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I recently spent a couple weeks touring France taking in the sights and several museums full of unusual machinery. This got me thinking…..

Art, Design,Craftsmen and Mass Production

Depended on your view point, car design is either moving at a staggering pace or began to stagnate as far back as Henry Ford revolutionising the production process.

As mass production, safety standards and conformity have become the norm, many only look back and reminisce on the days when luxury cars were built to order by highly skilled craftsmen.

The Marque, Coach-builder and The Owner

The ‘Marque’ would supply the chassis and drive-train, the ‘Coach-builder’ the hand-built bodywork and the customer their requirements. All 3 names would be stamped with pride on a polished bulkhead plaque.

Everybody collaborating to produce these wonderful machines exuded passion; at a level rarely seen in garages today.

Whilst mass production has given our hobby youth and vitality, some aspects have lost their soul. As the skills needed to produce a luxury vehicle are taken out of the hands of the craftsman, they are placed into the minds of men programming machines. These minds are sadly shackled by bureaucrats and financiers.

Sadly gone are the days you could take your one off vehicle to the local garage for them to enthusiastically set-up by ear. As without an OBDII port, your fledgling mechanic flounders and the art of coach-building has succumbed to the CAT N write off.

Thankfully, in the UK the Hot Rod and Kit Car scene is alive and kicking and every year dozens of builders get the thrill of driving their scratch built cars for the very first time.

The work of the artisan has not gone, it is simply swamped by bureaucracy and mediocrity.

BIVA, Invention & Ingenuity

There are those that may have predicted the SVA and subsequent IVA as the apocalyptic end of bespoke car creation. However, although it has presented challenges, particularly to those mid build, it has actually brought back a little bit of ‘Coach-building Invention & Ingenuity’. Modern technology in the shape of the internet, brought people together, far and wide, to solve problems that at one time would have been in the hands of a single builder.

Not so many years ago, parts required to solve a problem would have sat neglected and unheard of in a dusty corner. Now a few seconds online research can have a problem solved, with the parts overnight couriered to your door.

There has never been a greater resource of tools and parts available. Unfortunately, as the availability and popularity of ‘custom’ parts rise, the peril of using ‘off the shelf’ parts means your one off vehicle gets once again, lost in the crowd.

As each of us struggle to pass regulations and copy work helpfully ‘shared’ by others, that innovation once again slowly evaporates into ‘mass’ conformity.

A walk around a recent Kit Car show saw rows of bespoke cars with parts chosen from the same catalogue, all mounted in exactly the same manner. Sadly, as a crowd, these unique vehicles lost their individuality.

Hot Rod Evolution

Certain periods were famous for over the top flamboyance, billet and pastel fibreglass, whilst the millennium has seen a slow return to a more nostalgic style with subtle hidden technology. So whatever speed technology moves forward, if it moves too fast peoples tastes and often regulations will eventually pull on the reigns. With Hot Rodding there has always been a solid back-bone of retro rods. If a trend gets too outrageous or long in the tooth, people always fall back to basics.

Those Artisans lucky enough to be at the forefront of a trend produce the most imaginative work, but even they will draw on both current and previous designs.

Our hobby has gone through a lot of changes but it’s always a good idea to sit back every now and then and take stock of where we have come from, where we are going and where exactly we would like to head.

Embracing technology is vital, but to move forward and maintain the passion, we must look to the past. Currently, I see regulations forcing many to use parts that do not fit the look of a given vehicle. To move forward, we need to use the latest technology to adapt existing and even ancient parts, allowing them to meet or out-perform requirements. With the skills to produce hi-performance bespoke parts and the knowledge on how to correctly test them, our parts choice will once again become limitless. As our knowledge of BIVA regulations grow, the demand for special parts and skills will also follow. 

With many industries such as Gas and Electric, you use OFTEC or GasSafe approved tradesmen. If enough of a demand is created then maybe companies will offer services such as ‘interiors to BIVA standards’ or maybe even BIVA approved? – Who knows?

