RE: Thornley Kelham | PH Meets

RE: Thornley Kelham | PH Meets

Friday 15th November

Thornley Kelham | PH Meets

Top-end car restoration is about managing expectations - and knowing which cars to avoid



"I got my first car book when I was 10 as a school prize. It was the 1967 Observer Book Of Automobiles. I could name any car on the road."

Simon Thornley has come a long way since then. In partnership with Wayne Kelham he runs the Gloucestershire-based car restoration company, Thornley Kelham, a 32,000sq ft 'Aladdin's Cave' facility that brings together some of Europe's most gifted restoration specialists with some of the most desirable classics on the planet - many of them wearing Lancia badges. The results are breath-taking.

For a sample of what they can do, we are invited to ogle at a Bizzarini 5300 GT Strada restored by TK for owner and Coldplay bassist Guy Berryman. It won 2019's Historic Motoring Award for Best Restoration and it's not hard to see why. With alloy skins over a steel frame, the bare metal repaint job alone took around 800 hours. Add roughly three thousand more hours to that and you end up with a leg-wettingly gorgeous motor car that's as stunning close up as it is from a distance.

Although Thornley had been into cars from those school years when he was handing spanners to his dad, his adult working background was in the stock photo business. A career which saw him spend a good few years in Chicago setting up the American arm of a big agency. That's where he oversaw his first classic car restoration, an Austin Healey Hundred that he still owns.

Back in the UK he met Wayne Kelham, a paint/prep specialist who at the time was preparing cars to Pebble Beach standards for another restoration company to whom Simon had taken an Aston DB4. "The whole restoration experience I went through with that first Aston was a bit of an eye opener," recalls Thornley. "Then in August 2008 Wayne and I had the idea of doing it ourselves by setting up a small restoration business of our own.

"There was only one way I wanted to do it. The right way. Bad work and bad customer service annoyed me. We wouldn't cut corners. We wouldn't screw the clients. We wouldn't burn people. All things that I knew from my own personal experience were often happening in the restoration business.


"So we started in 2009 as the Vintage & Classic Paintshop. There were four of us at the start, including a metalwork guy Wayne knew. I taught myself accounting. I thought that we'd just have a little body shop. Our first job was another DB4 that Wayne convinced me to buy. I thought 'this is great, in six months I'll be able to go part time and leave them to it.' But then the entrepreneurial thing kicked in. People would say, well if you're doing that type of thing, can't you do this? And I'd think 'well, why not?'."

The early years weren't easy, as for any new business, but it was especially tough for TK which found itself launching its boat into a receding economic tide immediately after the world's worst financial crisis. "We had to persuade classic car owners to give us work, to switch allegiance, because obviously they knew other restoration people. I was the one who said, 'actually, you should be working with us.'

"We were fighting for every job and completing them at a financial loss because we wanted to prove how good we were and how well we would treat people. After a few years it was mainly word of mouth that built the business. Reaching the point where we could start to say 'no' took us a long time. Today the 'no' is usually to the person, not the car. We're happy to consider any car. Well, I say that, but I wouldn't do an Austin Allegro, and I can say that from experience because my stepmother had one."

Wayne and Simon got that second Aston most of the way to completion before Thornley had to sell it to raise money to invest in building the business. It came back to TK though. "It lives in our second building, and is owned by a retired Australian architect, a very interesting man who comes over here every summer and drives it for a few weeks. We look after it.

"One of the things that has kept me in this business is the people. The owners almost become more important than the cars. If you work for people you like, a job will generally turn out really well."

Has the classic car industry moved on from the 1980s when you would often find sheets of newspaper packing out the sills of a 'restored' car? "We don't see a lot of bodges now. The overall standards, the techniques, the materials that you can use now have moved on massively. There are some really good guys out there. Now you can build something that is better than new and that includes many modern upgrades.


"For example, on paintwork the key is in the preparation, about making sure that the metal surface is absolutely pristine, so that when you put your epoxy primer on, you've got a perfect surface underneath. The processes of putting the different primers on, flatting It back, that all takes time.

