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James E. Pearce - Master Coachbuilders
In the finest tradition of Vintage Bentley coachbuilding
By Robert McLellan
Aug 28, 2015
The 'James E. Pearce' coachbuilders company was started by Jim Pearce in London in the late 1950s. His son David Pearce worked alongside Jim for over 30 years, and in the year 2000 Jim was able to retire as David took over the ownership and running of the business providing the same impeccable service to customers all over the world. 

I have known Jim Pearce ever since I purchased my Bentley in 1980.  Every time I go to England I see Jim and his wife Chris. They were here in Houston to vacation with us in 1988 and to work on my Bentley.  Jim  is an artist. Before he ever became involved with coachbuilding he had been a stone engraver — several architectural works in and around London bear his mark. Later he worked as a flight mechanic on Spitfires and Lancasters for the RAF. The sum total is a man with a fine head for precision engineering and the hands of a deft and sensitive artist. Jim's association with vintage Bentleys began in 1956. And when he married one year later he decided that he must own one. The coachbuilding business wove itself into his life most naturally in the following years.

Jim and David are restoring my 3 litre FY 7290 for the BDC Silverstone meet in 2016.

Says David Pearce, "In our workshops we repair, restore and conserve all customers' vehicles to the highest quality, using the best materials. The coachwork we undertake is carried out in-house to include: hood frame design and fabrication, brass windscreens, running boards, bracket and ash frame work, all aspects of trim and general repairs. Every consideration is given to our customers' needs and wishes. We offer a friendly and efficient service, enjoying an excellent reputation at home and abroad." — Aug 28, 2015

Here's what Jim shared with us 1994:

Jim and Chris Pearce enjoy
traveling to the United States; here at Robert McLellan's home in Houston, Texas
The Early Years
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 rural areas.

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 to help.

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 when necessary.

Decision Time
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 experience.

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.

Wisborough Green
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 very pristine.

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 open cars.

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 color.

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.

Customer Satisfaction
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 wanted.

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 new owners.

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 complement it.

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.

Concours d'Elegance
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 these events.

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.

Visit: James E. Pearce Coachbuilders Company
Posted on Aug 28, 2015
Jan 19, 2018 - Info and photograph added for Registration No. GU 858
Jan 18, 2018 - Info and photographs added for Registration No. GP 42
Jan 17, 2018 - Info and photograph added for Registration No. UV 3070

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