If it wasn’t for BMH, the Oxfordshire-based maker of replacement bodies for British cars of a certain age, it’s probable that thousands of otherwise healthy classics would by now have returned to the earth as red oxide.
Either that, or they’d have been consigned to the crusher as a result of structural incapacity, to begin a new life as soup cans or fencing wire.
When British Motor Heritage was born as part of British Leyland back in 1975, rustproofing in cars was regarded as an unnecessary luxury. Only expensive cars were built to last. British car owners expected their cars’ sills to bubble extravagantly after five years, and after 15 many an owner would be treated to views of the road through the footwells.
Although it was the nation’s largest car maker, BL at the time was beset by already terminal problems with engineering development and manufacturing quality. It was building some of the least durable cars on the road – yet these days you see a surprising number of old Minis, MG Bs, Spridgets and Triumphs still driving happily about.
This is partly because the cars are enjoyable to own and drive, so owners look after them, but mainly because crucial replacement body bits, made off original tools, are affordable and easily available through BMH.
At first, BMH’s role was to meet a growing demand for early pattern parts; the original Mini, MG B and the rest were still in production. It functioned happily enough into the 1990s, supplying more than 2000 MG B bodies for the RV8 project in the mid-1990s. “It was a monument to BL’s inefficiency that the tooling was still available,” says current MD and owner John Yea. “Most companies would have scrapped it long ago.”
The business passed into the hands of BMW in 1994 with its £800 million acquisition of Rover Group, but when the Germans decided in 2000 that their bold British exploit was never going to work, BMH was acquired by a team steered by Yea, a former Rover finance man, initially with several partners.
“BMW’s overriding priority was to avoid bad PR,” Yea recalls. “They were desperate to be seen as good citizens.” Yea thought the business had potential, although it was saddled with quite a lot of slow-moving stock stored in two distribution centres when only one was needed. “It was clear the company’s prospects would be better if it was controlled and owned by one person,” Yea says.
Yea soon cleared the slow stock and started building on the company’s core strength as a supplier of panels to the classic car market. It had ready access to original tooling for more than 40 different UK-built models, and its people had unique metal-finishing skills. He soon added a lucrative line: that most vulnerable of all Jaguar E-Type components, the huge, rear-opening bonnet.
“Tooling of that era isn’t good enough to finish the panels as well as the market likes them,” Yea explains, “although the ex-BL tooling is actually of a high quality. The Jaguar E-Type stuff isn’t so good – among the worst, actually. It won’t finish the complex bonnet curvature at the front, so we have to do that by hand. But E-Type demand is quite steady. We’ll make a batch of 10 next month.”
Apart from the evergreen Mini, a “younger product” that keeps on giving, Yea acknowledges that demand for the original panels BMH started making in 1975 is in slow but noticeable decline.
Replacement MG B shells, properly protected, last a lifetime. BMH has compensated by expanding its export markets, by planning the manufacture of panels for upmarket British marques not yet catered for (“We have big aspirations, but I can’t say more”) and establishing a thriving web-based accessories business called Motoring Classics.
These days, BMH can sell you any steel body part for an MG B roadster, GT or Midget. It also makes original Mini doors and bootlids, full Mini bodyshells from the 1969-1970 model onwards (including Clubman) and Minivan rear doors. Triumph lovers can get most of what they need for a TR6, many key pieces for a Stag or Spitfire and several high-demand items for a TR7.
“Everything is batch-built,” says Yea, “and demand is quite reliable, so production planning isn’t difficult. We expect to do runs of 10 complete MG B shells and 30 Mini shells twice a year.”
BMH’s headquarters at Whitney is a standard-looking industrial unit in a well-concealed industrial estate, but take the two-minute walk out back to the manufacturing area and you’re rapidly transported back several decades, a fact from which Yea does not attempt to shrink.
The company’s purpose, he reminds you, is to use original tooling, original build processes and material as near as you can get to the original steel to make body parts as close as possible to the originals. It’s top-quality steel, though, and parts get Metacoat corrosion-proofing so they’re ready to fit, prepare and paint.
BMH employs about 40 people, many of whom are experts in body techniques that get rarer as the weeks go by. Hand manufacture is the watchword; an MG B bonnet consists of five major pieces that take a good two hours to fit and finish. (On a modern car like a BMW Z4, Yea points out, the same piece is far easier to make.) Period tools abound.
One prize exhibit is a purpose-built multi-welding machine, dating right back to the beginning of Mini production in 1959, that joins early Mini window surrounds to door inner panels in a rolling series of spot welds.
For 15 minutes, we watch a Mini body being created from pressed components to a single load-bearing steel structure, an operation conducted by two strong men who have clearly done it many times before.
It involves lots of clamping, judicious leverage, trial fitting, discussion and some judicious applications of brute force, delivered via what the pair describe as “Dave’s educated hammer”. In full swing, Dave and his pal can do three or four Minis in a day. When I talk to the pair an hour later, they’ve just finished fitting another roof to another car.
“It went on really well,” says Dave with satisfaction. “We hardly had to use the hammer at all.”
“We warn visitors not to expect Lexus panel gaps,” says Yea, “and if they’re expecting bodyshell construction to be a delicate process, we advise them to look away now. It’s hard, physical work for the people who do it, and when they go home, they know they’ve done a decent day’s work.”
But it’s important – and satisfying. BMH isn’t the kind of firm that creates many headlines, but talk to the people who work there and you’ll soon discover their pride in the place, on two counts. They’re well aware that their skills are rare, and that they’re helping to keep some important cars on the road.
“I feel huge pride in this place,” says Yea. “It’s not a huge turnover concern, but it’s important. Our challenge is to keep finding the people who can keep it going.”
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