The specialist: Sowerby Coachworks & Veneering

| 2 Jun 2023
Classic & Sports Car – The specialist: Sowerby Coachworks & Veneering

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“There’s no competitiveness in this business,” says Paul Stilwell, one of the two woodworkers at Sowerby Coachworks & Veneering.

“Not enough of us are doing it to need to worry about that!”

Company founder Stephen Sowerby trained as a furniture maker under his father and spent much of his working life in that arena, but 10 years ago he refocused his woodworking talents as a way of combining his love of cars with his trade.

Classic & Sports Car – The specialist: Sowerby Coachworks & Veneering
Company founder Stephen Sowerby learned the trade from his dad

While helping to restore a local stable, Stephen was somewhat forcefully introduced to the practice of car body framing by a fellow woodworker.

“He was restoring his own Hillman Aero Minx and I kept going to have a look,” recalls Stephen.

“Eventually he came to my workshop and dumped another Hillman chassis he had, as well as a big pile of ash, and told me to build a body.”

Classic & Sports Car – The specialist: Sowerby Coachworks & Veneering
Some of the tools in the Sowerby Coachworks & Veneering workshop are 100 years old

Serendipity played its part, too.

Stephen’s first paid job came by chance, when a neighbour visiting the workshop saw the Hillman frame and commissioned a body for his Rover Eight tourer.

“Then his friend with another Rover Eight wanted an identical body,” says Stephen.

“I then realised it was a viable business and put out a few adverts.

“Within a few days I had my third job, and it snowballed from there.”

Classic & Sports Car – The specialist: Sowerby Coachworks & Veneering
Re-veneering Ford Cortina dashboards has become a sideline

Singers, Astons, Bentleys, Austins and more have since been through the shop.

Some have entirely new frames, with their metal or fabric skins fitted elsewhere, but many cars come in for repairs.

“People are much more concerned with preserving originality these days,” says Paul, the company’s second full-time employee.

“So sometimes we’re doing what, in theory, is the most difficult thing to do, which is building a frame for an existing skin.”

Classic & Sports Car – The specialist: Sowerby Coachworks & Veneering
Original components are studied and mirrored where possible

Stephen continues: “Ash is a lovely timber to work with.

“It’s light, straight-grained and has this nice elasticity – unlike, say, oak, which is quite brittle.

“The downside is that it’s quite susceptible to rot.

“We love working with it and there’s no shortage because the dieback problem has led to plenty being cut down, mostly healthy trees, to create disease breaks.”

Classic & Sports Car – The specialist: Sowerby Coachworks & Veneering
Racks of tools abound in the Sowerby Coachworks & Veneering workshop

“What has been difficult recently is birch plywood, because most of it comes from Russia,” he explains.

“It has tripled in price.”

Most of the work is done using a selection of hand tools that includes a vast collection of planes, many of which are more than 100 years old.

The main workshop is housed in an American WW2 medical hut, relocated after the war from elsewhere in the village of Aldbourne, having been home to E Company, 2nd Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division, subject of the book and TV series Band of Brothers.

Classic & Sports Car – The specialist: Sowerby Coachworks & Veneering
The wooden frame for a Hillman Aero Minx

That association still brings US visitors to the shop today.

“That’s why I have the poster,” says Stephen, pointing to a framed campaign poster of Barack Obama.

“I want to make it clear I’m no fan of Donald Trump, without questioning visitors on their voting record.”

Re-veneering Cortina 1600E dashboards has also become something of a speciality for Sowerby Coachworks, and the firm has turned into a leading supplier of dashboards for the E9 BMW.

Classic & Sports Car – The specialist: Sowerby Coachworks & Veneering
An Obama poster provides subtle political reference for US visitors to the former WW2 medical hut

“They have a tendency to leak behind the dash, which then rots the wood from the back,” explains Stephen.

Reproducing these components correctly isn’t easy because the dashboard has a twist in two planes, but the team has created its own special set of formers for remaking them.

“We’ll tackle anything such as that, really,” says Stephen.

“But the next step for us is to get someone younger on stream.

“Both Paul and I are in our 50s, and I know that part of the reason I found success is because all the guys who used to do this have retired.”

Images: Luc Lacey

The knowledge

  • Name Sowerby Coachworks & Veneering
  • Address 19 The Butts, Aldbourne, Marlborough, Wiltshire SN8 2DE
  • Specialism Ash body frames and wooden dashboards
  • Staff Four
  • Prices MG M-type body, £11,500
  • Tel 01672 540795
  • Web

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