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Axalta SEP 2021
BMW SEPTEMBER 2021

Harry Deetlefs has been called a master metal worker by more than one satisfied client, but he doesn’t buy into the concept. “I don’t have a single qualification to my name. I learned everything I know from other people and from the situations I found myself in, but I learn something every day, I never have the attitude that I know everything about a subject. The day I think that, I become an idiot. On the other hand, I have a mission to do things properly, and I know I can do that myself, as long as I’m prepared to put in the time, and the effort.”

Harry says he and his staff at English Wheel Fabrication work silly hours to achieve the standards they are after. And those standards are high. They have to be, considering that Harry and co have built up a global reputation in body restoration for cars like Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Aston Martins, Jaguars and the like.

Harry’s passion is for the ancient art of metal forming, something that used to constitute the trade of panel beating, but sadly has little place in today’s body shop industry.

“I learned about metal forming when I was 15 years old in my school holidays. My family had a motor spares business in Selby, Johannesburg, and I got to know a lot of panel beaters. They taught me how to work with a hammer and a dolly, and I applied this to my first car I was restoring as a schoolboy, a 1943 Chevrolet coupe.

“Then I started working on cars for friends, replacing panels, and later I bought my first English wheel. Today I make my own English wheels, and I also make the metal forming dies, from old railway line, because the steel needs to be so hard!”

An English wheel could be seen as an early form of a metal press. Basically, you feed a sheet of metal into an area between a die and a hardened metal wheel and use the wheel to slowly form the shape that you are after.

“You could look at it as a tool that applies a thousand hammer blows all at once, the way it shapes the metal. The trick is, in using the wheel you must always plan a few steps ahead, because when you apply pressure and re-shape one area, it has an instant reaction on other areas of the panel. So you need to understand this, the way you feed the metal plate into the wheel, the way you manipulate the form and the metal as you go.”

A prime example of the skills on tap at English Wheel Fabrication took pride of place at the firm’s premises in Industria North, Johannesburg, when I visited there recently, along with photographer Jay Groat. Greeting us just inside was one of the most beautiful cars we had ever seen, lacking just a few detail components such as the windscreen, lights and some of the mechanical components.

What we were looking at was a Ferrari 625 TRC, one of the last of the famous Testa Rossa series of racing Ferraris, that were built in Modena in the late 1950s. Okay, let’s step back a bit. This was not one of the actual factory 625s, because only two of those were ever built, and they are both in cossetted collections in America.  But this is a tribute to the 625, built to a degree of accuracy that would have made Enzo Ferrari himself weep tears of joy into his lunch-time glass of Grappa.

The body was hand-formed by Harry according to pictures of the car and information that he sourced from various avenues, and then formed over a wooden buck in the time-honoured tradition used by Ferrari in the ’50s. The buck was made to Harry’s specifications by a Cape Town specialist, Kevin Agnew, who trades under the appropriate name of Car Body Bucks.

“The car was commissioned by the Simpson brothers in Cape Town, who are well-known in exotic classic car circles, having experience with Jaguar D Type re-creations and the like. Darryl Simpson has spent a number of weeks here at the shop during the build, and I love to work this way. The client needs to be involved in the project, and this applies to all our work here.”

Harry says he never commences with the final painting until the client has signed off on the panel work. And recently he has established a paint shop at English Wheel, because he has been dissatisfied with some of the paint work that he has commissioned.

“I spend so many hours getting the flow of a body line, a curve, absolutely perfect, and then a so-called painter will apply primer and paint so thick that the beauty of those lines is lost, and you are left with unsightly waves. You need to understand what we are after in this type of work, and this is why I have employed a brilliant paint expert, Mannie Pifre, who has actually written manuals on the art of preparation processes for painting.”

Mannie works with time-honoured paint systems to ensure that the correct colours are applied as a finished coat, and this is obviously vital in achieving the type of excellence demanded by collectors of extremely valuable cars.

Examples of the projects that English Wheel Fabrication have on the books include four Porsche 356s, a Jaguar XK 150 which was a total panel reconstruction  (apart from the roof),   a Jaguar C-Type re-creation in aluminium, a 1934 Dodge hot rod, a Harley-Davidson re-skinned with classic 1940s-style bodywork, and a 1959 Corvette that has just been expertly re-painted. The Corvette, incidentally, is housed in the Franschhoek Motor Museum, as an example of the type of standards that this Industria North operation adheres to.

As for that Ferrari 625 TRC, the mechanicals used for the car were sourced from a Ferrari 400 from the early 1980s, and this includes the V12 engine with four dual-choke Weber carburettors, the steering box and links that ensure that steering geometries will be proper, part of the chassis, and the instrumentation. However, the gauges have been re-faced with period correct graphics. Nothing has been compromised on this car, including the Borrani period-correct wheels (replicas made by an English company) and painted in silver. Chrome is a no-no for a classic racer of this era!

The mechanical work on the cars is undertaken by Bruce Woolley, who has spent all his life around historic racing cars. His father, Clive, has a well-known pedigree involving Bugatti Type 35s and massive Bentleys from the 1930s!

“I love European cars,” says Harry, “mainly, because the shapes tend to follow those of a woman’s body, lots of sensuous curves. In fact, my wife says I have a series of love affairs with every new car I work on here.  I tend to invest so much energy into each new car, that … well, there is no other word for it, is there. It’s love!

Story by Stuart Johnson

Pics Jay Groat