"Yes, you can get a paint job for six to ten grand down the road, but we won't do that here. If you want it to look fantastic and last for the next twenty years, you might need to spend thirty thousand on a bare metal repaint."

Those US TV programmes showing restorers apparently turning cars round in ten minutes must drive him mad. "Yes, it can make your life a bit difficult, but the people who are serious know the truth. We go to the States every year, and there the owners seem to get it. They'll spend whatever it takes to get the car right. Then it's mainly a question of 'am I doing this with someone I trust? I know it's going to cost me a quarter of a million, but will I get that much value from the car, or am I being ripped off?'. By and large the serious American owners will say yes, okay. There are some really good shops out there. People like Paul Russell (based in a seaside village 24 miles north of Boston) are fantastic."

What about Singer? "Very, very clever. I admire them. Wayne and I crawled all over an early example at Pebble Beach a few years ago and we were impressed. By stretching the elasticity of the brand they've created an amazing product and moved it on every year. If someone wants the ultimate 911, I think outfits like Singer should be allowed to provide that."

Which brings us on to Thornley's philosophy on what might be called non-traditional restorations, or restomods (a term he hates). TK has no issues with this type of vehicle, and with one in particular which we'll be talking about shortly. They routinely fit concealed air conditioning units, retro radios with modern Bluetooth innards, Dynators (alternators inside dynamo-style housings), engine upgrades, and power steering systems where none existed before.

"My simple view is that if you've got a really important, rare, beautiful car, you should maintain its authenticity at all costs. But if you've got what the majority of classic cars are - old cars, like an E-type, a 911, a middle of the road Alfa, or an Aurelia - and you decide that you want it to be a bit more powerful, a bit more comfortable, and have better brakes, then fine, we'll do it.


"Otherwise, what are you going to do? Preserve your car in aspic? Let it sit in a garage not doing anything? It's a car. And it's your car. If someone came in tomorrow with a perfect Aurelia and asked us to fuel-inject the engine, I'd sit him or her down and say 'look, are you sure you want to do this? Should we take the original engine out and use something else?' You could put the original parts back in at any time, of course. Yes, I love that idea, but how many people are ever going to reverse it? Knowing that you can, that's the thing.

"I've just had a conversation with someone in Italy who has a GT3 but wants an older car that he can use regularly. It's got to be reasonably quick and comfortable, and his wife wants to be able to drive it too. We have a growing number of enquiries from car enthusiasts who have had high-end modern cars but sold them because they're not getting much enjoyment out of them, or because they're really not that practical. They have come to realise they can have much more fun in a classic. But they want their classic to have more power, better brakes, better electrics and so on. I'm happy with that because it keeps these cars out on the road.

"In the mix of what we do here today, it's still far more about originality, but I do think it's going to change. It's already happening with Singer, other Porsche specialists, Alfaholics, and so on. As long as you're not pretending your car is something it isn't, I think it's fine. Just be honest about your car."

Doesn't he have worries about 'diluting the purity of stock'? "If you want to worry about dilution in authentic, period-original cars, point the finger at the big manufacturers like Jaguar, Aston Martin and now Bentley who are making all these recreations. It's not just the fact that they're making them, which of course they can - it's a bit like the photography world, if you've got the original negatives, you can make more prints - but it does dilute the value of the original examples.

"I had a very interesting conversation recently with one of our best clients. He has the most phenomenal car collection and is normally quite calm, but on that day he was really annoyed. Bentley had just announced that they were going to build a continuation series of twelve 1929 Team Blower cars. Like most serious collectors, our client, who owns an original Blower, takes a long term view, and he was frustrated about where the originality and value would be in 50 years' time when someone who has bought one of these recreations has put some original parts on it - what happens then?

"That really set me thinking about what we do with our Outlaw." He's talking about TK's Lancia Aurelia Outlaw, a handbuilt re-imagining of Lancia's ahead-of-its-time 1950s sporting saloon and TK's equivalent of Singer's 911. "The Aurelia was a highly sophisticated and innovative car at the time," says Simon. "It was bought by wealthy Italian industrialists and Formula 1 drivers like Fangio and Mike Hawthorn. Unfortunately, regular Aurelias today aren't worth that much relative to Astons or even to certain Jags that were nowhere near as good."


