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Retropower: where dreams – even Gor­don Mur­ray’s dreams – come true

CAR (UK) - - Contents - Words Ben Barry | Photography Stuart Collins

Retropower’s su­per-slick restora­tions of­ten in­clude hid­den power boosts and chas­sis up­grades, cre­at­ing mod­ern clas­sics even bet­ter than the orig­i­nals

I’VE NEVER SEEN a car work­shop quite like Retropower’s. As we walk up to re­cep­tion, there’s a pris­tine Ford Fi­esta RS Turbo parked out­side. It’s been stripped to noth­ing but a bare shell and re­built with a care and at­ten­tion nor­mally re­served for exotics. So you start to think Retropower spe­cialises in pre­serv­ing af­ford­able, rel­a­tively mod­ern per­for­mance cars. And to some ex­tent that’s true. Then you step in­side and there’s a W113 Mercedes SL ‘Pagoda’, Mk2 Jaguar and first-gen Mercedes S-Class un­der­go­ing restora­tion to fac­tory spec­i­fi­ca­tion. But it’s not just nut-and-bolt restora­tions. There are Franken­stein en­gi­neer­ing projects too: there’s a beau­ti­ful Opel Manta 400 with Nis­san Sky­line run­ning gear, a perfect Alfa Gi­u­lia with an MSA-spec rollcage and Milling­ton en­gine, a resto-mod­ded Jaguar XJC, a Dat­sun 240Z ready for an­other Sky­line trans­plant. Pic­tures doc­u­ment an ear­lier Manta A project that ap­pears to have had a Honda S2000 en­gine swap. Only it hasn’t: a Honda S2000 has had a Manta body swap.

The breadth of the work is as puz­zling as the at­ten­tion to de­tail is im­pres­sive. But as so of­ten is the case, Retropower has grown or­gan­i­cally from a pas­sion for cars rather than some far­sighted busi­ness plan. From early days buy­ing and sell­ing and then lightly restor­ing older cars on the side, broth­ers Cal­lum and Nathaniel Se­viour founded Retropower in 2009. It’s been based at Oak­ley Farm near Hinck­ley, Le­ices­ter­shire, ever since, but has grad­u­ally grown to fill more busi­ness units.

‘If you want a car re­stored to make money, we’re not in­ter­ested. We want work that fulils peo­ple’s dreams’ RETROPOWER’S CAL­LUM SE­VIOUR

‘I al­ways en­joyed work­ing on cars, but I was ac­tu­ally a ho­tel man­ager be­fore we started Retropower,’ says Cal­lum, who now spends most of his time on day-to-day lo­gis­tics and project man­age­ment. ‘Nat is the qual­i­fied en­gi­neer; he was a process im­prove­ment en­gi­neer at a fac­tory that made rub­ber door seals for cars.’

Retropower’s first com­mis­sions were ba­sic restora­tions on a Kadett and a Chevette, which earned them a rep­u­ta­tion within the Vaux­hall/Opel scene. That led to their first big project, an Opel As­cona. The rusty Mk2 As­cona was stripped back to just a bodyshell, and the rot re­placed with new sec­tions of metal that were per­fectly in­te­grated. To­day, the As­cona is a Group 4 rally replica of the iconic 400, its build ex­act­ingly recorded on­line.

‘All our cars get their own Face­book page, and we pho­to­graph­i­cally de­tail ev­ery step of the build. If I were a cus­tomer, I’d be ques­tion­ing the build process if I couldn’t see that,’ rea­sons Cal­lum.

The As­cona was the cat­a­lyst that pro­pelled Retropower into an­other league. While some ear­lier, lower-bud­get projects still lurk in the work­shops and high­light the breadth of their in­ter­ests, the broth­ers now only tackle projects that start with a full strip down to a bare shell.

‘Our de­sire is to make amaz­ing cars. Our cus­tomers want things perfect, and I’ve never un­der­stood why some work isn’t up to that level – we’ve never seen weld­ing on a car done some­where else that hasn’t needed re-do­ing,’ says Cal­lum. ‘If some­one wants a car re­stored to make money, we’re not in­ter­ested in it. We want cre­ative, in­ter­est­ing work that ful­fils peo­ple’s dreams.’

