Jim White on Friday: A man with 300 magnificent obsessions: When lucky MGs get very old, they do not go to heaven; they go to Peter Ratcliffe's workshop, an altogether better place
Friday 22 January 1993
'I think that's why I feel so attracted to my cars,' he went on, cradling the 55-year-old walnut facia. 'I wasn't alive then, but it seems to me they do provide a link with a much classier era.'
Some commentators suggest that if the economic recovery is ever to arrive, it will be led by exports, mainly of cars. This is not news to Dr Ratcliffe, who has been profitably exporting cars, mainly to Germany, throughout the recession, albeit at the rate
of about 10 a year. But every one of them, he reckons, is a work of art.
'What we are doing here,' he said, surveying his surprisingly clean workshop, 'bears a closer resemblance to making furniture or restoring paintings than it does to the way Volkswagen, for example, makes cars these days.'
Dr Ratcliffe rebuilds old MGs. Not the MGs of the Sixties and Seventies, but the glorious pre- war MGs: huge things, 17ft long, with running-boards and acres of shiny chrome: the sort of motor Laurence Olivier drove in Hitchcock's Rebecca.
There are barely enough of these vehicles left in the world to fill the average supermarket car- park, which makes Dr Ratcliffe's business not so much specialist as unique.
'We are addressing ourselves to no more than 300 people across the globe,' he explained. 'If someone gets one of these cars, sooner or later they'll have to come to us. I know exactly where each and every one of the remaining cars is.'
Dr Ratcliffe's company is based near Hull, where in 1971 he took a job as a biology lecturer at the local poly. His speciality then was snail reproduction.
'With snail research you spend an awful lot of time with snails,' he said. 'With a business, I've found, you spend most of your time with human beings. And they are a damn sight more complicated beast.'
He arrived in Humberside with a crumbling MG on a trailer. He had bought the car from a scrap- yard in Devizes, Wiltshire, a couple of months earlier for pounds 70. 'Far too much to pay, as I recall. It was an absolute wreck.'
In his spare time, between making discoveries about snails' sexual habits, he began to do up the car, and developed an almost spiritual attraction to it.
'Either I'm peculiar or there is something special that happens to a person when they sit in these cars,' he said. 'It's something to do with the style - it conjures up a whole idea of what life was like in that era. Tucked under the travelling rug with that marvellous smell, the potent mix of hot oil, leather and mould - it can absolutely transport you. People who only think of a car as something which can get them from A to B are missing out on a lot.'
Throughout the Seventies he spent less and less time with gastropods and more and more with gaskets. He bought other MGs, trawled scrap yards for spares, set up a network of enthusiasts and developed a good business selling parts.
By 1983 he was the leading authority on the cars, and abandoned lecturing in favour of restoring them full time. Now he employs a dozen people ('I don't think of them as employees, they are each uniquely skilled craftsmen') and has rebuilt more than a third of the world's remaining stock.
To walk around his workshop is to restore your faith in British craftsmanship. While most of the working population is engaged on stacking shelves or tapping at keyboards, Dr Ratcliffe's team is hammering, sawing, filing and cutting with astonishing skill.
In one corner a woman was sewing Art Deco sun-bursts into leather door panels; at another bench a man was gingerly reassembling a gearbox. Behind him lay stacks of ice-cream boxes filled with spares, marked with labels reading 'VA Saloon quarter-light catch' or 'MG-crested window handle blanks'. Almost all, even the tiniest pieces, are made by hand.
'We have to build all the parts from scratch,' Dr Ratcliffe said, holding a large sweep of metal, much as Arthur Negus used to hold a priceless piece of porcelain. 'I made this wing myself. It took me about eight hours, I didn't have a pattern.
'Someone rang up and said he needed a VA nearside wing. Well, you can't get that sort of thing from scrap yards any more, so I made it myself. I'll charge him about pounds 200. I got a great deal of satisfaction out of taking a flat sheet of steel and making it into this. I think it's a beautiful shape. Really beautiful.'
Other people share his opinion. Framed on the wall of his office above the workshop is a letter from an excited Swiss count called Jacques de Wurstemburger. 'With considerable pleasure,' it reads, 'I received two days ago your remarkable catalogue of spare parts and I wish to thank you most sincerely for this.'
So how much would it cost to own one of Dr Ratcliffe's works of art? Well, that depends. Each car requires different things doing to it. But what with all that specialist work (up to 2,000 hours per car) none of them is cheap.
Walking round the workshop, Dr Ratcliffe tells stories about each of the vehicles in various stages of restoration, much as a proud parent might about his children. 'I've known this car for several years,' he said, lifting the dustsheets off a beautiful specimen and running his hands lasciviously over its wings. 'I bought it as a wreck from a chap in upstate New York, did it up, and now I'm selling it to a chap in Essen for, ooh, let's say over pounds 55,000. 'And (pointing to another) I chased after this car in 1972 in the States and missed it. A guy bought it and put it into a garage that started to restore it. They went bust. Eventually it ended up with someone who knows that only we can finish it. So 21 years after I first coveted it, it is in my hands after all.
'We have a kind of indefinite relationship with these cars.'
With the cars?
'Oh yes,' he said. 'The owner is just the temporary keeper. Some of the cars I know have had three or four owners since I first met them. Mind you, there's one owner in Boston, Massachusetts, and one in Bournemouth who have had their cars since they bought them in 1938.'
But whatever the spiritual pleasures of his business, at the back of Dr Ratcliffe's mind must be the knowledge that it is finite. There are only 300 of the cars extant, and he has already done up more than 100 of them.
'Why should it have to last?' he said. 'I'm 43. I've done this as a business since I was 35. I want to retire sometime. I haven't a son to pass it on to. My daughters don't show the remotest interest.' And, sounding like an addict who has tried to mix his chemicals, he said he couldn't move on to other cars. 'I tried old Jaguars for a bit, but they didn't do anything for me.'
Oddly, the one MG he has not completed is the first one he bought, which sits half-finished in his garage at home. When he finishes that one, he'll know it's all over. But in the meantime, he has more work than ever.
The phone kept ringing throughout our conversation. Dr Ratcliffe believes everyone in the firm should be prepared to muck in, so the boss answers calls as often as anyone. One was from a geophysicist in Alaska, inquiring about parts.
'That guy knows far more about these cars than me,' Dr Ratcliffe said as he put the phone down. 'He writes articles for esoteric magazines about whether the nameplate attached to the brake fluid holder should have embossed lettering or not. I ask you, how does anyone become that obsessed by a car?'
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