Inside the workshops of Ex-Pressed Steel Panels.
It’s easy to forget what a nightmare sourcing replacement body panels for your classic Ford restoration project used to be. One person who experienced this first-hand was Geoff Coates, who back in the mid ’80s became so frustrated with the lack of panels available for the Lotus Cortina he was restoring that he decided to make his own. When a fellow Lotus club member saw how well they’d turned out, word spread and Geoff was soon being asked to make panels for other members, and in doing so, Geoff unintentionally did his bit for the future of the classic Ford scene.
Ex-Pressed Steel Panels was officially founded in 1990, when Geoff was made redundant from his engineering day job and decided to going into manufacturing these panels full-time. Using his redundancy money, he bought some old tooling and moved it into Ickornshaw Mill, an imposinglooking former Victorian textile mill in Cowling on the Yorkshire/Lancashire border. The range rapidly expanded, and as well as the Mk1 Cortina panels, Geoff — now joined by wife, Lynn — was soon producing them for Anglias, Capris, Escorts and Zephyrs.
Then in 2015, after 25 years and expanding their range to cover some 30 different Ford models with around 450 different panels and repair sections, Geoff and Lynn decided to take a step back, and Mike McColgan was brought in to take over the day-to-day running of the business, and perhaps more importantly, develop it, while looking at ways to speed up the hugely labourintensive process of making the panels.
“ONCE THE BASIC PRESSING IS MADE AND HAS BEEN TRIMMED, MANY HOURS ARE SPENT CAREFULLY WORKING THE PANEL INTO ITS FINAL SHAPE”
“I’ve got a background in production engineering,” explains classic car fan, Mike, “so I was able to draw on that experience to improve things without sacrificing any of the workmanship.”
One of the benefits of this process, Mike is proud to reveal, is that they’ve been able to bring the prices down for some of the panels and sections, but perhaps more importantly the lead time — the time between ordering the panel and having it delivered — has come down too, to just 15 days for most panels.
The presses used to initially form the replacement panels come from the big, original equipment (OE) manufacturers, and they don’t just weigh a tonne — try multiplying that by 10. With the tooling required for each panel costing around £100,000, instead Ex-Pressed use a special (and incredibly expensive) mix of alloy and one other top-secret major component which can be melted down to liquid form and poured into a mould based on an original panel or repair section. The resulting cast is strong enough to press around 15-20 steel panels (“We use automotive steel, but 20-gauge which is thicker than the steel used on modern cars,” says Mike) before it’s worn out, and many more for alloy panels such as Lotus Cortina door skins — more than enough for the short production runs required in the classic car market. When the batch of panels is pressed, the cast is then melted down and reused to form the next required pattern.
But this is only the very beginning of the labour-intensive process of transforming a steel form into a
“WE USE 20-GAUGE; THICKER THAN THE STEEL USED ON MODERN CARS”
recognisable panel. Once the basic pressing is done, the panel is then trimmed and carefully worked into shape by Ex-Pressed’s team of highly-skilled sheet metal workers, of which there are currently six working flat-out at the mill: Robert plus Ryan, Jeno, Daniel, Nick and apprentice, Liam. They can spend days turning the initial pressing into the finished item — once the basic pressing for a Mk1 Capri wing has come out of the tub and has been trimmed, for example, Robert who’s been with the company for over 30 years, reveals that there’s still another 18 hours work to get that wing fully formed and finished.
And it’s all done using traditional metal working skills and with traditional tools, too — a far cry from the huge presses and tools that the original panels were produced with in Ford’s Dagenham and Halewood factories, maybe, but it’s good to know that even Ford now recognises the role that outfits like Ex-Pressed continue to play is securing the future longevity of our classics.
Ex-Pressed’s skilled team has grown in recent years, with Mike (front, centre taking over the running in 2015. They even produce the Mk1 Capri rear three-quarter section. This one awaits trimming and fettling. Below: floorpans are a staple of Ex-Pressed’s output.
Apprentice, Liam cleans up an Anglia 105E inner sill in readiness to be sent out.
Steel bubble arches are still a popular line.
There’s 18 hours’ work to get the Mk1 Capri wing to this stage...