The specialist: Auto-Historica

| 14 Jun 2024
Classic & Sports Car – The specialist: Auto-Historica

Once a key process in the manufacture of standard, everyday production cars, coachbuilding today is a fading craft left seemingly as merely the preserve of experienced old hands.

“People make out that this is a dark art, but I don’t think that it is,” says coachbuilder Mark Taylor, who has worked on pre-war racers, furniture, vintage aircraft and much more since he set up his workshop at Bicester Heritage in 2021.

“I just think that not enough people are being trained in it.”

Classic & Sports Car – The specialist: Auto-Historica

The ex-Sir Henry Segrave Sunbeam sits next to a Bentley 3 Litre (right) in Auto-Historica’s Bicester Heritage workshop

“I did my apprenticeship in the early 1970s at Pressed Steel Fisher in Cowley, where I worked in the experimental sheet-metal workshop,” continues Mark, who took part in prototype builds for Rover, Austin and Jaguar.

“We did the Montego and the Metro, and I worked on the XJ40.

“Time wasn’t a consideration; our priority was to make sure the job was done right.

“I was lucky to work with some very skilled people who had the time to pass on their knowledge.”

Classic & Sports Car – The specialist: Auto-Historica

Traditional hands-on skills remain key for coachbuilder Mark Taylor

Other coachbuilding roles then followed, including stints at Chesterton Coachworks and Mallalieu – the latter a company that created Bentley Specials based on the MkVI chassis – before he was invited to head up Auto-Historica at Bicester Heritage.

“This car fascinates me,” Mark says, pointing out a supercharged, ex-Sir Henry Segrave 1924 2-litre Sunbeam Grand Prix racer he’s working on.

“I really enjoy getting the details right, whether that is measuring out the rivets or making the seat the right distance from the steering wheel.”

Classic & Sports Car – The specialist: Auto-Historica

The tools of the trade have changed little since the early days of vehicle production

The owner wants some modifications to replicate the condition in which it left the factory, so Mark is recreating the original two-seater driver/mechanic layout along with a cowling for the exhaust.

A very handsome Bentley 3 Litre sits on the other side of the workshop.

This is a much larger job, requiring everything from the bonnet back.

“I make a lot of panels to framework, but sometimes it’s by eye,” he explains. “I like to work from photos; if a customer can produce a picture of the car they want, it makes life easier.”

Classic & Sports Car – The specialist: Auto-Historica

Period photographs can be an invaluable source of reference for the coachbuilder

Behind the Sunbeam is a cork board peppered with period images: “It can be tricky,” says Mark.

“These were taken at waist height, so you get a misconception of the curves. Sometimes I sit low and get my head down to look at the car.”

Earlier in his career Mark mostly worked with steel, but many jobs today use aluminium.

The game has changed in other ways, too. “When I first started this, people would just say, ‘Throw that body away, I’ll make another one,’ but now it’s all about originality,” he says.

Classic & Sports Car – The specialist: Auto-Historica

Auto-Historica’s wheeling machine stretches and shapes metal

“It makes my job more difficult,” adds Mark, “because you are matching new aluminium to old aluminium, or you are perhaps unable to put a join where you might otherwise want to.

“Many classics were messed around with when they weren’t worth that much money.

“Now, many customers bring along photographs of their car when it was new, and they want to get it back to just how it was, warts and all.”

Classic & Sports Car – The specialist: Auto-Historica

Mark (centre) with the Heritage Skills Academy’s John Pitchforth and Kyra Hill, who help manage Auto-Historica

Away from his work at Auto-Historica, Mark is passing on the skills he learnt in Cowley to the next generation of coachbuilders through his work with the Heritage Skills Academy.

“There are a lot of very clever, highly skilled coachbuilders that I know, but many of them are approaching retirement,” he explains.

“It’s important to pass on these skills. I am still learning myself; I’ll visit another workshop and see someone do something differently.”

He visits the HSA site at Brooklands Museum to teach in its purpose-built workshop, and his students’ eagerness proves that the future of his profession is in safe hands.

“It’s all about keeping these great vehicles on the road,” he concludes. “That’s the main thing.”

Images: John Bradshaw

The knowledge

  • Name Auto-Historica
  • Address Building 103, Flight Simulator, Bicester Heritage, OX26 5HA
  • Staff Five
  • Specialism Coachbuilding, body recreation, prototyping
  • Prices £75/hour (special projects by negotiation)
  • Tel 07973 425276
  • Web


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