Motoring revolutions come in all shapes and sizes. It's quite possible that one is occurring in Leicestershire right now. You'll find it nestled behind a line of trees and among the fields that surround a little village called Wykin. Parked outside a trio of warehouses is a collection of old cars, each starkly contrasted with its neighbour. There's a Mk1 Ford KA, lifted on raised suspension with off-road tyres and a snorkel intake. A BMW E36 sits on axle stands with a body in fine shape and pared-back interior, hinting at future track use. And further around the corner, the taut rear of a vintage Alfa Romeo GT wearing semi-slicks and door numbers pokes out into the sunlight. It's clear this is not your average MOT garage. And we haven't even stepped inside yet.
Retropower is, as you may have guessed, a place where cars come to be modified - although not in a conventional way. Subjects leave here completely bespoke, individual to such an extent that many parts fitted to them are one-offs, designed, fabricated and attached within the metal buildings that on this warm October day sit basking in sunlight. Inside, where the air is cool and lighting dim and a friendly dog stands guard, you'll find a small team of engineers, designers and metal workers scattered across the full expanse of the warehouse collective. Between them, cars of varying shapes, sizes and conditions are parked, jacked-up or stripped.
"I've not bothered counting but I reckon we must have about 30 cars in here," says Callum Seviour, director and co-founder of Retropower, showing PH around. "We're so full I'm already hoping the neighbouring garage occupier goes soon so we can take their space."
In just nine years, Retropower has exploded from being a two-man business, comprised of Callum and his brother Nathaniel (aka Nat), to becoming one of the UK's most respected car restoration and modification firms. It's so highly regarded, in fact, that it's doing business with Cosworth and has even recently added Gordon Murray himself to its client list.
"Murray's garage manager approached us about working on his Mk1 Ford Escort," explains Callum, as we stand beside the bodyshell, freshly painted in white. "To be honest, we weren't convinced it was the Gordon Murray until he walked through the door. We were half expecting another chap with the same name. We never dreamed of building for someone like that."
But building for Murray they are, and while the Ford isn't necessarily the most challenging project in the workshop - that title falls to an Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint that's sat a few feet away with an all-new front-end that's been fabricated by hand, from scratch, with only the rotten original panels and images as guides - the Mk1 Escort is a great illustration of the skill on hand here.
"Nat's designed completely bespoke suspension for this car, in house," says Callum. "He was pretty nervous about doing it, given that his work is going to one of the best engineers in the world. But we're really happy with the design and it should drive great because we've had each side weight matched to this car."
Under the bonnet will be a Cosworth-built Duratec Ford four-cylinder, producing about 250hp. It'll drive through an MX-5-sourced six-speed manual, giving the car modern performance without diverging too far from its original character. Callum says this is key in all of his projects; "the main aim for these projects is to engineer the cars so they can be driven properly, all the time".
All of the time means all year round, we find out, and this is clear in the weatherproofing process Retropower's team so meticulously applies to each body. Ninety per cent of the work that comes through Retropower involves, as Callum puts it, "a complete rebuild"; at stage one the car is totally stripped and goes through a nut and bolt restoration before any enhancements are made.
"We sandblast the body back to metal and put it through a dry build before painting, with all wiring and plumbing in place," he explains. "This way all drilling and welding is done before we apply paint, so the metal is completely sealed all over. And then we spray molten zinc onto it in order to protect from corrosion - this is a process they use to protect offshore wind turbines, so it works."
There's little doubt that the quality of restoration work is second to none, but in truth, modifications are arguably a larger part of what got the company noticed in the first place. Evidence of this comes from the fact that almost all of the cars sat in the warehouses are gaining some sort of enhancement. Only a factory-fresh green Mercedes-Benz W116 350 SE bucks the trend; it's boxed in - and starkly contrasted - by a Stratos kit car that's essentially a one-off.
"This isn't like your regular Stratos kit car," says Callum, "because we're custom building absolutely everything on it from the Lister Bell structure up. Just look at the interior, we're designing and fabricating that to be entirely unique. You'll never see another one like it."
