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Auto Shows How a Vancouver auto shop refurbished the classic Alfa Romeo that won the Concours d’Elegance

Two thousand kilometres from the champagne and confetti canons, the workshop has something of a stunned hush about it, until the sound of hammer-on-metal breaks the silence, a TIG welder hums and cracks, an angle grinder emits a brief shower of sparks.

The crew at RX Autoworks in North Vancouver, B.C., may be still absorbing the enormity of having their restored 1937 Alfa Romeo judged as best-in-show at the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance last month, but the lull won’t last for long. It can’t. There’s simply too much work to do.

The 1937 Alfa-Romeo 8C2900B that won Pebble Beach is a rare and beautiful car.

RX Autoworks/The Globe and Mail

“It’s still sinking in,” Rob Fram, RX’s mechanic, said. “We’re just overwhelmed by the congratulations coming in from everyone – both people we’ve worked with and locals we know through the car community. Someone even dropped off a case of champagne.”

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To a casual observer, the annual Pebble Beach classic car show may be a stuffy and pompous event, a centre of entitlement and ego. But this is just an overwrought, gilt-edged picture frame for what’s truly important.

Look past the trappings and you’ll see the cars on display are genuine artworks, built by craftsmen and steeped in history. And, if pure artistry isn’t enough to pique your interest, then let’s bolt a couple of hand-hammered, bare-metal motorcycle fenders to a Alfa-Romeo worth tens of millions of dollars, fire up its twin-supercharged straight-eight engine and take 'er out for a rip.

The Alfa-Romeo 8C2900B that won Pebble Beach is a rare and beautiful car. First of the berlinetta 8Cs – as Italians called sport coupes – it was introduced at the Paris Salon and later in 1938 at an auto show in Berlin, where Adolf Hitler is known to have taken a close look at it. If ever there was a time for a hood strut to fail.

An immense amount of research was required to get the details right on the restoration of the award-winning Alfa-Romeo 8C berlinetta.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

Not much is known about the car’s whereabouts during the war years, but it was uncovered by victorious Allied forces and taken for a spirited 150-kilometres-an-hour sprint on the autobahn by a dashing British captain. Later, in 1955, a U.S. Army Sergeant missed out on an opportunity to buy the car for $600, while it was being used as a daily driver (for reference, two years ago a restored 1939 Alfa-Romeo 8C Spider sold for US$19.8-million). Eventually the berlinetta ended up at a Volkswagen dealership in Detroit and later received a thorough restoration in the early 1980s.

“It’s about getting that organic, hand-drawn feel,” Fram said. “And with [the Alfa], the previous 1980s restoration didn’t quite get the details right.”

This car isn’t special only because of its heritage, elegance and value. It is also a living, breathing thing. When they debuted, the 2.9-litre Alfas were the fastest cars on the road – the Bugatti Veyrons of their day – with fully independent suspension, large drum brakes and a 220-horsepower twin-supercharged engine designed by Italian-Hungarian racing impresario Vittorio Jano. Alfas such as this won Le Mans, the Italian GP and the Mille Miglia. They are thoroughbreds.

Thus, before the 8C could roll sedately to the podium and the trophies, it had to run hard up the Sea-to-Sky highway in ordinary traffic, hammering up through the straight-cut gears as it would have in the hands of a gentleman racer in the 1930s. Four hundred kilometres on the odometer after a fresh rebuild to make sure everything worked and what of the exposure of this essentially priceless machine to capricious fate and its flying rocks and distracted drivers?

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“You just can’t think about it,” Fram said.

“Well, we didn't leave any brooms standing up near it,” jokes Mike Taylor, who specializes in bodywork.

The team at RX is perhaps not what you’d expect. The shop is tidy, but unassuming. There are neither white coats and digital fabrication machines, nor dim lighting and wooden timbers. From the outside, it could be any sort of small business in an industrial area. One shop down the street fixes lawnmowers. Another repairs parking meters.

JP Parker works on welding for the Alfa's substructure. Perfection isn't the goal here. Making welds accurate to the time-period is.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

Out front, you’ll usually see Taylor’s patina’d 1941 Plymouth Businessman’s Coupe, along with a turbocharged first generation Miata. On summer days, Fram might bring in his hot-rodded Mini Moke. Ian Davey, who handles the paintwork, has an Mazda RX-3 racer he’s reassembling to run in vintage races. Jeff (JP) Parker is the newest and youngest team member, and at 29 he occasionally likes to roll up in a 1950 Chevrolet Fleetline on white-wall tires. Duncan Dickinson, a retired firefighter who pitches in on all fronts, has an grey MGA.

Quite literally, these guys drive their passion to work. Yet that’s probably true of dozens of restoration shops across the United States and Canada. What seems to make the difference at RX is a combination of deep experience and a team dynamic that constantly pushes for perfection – or rather, accuracy.

“You can absolutely tell metalwork apart whether it’s English, or German, or Italian,” Taylor said. “The Italians often used power hammers, so you get these little round dots, while the English wheel leaves lines. And modern welds don’t look right – they’re too good. I sometimes had to go back over a weld with my left hand.”

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“Coming from the hot-rodding world, where you try to make everything perfect,” Parker said, “There was a huge learning curve.”

Mike Taylor, left, and Ian Davey work on rear trunk fitment for the 6C. The pair are RX's original founding members.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

The details extend beyond minutiae such as welding spatter and correct gauges of wiring and into a ethereal discipline where the eyeball is king. Coach-built cars such as this were hand-made, one-of-a-kind affairs and getting things right inside and out is often a matter of poring over old photographs. Then there’s the frustration of coming across a new picture that shows the car from an unseen angle and having to redo your guesswork.

Things get even trickier when it comes to the painting process, when modern paint formulas come up against black-and-white photography.

“I probably spent 100 hours mixing batches of paint before I got the mixture right,” Davey said. “There are just so many variables and the formulas sometimes are counter-intuitive. I had to add green to counter the purple in the paint.”

This level of dogged craftsmanship is backed up by the research needed to get things right. David Smith, an experienced restorer/collector out of the Seattle area, provided consultancy help, both on historical digging and leveraging European connections to find rare parts.

Smith also made the introductions between the RX team and the 8C’s owner, David Sydorick of California. RX is a well-established shop with a considerable portfolio, including a 2012 best-in-show at Villa d’Este in Italy and class wins at Pebble Beach. The 8C had the pedigree to be a contender and Sydorick certainly had the funds required to bring it back to its former glory. Yet more was needed on both sides.

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“We never choose the car,” said Davey, to a chorus of assents from the rest of the RX team, “We choose the person. I'd rather work on an ordinary Porsche 911 for an awesome client than something amazing for someone we couldn't get along with.”

With that, the team turns back to their tools and begins work on, among other things, a 1950 Alfa-Romeo 6C 2500SS which will be headed to Pebble Beach in 2019. Their win acknowledges dedication to the craft. The opportunity to work on vehicles this valuable speaks to reputation. Really, though, RX Autoworks' success is relatively easy to explain. They picked their people. They built their team. And they don’t rest until the work’s done.

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