‘It had def­i­nitely been rolled… but what they did next took bodg­ing to Olympic stan­dards’

Ob­ses­sive quests for per­fec­tion

Classic Cars (UK) - - The Big Test - Words NIGEL BOOTH­MAN Pho­tog­ra­phy CHAR­LIE MAGEE

Restor­ing a rare, hand-built clas­sic is hard enough with­out hav­ing to undo some­body’s pre­vi­ous ef­forts. But with a car as pretty as this Tri­umph Italia, mo­ti­va­tion was easy to find

You’ve owned and re­stored most of Tri­umph’s TR range, won con­cours prizes and as­sem­bled a col­lec­tion that would make any Tri­umph fan drool. So where do you go next? If you’re Gra­ham An­drews, you hunt down the great­est rar­ity of all – the Italia.

This one hadn’t moved far from Turin when Gra­ham An­drews spot­ted it on the in­ter­net in 2013. It was near Lodi, out­side Mi­lan, where it was be­ing sold to pay for restora­tion work per­formed for the late owner.

‘It had been re­stored, but not prop­erly,’ says Gra­ham. ‘My wife’s cousin lives just 17km from where the car was, so we sent him to see it. He met the ven­dor and gave us the thumbs-up, and I trans­ferred the money. About a fortnight later it was here and I could see just how bad it was. There wasn’t a straight panel on it.’

Just 329 of th­ese ex­cep­tion­ally pretty fixed-head coupés were made be­tween 1958 and 1963 and only around a third are thought to sur­vive. The de­sign was by Gio­vanni Mich­e­lotti, the ta­lent be­hind Vig­nale’s ex­cit­ing Fer­rari and Maserati bodies of the Fifties. He spread his wings and set up his own agency in 1959, soon ce­ment­ing a re­la­tion­ship with Stan­dard-tri­umph that would last through the Six­ties, but the Italia was cre­ated for Vig­nale to build. The idea came from Sal­va­tore Ruffino, Stan­dard-tri­umph’s dis­trib­u­tor in Italy. Ruffino felt there was room in the mar­ket for a car with glam­orous Ital­ian styling and de­pend­able English un­der­pin­nings; he may also have felt the rather dated-look­ing TR3A was go­ing to be a hard sell. So TR3A chas­sis were sent from Coven­try to Turin where they were bod­ied, trimmed and fin­ished by Vig­nale, each to be badged Italia 2000 with only a mi­nor ref­er­ence to its Bri­tish par­ent on the rear wing.

Hor­rors ex­posed

What ar­rived at the An­drews house­hold was a non-run­ning, dis­as­sem­bled sculp­ture in body filler and lurid yel­low paint. Much of the trim was miss­ing, in­clud­ing the seats.

Gra­ham be­gan the la­bo­ri­ous process of ex­pos­ing bare metal with a hot air gun and a scraper, even­tu­ally re­mov­ing enough ma­te­rial for soda-blast­ing to fin­ish the job. What came back con­firmed his worst fears – there was ac­ci­dent dam­age and a num­ber of bodges that would have to be re­paired prop­erly.

‘I think it was hill-climbed,’ says Gra­ham. ‘That would ex­plain the dam­age and the fact that some­one stripped out and sold the in­te­rior, which even­tu­ally ended up in another Italia.’ That caused some con­fu­sion be­cause the car’s num­ber is stamped on many re­mov­able parts, in­clud­ing the seats, and its iden­tity was ini­tially dis­puted be­cause the owner of this other Italia thought his car was num­ber 82. But at that point, Gra­ham had more sig­nif­i­cant prob­lems. ‘There were a lot of bad ar­eas… very bad ar­eas. One ex­am­ple was where they’d cut the wind­screen pil­lars, then reat­tached them by weld­ing a patch over the join.’