The Outlaw, by contrast, is worth more than most production Jags you can think of, and by some considerable margin too. It is inspired by the ex-Giovanni Bracco Lancia Aurelia B20GT 1951 Mille Miglia/Le Mans 24 Hours car which was found in the USA, shipped over to the UK and restored by TK for a stunning reveal at Pebble Beach in 2015. Following an enquiry from a US collector, TK decided to develop a modern interpretation - an Outlaw - and build a short run of nine examples using 'rescue' B20GTs that would never be restored otherwise.

Four years on, TK is about halfway through the Outlaw series. It's a slow process as there are up to 5,000 man-hours in each car and the spec is genuinely fabulous. The engine is a late Flaminia V6 taken out to 2.8 litres and fuel injected. There are modern disc brakes, steering rack and suspension, fully bespoke interiors and an overall standard of workmanship that makes you knuckle-gnawingly jealous of the talent of some people.

The Outlaw was nominated as Historic Motoring's Best Bespoke Car of the Year last month but was pipped by a Β£6 million Aston DB4 GT Zagato replica. "It was a David and Goliath thing really." How much are these Outlaws then? "In terms of costs, our top end is Singer's bottom end," smiles Simon. "You're talking nearly 5,000 hours' labour per car, and TK's labour rate is Β£65 an hour (not every hour gets billed). Add in the cost of parts and the cost of the donor cars - which, to preserve the stock of good Aurelias, tend to be in fairly shabby condition - and your first thought might be to wonder why something that looks a bit like an MG Magnette from a distance could possibly be worth around half a million pounds. But then you open the door, lift the bonnet, or better still drive it, and it all makes sense. It's a connoisseur's car.

Aren't owners clubs sniffy about this sort of thing though? "I don't get nervous much anymore about anything, but we had the Lancia Owners Club here a couple of years ago, when Outlaw Number 2 was just about finished. I thought we were probably going to get crucified, but in fact the questions we got about the Outlaw were enthusiastic and knowledgeable. I'm not sure what they said about us when they left though!"

TK is increasingly moving into the area of upgrading cars by uprating engines, suspensions and steering, not just on Aurelias but also on 356s including Speedsters. Right now they have for sale a three-owner 1959 RHD Porsche 356A Coupe in an eye-catching blend of bare metal, red, and its original paint colour of Silbermetall. Potential buyers are being offered two restoration routes: a full ground-up restoration, or a full mechanical and interior resto but with only the sections of rusted bodywork replaced and then clear-coated as it stands.

If a PHer was looking for a good classic to invest in, what would Simon recommend? "The first thing I'd say is 'never buy for investment.' Simply buy what you love. Some investor deals have worked out financially but many haven't. Do your research, understand why you want the car, and equally, what you want it for - Sunday driving, serious rallying, gentle tours or concours competition.


"The general advice we give people when they're thinking about buying a car is to buy either the very best or the very worst. Don't buy a middling car that risks being full of problems because you'll spend a great deal of money on it to make it really good. You'll probably spend almost as much money as you would buying the worst you could find, which would be a lot cheaper, and having it completely restored correctly.

"I know you'd expect me to say this, but most classic Lancias are undervalued, like the Touring-bodied Flaminias. They are an absolute bargain. You're still talking 60 to 120 grand, but when you look at how those cars were built by Touring, alongside the contemporary Aston DB4, they represent a huge amount of car for the money. Unfortunately Lancia is a not a dynamic modern brand. The cars that killed off its reputation were good mechanically, but they were made of cheap steel."

It's sadly true that Lancia's reputation as a world-leading, engineering-led company which mixed phenomenal rally success with building beautiful, civilised road cars took a major pasting in the Beta (sic) years. In restoration terms, what are the nightmare cars? "One of the most difficult cars we've done was a war-years BMW 327. It had a partially wooden body frame and was incredibly complicated. The 328 on the other hand is a dream car.

