Keeping The Ageing Art Of Coachbuilding Alive

Prior to his seminar’s at the RACA, we sat down with Robert Siemsen to talk through the artisanal craft of coachbuilding.

By Terry Christodoulou 18/02/2020

Coachbuilding is not commonplace in the automotive industry. So, it leads to the obvious questions of why a young Australian would get involved in the now artisanal trade with demand continuing to dwindle.

Robert Siemsen is said Australian. The now 30-year-old has been learning his craft since the age of 15 and was recently awarded the Churchill Fellowship, awarded by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust which allowed him to study coachbuilding from some of the most venerable workshops of the English midlands, arguably the heartland of traditional coachbuilding.

In a two-night retrospective seminar held last week at the Royal Automobile Club of Australia, Siemsen talked through the intricacies of coachbuilding and how the English shops are keeping the art form alive.

Robb Report caught up with Siemsen to get an in-depth understanding of the future of Coachbuilding in Australia and abroad.

 

RR: For the lay-person – what is coachbuilding?

RS: It’s a traditional term for the manufacturing of car bodies, it’s the traditional manufacturing before they were pressed, and before mass manufacturing took it to the next level. There is still a market for handmade, pre-war cars and post-war sportscars.

RR: What drew you towards the craft?

RS: I was inspired by photographs and I was inspired by books. It’s very very rare that you see photographs of old coachbuilding workshops but there are a few around and one specific photograph, of a panel beater by the name of Jack Payne, at AC cars, welding in a front wing for an AC ace. As soon as I saw it I knew what I wanted to do.

Since then I’ve been trying to get into the trade, it’s been very tough and it’s a very small industry which makes it difficult, but not impossible.

RR: Do you think there’s a certain romance that you’ve been seduced by?

It’s very romantic, it’s the romance that drew me in, it’s not the money. It requires more than just hard work, you need to have a passion for the process of working with aluminium and gas welding because in a way it’s all redundant, it’s a tiny market for people that still want it done. It’s definitely a huge part of it.

RR: You’ve documented your learnings on the fellowship, how big a role does photography play in Coachbuilding as research?

RS: Well there’s a difference between commercial coachbuilding and bespoke coachbuilding. In commercial you’re tooled up; you have jigs and bucks (wooden frames) and it streamlines the whole process so you can build car bodies quickly. The research comes into play when you’re talking about bespoke work. You’ll have a client that wants a particular car, normally a one-off and then you have to go in and research drawings, books, photographs, measurements the whole works – that process takes a lot longer and the market is very small. There are not many shops that do only bespoke work.

 

RR: Prior to travelling to England, you were working in Dubbo, what was the allure of regional NSW.e

RS: I got the opportunity to work for Mark Nugent to do a bespoke body on a 1952 W194 Mercedes Benz, which is the prototype to the Gullwing. From the prototype the w196 went into production, I think there was only  7 or 8 ever made and there’s only 3 left, and someone wanted a replica so I moved to Dubbo with my wife to do it, it’s an opportunity that I couldn’t really turn down. It comes with a particular rarity as well. I don’t for a second regret moving to Dubbo.

RR: What’s it like to get the support of the Winston Churchill Trust Fellowship

RS: I think the trust really saw my dedication to the trade and are rewarding me for that, and to get funding to go overseas. To get that experience I’ve bypassed years of toil in Australia, it would’ve taken me decades to get the knowledge I’ve got know, without the Churchill trust – I have a lot to thank them for.

 

Siemsen at the RACA

RR: It seems like so much of Coachbuilding is about passing the torch, with such a limited pool of knowledge how do you ensure you hold onto and pass on the knowledge?

RS: The older boys Australia who want to pass on the knowledge they have, and in England people like Alan Pointer at Bodyline, they want to see it continue, a lot of them do. They are more than willing to share. Some of the younger guys are more protective as it takes away some of their bread.

RR: I know post-fellowship your goal to educate people about Coachbuilding, getting a trade and the fellowship. What would you tell them?

RS: I’d tell them if they are really passionate about it to not give, but it’s a labour of love and its very tough, I wouldn’t sugar coat it. It’s all well and good to look at a finished car, it’s romantic and rewarding but it’s a lot of hard work to get there.

But I’d say to not give up if they are passionate about it.

RR: Why do they want to keep coachbuilding and the trade skills alive?

RS: There’s the stubbornness of the English keeping it alive, and there’s somehow always been a market, and I think there will always be a group of people who are wanting to have it done. And for the point of keeping skills alive, it’s important as we progress, as if we throw away the information, there’s no way of getting it back.

 

You can read Robert’s full report here.

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