This beautiful Frazer NASH-BMW has been the property of just one man since George VI was on the throne. Now, what started as a preservation job has turned into a prize-winning restoration of the utmost care and skill
After an intense 80-year relationship with ‘Zoe’, his BMW 328, one man decided to treat his shapely little beau to a complete makeover – but skindeep dilemmas tested the resolve of its restorers to the limit
In 1950 Guy Crossley-meates was a 21-year-old with a motorcycle. His parents were concerned about the risks of two-wheeled transport and attempted to encourage him onto four wheels instead. ‘I knew of the BMW marque, I admired the 328’s beautiful lines and had read about its fantastic performance,’ says Guy. ‘So we sought one out and I named her Zoe.’ She and her new owner began a long and happy life together, touring abroad, competing in speed hillclimbs, and taking part in classic reliability trials. For quite a number of years, Zoe was Guy’s everyday transport. ‘She has given more than 70,000 miles of pleasure from her outstanding handling characteristics. I felt she deserved a facelift in her old age which, because of her rarity, implied a thorough and sympathetic mechanical strip-down and rebuild.’
It is a rare car – just 460-odd BMW 328s were built at Eisenach between 1936 and 1940. Of those, only 48 were imported to Britain with right-hand drive and sold as Frazer Nash-bmws. However, rarity didn’t save this example from the ravages of time and when Guy sent the car to Thornley Kelham in south Gloucestershire, hopes of restricting the project to the mechanical aspects of the car soon faded.
‘It became a full nut-and-bolt restoration,’ says Guy. ‘Going back to a bare chassis, it’s taken just over two years to complete. Thornley Kelham concentrated on preserving the car’s originality while returning Zoe as close as is possible to her new condition in 1937.’
The task becomes clear
Zoe arrived at the workshop after some years away from regular use and in non-running condition, though with no known major faults. The 328 is based on two large-diameter steel chassis tubes on top of which sits a body tub made from a wooden frame with an aluminium skin. The bonnet and door skins are also aluminium while those long flowing wings are made of steel. And while aluminium may not rust, it can corrode and sustain other damage, as well as concealing what lies beneath.
‘We were a bit dismayed at what we found,’ says Simon Thornley. ‘For a start, the aluminium on large parts of the tub was too far gone to re-use,’ says Simon. ‘The wood frame had survived rather better but certain areas were clearly rotten.’ Elsewhere, the wings, tub and badly battered aluminium belly pans were carefully laid to one side while the oily bits were exposed. Thornley Kelham’s team removed the advanced BMW 2-litre straight-six engine and its four-speed synchromesh gearbox, the independent front suspension and the back axle, reducing the little roadster to bare poles. While some components had survived incredibly well (there was hardly any rust in the chassis tubes, for instance), eight decades of wear had clearly taken their toll.
Body beautiful – more than skin deep
The body’s wooden frame went to Thornley Kelham’s favoured ash-work specialist, Alan Swanson.
‘It’s actually made in beech, not ash, which seems to have been BMW’S choice in those days. It’s a very tough, hard wood – I reckon about 95% of the frame was rescued,’ he says.
The area under one door had rotted completely and been crudely replaced with a piece of mahogany, with nothing at all under the base of the B-post, but that rail was the only entirely new section. Elsewhere, Swanson was able to plane off damaged wood, glue on new beech and shape it to fit.
A glut of work for Thornley Kelham’s own metalworking team meant that the body tub then departed to another sub-contractor, GP Panelwork in Bracknell, Berkshire. Sadly, the tub’s skin offered very little original metal worth saving, so the decision was taken to create a new one. The steel wings were repaired at Thornley Kelham where Tom Wilkes took on a challenging bit of aluminium work – the bonnet.
‘The swage lines didn’t meet the ones in the body, it was short in various places and it was dented,’ says Wilkes. ‘They weren’t made to the same standards people expect of a good restoration today and when you add in 60 or 70 years of being opened and shut, removed and re-fitted, you’ve got brackets wearing, holes moving or enlarging…’
He trails off, recalling the nervestretching patience required to get it absolutely right. ‘If I said we’d had it on and off again 100 times, I’d probably be 100 out.’
Wilkes had to move the swage line down so it ran perfectly into the body. This involved cutting, dressing and re-welding both sides of the bonnet before re-forming the swages, but before even this could be done he had to weld a two-inch strip right the way around the edge. Making the panel oversized meant it could be cut and filed to a perfect fit – once the contours of the edges were right.
Wilkes used an old-school technique he’d learned when making bonnets at the Morgan Motor Company. ‘I put oil on the large steel roller in our workshop and massaged the edge of the panel by moving it back and forth while leaning on it gently. It’s such a large, fragile piece I had to have someone holding the other end of it the whole time.’
One other glimpse of the skills directed at Zoe’s bodywork is provided by Wilkes’ solution to dents. Do you shrink it? Heat it and whack it flat? No, you chase the bulge all the way to the edge.
‘I moved a big dent to the edge of a panel by using a slapper, a kind of heavy flat bar with a kink in it. It took about 45 minutes to get it there and then I just had to worry about dressing the edge.’
Wilkes also made special tools to straighten the bonnet louvres, another feature that was less than perfect when new. With every part of the bodywork subject to this kind of attention to detail, the time invested becomes frightening.
Re-engineering the engine
The BMW 328’s six-cylinder engine was a potent unit for its time, featuring hemispherical combustion chambers. At first glance looks like a twin-cam, but actually relies on just one camshaft in the side of the block. Pushrods rise up to one rocker shaft controlling the inlet valves and actuating other rods that cross the head to the second rocker shaft, opening the exhausts.