Be­fore em­bark­ing on what looked like an im­mense re­pair job, Gra­ham ar­ranged to bor­row a low-mileage Italia from a help­ful friend, Paul Har­vey, to find out what his car should be like. Two weeks were spent mea­sur­ing, tak­ing pho­tos and mak­ing notes. Some of the ab­sen­tees in­cluded the bootlid, rear bumper, door han­dles, badges and those seats. Sec­ond­hand spares for Italia bodies are es­sen­tially non-ex­is­tent, so re­plac­ing them would re­quire a com­bi­na­tion of pa­tience and in­ge­nu­ity. As would re­pair­ing the body, but here Gra­ham de­cided to call in help from his friend Tom Wilks and an ex­pert body man, Mike Harris of Storico Restora­tions.

‘Tom not only in­tro­duced me to Mike, he did a great deal of work through­out the project,’ says Gra­ham. ‘With­out his skills and his years of knowl­edge, I doubt we would have com­pleted the job.’

Da­tum points

When a car bodyshell needs sub­stan­tial re­pair, it’s com­mon prac­tice to weld braces across the door aper­tures or from A-pil­lar to rear cor­ner. This en­sures that the orig­i­nal di­men­sions are not dis­turbed as large struc­tural sec­tions are re­moved. But Mike Harris quickly dis­cov­ered this was go­ing to be point­less.

‘It was too bent al­ready. From mea­sur­ing Paul Har­vey’s car, we knew ours was a long way off where it should be and it had def­i­nitely been rolled at some point,’ he says. To give an idea of how bad it was, Mike de­scribes how pre­vi­ous re­pair­ers had dis­cov­ered that the wind­screen could no longer be made to fit, pre­sum­ably af­ter the car was in­verted. What they did next took bodg­ing to Olympic stan­dards.

‘They dropped the screen onto the scut­tle and welded a strip of steel across the front of the roof to bridge the gap, then cov­ered it with filler. That was pretty typ­i­cal. We found one bodge on top of another.’

This was go­ing to re­quire a rad­i­cal ap­proach. Gra­ham and his team split the body from the chas­sis so that each could be re­stored and re­built in par­al­lel, with the body re­mounted on a spare chas­sis. The chas­sis did more than just pre­vent the shell from col­laps­ing in a heap, it pro­vided the da­tum points that Mike Harris was go­ing to need as he re­built the shell from the in­side out.

‘We had to pull it right back to ba­sics to find some­thing that we could trust,’ he says. ‘We cut the whole front end off to ex­pose the bulk­head, the steer­ing and sus­pen­sion mounts. From there, the flat panel work around the bulk­head, in­ner wings and so on is a log­i­cal pro­gres­sion.’

Chas­sis and run­ning gear

The Italia’s bodyshell re­mained at Tom Wilks’s garage, where he and Mike Harris care­fully cut it apart and stitched it back to­gether in prepa­ra­tion for the outer pan­els. Gra­ham held on to the chas­sis, which he stripped to a bare frame and sent for blast­ing. Un­sur­pris­ingly, the chas­sis was also crooked, which meant cut­ting the front off and weld­ing it back on again per­fectly straight. A cou­ple of less se­ri­ous rust re­pairs left it ready for paint.

Gra­ham re­newed most of the run­ning gear as a mat­ter of safety, with new brakes, bushes, springs, dampers and bear­ings at all four cor­ners. The front brakes are up­rated from stan­dard and now have four-pis­ton calipers. It was the first of a few bolt-on mod­i­fi­ca­tions made to the Italia, in­clud­ing rack and pin­ion steer­ing which of­fers lots more feel and ac­cu­racy but a pretty ter­ri­ble turn­ing cir­cle.

With so much ex­pe­ri­ence of Tri­umph TR chas­sis and driv­e­lines, Gra­ham was able to tackle the engine him­self. ‘The cylin­der head was knack­ered and had to be re­placed, but the rest of the engine sur­vived with new bear­ings, gas­kets and fix­ings.’

