Car makers may be facing a perfect storm but, if my experience is anything to go by, car restorers are having a whale of a time. Stick a pin in a map of the UK and you won't be far from one, or two, or three... I stuck a pin in the West Country – Weston-super-Mare, to be precise. I already knew there was an excellent car restorer near the town, but I wondered if he had any neighbours. It didn't take long to unearth a couple more elsewhere along the M5 between Weston and Exeter. There were more, but there are only so many hours in the day. In any case, I was interested only in companies restoring bread-and-butter classics, as distinct from rarefied exotica. Let's meet them.
Chris and Tina Boyer - Quantock Classics, Bridgwater
Times are good for Quantock Classics. The business, owned by husband and wife Chris and Tina Boyer, is about to move from their existing 1200sq ft premises to a new place measuring some 5000sq ft.
They clearly need the space. Surrounded by tools are a part-completed 1974 Land Rover Series 3, behind it a 1988 Land Rover Defender and to the side a stripped-down MGB roadster. The latter was its owner's first car that, miraculously, he tracked down to Italy and brought home.
It means a customer's 1977 Series 3 must stand outside as an example of Chris's work. He treated it to a nuts-and-bolts restoration two years ago, and today it's used as a daily driver and breakdown vehicle at nearby Hinkley Point power station. It's worth around £20,000.
Chris, 54, has 30 years' experience of restoring cars. Trained as a bodyshop technician, he honed his skills building replica Jaguar XK120s, XK140s and C-Types. His awards include Best Mini in the World at the 40th anniversary event at Silverstone in 1999. Today, his focus has part-shifted to restoring Land Rovers, which he describes as being like Meccano sets. "If we can't find a part, we'll make it," he says.
Old Landies weren't exactly known for their tight shutlines, which is why Chris trial-fits every panel and spends hours getting fit and finish just so. And get this: he makes sure the slots in screwheads are all perfectly aligned.
Dave Watkins - Restoshack, Whitestone, Exeter
Like Quantock Classics, Restoshack is another car restoration business soon to move to larger place. Founded eight years ago by Dave Watkins, it's currently situated at the end of a farm track in a large outbuilding with a workshop and bodyshop. Down the lane is another building housing 20 rare motors, including two Audi Quattros, a Volkswagen Golf Rallye, a Datsun 240Z and a Ford Escort RS2000, all of them at various stages of completion.
While Watkins is happy to take on most projects, he fights shy of anything too exotic, preferring instead to concentrate on mainstream collectibles including Escorts and Golfs. In fact, he has restored 12 Golf Rallyes, and when I visit, there's the shell of a 1983 Mk1 Golf GTI Campaign being prepared by Harry, his apprentice.
Other workshop talents Watkins can call on include Mick, a former Formula 3000 mechanic; Dan, a Ferrari-trained mechanic who has his own garage; and Steve, a gearbox specialist. The other team member is Richard Miles; the 80-year-old was Sir Jack Brabham's mechanic and owns Tipton Garage, a legendary name in classic car circles.
The fruits of their combined experience are exemplified in a remarkable Escort RS2000 Custom Mk2, currently in restoration. Its 2.5-litre four-cylinder naturally aspirated engine, which cost £20,000, has a Connaught head and produces around 320bhp. At the back is a fully floating rear axle with coilovers that cost £5000. When it's finished, the bill will be about £80,000.
"We have around 15 cars on the go, and customers pay for them in stages as they're restored or modified," explains Watkins. "They give us free rein to do what we want, but at the same time, we're under pressure to satisfy their dreams."
Mark Sargeant - Ford Parts R Us, Weston-Super-Mare
I spotted this restorer of fast Fords last summer, my eye drawn to the row of condemned Escorts parked outside. These provide many of the parts for the hot Fiestas and Escorts that emerge from it regularly. Happily, they've since been pushed to the background by three Escorts (an RS1600i and two RS Turbos) restored by Mark Sargeant and his team and driven through heavy rain for my visit by their owners, which says a lot about the daily usability of old Fords and those who buy them.
Inside the workshop are a Fiesta XR2, an Escort Cabriolet with a turbo conversion and, on the ramp, another RS1600i. Sargeant reckons his business is one of the few in the country focusing on 1980s Fords.
He certainly seems to have cornered the market in their second-hand parts; everything from window rubbers and mudflaps to distributors and injection lines spill from the rows of storage racks. "The interchangeability of parts makes working on old Fords such a joy," he says. "For example, the driveshaft of an Escort 1600 Ghia is the same as that fitted to an RS Turbo."
Sargeant took over the business in 2011 and reckons he has since restored at least 50 cars. "Escorts in particular are fun, easy to fix and straightforward," says Sargeant. He was going to say affordable, too, but prices for good cars are now well into five figures.
The quality of his team's workmanship is impressive. One customer has brought his RS1600i along to prove it. Sargeant restored his 1983-reg car in 2007 and it still looks good. "I've had four and love them," says its owner. "The thing with Ford is its ability to turn an average car into something special."
Identifying a good restorer
According to Quantock's Chris Boyer, communication, transparency and attention to detail are the hallmarks of a good restorer: "A willingness to invite the customer into the process is vitally important. Every stage of the restoration should be documented and photographed, and the final invoice should be based on timesheets so the customer can see where their money has been spent." The restorer's website or Facebook pages should be updated and provide images of past and present projects, as well as links to customer reviews, Boyer adds.
Of course, another clue to the quality of a business is the restorer themselves. The three I met on my tour of the West Country impressed me with their openness, directness and experience. Their honesty, too.
For example, Dave Watkins of Restoshack was candid enough to admit there are cars he'd rather not work on. "There's nothing to be gained by accepting every project. I only restore models I'm comfortable with and am confident will turn out well."