Cal­lum walks me round the Jaguar XJC. It looks like a tidy restora­tion with a dif­fer­ent set of wheels, but the rear bumper cor­ners and lower valance are all fab­ri­cated from scratch for a smoother yet ap­par­ently fac­tory ap­pear­ance, the front grilles all new, and a Chevy LS3 en­gine slots un­der the bon­net. When it’s com­plete, it’ll run 430bhp with trac­tion con­trol and ABS.

The Mercedes S-Class is a wealthy fam­ily’s heir­loom; their chauf­feur is project-man­ag­ing it back to the ex­act spec the kids re­mem­ber run­ning around in when new. Orig­i­nal­ity is key, and even the en­gine has been com­pletely re­built, right down to a bead-blasted throt­tle body and en­gine block re­painted in the orig­i­nal – and slightly in­con­gru­ous – bright red.

Next door, a Mercedes W108 build is in its ear­li­est stages. ‘We’ll put an LS3 en­gine in that, and it’s got Jaguar XJ300 front and rear axles with the sub­frames set high so we can run it low on air sus­pen­sion with all the cor­rect geom­e­try,’ ex­plains Cal­lum, ‘and there’ll be XJR brakes and a rack-and-pin­ion set-up to re­place the stan­dard steer­ing box. We’re keep­ing the in­te­rior classy, but re-de­sign­ing it: the win­dow win­ders will be switches for the elec­tric win­dows, the speaker hous­ings will be hid­den away in the footwells, and there’ll be two rear seats in­stead of three, with a drinks cabi­net be­tween.’

The care and thought lav­ished on all the cars is ev­i­dent: the rout­ing of pipes and place­ment of an­cil­lary equip­ment is planned in the ear­li­est stages, for su­per-clean aes­thet­ics. The Gi­u­lia’s brake and clutch mas­ter cylin­ders, for in­stance, are dis­guised in boxes that are eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble in the floor­pan. Its car­pets can be quickly re­moved, for com­fort and noise sup­pres­sion with them fit­ted on the road, or low weight and the full tour­ing-car look on track when they’re re­moved.

To­day, Retropower’s most ba­sic projects in­volve a to­tal spend of £50k-£60k, but some stretch way be­yond that. Own­ers re­ceive an ini­tial es­ti­mate, with work in­voiced weekly. Al­most all work is car­ried out on site: step through from the main work­shop and you’ll find the met­al­work area with its work­benches and an­gle

It’s an ex­tra­or­di­nary amount of work for a pro­saic ma­chine, but it’s what the owner wants

grinders and Baileigh panel-rolling equip­ment. A Nis­san Sunny coupe is part-way through its build nearby, fin­ished in deep black paint that glim­mers with a liq­uid fin­ish and features box arches I don’t re­call from any pro­duc­tion ver­sion. It turns out those steel arches have been fab­ri­cated in-house, first us­ing foam, filler and card­board as guid­ance, then metal. Whole pan­els are new, rather than orig­i­nal pan­els with arches grafted on, and they look fac­tory. The front and rear bumpers, too, are fab­ri­cated from scratch in alu­minium.

Closer to com­ple­tion, a Cav­a­lier GSi brought down from Scot­land sits in the main work­shop; its owner was killed in an ac­ci­dent, and his brother has signed off the es­ti­mated 400 hours of met­al­work to pre­serve his car. It is an ex­tra­or­di­nary amount of work for two rel­a­tively pro­saic ma­chines, but it’s what the own­ers want. ‘If we were re­body­ing a Fer­rari 250, it would cost the same as the Sunny,’ says Cal­lum. ‘It’s about want­ing to do qual­ity work, re­gard­less of cost.’