Developments and improvements made to the BMW engine by Bristol have long since been an advantage to 328 owners and Zoe arrived at Thornley Kelham with a Bristol cylinder head. Danny Kerger worked on the engine.
‘The cylinder head looked like it could be saved, but the bottom end was just too corroded. The cylinder block is a new Crosthwaite and Gardiner BMW 328 item with a new crankshaft, con-rods and pistons matched to it. After a skim and new valve seats the head was ready.’
Bristol and BMW items are not quite a straight swap, as Kerger explains. ‘The distributor tower’s fixing has to be modified because the holes in the bracket don’t line up,’ he says. ‘You also need to cut and re-weld the thermostat housing on top of a Bristol water pump to get it to line up with the outlet for the BMW’S radiator.’
Other Bristol improvements added during the rebuild included a stronger oil pump, requiring the sump to be an inch deeper.
‘We sliced the bottom off and welded in an extension strip,’ says Kerger. ‘We also fitted a Bristol crank pulley with a damper inside and machined the block to accept a lip seal for the crankshaft rather than the scroll that’s there as standard.’
Getting the power to the wheels
Like the engine, the gearbox rebuild was influenced by the use of Bristol parts. Those triple Solex 32s and the Bristol camshaft boost the power and over decades of experience, BMW 328 owners have learned the hard way that damage can ensue. Danny Kerger explains the solution, ‘Third gear has a single keyway for the whole gear, so we cut another one on the opposite side to make sure it kept hold of the shaft.’
The other gears were serviceable despite such a long and active life, though the synchromesh (third and top gear only) needed replacing. They are not brass or phosphor-bronze cones on these BMW ’boxes, but little iron castings with steel tapers inside. Parts for the 328 and related models are not extinct but what is available is certainly patchy. For items like the synchromesh and other parts used in the driveline and running gear, Thornley Kelham worked with a German specialist called Feierabend, based in Würzburg.
They supplied new gearbox bearings throughout, with input and output shafts machined or sleeved to take modern seals. Elsewhere on the chassis, the old kingpins and steering ball-joints were too worn to save though the steering rack was successfully refurbished, as were the piston-type dampers in the front suspension. Brake drums were skimmed and re-shoed.
Danny Kerger explains one final challenge – how to set up the clutch on a BMW 328. ‘It has three sprung arms acting on the pressure plate, and unless they’re all pushing at the same rate you’ll get clutch judder. So you clamp the clutch down on the flywheel, lay it flat on the milling machine where it’s easy to measure the heights, and then adjust each arm on a thread until they’re exactly the same.’
Painting and perfecting
Jason Wilkins is Thornley Kelham’s head painter. He sprayed the car in stages but with as much done at once as was possible, for reasons that seem obvious when Wilkins explains them. ‘We had the body tub in one spray booth and the wings, nose and doors in another. We wanted to make sure they were
painted with the same batch of paint from the same gun, held by the same painter, to remove as many variables as we could.’
Only the bonnet and spats were done later, because they needed to be filed in raw aluminium after being sized against the fully assembled body for perfect gaps. With two coats of direct gloss on the primer, the car was rubbed down and another two coats applied. Then came Wilkins’ highly specific approach to getting a perfect finish – first remove any hints of orange peel or tiny dust motes trapped in the paint with P1200 paper, then repeat with P1500 and P2000, all used wet and rubbed by hand. Moving to a DA sander, Wilkins then uses 3M Trizact – equivalent to P3000. Finally, a cutting compound and then polish on the DA’S mop revealed the deep and even shine Wilkins was after.
The hood, side-screens and tonneau cover were tackled by Gary Wright Coachtrimming. That ox-blood leather is Italian, and to return the seats to useable condition they were reduced to bare frames.
The chrome trim was almost all saved and re-used, albeit with some minor compromises – that long strip on the bonnet was heavily pitted and by the time the pitting was sanded away, the strip had lost a lot of its meat. It was just about re-usable.
The last leg
Jim Hodges took charge of the build-up process – a lot more involved than simply assembling the parts of a kit. One early task was the creation and fitting of the windscreen assembly while replacing the hopelessly scratched old glass. ‘I made templates out of plywood of the right thickness so we could have the glass cut exactly to size, but also so I could get on with making the hood seal against the windscreen,’ he says.
That’s a big ask – the screen has no top frame and the hood just pulls down onto the glass, meeting it with a rubber extrusion. Or it does if the catches in the hood work; these didn’t, meaning more problem-solving for Hodges as he remade them and the posts they fastened on to. ‘The doors were tricky too, because I had to hide shims behind the hinges to get a perfect fit and the front wings were a nightmare – they’re very long and not very stiff so it took two or three of us to offer them up, and there are 15 bolts each side.’
Paul Northcott stepped in to fit the loom, but before he could do that, he had to create it. From scratch.
‘The car had its wiring stripped out when it arrived,’ he says. ‘I constructed a loom from a wiring diagram using the right cotton-braid cables for the period. Luckily I’d done one for a 328 before, so with a bit of memory it wasn’t impossible.’ As Zoe neared completion in April 2017, she was invited for display in the foyer of the RAC Club. While there, she was admired by an organiser of the City Concours event and duly invited. The result? Best in Show.
To say that Zoe’s facelift is a success is an understatement, so the last word should go to her protector over these last 67 years. ‘Thornley Kelham’s patient attention to detail is such that she should last for at least another 80 years.’ Thanks to John Giles for his assistance with the project
The BMW appeared relatively healthy, but eight decades of use had made an impact beneath the skin
Only the frames of the seats were re-usable
After eight decades – the majority of which saw Zoe used regularly – a painstaking restoration has extended her life by the same amount again, according to her ultralong-term owner