"Porsche 356s aren't that hard from a mechanical perspective, but they are difficult on the body side because there isn't a single flat panel anywhere and making a new panel from scratch is often better than getting replacement panels to fit.

"Lancias are complicated, they've got the monocoque, the V6 engine, sliding pillar front suspension, the transaxle... you have to get the balance of the drivetrain right all the way through. Get it right, though, and they're beautiful. As a more general rule, taking on someone else's half-restored car is very difficult indeed."

What's the most difficult or time-consuming element of any restoration? "The metalwork. I'm in awe of the skills of the people who can do that, who can take a flat sheet and turn it into a wing. Tom in our metalwork team is working on a Bentley Special at the minute, but the work he did previously on an early DB4 was just beautiful.


"We don't do woodwork or trim in-house. We use two or three trimmers that we've come to trust. We talked about doing wood in the early days but you need to create a separate area in the workshop for it. We weren't sure that we'd get enough pre-war cars to keep somebody busy. In hindsight we probably should have done it."

What about parts sourcing? "I wish we'd gone into parts when we set up the business. The cost of original parts just goes up every year, obviously because it's a finite resource. Wayne has just been out to Padova, which I'd say is Italy's biggest classic car event now. They have a huge autojumble there, and most of it is just individuals or husbands and wives with a stall, but now there are a few companies who are getting into remanufacturing and 3D printing, and I think that's something we want to do in the future. Parts is definitely a good business to be in."

What does the restoration process involve? "A customer will bring us their car, or occasionally we get asked to find a car. Once we've got it, it's a question of what the customer wants the car to be and how they want to use it. We'll then produce an initial estimate based on very rough costs and timescales. We can't give a final estimate until the paint is off the car because you can never fully know what the bodywork's like until the car is in bare metal. We've been bitten occasionally where we thought the car's body was much better than it was. Only once has a car been better than we expected.

"You need to manage expectations, and part of that is being clear and communicating a lot in the early stages. If a customer comes to us and says look, this is my car, I've got thirty grand, which does happen occasionally, we'll look at the car and we'll see what we can do.

"The customer might have ideas of what they'd like to do. We'll try and turn that into a list of what they really need to do. This is what you could do if you want, this would be really nice, that sort of thing. You can work down the list for different amounts of money. We have an open door policy. If you want to come and see what's happening to your car at any time, that's fine."

Can money solve every problem? "Yes."


Are there any frustrations in your line of work? "One is being blamed for being the bearer of bad news about a car. 'What do you mean, my sills are rotten?' Well, I mean your sills are rotten. It's easier these days because you just take photographs.

"Another is when people don't accept that we're experts. We've earned our stripes. We've got literally centuries' worth of expertise on the shop floor. But when you tell somebody something about their car and they won't accept it, they know better, I've got to say hang on, if I was a lawyer and you came to me and paid me, you're going to take my advice because I'm an expert. Ditto an accountant, or whatever. If you come to me for advice on what's wrong with your car and what's the best way to fix it, and I tell you and you take no notice, then I can't help you.

"Also I must admit some frustration at the overuse of the word 'patina', a buzzword on forums. I love true originality, and by no means should every car be restored. But I occasionally see cars - less so now than five years ago - that have been repainted and then made look like it wasn't a new paint job. It doesn't ever quite work. It looks OK from twenty metres away, but why?

"If you're going to restore a car, you are enabling it to start its next chapter, so why pretend that it's already old? I've seen Type 35 Bugattis with paint that's been made to look old, and if that's what the guy wants, that's fine, he can have that, but personally I wouldn't do it. It's just my opinion."

How much out of the box thinking and research time is needed in the restoration business? "That's increasingly important, and it's something we really enjoy. The more ownership history you've got, the better the provenance, the more it adds to the value - and the joy of owning the car.

"We do two types of research. One to find more history on the car, former owners, work carried out and so on, and the other is for cars that are new to us. We work to find out all the detail on that car from books, experts, and museums. It's really important to see a good example of the car you're working on. We're doing a SIATA at the moment. Wayne's going off next week to look at a very similar example in Belgium. We've got a good network of owners in the States and Europe who are happy to let us go over their cars.


