Bruce Woolley says there was never much hope of him fighting his life-long addiction to cars. One of his first memories is helping his father Clive work on a Type 40 Bugatti, now one of the world’s most collectible sports-racing cars. Bruce says he was just tall enough to peer over the door cutaway of the racer while Clive and a friend were underneath the car, struggling to fit a prop shaft to the French machine.
“The floorboards were removed and they were battling and because of my unique vantage point, I could give them instructions as to which way to jiggle the whole assembly to get the prop shaft hooked up. As soon as I was old enough to wield a spanner I was in the workshop.”
Bruce comes from a long line of petrol-heads. His grandfather Frank was a race-team manager for Bob Gerard ‘s famous ERA racing car which finished on the podium of the British Grand Prix twice, in 1948 and 1949. Clive’s first car, which he bought after the second world war, was a Bugatti Type 40, and when the family emigrated to South Africa, Clive became known for owning a succession of Bugatti and Bentley road-racing cars .
One of Bruce’s favourite petrol-fumed memories is racing a 1920s Bentley (a 3-litre with a 4-and-a-half-litre engine) at the Le Mans classic race in 2002. “We won our class, and believe me that was hairy. That old car could do about 200 km/h on the Mulsanne straight, and there you are, with no seat belts, doors that leave your whole upper body exposed! Racing at night with those old headlamps. It was wonderful.”
Fast-forward now to 2021, and Bruce’s Johannesburg workshop tells a story of an affinity for vintage and classic cars of varying eras and genres. When we visited Bruce his client job list included a 1958 Chevrolet Corvette, an ultra-rare 1930s Aston Martin Ulster, a 1970s Alfa Romeo Spider (the square-back model), a replica of a 1920s Alfa Romeo Monza Grand Prix racer, a 1965 Ford Mustang and a Mercedes-Benz Gelandewagen. All the cars belong to clients that use him as the go-to-guy for vintage work that has to be done “proper”.
And, almost incidentally, the refurbishment of an Austin J40 pedal car, an impossibly-cute retro toy car for 1950s children that was discovered by a client in a lock-up in Pretoria.
“That Austin pedal car is really interesting. They actually made them at Austin in England from metal off-cuts from the production full-sized Austin A40s at the time. This one had been retro-fitted with a Vincent single-cylinder two stroke engine, and about an hour after it arrived at my workshop I had the engine running.
“I am going to organise an electric starter for the old engine, sort out some brakes, and I’ve already sourced some tyres. We are going to leave the bodywork pretty much as is, because it has wonderful patina. And in any event, although I do most things as far as mechanical refurbishment is concerned, I don’t do bodywork.”
Bruce admits that his wide-ranging interest in all sorts of collectable cars has probably made his life as a re-furbisher more difficult than it could be. “It would probably have been better for me to specialise, say, in ‘60s and ‘70s Alfa Romeos, or some sort of British classic. But the way it is now, if it interests me I will take on a job for a client. And this means that each mechanical refurbishment for me is like a voyage of discovery.”
Bruce learned his craft under the tutelage of his father, who was apprenticed to Rolls-Royce in the 1950s, so his workshop procedures are of a very high standard.
“ There is only one way to do any job on a motorcar and that is the right way. You do it once, and you do it right.”
As for the type of work he does, this can vary from full mechanical re-builds, such as on the Aston Martin Ulster, to the re-commissioning of brake and steering systems and generally making his clients’ cars more user-friendly.
“There is always the debate about keeping a classic 100% original, or doing minor upgrades to make an old car more driveable in today’s motoring environment. I feel it also depends very much on the particular car involved. The 1958 Corvette is a 100% matching numbers car, so it simply has to be kept absolutely original. It is also very valuable. My work on this car involved work on the brakes and re-fitting all the trim items after a re-spray .
“In researching a car like this, before you start attacking it, you need to understand the manufacturer’s philosophy, how they designed and manufactured the car. For instance, the way Chevrolet attached beadings and bumpers and other trim was very different to the way Alfa Romeo did this in the 1970s.
“Part of my work on the Corvette has been re-doing stuff on the car that had been poorly done by a previous workshop who didn’t understand the way these parts were fitted, and consequently ruined important beadings and suchlike. The car then arrived at my associate Harry Deetlefs of English Wheel for a proper paint job, and the mechanical work and trim-re-fitting was passed on to me.”
The Alfa Spider is an interesting car, in that it stood in a garage for 12 years without turning a wheel. This car is absolutely original, although it received a re-paint about 20 years ago. The idea with this car was to re-fettle it mechanically, but keep its bodywork exactly as is, for good reason.
“If a car is really bad cosmetically and has been hacked, you have no choice but to do a full restoration. But for me, originality is king. You can restore a car 100 times and make it all but perfect, but a car is only original once – straight after it left the factory floor. There are small signs that enable you to tell a restoration from an original car, but I would far rather have some patina that tells a story, than a restoration.”
Having said that, Bruce is not averse to cars that have had some modern upgrades in the interests of driveability or cosmetic appeal.
“For instance, the Mustang is a car-model that has been modified widely ever since its inception. The one in the yard has had some upgrades such as aftermarket wheels, but for me it still fits a genre, which came about for Mustangs since the Eleanor movie car became famous after Gone in 60 Seconds.”
As for the Aston Martin Ulster, Bruce reckons he has sleepless nights when sending any part of the ultra-rare engine in for engineering work. “It’s all about relationship-building, and in a case like this it is up to me to explain to the engineering shop that mechanical tolerances from the 1930s are very different to what they are today. It would be so, so easy to send in the cylinder head and then have the valves seated far too deeply simply because the guy doing the job assumed he was working in the same way as you would on a modern engine. And Aston Martin Ulster cylinder heads are not very thick on the ground!”
What about Bruce’s own cars? He is currently assembling a much-modified 1930s Austin 7 racer for the Knysna Hillclimb. And his pride and joy is a weird and wonderful monster machine that he created with the help of his father. It has a Rolls-Royce 20/25 chassis from the 1920s, and a Nuffield V12 tank engine that displaces 27 litres!
“Each piston of that tank engine displaces about 2,5 litres, which is more capacity than the entire engine on most modern cars. And there are 12 of them! It has over 1 600 Nm of torque. As for fuel consumption, it runs to about 2 km per litre, no matter how you drive it.”
With that said, it’s probably a good thing that Bruce Woolley, by his own admission, has petrol in his veins.
Story by Stuart Johnson
Pics by Jay Groat