Else­where, there’s an on-site spray booth to en­sure each car’s fin­ish is wor­thy of the prep, an en­gine-build­ing room and even a de­sign work­shop up­stairs. In­side, we meet Dean McConnell, a life­long car fan who spent 15 years work­ing as a shoe de­signer. Now he’s com­bined that crafts­man­ship with his au­to­mo­tive in­ter­ests, de­sign­ing Retropower’s be­spoke leather in­te­ri­ors and sketch­ing out ideas for cus­tomers with the kind of il­lus­tra­tions more typ­i­cally seen on major man­u­fac­turer press re­leases. To­day, he’s work­ing on the Singer-in­spired wo­ven leather in­te­rior for the Alfa Gi­u­lia.

Only zinc- and chrome-plat­ing is sub-con­tracted – ‘a hor­ri­ble, dirty busi­ness,’ says Cal­lum – and some cus­tomers opt to have en­gines built else­where: a 330bhp Milling­ton Di­a­mond en­gine in the Alfa Gi­u­lia, an £18k race en­gine in an Imp that, its owner hap­pily ad­mits, will cost more than his house.

Gor­don Mur­ray has com­mis­sioned Retropower to build a 250bhp Mk1 Es­cort

Reg­u­lar read­ers might re­mem­ber CAR’s re­cent visit to Al­fa­holics, where we un­cov­ered two on­go­ing projects for Gor­don Mur­ray. Well, the McLaren F1 guru – mas­ter­mind be­hind the new TVR Grif­fith – has also com­mis­sioned Retropower to build a Mk1 Es­cort. The bodyshell is just back from blast­ing, but the plan is to in­stall a Du­ratec Ford en­gine with around 250bhp, and the broth­ers have con­vinced Mur­ray to re­place the live rear axle with an in­de­pen­dent set-up. McConnell will also de­sign a trimmed lug­gage area to re­place the rear seats, and be­cause Mur­ray plans to use his Mk1 as reg­u­lar trans­port there’ll be a heated wind­screen and re-de­signed ven­ti­la­tion sys­tem.

But the car that per­plexes and im­presses most is that Manta A on the Honda S2000 plat­form. Wouldn’t it have been eas­ier to put an S2000 en­gine in the Manta? ‘The shell was rot­ten un­der­neath, and then you have in­ad­e­quate brakes and sus­pen­sion,’ says Cal­lum. ‘We re­searched road­sters we could use as a base with the Manta body – be­cause they’re de­signed to be strong with­out the roof, the Manta pan­els didn’t need to be struc­tural. We looked at the MX-5 and the Z3 but the S2000 was so di­men­sion­ally perfect we de­cided to go for that.’

Cal­lum points out the orig­i­nal Manta outer sills that match up to scratch-built in­ner sills and, in turn, the Honda floor­pan. At the front, the orig­i­nal S2000 chas­sis rails align with the Manta body, which can ac­tu­ally be un­bolted at the front if re­quired. ‘We’ve got Honda elec­tron­ics, steer­ing and the orig­i­nal S2000 dig­i­tal dash which we’ll build into our own vac­uum-formed dash­board, then trim it.’

It’s all a long way from two broth­ers tidy­ing up old cars on the side, and in­trigu­ing to won­der what projects they’ll tackle next. But whether you bring them a Fi­esta or a Fer­rari, it seems the at­ten­tion to de­tail will be the same.

Va­ri­ety show: S Class rubs shoul­ders with Gi­u­lia, Imp, Jag Mk2 and (near­est the cam­era) Cav­a­lier GSi

Co-owner Cal­lum Se­viour at Retropower’s Hinck­ley HQ: unim­pressed by Ben Barry’s in­vis­i­ble sand­wich

Lan­cia Stratos will be it­ted with a su­per­charged Alfa V6 and new wheels Vaux­hall Chevette’s in­ner rally car is about to be un­leashed Nathaniel – the en­gi­neer­ing ace of the brotherly duo – talks big blocks and lit­tle ends with Ben

Blue Alfa Gi­u­lia has been it­ted with Milling­ton Di­a­mond en­gine; yel­low imp is await­ing £17k race en­gine Fo­cus is on ’60s and ’70s but they love older metal too En­gine from Merc SƒClass has had a full strip-down and re­build, like the rest of the car

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