The Early Years
and Chris Pearce enjoy
traveling to the United States; here at Robert McLellan's home in Houston, Texas
The start was in about 1955 when I was living in South
London. I was single at that time, though courting Chris,
my wife. My neighbor was a Mr. George Daniels, now owner
of the Birkin Single Seater. We used to spend evenings
together, chatting, having the odd drink or two, and
became very good friends.
In 1956 I got married and at about the same time George
purchased a 3 Litre Bentley. He was very vintage minded,
mechanically minded, of course, and bought a 3-litre
Landaulet. It was in very poor condition and needed
a complete overhaul from one end to the other, including
all the body work.
While chatting one evening he told me of his plans to
overhaul it and invited me to give him a hand. I had
a technical background in my education and had been
in the Airforce as a flight mechanic on the Spitfires
and Lancasters. I was also an engraver of stone and
engraved lettering for architectural works in London
and around. I did quite a lot of church work on special
plaques and a number of walls of remembrance for those
who had died in the war and special persons within certain
I was pretty handy with design and style and, obviously,
with my hands and the engineering background all proved
very useful. I was able to use these skills or talents
to my advantage.
George was a super mechanic and got cracking on stripping
the car from one end to the other engine as well
and brought the car to a very high standard.
Whilst I went about working on the body work of the
car where I could the dashboards, tool boxes,
and all the odds and ends. I took a very great interest.
From this I picked up just how a Bentley was built.
George was most helpful to me and allowed me to join
in on the engineering side as well as the coachwork.
The car was completed, taken to Kensington Gardens in
about 1959-60, and won top awards.
Most of this was down to George, but I had the opportunity
to gather a great deal of knowledge, especially on the
3-Litre Bentley and how the coachwork was put together.
A benefit, too, was that the car was not an Open Tourer,
but a Landaulet. Examining the methods of the hood workings
and the beautiful fittings for the car, which was quite
complete, opened my eyes to the quality of the work
of the early 20s.
Not long after I married I decided I must have a Bentley.
George was very kind, looked out for one and found us
quite a nice one. Chris and I purchased it. Of course
it needed a complete overhaul and, in fact, we weren't
very happy with the design of the body and decided to
make a change.
We, therefore got into our own coachbuilding
almost immediately and I overhauled the car from one
end to the other. We had a great deal of fun. While
this was going on I bought a Boat Tailed 3-Litre made
by Vanden Plas, completely original, and one of very
few made. We thoroughly enjoyed the use of the car,
traveled all over England, taking with us our two boys
who sat in the back without any weather equipment and
thoroughly enjoyed it. I even took them to school each
day in it which was quite fun for them and we got very
well known by the local policeman. I used to bear down
on him quite fast and he never had the courage to stop
me. Instead, he would stop all of the traffic and give
us a run straight through which was good fun.
Later I sold this car to Briggs Cunningham. It was shipped
back to his museum and was on display there for many,
many years. In fact, I visited the museum in about 1978
and was invited to drive the car again. Briggs removed
it from the museum especially for Chris and I and we
had a run up the freeway in it just like old times.
We carried on with our Bentley motoring and, if at anytime
we didn't have a car on the road, George had bought
an extra car or two and there was always one that I
could use. We used to go to all the club meetings that
we could the Sunday "noggings". It
was a free and easy time.
I received a phone call from Tony Robinson of North
Stables Coachbuilding. At that time he worked for the
television company as artist. He rang to say he was
needing a body for his car and thought about designing
and making one based on the 4½ Vanden Plas design.
I encouraged him and gave him what help I could.
He measured up an original 4½ and started to
cut out all the sections of timber. He ended up with
a very fine body for the car and asked me if I would
supply the various parts that he needed such as the
windscreen, all the brackets, locks, hinges, and everything
else that was required including a hood frame. I agreed
He asked me to supply parts to his
clients so that they could complete the cars. You realize
that this was quite a lot of work that I was getting
into making reinforcing brackets, hoods, screen
and everything that was required to keep up with these
kits. Tony got very interested in the coachbuilding
and in later years started his own business.
Tony and I carried on, completely separately,
but working together. He started to build complete cars
for clients. They would hand over the chassis, complete
with body, to me and I would finish them completely.
Sometimes the engineering work such as wings
and things had already been done on the car,
but the bodies when they came to me needed to be trimmed
and completed. This was quite a comprehensive job and,
with my expertise and knowledge, I was able to give
his customers what they wanted.
A couple of cars that I can remember
doing were one for Len Wilton "Old Number
Seven", Registration No. MK 5206, which is still
running today and doing very well for itself and, I
think, still has all my components on it. Another for
Roger Collings with his 4½ Litre, Registration
No. RT 4700. There are of course, many more, but these
are a couple of cars that I know are still chasing around
and still looking very good for their age.
The trimming side was quite different for me. I took
trim apart from old cars, examined it, and found out
how to do it, but of course it still needed the practical
side. I bought myself a heavy duty sewing machine and
various bits of equipment that you need and went to
Connally's where I made friends and was given every
bit of help that they could give me which was
a great encouragement for our business.
