Renewing a classic work by a 1930s-era automotive "old master" requires an art restorer's touch and sensitivity; just repairing the damage and brightening the colours isn't enough, you have to preserve the brush strokes.
Earlier this year, a couple of old Vancouver high school buddies – who'd developed their own unique feel for metal, machinery and history by keeping Japanese junkers on the road – saw the results of its application over the last three years collect seven major awards at two of the world's most prestigious Concours d'Elegance.
The pair took on the big guys of the big-buck restoration business when they began the lengthy and painstaking restoration of the 1933 Alfa Romeo SC 1750 GS Coupe by Figoni for owners David and Adele Cohen of West Vancouver, and were rewarded by seeing it re-emerge on to the world's classic car stage with an impressive impact.
The Alfa's first appearance wowed the crowd and judges at Italy's Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este in May, where it scored a Best in Show triple, winning the Coppa d'Oro, Trofeo BMW Group and Villa Erba awards plus The Art of Streamlining class trophy. A few months later, at the prestigious Pebble Beach concours in California, it was a best in show nominee, won the Most Elegant Sports Car and European Sports Racing classes and the Road & Track trophy.
Responsible for this remarkable return to the glittering concours arena by the Alfa – its first public appearance was the Paris Salon of 1933 – are Mike Taylor and Ian Davey of RX Autoworks in North Vancouver.
"It's the highlight of our career so far," says Taylor of the Alfa, and the partnership that began when a 14-year-old Davey moved from Ontario to Vancouver 34 years ago. "We started out with bicycles, go-karts and then cars. Back then, that meant 1970s Japanese cars, which you could pick up for a couple of hundred dollars."
Taylor had access to a garage and tools and the pair "hung out together" learning how fix them, aided by various high school shop courses.
They perfected their skills in various automotive jobs, but spent their free time in a three-car garage rented for their own projects in the late 1980s, where they soon found their talents in demand. "People would see us working on our cars and say, 'Hey, I need that done' and that's how it started."
The pair decided from day one that, "if we were going to do a job, we were going to do it right." And that philosophy soon saw a 1970s Alfa Romeo GTV pass through their hands, followed by a customer "who took a real leap of faith" and turned over a Jaguar XK120 to their care. "It was a very rusty car," recalls Taylor. "But repairing rust was our specialty after all those Japanese cars." Rebuilt from the tires up, the Jag went on to win "all sorts of awards" for its owner, and new customers for RX Autoworks.
Restoring various Austin-Healeys and E-Type Jags soon evolved into the classic cars of the 1930s that are now its focus. "Restoration is an expensive process, and you need to have the value in the car at the end of it. You don't generally want to be doing your Bugeye Sprite to the level we do it," says Taylor, although they won't turn you away if you want to.
Their first serious coach-built classic was a 1937 Lagonda LG45 Drophead, which went on to win its class at Pebble Beach. It was followed by Bentleys, Rolls-Royces, a "long, low, gangsteresque" 1929 Stutz Supercharged Coupe (for Alfa owner Cohen), which was a Pebble Beach award winner in 2000, and a 1938 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900, another Pebble Beach winner.
The Cohen-owned Alfa 6C, one of just 44 built, began its long and interesting life in 1933 in the Alfa Romeo factory in Italy. The rolling chassis was then shipped to the Paris coach-building concern of Joseph Figoni, of whom it's been said: "The wind was his enemy." And he created its stunningly streamlined coupe bodywork, which was first seen at the Paris Salon of 1933, and then at concours events in Monte Carlo, Nice and Deauville.
In 1935, its boulevard scene-stealing body was removed and replaced with stark racing bodywork more suitable for running in the Le Mans 24-hour race, where its 85-hp, supercharged, 1,752 cc, twin-cam, six-cylinder engine propelled it to a class win and a sixth place overall.
After being re-united with its Figoni finery, it was offered for sale in Paris in 1936, and its story then picks up after the Second World War in Nice, where it remained until the mid-1950s before being taken home by its South African owner.
It was on the streets of Johannesburg that a teenaged David Cohen saw the car on a regular basis while riding his bike to school. Cohen, now a senior mining executive and keen collector and long-distance driver of classic cars, kept track of the Alfa, which had ended up in a private collection. He finally acquired it in 2008 and turned it over to RX Autoworks in 2009.
Taylor says the Alfa was in rough condition and needed to be stripped down to its most basic components, then put back together with a sympathetic touch that recognized, and where possible, maintained its originality.
"There are cars out there that have had all the wood and metal replaced," says Taylor. "It's not the same car. It's a copy. It doesn't have the same feel."
The wooden structure that supports the Alfa's aluminum body, for instance, wasn't simply replicated, but as much of it preserved as possible. Including instructions to the original craftsmen, found written on some of the pieces, and which are still preserved under the metal. "In another hundred years when somebody goes to the restore the car, they'll find them, says Taylor.
"We could have reproduced five of these if we'd wanted to, but they wouldn't be this one."
|Back in 1933|
|The New York Rangers defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs to win their first Stanley Cup. A nag named King O’Conner wins the Queen’s Plate on Ontario’s old Woodbine track.|
|Top-grossing movies are I’m No Angel, with Mae West, Dinner at Eight, with Marie Dressler and Jean Harlow, 42nd Street, featuring Warren Baxter and Ruby Keeler, and King Kong, starring Fay Wray and Bruce Cabot.|
|The Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago is buzzed by the 776-foot Graf Zeppelin, while visitors below gawk at real babies in incubators.|