The Italia/tr3a engine is part of the tough wet-liner, four-cylin­der fam­ily used on ev­ery Tri­umph TR be­tween 1953 and 1967, as well as the Stan­dard Van­guard. Two SU car­bu­ret­tors suf­ficed when the Italia was new, but Gra­ham has moved up to a pair of Weber side-draughts. As a fi­nal con­ces­sion to mod­ern mo­tor­ing, the orig­i­nal four-speed gear­box has been cleaned up and re­tained, but re­placed for now by Tri­umph’s over­drive ver­sion for eas­ier cruis­ing.

Through­out this pe­riod, Gra­ham was pa­tiently as­sem­bling all the small pieces re­quired to put the car back to­gether cor­rectly. But when would he have some­thing to at­tach them to?

Re­pairs and re­place­ments

‘It took us about two years, all told,’ says Mike Harris. ‘Most peo­ple would have thrown it in the bin, but not Gra­ham.’

Part of that time was con­sumed by a pol­icy Mike and Gra­ham were both keen to fol­low – where he could, Mike would re­pair and re-use old pan­els rather than re­plac­ing ev­ery dam­aged area. From the spot-welded flat sec­tions you can’t see, to the beau­ti­fully con­toured outer sur­faces, the bodges were neatly cut out and re­placed with Mike’s im­pres­sive in­vis­i­ble tailor­ing. ‘About the only thing that’s com­pletely new is the bootlid, be­cause we didn’t have one of those,’ says Mike. ‘I made up the frame and the skin and I had to make up new door skins too.’

Where pieces of orig­i­nal Vig­nale work were found in­tact un­der the bodges – the three-piece sills are one ex­am­ple – Mike could repli­cate the cor­rect cross-pro­file and fab­ri­cate lengths of sill to that spec­i­fi­ca­tion. Oth­er­wise, the car re­ceived only a cou­ple of lower por­tions to the front wings, a strip in each outer floor, a rear valance and sundry smaller re­pair sec­tions let in to fix hor­rors like the roof and wind­screen aper­ture.

While re-mak­ing the bootlid, Mike got in­volved in recre­at­ing the sur­round for the num­ber­plate light, once again from scratch. He fash­ioned it from sheet brass and even­tu­ally found a suit­able light from the cur­rent Fiat 500, which when re­moved from its plas­tic hous­ing looks very good on the back of an Italia.

By the time Tom and Mike were la­bo­ri­ously of­fer­ing pan­els up to the body shell, ad­just­ing things and check­ing door gaps, they were on the home straight. It was time to get it painted.

Prepa­ra­tion and paint

Clark & Carter has been restor­ing Rolls-royce, Bent­ley and Porsche clas­sics near Brain­tree in Es­sex since 1980 but its port­fo­lio has taken in all the great mar­ques at var­i­ous times. Gra­ham needed the car painted and trimmed to the high­est stan­dard, and as a restora­tion busi­ness rather than sim­ply a paintshop, C&C seemed the per­fect so­lu­tion.

Jamie Clark looked af­ter the Italia and ex­plains how it pro­gressed. ‘It ar­rived as a bare steel shell, but off the chas­sis,’ he says. ‘We painted the in­side, the engine bay, the boot and the un­der­side in black and then we could re-unite it with the rolling chas­sis Gra­ham had com­pleted by that point.’ It was vi­tal to have the shell back on its own chas­sis and bolted down so that it could be al­lowed to set­tle. Only then could the fi­nal check and ad­just­ment of panel gaps and lev­els be com­pleted, af­ter which the prepa­ra­tion of the ex­te­rior could be­gin. ‘We shaped it in filler, rubbed down with 180- or 240-grit,’ says Jamie. ‘Then a polyester spray filler and fur­ther rub­downs got ev­ery line nice and sharp, so af­ter that it was ready for primer. With metal­lic paint you need to use a pretty fine grade – 800-grit – to rub down the primer be­cause the metal­lic con­tent of the paint tends to gather in any tiny scratches and show them up.’

The paint is a cus­tom mix tinted to Gra­ham’s lik­ing, based on Roll­sroyce Pewter. But the paint was only half the job – Clark & Carter’s trim­mers had the chal­lenge of recre­at­ing seat cov­er­ings and door cards from Gra­ham’s re­search.