I also met a trimmer of the old school who started me
on trimming the bodies. I began doing interiors without
the seats which is a little more complicated. Then he
taught me the seating arrangements and we went on to
the hoods. I received expert tuition and, with a bit
of flair and willingness to learn and learn quickly,
I soon picked it up. I was able to turn out a car complete
in the end but, until his death, always had my friend
with me at hand should I get into any problem.
Chris was a help to me in my trimming. She would come
with me to the garage and sit and sew the body fabrics
together for me with her nimble hands do anything
she could do to see that the car went out to the standard
that was expected.
During all this period, as you can
see, I built up a clientele of very generous and nice
people within the club and around, rebuilt many cars,
and was fully involved in every type of work encompassing
coachwork, including electrical work and in some cases
a little mechanical engineering. I didn't get too involved
in the engines except, of course, on my own cars which
I would take apart and service regularly and overhaul
Fortunately I had complete support of my wife Chris,
who loved the cars and enjoyed riding with me and going
to events and, with the children, it made a proper family.
The driving was a lot easier than it is today. It started
me well into a career which I've enjoyed well up into
this present day.
After some time I found that my spare time was pretty
well taken up with Bentleys. I had to make a decision
whether to cut down on the amount of Bentley work or
give up my full-time work for I was unable to do both
satisfactorily. I must say my full-time work did not
suffer as far as I know, but I did feel that I would
have to cut down on some Bentley work. But, in fact,
it was growing and I found it difficult to say no. It
had to be sorted.
We were well into the 1960s when Chris
and I sat down and made the decision that I should be
a coachbuilder full-time and have my own premises. I
was very concerned for my children who were being educated
and I would now have to earn a living rather than have
a salary. The whole project seemed quite daunting. But
Chris was so supportive and said, "Let's do it".
We moved out into the country, into a completely different
environment, and decided that we would succeed.
Trial ad Error
During the period that we were in South London we really
enjoyed the time there and whilst I was building my
cars in the early days we had one or two mishaps.
One I am reminded of was when I completed one of my
first hoods on a car. I had spent longer than usual
to try to get a perfect fit and to get the style and
design. The car looked beautiful.
I then drove the car out of the garage to show it off
not realizing that I had built the car in the
garage to a certain height which was about two inches
higher than the height of the door. As I left the garage
I also left the hood.
It's laughable now, but at the time it was a bit horrific.
I turned around and immediately rebuilt the whole thing
which was an experience. It taught me never to do it
again something you can really only learn from
One day, after completing a car with
a light blue carpet, I left it running for a period
to warm up before taking it out. I went out to move
the car I was horrified to find oil pumped all over
the front carpets everywhere. I switched off
and removed the carpets and tried to clean them, but
was finding it very difficult. So I bought some petrol
and, using a very big pan, washed the carpets fully
in petrol to remove the oil. I then shampooed them,
hung them on the line, and dried them out. It went very
well indeed, without a sign of oil, but when I fitted
them back in the car they were a slightly different
color than the carpets in the back which showed
so I had a problem.
I didn't know quite what to do, because there was no
more material available and time was a factor. So I
carefully removed all the carpets, removed a gallon
of oil from the sump and washed all the carpets in oil.
I then put them through the petrol wash . . . then shampooed
them . . . then put them back in the car clean and sprightly
looking. They looked perfect when they were finished
a slightly different tone of blue, which didn't
matter as long as they were the same.
When we arrived in Sussex we purchased a house in the
country which had double garages, but did not have sufficient
room to work. I had to look for somewhere to rent to
carry on the business. The first 3-litre that I completed
was done in my double garages at home and I managed
quite well. I then rented a part of a garage locally.
During that time I completed a couple of cars for an
Irish Lord who is a very friendly and generous man.
Those were the first two cars that I completed under
my own business. One of them was a Rolls-Royce. Whilst
I was at that garage I found an employee and between
us we found a garage at Wisborough Green.
We were most fortunate to find an old coachworks which
had been there since the turn of the century and the
owner had retired. He was very helpful to me and, having
rented part of his garages, gradually we were allowed
to take over a little more... and a little mor... Eventually
he died and left note in his will that we should be
allowed to continue there as long as possible.
Since being on the Green we have undertaken
so many jobs that I really can't remember them all,
but we have worked for customers all over the world.
Quite a number in America and we have not only completed
Bentleys, but all other types of cars. I remember buying
hundreds of lizard skins to make all the leatherwork
and trimwork in lizard on two Mercedes for a collector
in New York. They looked beautiful when finished and
were as the original specifications for we had found
lizardskin underneath the old seatcovers then we removed
them. We follow up connections in the United States
and make many visits to see customers who are now our
friends and we thoroughly enjoy ourselves when we come
over. I give advise and encouragement to so many people
that we are always either writing or telephoning and
keeping very much in touch.
