Currently reading: Behind the scenes with the Ferrari-fixing panel beaters
How hard can it be to turn a £20 sheet of aluminium into a front wing of a rare car? We find out
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6 mins read
7 July 2020

Apparently, there are over 100 billionaires living in the UK, 72 of them in London.

Any one of them could have afforded to buy the 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO that went under the hammer at an RM Sotheby’s auction at Monterey in August 2018.

A GTO sold earlier in the year for £52 million, the most money ever paid for a car. It’s amazing, but here’s food for thought: if that Ferrari were to receive a bump that dented its front wing, there are far fewer than 72 people in the UK with the skills to repair it.

One of the few is Grace Roaf. This 22-year-old hot rodder and drag racing enthusiast is an apprentice at G&A Fabrications, a traditional panel beating and fabrication business hidden away behind a former Texaco fuel station in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey. It’s a small workshop, a bit untidy and short on space, but magic happens here.

A miracle might even take place here today because I, with Roaf’s help, am going to attempt to turn a £20 sheet of aluminium into a front wing for an AC Cobra. Both of us will be under the watchful eye of Lawrence Kett. Kett did an apprenticeship at British Aerospace, making spares for Concorde and 747 engine cowls under contract for Boeing. From there, he went to Autokraft, working on Cobras, including building new MkIVs at Brooklands. In 1990, he started this company and has never looked back.

“It takes about 10 years to really get the hang of this work,” says Roaf, “and I’m only two years in so you’ll have to bear with me.” We could have made a wing for a GTO to really demonstrate my earlier point but there is no Ferrari here to use it on, whereas G&A Fabrications usually has a Cobra or two about. It also has a buck for a Cobra, which will make the job a bit easier because we’ll be able to marry up the panel we’re shaping to the buck to see how we’re doing. Or, more to the point, it will be easier for Roaf to see how badly I’m doing.

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The first task is to make a paper pattern so that we can cut out a rough shape from the virgin metal sheet. We use masking paper and tape, plus a pencil to trace around the hard edges of the headlamp bowl, like brass rubbing in a church. With this outline transferred to the sheet, we use a combination of tin snips and a plasma cutter, which in my hands makes a right mess but in Grace’s burns a clean line through the sheet. We’re now ready for the wheel.

The English Wheel is the simplest of devices but incredibly difficult to master. As you can see, it is a giant ‘G’ with a pair of rollers. There are three at G&A, each fitted with a pair of rollers that have different profiles. One pair is nearly flat, another has a pronounced curve and the one that Grace and I are using is midway between the others. It’s a nerve-racking business, this wheeling. Roaf gets us started, gently pulling and pushing the metal back and forth between the rollers, carefully applying pressure with her hands to encourage the shape. It’s a very delicate balance between not enough force and so much that you put a crease in it that turns it into scrap. When it’s my turn, I don’t apply enough pressure, and after dozens of passes between the rollers, the sheet has not changed shape at all.

“It would take me days to make a complete wing,” says Roaf, “whereas Lawrence could finish this in a morning.” “True,” says Kett, “but I’ve been doing this all my working life and I can’t tell you how many Cobra bodies I’ve made.”

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Several hours later, my back is getting stiff, but thanks to Roaf’s patience and skill, the sheet of metal is looking suitably curvaceous. The complete Cobra wing is made up of several sections (ours is the very front and contains the headlight bowl) that will finally be gas welded together, another skill in itself. “We can also use the gas torch to anneal the metal,” says Roaf, “to soften it so we can put a tighter bend in it without damaging the material.”

There’s a car in here that’s under wraps and we can’t talk about it because it’s very special. Its body was originally made in Italy, where a different technique is used. Italian artisans use hammers, sandbags and even logs to beat the metal into shape. Any dents and dimples that you end up with have to be hidden with filler. One Cobra in here has an eighth of an inch of filler in it in places due to poor welding and equally poor metal shaping. The goal is to use hardly any filler.

There’s much work to be done on our wing but so far there are no ugly dents. Kett gives us a few minutes of his precious time, winds a bit more tension onto the rollers and removes every blemish within no more than 20 strokes. The surface is perfect. Better still, it’s beginning to fit the buck properly. Trouble is, it’ll not look so good once I’m back on the job. You work in one area and another bit starts going out of shape.

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“It’s a bit like having three children,” says Roaf. “You have to pay all of them attention or one goes astray. If you concentrate on one area of the metal, you’ll find things are going awry in another. It’s a constant compromise and challenge.”

More young blood needed: 

There’s no shortage of work at G&A Fabrications. “These days, it’s about 50:50 between road cars and racing cars,” says Lawrence Kett. “We’ve had a few occasions when we’ve finished repairing a racing car on Friday and had it back in again on Monday after it’s been pranged on the weekend. No, having enough work isn’t the worry. It’s finding people like Grace for the future that bothers me. There just aren’t new people coming through.”

I suspect there are several factors at play here. There are simply not enough businesses like Kett’s; the aviation industry is no longer training and supplying the right sort of talent, especially as aircraft turn to composite materials; and having an apprentice in the shop is hideously expensive.

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Expensive, but also time consuming. It takes a person of Kett’s passion to put the time in. Grace Roaf isn’t his only youngster. There’s a lad called Jack Renyard here, too, who is also highly skilled and getting more adept at his craft by the day. So if you biff your 250 GTO in a supermarket car park in Walton-on-Thames, you’re in luck. Help is around the corner.

This article was originally published on 26 August 2018. We're revisiting some of Autocar's most popular features to provide engaging content in these challenging times. 

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Chris C 7 July 2020

Back in the day...

Back in the day I used to have a supplier near Nottingham similar to these guys - using traditional skills and techniques to hand make replacement panels with compound curvature, etc, and without a press in sight. Odd thing was though that their company logo was a Lotus Europa bodyshell (fibreglass!).

rock8521 26 April 2019

Mahjong

I loved to see your work and apprecite this news sharing. its very exciting place for me and mahjong is a worlds most played game and i am so happy to recommend this one for you.

Ravon 27 August 2018

Great Article

More please ! 

I’m planning to visit these very people tomorrow with a humble MGC Bonnet !

Paul Dalgarno 27 August 2018

Colin Goowin’s grandad?

Better update your profile pic Colin. Great article, I’m glad old skills are still around.