The 1937 Alfa-Romeo 8C2900 Berlinetta owned by David and Ginny Sydorick is well on its way to becoming the most-awarded concours car of all time. It has won Pebble Beach. It has won Best of the Best in Paris. It scored a clean sweep of the awards at Villa d'Este Concorso d'Eleganza. It is gorgeous, and it is graceful, and it is (almost) invaluable, and its resurrection is clearly the work of master craftsmen.
Surely, the facility that restored this rolling artwork must be a shrine to the car as enshrined holy object. A hallowed place where artisans, scholars, and historians gather to resurrect the finest automobiles in the world. A place of quiet gentility, white gloves, spotless shop aprons, of hushed, reverent voices discussing the intricacies of prewar coachwork. Of...
Hang on—is that a frickin' Mini Moke parked out front?
Clang-Clang-Clang! Mike Taylor, bodywork specialist at Canada’s RX Autoworks, is beating the absolute bejesus out of a body panel for a supercharged Stutz. Mechanic Rob Fram, the Moke's owner, is elbows deep in a small-bumper 1989 Aston Martin Vantage that's in for servicing. Ian Davey, in charge of paint and finish, is prepping a 1950 Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 Super Sport in the paint booth. He's just spent 11 hours reformulating the paint and is itching to get the Alfa out and off to Pebble Beach so he can get his own Mazda RX-3 vintage racer project under the knife.
What the deuce? Where's the oak panelling and jeweller's lorgnettes and the starched collars? You won’t find those at RX.
Ported rotaries join patina-laden Plymouths, bored-out 1275-cc Minis, turbocharged Miatas, and fourth team member JP Parker's glistening, whitewall-shod 1950 Chevy Fleetline. Occasionally, you'll find Duncan Dickinson's grey MGA parked curbside too, as he pitches in on the bigger jobs.
“I think many folks in our community were surprised to find out that we have such amazing shop hidden away in North Vancouver,” says Dave Hord, co-founder of British Columbia’s Classic Car Adventures, a touring group for classic car enthusiasts. “We’ve discovered a sense of pride in the fact that this is our ‘home shop.’ We didn’t turn a wrench, beat a panel or lay the paint, but we share in the pride that goes behind every win because it was done here. “They’re just regular guys; there is no entitlement or arrogance when you meet them.”
Concours events can be hard for anyone with fuel in their veins to understand, in the same way that opera doesn't always appeal to people who like electric guitars. If cars are meant to be driven, then surely the champagne, frilly hats, and static displays of a high-end concours are the exact opposite of what the vehicle makers intended.
That's not what RX Autoworks is about. The place is more like a speed shop, the type to rivet motorcycle fenders to a $20M prewar Alfa-Romeo and go ripping through the straight-cut gears on mountain-top shakedown runs. It's Bohemian Rhapsody sung by a twin-supercharged straight-eight.
Underneath the glittering chrome of a concours is real metal. Yes, there's a certain amount of bank account jousting going on at any top level car show. Behind the scenes is the genuine craftsmanship, the people who take joy not just in making things shiny, but getting the details accurate, and bringing cars back to life.
“In a world full of restoration shops, it's an honor and privilege to know that the very best in the world is right here in our hometown,” says Geoff Peterson, owner of Peterson’s VWs and co-founder of CarBS and Coffee. “RX is a culmination of the top craftsmen in their respective fields all coming together in the perfect virtuoso of paint, metal, chrome and octane under one roof. These guys are an inspiration to so many in the field as well as the younger generation of car enthusiasts. Not only do I respect the entire staff I also have the privilege of calling many of them friends.”
Parker, who at 29 is the youngest member of the RX team, has learned that accuracy can be a messy business. Coming from the mile-deep paint of the hot-rodding world, he's had to undo modern welding habits with techniques that mirror the spatter and hand-built feel of 1930s coachwork. Taylor, who builds all his own traditional tools, sometimes will go so far as to weld left-handed to get things looking suitably Italian.
There's a language to these cars, whether it's the tell-tale dots of an Italian power-hammer or the lines made by an English wheel. Body lines are often asymmetrical, and it's not uncommon to have to undo a too-perfect previous restoration. Dexterity and a long back-catalogue of experience is required, but so to is the desire to go treasure hunting for parts or delving back through sepia-toned photos to try to reconstruct bodywork that's lost to time.
Given that so much of the period photography featuring these cars is in black-and-white, and so much of the chemical composition of paintwork has changed, Davey probably has the most frustrating job of the four. The exacting work matches his personality, and he has a few tricks up his sleeve. When painting the ’37 Alfa-Romeo 6C, for instance, he test-painted a few panels with different compounds, and laid them out near the sidewalk. Whenever a woman would pass by, Davey would ask which color they preferred. Research has shown that women can distinguish tiny differences in color variation that men can miss.
All of this technical expertise probably would have gotten RX only to the threshold of exceptional. What pushes the guys across the line is the way they work together, how their personalities mesh and complement each other. Fram is affable and gregarious, to the point that the others are happy to sit back and let him do the talking. Taylor seems to be happiest when he's giving one of his teammates a verbal elbow to the ribs. Davey is his own harshest critic. And all three delight in needling Parker, who, to his credit, fires back as good as he gets it.
There's no hand-holding; it’s more a friendly rivalry that doesn't let a mistake or a do-over go unpunished. “Good enough” doesn't exist here.
So while the work is performed on some of the best cars ever produced, it's more about the team than the metal. As RX responds to the huge amount of demand for its services—the reward of success—that's a formula not likely to change.
“Despite the victories at the most famous Concours events in the world, they have not forgotten their early roots and are happy to share their passion and showcase their skills locally to enthusiasts who can’t make it to Pebble Beach or Villa d’Este,” says Nigel Matthews, Pebble Beach Concours judge. “They share their knowledge by judging at local events or simply talking about cars at the local Carbs and Coffee meetings, or by participating in the Hagerty Spring Thaw Rally. This year, Rob Fram won the Spirit of the Thaw award for always being the first car to pull over or do a U-Turn to go back and help someone who has broken down.”
The response from the impressive wins at Pebble and Villa d'Este has been huge. In a single afternoon, the RX team booked some 12,000 hours of work. Its doors are effectively shut for the next four years. The crew will keep helping former clients service and refresh their vehicles, but they’re trying to reduce the number of projects to a more manageable level, to reduce turnaround.
If you happen to be in North Vancouver on July 14, you can take a peek into RX to see what the team is up to. RX’s semi-sporadic annual open house provides a glimpse of the workspace, the trophies on their shelves, and the projects coming together.
Just don't forget to talk to the guys themselves. The cars are special, but the people are extraordinary.