Hard Craft

All sewn up: A lesson in perfection with O’Rourke coachtrimmers

by Colin Goodwin
15 February 2021 6 min read
All sewn up: A lesson in perfection with O’Rourke coachtrimmers
Photos: Barry Hayden

This Ferrari 275GTB/4 is as rare as it is beautiful. It is a right-hand drive car of which very few were built and is near the end of its restoration. When it leaves O’Rourke Coachtrimmers it will only need its window glass fitted, a polish and a thorough inspection before it is handed over to its very lucky owner. Before being restored the car was painted black with a cream interior; neither colours in which it left the factory in 1966. Its owner wanted the car to be returned to the exact condition it would have been in almost 60 years ago and chose this stunning gold and a tan leather interior.

This small trim shop in Sussex was chosen for the job not just for its global reputation for quality, but for its deep knowledge of Ferrari interiors right down to the minute detail. Robert O’Rourke, known to most as Rorky, leads us up to a room upstairs that has on its door the word ‘Archive’. “We never throw anything away,” says O’Rourke, pulling from a shelf a large plastic bin with Lusso written on its side. Inside are offcuts of leather, scraps of carpet, pieces of headlining. “All of it is material that the 250 Lusso was fitted with when it was new. Without this crucially important historical record you can’t be sure you’re recreating a car’s interior exactly.” There are bins full of Daytona, Dino, 250 SWB, GTO and even F40 trim parts. And not just Ferrari, either; boxes are marked with Porsche 356, Lamborghini Miura, Gullwing and on it goes.

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The archive has become even more important as over the last five years or so authenticity has become even more important. “In the past owners have said ‘I don’t want any vinyl in the car, only leather’ even though the car would have left the factory with vinyl in places,” explains O’Rourke. “Now it’s much more common for an owner to insist upon exact originality even if it means using less pleasing materials.”

After you have walked into the building and got over the sight of the 275GTB/4 and the Lamborghini Countach 5000QV that is sitting next to it, the next thing that hits you is that everyone in here is young. It’s heart warming because there’s a fear that youngsters aren’t coming into the specialist trades and eventually the current artisans will die off taking their skills with them. At O’Rourke Coachtrimmers that future generation is already here. ‘Rorky’ is 49 years-old and the only person in the six-strong team who is older is Barry Harvey, at 50. Harvey served an apprenticeship at nearby vintage Bentley specialists James E Pearce before moving to Rolls-Royce in Goodwood to set up their bespoke coachtrimming department.

Robert O’Rourke literally grew up around classic cars and in particular Ferraris. “My dad founded a company called Moto Technique in 1980 and since he and my mum worked there dawn to dusk that’s where I used to be during school holidays and even weekends. I started officially at the company in 1988 when I was 17, learning all aspects of car restoration.” But why did he specialise in coachtrimming?

“Simple. Painting is awful: you spend weeks rubbing down filler in a booth with no windows and the constant hiss of compressed air. Metalwork involves a lot of noise bashing things and almost constant injuries from sharp edges. Coachtrimming, by contrast, is quiet and almost therapeutic. The leather smells wonderful and, best of all, it’s instant gratification. If you spend a long day trimming a steering wheel at the end of it you have created something beautiful.”

In 2003 O’Rourke took the bold step of leaving the family firm and branching out on his own. With him for the last 11 years has been Alexander James Pink, known as AJ. Like every member of the team AJ has a broad understanding of all areas of restoration having studied motorsport engineering at college. His role in the business is managing the flow of projects, liaising with customers and sending out the bills. AJ is also behind the company’s extensive range of interior care products, all of which have been developed with manufacturers and aren’t simply existing products with an ‘O’Rourke Coachtrimmers’ label slapped on them.

The white board in AJ’s office on which future projects are given their start dates is reassuringly populated. “Covid slightly reduced the amount of work we get from the major restorers because they had to close in the first lockdown. By contrast, the amount of work from private owners increased; perhaps because they were driving their cars more often and realised that jobs needed to be done that had been ignored.”

Unusually for a trim shop O’Rourke’s has a well equipped machine shop with a lathe, TIG welding set, sheet metal folder and guillotine among other machines. “It’s a huge advantage,” explains AJ, “because we’ll often find, after we’ve removed a seat’s covering for example, that the frame itself is broken and rather than having to send it out to be repaired, which costs time because one of us will have to take it somewhere and collect it, we can do it in-house.”