We have completed in the last several years the bodywork Dick Burdick's 3 Litre from the Central Texas Museum of Automotive History, have recently built a body and restored the chassis for Matthew Sysak of Pennsylvania and the body work on Robert and Bea McLellan's 3-litre.
Bits & Pieces
One of the main items that we supply for vintage cars
is the windscreen. We have a department that makes everything
in brass. We have the various windscreen stanchions
and cut the teeth for the tooth joints and the pulls
for the quick release. We make them so that they fold
down, fold up, some have two openings screens and singles.
We make them with aero-screens and wind deflectors.
We also make the extra screens for the rear. Patterns
are sent and we work out pretty well the shape that
is required and I must say that we are very pleased
that we have very few to alter. We have good reports
and, when I go to various shows, I see our screens looking
We supply a large amount of kit form
material. That is locks, hinges, bits and pieces, hood
rests, and materials of all sorts, especially for vintage
Bentleys. We have cast various handles and we're well-known
for our engine-turned dashboards. If we are sent a sketch
of the dashboard, together with the diameters of holes
required, we will edge and turn a sheet of aluminum
and put in all the holes so that when the customer gets
it back it just has to be fitted and the instruments
put in. This works very well and they do look very nice.
We also do the same service in mahogany or whatever
timber you like generally in solid woods, not
veneer. We usually varnish and lacquer them for the
Our panel beater is getting a bit ancient now, but is
very experienced and we make up the wings or
as you call them, fenders and bonnets, or hoods.
The trimming department, as well, is fairly comprehensive.
We can undertake almost any kind of work, using all
sorts of skins and finishes and colors. We basically
use Connally of London who supplies original hides for
these cars. They will, whenever possible, arrange for
the correct grains, colors, and quantity to be supplied
and we find them very helpful.
We use the correct materials and springing in the seating,
cane piping, and anything that was used in the old days
that is available now. But we do take into consideration
that new materials have become available since the '20s
and '30s. If we find a better one, we will advise the
customer accordingly that the new materials may make
it more comfortable or long lasting, or be more economical.
Our carpets are from Brussels in a lot of cases, which
is where much of the original carpeting came from in
the early years. It is very closely woven and not too
thick so that when the carpet is bent around sharp angles
and bends it doesn't "grin"; it doesn't hold
too much dirt and it wears very well indeed.
Of course there's always the problem with the color,
for new colors are nothing like the old ones. Some of
the early carpets were blue-gray or various tones, whereas
colors today can be quite bright and can be a single
We spend a lot of time trying to get the colors correct.
For no matter what you spend on the car, and how well
designed it is, if the color scheme doesn't work most
of your effort has been in vain.
When a customer gets in touch regarding body work for
their car we try to get a feeling for not only the car
and what we're looking at, but also for the customer.
We wish to involve the customer as much as possible
with the rebuild so that they feel they have organized
it, have made the decisions, and have got what they
The car must have what it needs and
wants, also. For the car is the most important thing.
We, in life, only borrow these cars and use them. The
car is likely to last years and years God knows
how many years. If it's going round with the wrong livery,
wrong colors, wrong body, we won't be thanked by the
Our usual method is to invite the owners to the works
to see just what is undertaken here, to see the men
and the style of work that is going through at that
time, to look at photographs of work that we have undertaken,
to bring photos of their own chassis and ideas of what
is being undertaken. From there we can also have eye-to-eye
contact with the owner and see whether the whole thing
is likely to work. If the owner of the car and the coachbuilder
don't get on from the start the whole exercise is going
to be over-shadowed. So both parties have to have confidence
in each other.
It is usual for us to involve the partner of the owner,
either lady or gentleman, in the design and especially
the color of the cars. If a lady, for instance, has
a special color that she wears regularly, say red, we
would dissuade the owner from having the car red. For
it's almost impossible to get a match we would
never get a match and so we would stay clear
of the favorite color and try to use a color that would
A lot of time and worry can be put into all this, but
if it's in the hands of a complete coachbuilder, he
can see all the colors and help as much as possible.
I don't say he can always get it right, but there's
a good chance.
At all times it must complement the car and must be
pleasing and acceptable to the owners. They must be
able to live with it, because if they can't, they will
not use the car as they should, and it will be a disappointment
no matter the cost.
Over the years we've completed a great number of cars
and a lot of our cars have been taken to the Kensington
Garden Concours. We've won all of the Vintage Class
the 3, the 4½, the 6½ and 8 litre.
We've won the Derby Class and we've had overall winners
at these events. I have judged at Hatfield House and
was fortunate enough to be invited to California to
be one of the European judges at Pebble Beach. So the
standard of work that we've undertaken has been, and
has to be, of a very high quality to satisfy our discerning
customers who very often like to take their cars to
Once we have completed our cars we generally maintain
them over a number of years. The customer will bring
them back for little additions that they would like
and any small alterations or adjustments. We keep in
touch with a great number of our customers and have
made friends with so many. Often they just pop into
the works for a cup of coffee.