Lost arts - Faine 433

By: Jon Faine

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restoration restoration

Jon Faine declares an emergency on behalf of the resto industry with a looming skill shortage

At the recent Motorclassica there were glamorous restorer’s stalls advertising not just their wares, their skills, their products but also their desperate need for skilled trades to work on the cars that are piling up for restoration.

Glenn Olsen, regarded as a master of the craft, a specialist restorer of mostly E-Type and sometimes other Jaguars, devoted the biggest banner at his stall for staff. He has two years and more of work already sitting in his workshop, but cannot recruit the staff to do it. He sets a high standard, and not just any kid wielding a dolly and hammer will make the grade, but he can’t find anyone to come and do the work. I’ve  had the privilege of watching Glenn and his team at work. I have seen them accept a car for re-finishing after it was supposedly restored elsewhere. An expensively and extensively refurbished shiny and superficially flash Series 1 E-Type 3.8 Roadster had front bumpers that were at slightly different heights, an initially invisible but clearly bog-filled crease in the nose, unoriginal brake and heater parts and the interior with muddled up 1963 trim matched to 1968 trim as if that was good enough. It isn’t good enough, and much of the expensive work invested into the car had to be redone.

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Glenn has jobs coming to him from across Australia, Singapore and NZ. He exports E-Type panels to the UK. The work is done to the highest standards achievable. When a car leaves his workshop it is better than when it left the Jaguar factory.

Other restorers, who don’t want their names published, tell a similar story. There’s a generation of workers, seniors dare I suggest, who have created good businesses and careers, but are at – or approaching – the age where they want to slow down or stop. There is no-one coming through to keep the work going. If we want our hobby to thrive, it needs to be sustainable. The ‘throw away’  culture has taken over with smash repairers and insurers refusing to re-use and repair a damaged door skin, instead replacing the entire door just because it has a dent. Time is money, and the fresh door is quicker to bolt on than repairing the original. Plastic front and rear panels are discarded instead of being repaired and painted, and the skills are being lost.

Is there a simple solution?  No one is going to create a national training regime to equip people for work that is inessential, an indulgence and catering to the obsessive interest of a tiny proportion of the population – car enthusiasts, in case you were wondering. There won’t be a royal commission, nor any motions passed in parliament, no election campaign will be fought over the decline in skilled trades in the classic and collector car movement.

But the market place ought to correct the problem, and probably will. Sadly, that means there will be a diminishing number of skilled trades working to the highest value jobs. If you want a repair or restoration done to a 1970s Toyota or a less than very valuable Morris Minor, you’re competing for time at the panel shop and paint booth with the owners of Porsche and Jaguars, Ferrari and Cadillacs.

Overheads and business costs in cities and suburbs are making trades marginal for many smaller repairers. Panel shops in country towns are a much better proposition. My Alfa Spider was repaired, de-rusted and repainted for a good price at a country shop just an hour and a half out of town. Job done on budget, on time and to a very good quality. The downside for city slickers is you cannot drop in to check on progress on your way home from work. But the offset is that the  rural work force is keen, the price is competitive, the enthusiasm is clear and you get a swell drive home when finished!


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