‘Gra­ham bor­rowed some seats and we were able to copy the frames,’ says Jamie. ‘We painted

them, but we had the odd lit­tle chal­lenge left, like the tex­tured fin­ish on the dash­board.’ One tiny rem­nant of the orig­i­nal fin­ish on the back of the glove­box door was enough to pro­vide a ref­er­ence. Ad­ding vary­ing amounts of coarse and fine tex­tur­ing com­pound to black paint even­tu­ally pro­duced the per­fect mix.

Re­stored faith in hu­man­ity

Once the trim and bodyshell were re­united at Clark & Carter’s premises, build-up could be­gin in earnest. Some un­ob­tain­able items be­came ob­tain­able through gen­eros­ity and co-op­er­a­tion. When Gra­ham set about find­ing weather seals for his car, he was able to ob­tain a small piece of each of the rub­bers – wind­screen seal, boot, doors and so on – from another friend, Adrian Sin­nott, who would pro­vide all kinds of as­sis­tance. A rub­ber and plas­tics man­u­fac­turer was able to ma­chine dies to ex­trude all of th­ese, but to try and amor­tise the costs a lit­tle, Gra­ham or­dered stock that could sup­ply other Italia re­stor­ers as the need arose. With a sys­tem of trad­ing and favours owed back and forth, Gra­ham was able to lo­cate and ob­tain vi­tal miss­ing el­e­ments such as the win­dows and rear screen. ‘A young Italia owner in the Nether­lands called me one day to say he’d found a load of orig­i­nal Italia spares, in­clud­ing the right Dutch-made glass,’ says Gra­ham. ‘Thank­fully we were able to act quickly and he got the lot for me.’

None­the­less, there were still bits miss­ing. The in­te­rior door han­dles have a hing­ing piece in the cen­tre of their sweep that had to be cast in brass and chromed. The ex­te­rior door han­dles were gone too, but hav­ing bor­rowed an orig­i­nal, a lo­cal en­gi­neer­ing firm Cnc-ma­chined copies from alu­minium blanks.

Fi­nal de­tails

The bills for all the chroming and off-the-shelf re­place­ments such as wire wheels and the new steer­ing wheel were painful, but at least they were eas­ily pro­cured. For the rest, improvisation and yet more pa­tience had to suf­fice. The wiring loom is one such ex­am­ple. Gra­ham had care­fully re­moved the orig­i­nal and hav­ing laid it on the floor next to a new TR3 loom, ex­tended the new one in the cor­rect – but deeply con­fus­ing – black cloth-coated wire. Chang­ing the car from pos­i­tive to neg­a­tive earth meant that the stan­dard TR3 col­umn-mounted horn switch no longer works, be­cause it switches to earth. In­stead, Gra­ham wired it through an over­drive re­lay to run the two Fi­amm horns be­hind the front valance.

The stan­dard of work does jus­tice to one of the pret­ti­est, purest shapes Mich­e­lotti ever drew. It’s gen­uine ex­ot­ica, and it’s only here at all be­cause of Gra­ham An­drews’ par­tic­u­lar mix­ture of de­ter­mi­na­tion and ex­pe­ri­ence. Mike Harris sums it up well, ‘It was dif­fi­cult and stress­ful, but fun be­cause of Gra­ham’s en­thu­si­asm for it. That tied us all to­gether.’

Thanks to: Storico Restora­tions (07729 404440), Clark & Carter (01376 584392), Tom Wilks, Adrian Sin­nott and Paul Har­vey

New seals were made from scratch – and th­ese in­ad­ver­tently led to a spares cache in Hol­land

The bodyshell was bent and bodged; trim and seats miss­ing

Miss­ing parts tested Gra­ham An­drews’ in­ge­nu­ity It looks good in the pic­tures, but in the metal the im­pres­sion of ‘baby Maserati’ is even stronger. Of the 329 made, lit­tle more than 100 Mich­e­lotti-styled beau­ties have sur­vived

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