"I'm a listener and a learner and I'm not arrogant enough to think I could have done this without people who really know the industry. What we do is really hard. It's not a high-margin business, not the way we do it. We would make more money if we weren't as thorough. Nobody pays you for the last 5 per cent of the hours, or for the research we do in this office. It's got to be right."

Your company mission statement is 'beauty, durability, drivability'. Which of those elements is most important to you? "Above all, it's a car, and so it should drive well, whether you want to drive it to a Concours and have it perfect on the lawn with a decent chance of winning, or if you want to do the Mille Miglia - we do it every year, and touch wood we've never not finished one with any car that we've prepared.

"But of those three I'd say that maybe durability is the most important. There's no point coming to us and spending between Β£30,000 and Β£300,000 on a car if it's not going to last. I'm a Northerner. I want value, and I want my customers to have value too. The whole aim is to look after the needs of serious, enthusiastic and passionate owners. You bring your car to us and it is our job to put it right and make it driveable and enjoyable for years to come."

Was there a golden age of classics? "You could argue for most decades from the dawn of the car, through some wonderful pre-war cars of the '20s and early '30s. Italian cars from the mid-'20s to the mid-'60s, that was a fantastic time.

"As I get older I've found myself more and more drawn to earlier cars because of that sense of innovation, pioneering and experimentation. Before I started this business I thought I had a favourite car, the Ferrari 250GT SWB. Now I haven't got a clue. I couldn't even tell you my top ten. It depends when you were born to some extent. I was chatting to a guy born in 1976 the other day. He's interested in 1980s cars. I was born in the mid 1950s so I'm more into cars of the 1960s and 1970s.

"I've got a few classic cars of my own, and have had many different moderns. My first 'proper' car was a Peugeot 205 GTI. I've had three Integrales, a 246GT Dino, and an R33 Skyline that was tuned up to over 400hp. That was a fantastic car. I kept it for four years, then the R34 came out, so I pre-ordered one and went to Bedford for a test drive. At the end of the day I cancelled my order. I've never played video games but it just had no feel. That was a big moment for me in terms of modern cars.


"I simply have much more fun driving an old car at 60mph than jumping into my seven-year-old 911 to get from A to B. I drove a modern Abarth 500 the other day. It's a cool thing for sure but the ride was awful. The original Fiat 500 on the other hand is great fun - if a little slow. I do love Lancias, but the one car I won't sell is my 1972 Porsche Carrera 2.7 RS, which I've had for over 20 years. It's just the all-round, pretty near perfect classic car I think. It's not a great beauty but the driving experience, reliability and the steering are fantastic, and it's got enough power."

With unlimited money, what would you have? "Probably still that short wheelbase Ferrari 250GT. Or an Alfa 8C, or a BMW 507."

If you were starting the business again, what would you do differently? "I try to learn and not to regret things, but I will admit that I wish I'd started earlier, in my forties rather than my fifties. I look at the really successful companies in this industry, such as P & A Wood and DK Engineering. They've been going for a long time. They got in there early. We're latecomers really, we've only just passed our tenth anniversary.

"As I said earlier, there are things we could have started earlier but still aim to do - a parts business, developing the machine shop and engineering side a bit further. And rally and event preparation and support - preparing customers' cars so they can use them how and where they want.

"We're not here to set up a mid-range, middle of the road, 'do it all okay' type of business. We are obsessed with doing things properly and aiming high, which means we'll get really good customers and really good cars. We like working with really beautiful or cool cars, and we also want to work with people who want things to be right.

"I hope they bring us their cars so that, after they've had as pleasant an experience as possible with us - given that they're spending a lot of money - they get a car that's great to drive."


For more on Thornley Kelham click here

Author
Discussion

hughcam

Original Poster:

350 posts

113 months

Friday 15th November
quotequote all
Fantastic article, really enjoyed reading that on my lunch break!

GranCab

1,667 posts

94 months

Friday 15th November
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That's more like it PH !