BIVA regulations have created several demands within the industry:

  • Knowledge
  • Parts resources (e.g. glass suppliers)
  • Specialist tools to become standard toolbox items (dB meters)

To achieve greatness, every year the bar is raised. Nowadays, for a Hot Rod to be truly groundbreaking, not just the fit and finish but the level of engineering and technology involved rise yet further beyond the talents of just one man or even one workshop. Everything has become globally resourced and the tool budget to produce a single piece could only be recuperated over several years of mass production.

Our hobby is now at another junction. Craftsmanship is still well and truly alive but the top end is in danger of being owned not by single individuals, but by highly skilled and funded corporations.

The Artisans Up Rising – through sharing!

In the 80’s and 90’s as high budget billet Hot Rods became the norm, the backstreet builder fought back with cheap, badly built Rat Rods. Regulations, soon saw many of these removed from our roads.

Now, as the quality continues to rise, we have the internet, high resolution imagery, forum sites, social media and email on our side. We can produce regulation beating cars, that still stun and behold but now we have greater control of the amount of work we do ourselves and the budgets involved.

As a Lone Rodder, I have never been afraid of technology and embracing the unique, but I have also stayed fairly close to my nostalgic roots. Through experimentation, the incorporation of hi-tech elements has been much simpler than expected; especially with knowledge kindly ‘shared’ by others. The challenge for me has been to learn traditional skills hands-on ‘the old way’. These skills cannot be learnt with online research or viewed on Youtube. What can be learnt in minutes standing next to someone performing their craft, may be weeks of online research followed by repeated failure and frustrating experiments.

For those of us individuals, that work in leaky rundown workshops, off a single 25m extension lead, it is up to us to show what can be achieved and on a very strict budget.

The lone Artisan is no longer alone. He has a mass of friends willing to help, free of charge, that often he will never even meet to thank properly. Twenty years ago, when someone helped fix a problem, you would drop them a case of beer, nowadays the done thing is to help another complete stranger (known only by username).

Call To Action

In stark contrast to Ridler Award rules, it is up to the home builder to publish every aspect of their build. Be it success or failure, what is ‘shared’ may just be simply be for passion and pride but it may also help and inspire others in unforeseen ways.

Recently, I read a 5 year old Forum post with someone proudly showing off, their freshly purchased and fitted mirrors. 4 years on, someone asked, “I want exactly those same mirrors, did they pass IVA?”. The builder replied “No, Had to fit California, fold backs…..”

Whilst standing in a French car museum, I was studying the lines left by and English wheel on an early brass Limousine radiator. I could see exactly where the metal had been stretched and the pattern the craftsman had used to create the curved surround. 110 years on, I learnt three things:

  • The quality of work on today’s Hot Rods is often far higher than back then. The brass-work was extraordinary but wonky all the same.
  • They’d used some hammer and dolly work on the tightest radii
  • They’d used a diagonal cross hatched pattern that widened as the curve flattened.

This Limousine, once at the forefront of technology, was essentially one of the earliest forms of Hot Rod. However, compared with it’s modern counterparts the fit and finish left an awful lot to be desired. As easy as it was to criticise certain aspects, I was still left in total awe of the hand-craftsmanship involved. This builder didn’t have a century of cars to draw inspiration from, he may not even have seen another car up close!

Next to this Limousine was a pair Panhard et Levassor’s from the 1930’s. One was a recent ‘concourse’ restoration (over restored) and the other was in OK condition. Between the 3 cars you had over 100 years of skill progression showing. Every aspect from chrome finish to panel fitment varied massively.

Conclusion

I came to the conclusion that sometimes the memory of times gone by is rosier than reality. Hand craftsmanship is very much alive. In fact, it is at a level never seen before. There are more tools, more techniques and more learning resources than ever before. The skills may no-longer be high-street and some may have been ‘modernised’, but many have been made more accessible to the hobbyist.

The range of finishes, materials, tools, manufacturers and suppliers is staggering. 

Going back to medieval times, hand craftsmanship has always been expensive and such items were highly trade-able commodities. In Modern times, when craftsmanship is swamped by cheap alternatives, it’s only chosen by the enthusiast and the wealthy. When this happens it will always be in danger of being drowned and lost in the crowd. Because of market saturation, it is hard for the artisan or craftsman to become known or established in a marketplace. Factor in the reliability of mass-produced items and hand crafted items are going to be a hard sell.

 
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