While the workshop will always have three or four full interior restorations on the go, O’Rourke Coachtrimmers will still take on small jobs. There’s a seat from a Lancia Delta Integrale that’s in for a repair. And while a full interior restoration will generate a sizeable invoice, some of the smaller jobs are very reasonably priced. “A collector in America sent us two Daytona and two Dino steering wheels to be renovated because he couldn’t find anyone locally who could do the job to his required standard,” says AJ, “and we charged around £600-£1,000 for each of them.” That’s not excessive for work of this quality and neither is the £300 bill for repairing the Integrale seat.

Not surprisingly the world of classic car restoration, especially at the top end of it, is a small one. One of the youngest (at 23) craftsmen is Lorenzo Artusa whose father Nick taught the young Rorky the skills of the trade at Moto Technique. Jake Parrott, 1920s hot rod enthusiast and owner, was Barry Harvey’s apprentice at James E Pearce.

While everyone on the shop floor has a full range of skills, some shine in particular areas. “Jake,” says AJ, is absolutely brilliant at carpets.” And, according to Rorky, every craftsman has his own style. “I can tell who has done a particular piece of work,” he claims. “There are detail people and there are not detail people. A really good trimmer has a natural curiosity about how things are made; the skills and materials that we use.”

The methods used by different companies are also distinctive. “How Ferrari trimmed a car is very different to how Lamborghini did it,” observes AJ. “This Countach has been a really interesting challenge for us. Look at these perforations on the seats: the factory would have used a specially made tool for these but we’ve managed to create the same effect using laser cutting. We’re always looking at new ways to do things and to getting an even greater level of accuracy.”

A corner of AJ’s office is dedicated to moulding rubber heel pads that protect the driver’s carpet from wear from heels. Here again the company’s priceless archive has played a part. We’re shown three rubber heel pads from a Daytona. One is an original taken from a one-owner unrestored car, one is a replica of that made in house and the third is a brand new one that came from no less a source than Ferrari’s classic department in Maranello. A genuine Ferrari-made part but unfortunately so different from the original part that even this layman can tell the difference. Again, the O’Rourke archive demonstrates its role and value.

“Our goal,” says Rob O’Rourke, “is to be the finest coach trimmers in the world. That’s what we’re working towards.” Cars that have been through this workshop have picked up first prizes at the world’s premier concours events. Pebble Beach, for example, where an O’Rourke trimmed Ferrari 250 California spider won its class.

It’s not all million pound Ferraris and high-concours winning. More affordable cars often cross the threshold. A couple of Alfa Romeo Spiders and recently a Jaguar Mk2 saloon. “The Jaguar’s owner had the car’s body and mechanicals restored,” explains AJ, “but had a car that drove very well but was tatty inside so he decided to bite the bullet and have us properly restore its interior so that he could fully enjoy driving the car.”

Perhaps one of the finest testaments to the company’s credibility and reputation in the restoration world is a project that both AJ and Rorky consider one of their greatest challenges: the making of an interior for the recreation of a replica Dymaxion.

The Dymaxion was a bizarre and wonderful machine created by architect and designer Buckminster Fuller, in the 1930s in America. Powered by a flathead Ford V8, the three-wheeler was front-wheel drive and steered via the single wheel at the back. Only three were built: the first one was destroyed in a fire, the third one has been lost and the second is in the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada.

The British architect Sir Norman Foster was a student of Buckminster Fuller and in 2010 commissioned a replica of the Zeppelin-shaped Dymaxion. The chassis and body was created  by world class engineering company Crosthwaite & Gardiner who had the car from Reno shipped over as a reference. The deal was that in return a new interior would be made for the museum car. O’Rourke Coachtrimmers was given the task of trimming both the Foster replica and the only surviving original Dymaxion.

Needless to say, the very few original interior trim parts that were on the original car now have their own box in the O’Rourke archive.

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  • Rorky says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed the read, perhaps a little biasedly 😌🤪💪🏼

  • Karen Porrino says:

    So proud of this guy and his achievements – great write up.

  • Andreas Adamou says:

    Knew Rorky, when he first started and even then you knew this guy had a passion for his work.

  • Phil Stainton says:

    Great company! Once trimmed a Ferrari 275 GTS for us; just one of many cracking jobs from Veteran to Classic.

  • mike etherington says:

    What a wonderful company…

  • Terry Ingles says:

    Great article. I could not aspire to using this level of craftsmanship, but I did decide to get the seats in my reasonably original, non-concours MGA refurbished by a local home uphostery service rather than getting them recovered. Brand new leather in an otherwise 60 year old car just does not look right.

  • Ted says:

    As the Dymaxion was staying in a museum then it would have been preferable to keep the original interior, in my view. Maybe lightly revive it. There does seem to be a view in the US that restore means replace – rather than the literal restore.

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