We take a walk upstairs to an attic room, where, as Callum explains, the "self-proclaimed creative dynamo" Dean and his dog (the second of the building) quietly work. Dean, Retropower's upholsterer, is a former shoe designer, whose sketches help customers visualise his take on their requests. He reveals that the Stratos is getting seats inspired by the low-slung, block-patterned ones of the futuristic Stratos HF Zero concept from 1970.
"All of the car's electronics will be controlled by PDU [power distribution unit], rather than fuse box," adds Callum. "It means we can digitally control each electric component of the car and instruct the PDU how many amps to provide it with. We can then have the components controlled through a motorsport-sourced panel." It's further demonstration of the lengths Retropower can go to in order to create something totally unique.
On that subject, there's a Nissan Sunny ZX Coupe beside the aforementioned Alfa GT (which we'll come to shortly) wearing all-new aluminium bodywork, designed and developed in house for a customer that "wanted a wide-body Sunny like no other". We can confirm it is exactly that.
"I love customers like this," smiles Callum. "They have enough money to buy a supercar, but they'd rather have something different that nobody else has. This guy could drive anything but he just loves Sunnys. I can really respect that." Not by accident, our attention turns to the drop-dead gorgeous Alfa GT in the corner, the one with its petite tail cheekily edged out into the sunlight. This GT is quite different to the restored machines produced by Bristol-based Alfaholics, which keeps its cars closer to original specification.
"Our GT has lots of modern parts on it that are tastefully added to enhance the whole experience and - most importantly - make it a lot faster," explains Callum. "It's running with a 2.7-litre four-cylinder Millington Diamond engine, developed with an alloy block to produce 300hp. The car's got 350hp per tonne!"
Those who know about Millington will note that this engine is a motorsport-spec unit, which makes the use of a Sadev six-speed sequential gearbox and semi-slick tyres feel more natural. Inside, the GT's motorsport makeover continues with a roll cage, racing wheel and Recaro bucket seats, but the fit and finish is second to none and a far cry from the world of a track car.
"Every detail has to be gorgeous, each nut and bolt included," says Callum. "We think deeply about every engineering detail. Take the pedal box, for example. It's completely custom and has been mounted as low as possible to keep the weight close to the ground."
The car's owner wasn't present to give PH permission for a go behind the wheel, but Callum willingly hopped into the driver's seat so we could sample what motorsport power felt like in a rear-drive chassis famed for its playfulness from the passenger's side. Flippin' rapid, is the answer to that, as well as extremely visceral. It's like you can feel every rotation of each cog within the Sadev 'box, as well as every revolution of the engine's crankshaft such is the mechanical brutality of these components. It's certainly not a car you'd want to coast to the south of France with, but to hammer around Spa Francorchamps in? Yes, yes and yes again.
The GT is among the most extreme - in terms of performance - cars to come out of Retropower. At the other end of the spectrum there are cars less focused on track and B-road work, and more directed at simply being extremely cool. Take the black Mercedes-Benz W108 that's suspended on air suspension and uses Chevvy LS3 V8 power, as an example. That thing is dripping with style, and no doubt noise when it's running. It's very different to the Alfa, but also the same, because like that and all the other creations in these warehouses, it's packed with originality.
Quality is also a shared trait of these machines, which helps to explain why some projects can take up to two years to complete. It also makes the £200,000 figure Callum says has been attached to the most expensive projects from Retropower seem more understandable. These are works of which require re-engineering from top to bottom.
"We always work to finish every car to the highest standard so it's comparable to buying a new car from a premium brand," says Callum. "Although we've actually had buyers request that we don't make their car so perfect because then they'd be afraid to use it! We respond by saying these cars have been engineered to be tough and usable. So don't leave them parked in a collection."
Isn't that just music to your ears? In a world where some of the finest cars are treated more like commodities than feats of engineering, it feels like the kind of mission statement we needed to hear. Of course, what Callum and Nat need to hear is that next door has vacated its warehouse. The revolution won't wait.
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