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

DR PETER RATCLIFFE picked up an ancient wooden car dash- board, pock-marked with worm holes, and surveyed it lovingly. 'This is history in your hands,' he said. 'Just think, it was fashioned by somebody listening on the radio to news about Hitler invading Czechoslovakia.

'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?'

(Photographs omitted)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - Exeter

    Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - A great new opportunity with real pot...

    Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor - Exeter

    Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - An outstanding senior opportunity for...

    Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

    salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

    Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

    £35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

    Day In a Page

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower