Take away the tattoo of the British motor Corporation emblem on his right forearm, and tall, trim Ed Sweeney looks more like a high-school history teacher or Eagle Scout than a car restorer.
Last spring, the 34-year-old, who actually is an Eagle Scout, bought Carriage Craft, his hometown British sportscar shop, from MG racer and mechanic Bill Shields. Since 1975, it had been the place in Reading, Pennsylvania, for everything from tuneups to full restorations. The wiry and bearded Shields was known for providing fair prices, top-quality work, and, on Fridays, cold Yuengling beer. Customers would drop by to hang out among the MGs, Triumphs, and the odd Austin-Healey or Lotus. Since 1989, I’ve counted myself among those customers.
In recent years, Shields had cut his hours, his son, Michael, was running the shop, and retirement was on the horizon. But in August 2016, Michael was murdered while aiding his roommate, who was being robbed at gunpoint. Ed Sweeney made a condolence call. “I’d known Bill as long as I could remember,” he says, “because of going with my dad to buy parts for his 1965 MGB.” The conversation continued, and Shields saw a way to sell his business, while Sweeney found a way to fulfill his dream of running his own shop.
Before the sale closed, Carriage Craft’s longtime lead mechanic, Allen Witman, asked me if I knew Sweeney. I could hear the uncertainty in his voice. The shop had been in Shields’s capable hands for more than 40 years, so this was a big change.
Neither Witman nor Carriage Craft’s customers need worry, I told him. I met Sweeney more than 10 years ago, when he was finishing his marketing degree at Temple University in Philadelphia while working at a British car shop in New Jersey. He impressed me then with his manners, enthusiasm for British cars, and mechanical skill. Sweeney later spent years at Leydon Restorations, a shop legendary for its mechanical and machining capabilities on exotics such as 8C Alfa Romeos, Bugattis, and Ferraris.
During the transition, Carriage Craft closed for two weeks and then reopened as Proper Noise, a name Sweeney took from a commentator’s description of the sounds made by historic racing cars at the Goodwood Revival in England. Despite the new name, much of the shop is the same as it’s always been. It is tucked into a quaint community of small ranch and Cape Cod homes. You come upon a squat building surrounded by a dozen MGs, a few Minis, a Sprite here or there. Wood smoke wafts out of the chimney and drifts over the neighborhood.
Not much has changed inside, either, although Sweeney’s toolbox has replaced Shields’s. The space is not exactly cluttered, but it’s overwhelmed by equipment. There’s room for five cars, and the shop would fit a sixth if not for the double-barrel Vogelzang wood stove Shields assembled from a kit decades ago. Welding gear occupies a corner, and several shelves are dedicated to project parts. Some old MG photos and vintage racing signs remain from Shields’s days, augmented by die-cast models and a few images of cars that have come through the shop. The tiny office has a computer for the first time.
Proper Noise has been open for less than a year, but Sweeney has plenty of work. Although he’ll never desert British cars, he accepts any project that interests him. He recently serviced a Porsche 356 and is now restoring a Volvo PV544, doing several jobs on a Delahaye, and has a Triumph GT6 on the schedule for restoration. Anything that keeps my local shop solvent is fine with me. It all seems fine with Witman, too, who’s happily turning wrenches alongside his new boss.
Sweeney predicts gradual changes, including a clean room for building engines and a bigger building with in-house paint facilities. His “in-house” machine shop, however, is actually in his father’s house. “Dad can fabricate and repair things that I’d otherwise send out,” Sweeney says. An accomplished woodworker, his father also crafts wood pieces for bodies and trim. Sweeney’s mother often delivers the latest machining projects.
Ed Sweeney is doing a fine job of carrying Bill Shields’s torch, and in itself this is a tribute to both Bill’s legacy and the memory of his son. Time will tell how big Proper Noise can grow. We’ll also have to wait to see which marque might be tattooed onto Sweeney’s left forearm to balance out the BMC logo.