V8 FOU

2,656 posts

95 months

Friday 15th November
quotequote all
So right.
You can't bill every hour on retoration or modification. I have spent most of today making a 3"x2" bracket for a Harley to relocate the rear caliper - 5 hours @£60 = £300 for a small bracket!!
Your man has the right attitude to the work. People will shoot the messenger when bearing bad news.
As far as the American TV shows like Kindig and Phantom go, at least it shows the average punter just how long the little parts take. The fettling. Getting everything to line up.
I don't know about him, but what I have found is that people always spend money on a shiny thing, but aren't so keen to pay for work done in making things. Or altering the parts they have bought.

A brilliant article. Thank you.

seba63

2 posts

9 months

Friday 15th November
quotequote all
A very enjoyable read after coming home from working at a college teaching motor vehicle students. Totally agree with the sentiments and points put forward. Attention to detail has no price, we are too busy trying to find shortcuts and save money. Excellent article.

ChevronB19

1,184 posts

111 months

Friday 15th November
quotequote all
More articles like this please PH!

pidsy

5,166 posts

105 months

Friday 15th November
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Yay!

A good one!

unsprung

3,826 posts

72 months

Friday 15th November
quotequote all
hughcam said:
Fantastic article,
V8 FOU said:
A brilliant article.
seba63 said:
A very enjoyable read
+1





bitofayank

11 posts

17 months

Friday 15th November
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Loved the article. Makes me want to work for them!

jon-yprpe

126 posts

36 months

Friday 15th November
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An article with real insight - a fascinating read.

magic212

4 posts

47 months

Friday 15th November
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Best article I ve read on PH in a long time, more like this please

Caterhamfan

225 posts

118 months

Saturday 16th November
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magic212 said:
Best article I ve read on PH in a long time, more like this please
Absolutely bounce

Ed Moses

270 posts

68 months

Saturday 16th November
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Great article and a number of interesting points.

eftiem64

41 posts

27 months

Saturday 16th November
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I keep buying the lottery tickets and praying I win while the chance exists to have a Fiorolegge Aurelia. I can’t think of a more desirable car. Period. A magnificent machine that I’m sure I would never, ever tire of. Stunning. And these guys are absolute masters. It is a wonderful world with such obsessive excellence in it.

Adyevo

4 posts

62 months

Sunday 17th November
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Great article: in depth, well written and I didn’t even spot a typo. More like this please!

dbhenshall

21 posts

88 months

Sunday 17th November
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fabulous article. thanks !

CCC type

1 posts

1 month

Sunday 17th November
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My dear Middlebum,

Am delighted to say you nailed it with this one; proper questions: sensible answers; a sweet overview of the thrust behind the company.

[And I know it's not a 'promo' job' while you await the final touches to your 250 SWB; largely because none of them are available... although the thought of Mrs Shed in one defies imagination].

Well done mate; I'll never forget your write-up review of whatever Fiesta it was in CCC [wasn't it Bulgin who gave it you?] It certainly altered my car review cues from becoming technoid fusty to much less crusty.

I subbed that Fiesta copy: didn't alter a word ─ it was all true.

Congratulations chap.

Now, the most underrated car on this planet? I challenge you to find one for SOTW...

I found an immaculate example in Reading, but fked-up on the deal.

It's a big challenge; but I'm talking about the original Subaru Justy ECVT [four-wheel drive]. There is an amazingly vibrant community about all of them: they are bomb-proof and great fun to drive ─ within their performance limits.

Find a less-than rusty one before they all get crushed. Less than 500 squids, and there will be 100k miles left to go [forged crank donch'a no and all that!].

Proper, fun-ish, shed ─ will fking go anywhere. I know; I'm still hurting after scrapping mine!

Sharp


turbofreeFLAT6

318 posts

58 months

Saturday 30th November
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Thornley Kelham restored a DB4 for me and still maintain it. I am afflicted with the craving for perfection so it was a rare and wonderful experience to go through such a complex project with people whose integrity and desire and ability to achieve perfection I never doubted. Just as rewarding was becoming good friends in the process.