Retropower: where dreams – even Gordon Murray’s dreams – come true
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 fulils 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 SClass has had a full strip-down and rebuild, like the rest of the car