How far would you be prepared to send your classic car to have it restored? In the case of many owners, the answer is found on the other side of the world in Alyth, a quiet Scottish town nestled in rural Perthshire. This is where Classic Restorations is based and, stepping inside the collection of buildings that makes up its premises, you soon realise why cars from as far afield as Argentina, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA are brought here.
There's an understated aura of quality that pervades every corner of Scotland's longest-established classic car restoration firm. It matches the quietly spoken manner of company founder Charles Palmer. He started Classic Restorations in 1985 while still working as a technical teacher at the local high school. "The school was going to close down, so I thought I would set up my own garage working on the cars I like and using the skills I learned when I was younger so they didn't disappear," he recalls.
Those skills were the ones Charles learned as an apprentice mechanic in the 1950s when he worked at a country garage in Alyth. "I learned on everything from cars to tractors, buses and vans," says Charles. "It was the sort of garage where all types of work was taken in and I learned to rebuild engines, gearboxes and pretty much everything that makes a car work. Then I went to do my National Service and, when I came back, the motor trade seemed to have changed a great deal. It was all about replacing parts rather than fixing them. It wasn't my sort of thing, so I went into teaching instead."
Charles kept his hand in rebuilding his own classic cars, however. Most notably, a Bentley Mk6 features in his restoration CV; the quality of the car, and the work to bring it back to working order, setting the standard that Classic Restorations is now highly regarded for worldwide.
Walking through the various storage areas and workshops that make up the Classic Restorations site, it's clear the passion Charles has for all types of older car burns just as brightly as ever. Among the 74 cars present, several are his own, including that Bentley Mk6, a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud and a Jaguar Mk9. Customer cars take precedence, though, and every stage of restoration is dealt with in-house. Charles believes this is the only way to control the flow of work and maintain his standards of finish. So, as well as the expected mechanical and body shops, there are trimmer's and paint booths.
It keeps the 19 staff very busy, as managing director Graeme Johnstone explains: "We offer everything from simple maintenance of classic cars, that's popular with local owners, through to full restorations. Some of the cars arrive as nothing more than boxes of bits, so we have to assess every project and discuss it with the owner. Many cars don't make financial sense to restore as the work will far outweigh the value of the finished car, but that's not why many owners want their car restored. For them, the attachment is emotional. For example, the owner of an Alvis we're working on only wanted the car smartened up, but it's turned into a full nut and bolt job. That's expensive, but the owner has decided to spend the money now rather than in 10 years so he can use the car and pass it on to his children."
The attention to detail is the same whatever the job. A Rolls-Royce Phantom II that's being completed for the Germany-based owner of 26 other classic Rollers has perfect coach lines. Graeme points out the hand-applied red streaks are exactly the same thickness from tip to tail of the huge two-door machine. "That's what the owner asked for, so that's what we do."
Even so, Charles, Graeme and their talented staff will always offer the best advice rather than just following the whims of owners. "We're more than happy to include subtle upgrades such as power steering, air conditioning and discreet indicators to make a classic car more usable," says Graeme. "We want to retain the spirit of a car, though, so changes have to be reversible."
That's not the case with one notable area of Classic Restorations' business. It's now completed four convertible conversions of Rolls-Royce Silver Clouds. The enormous value of an original Cloud drop-top versus the price of converting a standard steel saloon has made this a cost-effective change, but it's not an easy one. Charles says: "We were lucky to come across a kit of parts that let us carry out these conversions. There's a vast amount of work to create the longer front doors, weld up the rears, brace the body and create a hydraulically operated hood from scratch. The values of the standard steel saloons are also rising now to the point where few owners are willing to sacrifice them for a convertible conversion."
Instead, Charles is now focusing on developing the next generation of classic car restorer. There are currently two apprentices working for company, one in the mechanical workshop and the other in the bodyshop. However, there's a frustration that it's difficult for these youngsters to get a recognised qualification in Scotland for this type of work.
This is something Graeme has been working to resolve with local and government agencies. He says: "The classic car world is getting bigger, so we need to make sure there's new blood coming through to retain the skills and understanding needed to restore and work on these cars. It's a growing industry, so it makes sense to invest in apprentices. In Scotland, it's not as easy as south of the border where there's the Heritage Skill Academy. It's prohibitively expensive for us to send apprentices there on block release, so we're looking at ways to achieve the same goal in Scotland."
Charles is also is in the process of turning the company into an Employee Benefit Trust. It guarantees the future of the business, as it will be owned and run by the people who work there; and given the excellence of the work carried out at Classic Restorations, the future looks assured for staff and owners of classic cars from all over the world for some years to come.