skills? Not at Envisage they’re not…
‘We realised the skills we had, the best in the business, and we took on apprentices to pass those skills onto,’ says Alan. ‘It’s worked really well – we’ve just taken on another six apprentices. They learn everything: shapework, metalworking, wheeling…’
Indeed, many of the employees are young, and we watch two former apprentices working a large sheet of metal through one of the wheeling machines, back and forwards. ‘It’s like dancing,’ says Alan. ‘One of them has to take the lead.’ It’s hypnotic to watch, as gradually the curves start to form.
How do they know when a panel’s the correct shape? For that we need to take a step back: from the initial scans or designs, solid bucks (above and below) are formed, in the shape of the bodywork. Envisage use a polyurethane material called Sika, which is strong and resilient enough to resist panel beating hammers as the metal is formed around them.
The traditional material for the bucks was wood, and some companies use alloy, which is easier to recycle but harder to work with. At the moment the Sika bucks are machined over the course of three days for an entire car, though Andy and Alan think 3D printing might take over in the future, once the process gets quicker.
On the bucks, panel sections are worked out and marked up, because any large, deeply-curved panels will have to be made in pieces then stitched together.
Once those sections have been created on the wheeling machines, and with flanges and tight curves created on the shrinking/stretching machines, they’re welded together with remarkable delicacy. Remember, we’re talking about thin, lightweight alloy panels here – and yet the welders join them effortlessly, using oxy-acetylene rather than modern TIG in all but the most inaccessible corners of the panels.
Why gas and not TIG? ‘Gas is cleaner,’ explains Alan. ‘The weld is easier to clean up and it’s more malleable. When you run a TIG weld through the wheel, it causes undulations, while an oxy-acetylene weld comes out like this’ – and he shows us a panel so beautiful you could display it as high art.
So, traditional skills dying? Hell, no – they’re alive across the UK, and across the world. At Envisage, combining new technology with these age-old crafts means that the results are the best they’ve ever been.
Visit the Envisage Group website for more information.
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