The Italian job
Forget the Da Vinci Code, the Ferrari Formula will get your motor running. Martin Chambers is given a classical education.
A new renaissance dawns in Suffolk as a pair of master craftsmen set about restoring the works of old Italian masters to their classic state of nascent beauty.
But these rarefied restorers of masterpieces are not repairing some damaged Da Vinci, touching up a Tiepolo, nor cleaning a Caravaggio, they are forensically refurbishing Ferraris.
For this business the classic Italian marque is more than a car, it is indeed a work of art that is painstakingly restored to its pristine, Sistine Chapel best.
It is not often I walk into a car repair shop where it’s as clean as my kitchen, and before you start making assumptions, my domestic catering workspace is as sterile as a surgeon’s scalpel most of the time.
But GTB Restorations is unlike most car repair workshops. There isn’t a greasy overall in sight, nor pools of oil on the floor, nor a copy of Trout & Salmon magazine adorning a frayed MDF table.
It is more like forensic engineering, carried out in conditions of care and cleanliness, ready to take on the task of refurbishing and restoring some of the world’s finest cars, the Italian classics of Ferrari, Lamborghini, Alfa Romeo and Bugatti.
GTB Restorations is the creation of father and son Chris and Mike Withers, working out of a unit in an industrial estate near Elmswell train station. Their focus is restoring Ferraris to their original hand-built condition, or, as in the gleaming red Ferrari GTO sitting outside their workshop when I visited, converting a racing car to a vehicle fit for road use.
At 65, retirement may be on many people’s minds, but not Chris’s. Engine oil seems to run through his veins as he sets out on one last quest in search of the holy grail of the perfectly restored Ferrari.
“Ferraris and engines and cars have been a hobby of mine all my life,” says Chris. “I grew up with competition cars around me and I was always working on cars so it is a hobby that has developed into a business. Michael wanted to go into it so we decided to go into it together.”
“I've always followed Ferrari in motorsport and started building a Ferrari in 2000 - a GTO recreation, which went very well. There is a lot of mystique about Ferrari which we enjoy and it grew out of that.”
For these handmade, rare cars, repair is not simply a question of running down to Halfords to pick up spare parts. Like that old Michelangelo, each car needs to be restored to its original state, using parts identical to the originals.
“We make spares if they are irretrievable,” says Chris. “We do endeavour to fit original parts or remanufactured originals so that the original integrity and DNA of the car isn't affected, because that is important in these cars of such high value. They have to be as they came out of the factory, not with some bolt on kit.
“People want exact perfect originality in these items, or perfect replacements.”
Mike adds: “The owners of these types of car are looking for a particular type of workshop. We are not your typical vision of a garage, covered in grease from top to toe. We try to do everything professionally and cleanly. Everything we take apart is fully cleaned and stripped and reassembled, and as far as we can take it, goes back in the car as it was originally. The cars that we work on and the standards that we aim to achieve are very high.
“A big part of the market for purchases at the moment is based on investment so they may well buy a car that has been sitting around, so we'll recommission them.”
GTB Restorations is using the highest levels of craftsmanship, coupled with what I would describe as a form of forensic archaeology, to recover the past of these magnificent machines and put them back on the road in the same condition as when Enzo Ferrari waved his creations goodbye rolling out of the factory in Maranello. By doing this they also keep up the investment value of the vehicle.
Chris says: “In essence what we are trying to achieve here, the customer needs we are trying to satisfy, are quality workmanship and looking after those investments by giving excellent service.
“We give a fixed priced quote for a job. We estimate how long that job is going to take, but if we have a problem and it gets extended, hit a snag then we will do that job until it is corrected for the quoted price. We won’t run away from a job and say you've had your time for your money, we'll give the customer the result that they wanted.”
Mike gives an example of a 35-year-old car that was brought in. “The car had been to several other garages prior to coming in here with a problem. There had been other problems created by those garages and we ended up going all the way through the car correcting everything for a fixed price and it took a long time to do it, but we stuck to the price.”
Chris adds: “The car was trailered in, wouldn't run, and the owner was on his knees, he'd been to all sorts of people who had given him crap and given him the car back after taking the money and saying sorry we can't fix it.
“We said if you are prepared to just leave it here we will work on it but it won't be a solid seven days. We'll do it when we think we've got an idea and follow it through until we get it running, and we did. It took two or three months while we had the car here but we sorted out half a dozen faults one after another. You can’t see faults - all you see is the one that stands out but there is another one behind that. But we worked our way through the half dozen faults that had been created by people fiddling with the thing who didn’t know what they were doing.”
Restoring these classics takes time and temerity, but here the outcome is always worth the wait. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.