It’s Wednesday afternoon in late January, during a normal working week at The Smallest Cog and there’s not a TV camera in sight. The workshop, a realisation of Richard Hammond’s lifelong ambition to establish a classic car restoration and repair business, is vast and bitter cold, but it’s busy; the kettle isn’t the only piece of equipment that’s earning its keep. In residence, and in various stages of revival, there are prime-stock classic cars, including a 1953 Bentley and a bare-metal Porsche 911 that’s destined to emerge butterfly-like as a road car that looks like it belongs at Le Mans – it’s a benchmark £20,000 job.
“I’m going to be really jealous when that’s done,” says Richard Hammond, who sold his own Porsche 911 T in 2021, when the Cog was established, to pay for a state-of-the-art dust collection booth. The purchase left him with little change from the £60,750 hammer price, but reassuringly, it’s being put to good use by Neil Greenhouse – the man who Hammond says is inadvertently responsible for The Smallest Cog’s conception, which took place on a Friday night over fish and chips.
“Neil, who is playing merry hell with a BMW in the prep bay, was a bit down,” explains Hammond, who discovered Neil and his son Anthony, who have taken care of his classic cars for over half a decade, were being turfed out of their rented workshop, the Tram Inn. “I said I’m not Jay Leno, I can’t employ you to work for my collection, and there’s not a lot of dignity in that for them, so let’s set up a business. It might even make a nice TV show… and then I got carried away.” The last time Hammond tallied up the costs, almost half a million pounds of his own money had been bankrolled into the two-year-old business, which is the subject of fly-on-the-wall docu-series Richard Hammond’s Workshop, but the bottom line is yet to put a red light on his plan to expand to a new unit next door.
“One day it would be nice if it [the business] can pay me some of that back, but I’m not doing this to make money for myself,” he confides. The team and their livelihoods come first. “I make my money as a television presenter and I wouldn’t give up my career as a broadcaster solely to run a workshop, but I do take the business very seriously because the tools are useless without the right people to operate them. I have to sell their skilled hours to pay for the building and their salaries.”
Positioned on the edge of an industrial estate in Hereford, The Smallest Cog’s location is as un-showbizzy as it can get, but it doesn’t mean the stars of the show, which is now in its second series and available to watch on Discovery+, are immune to the attention the TV show attracts. “Richard Hammond’s Workshop: Risk of Hereford business going bust”, reads one headline from September last year. “I’ve spent 35 years working in media and they just walked in and did it so it’s been a big learning experience,” says Hammond, who hopes the series will be long-running. “They’re intelligent, they can work out what matters and doesn’t matter but it’s hard work, it’s demanding and it does up their hours. They’re paid as mechanics, not television presenters so I do ask extra of them to make the show, but it makes them look at what they do differently; they are sharing a craft. They are showing the world what you can do with your hands, your eyes and your brain. It’s fantastically compelling to watch and that’s the reason it works for TV.”
What Hammond will admit is that when the cameras are rolling progress is hampered. “It probably knocks 25 per cent off what we can do, but it has to work as an authentic workshop, I can’t afford for it to be any other way. Customers are coming in and spending their money and I can’t charge them for the extra time taken to do the TV. At the moment we are working flat out.”
On the odd occasion, when James May isn’t giving Hammond’s workshop a roasting on DriveTribe – the YouTube channel that began life as a new ‘social media platform’ with the backing of Clarkson, Hammond and May in 2016 but struggled to make headway and now exists with Hammond at the helm – May pops in with his own project to slow down productivity. Thankfully, and wisely, the former Top Gear chum leaves his lycra at home when he brings one of his road bikes in for a respray. “I love it, I’m quite envious, but it’s chuffing freezing in here,” he said during a visit last year. It’s unexpected praise from someone who is unapologetic about his distaste for old cars.
Meanwhile, Clarkson, who has been busy running Diddly Squat Farm in the Cotswolds since 2019 (the subject of the hit TV show Clarkson’s Farm) “isn’t keen either”, Hammond has previous said.
Describing his no-expense spared automotive empire as a “big room full of no excuses,” Hammond introduces Isaac Marriott, a 19-year-old self-taught mechanic who moved from Leicestershire to take a job at The Smallest Cog. Under the tutelage of master craftsman Neil, as well as Anthony and Andrew (Neil’s brother) Isaac is honing his heritage mechanic’s know-how and being enlightened to old-school metal-shaping techniques. For Hammond, who is often criticised for being a man without a business plan, this support of new talent represents a long-term return on investment.
“I can have all the space in the world and all the kit, but it’s the skills I need and the hardest thing is finding somebody that’s up to it,” he says. “I liked Isaac’s attitude and if he’s going to improve his fabrication skills then he’ll be more valuable to me down the road.” Hammond also supports the career aspirations of the company’s newest recruit, Workshop Coordinator Sophie Hayter, who wants to become the Cog’s first female mechanic. And as if to answer any cynics out there, he adds, “We are not in this for the short-haul.”
Huddled in front of a ferocious space heater, Isaac, or Flump as he’s affectionately known to his fellow Cogs, says he’s grateful for the opportunity to learn on the job. His lack of qualifications, he feels, hasn’t left him lacking. “I haven’t got any paperwork, I didn’t go to college, but you can do this job for sixty years and still come up against something you don’t know how to fix, every fault is unique so you do the basics and go from there.” Anthony adds: “He’s learning fast though, every day is a school day and you never know what’s coming through the door next.”
Now more than two decades into a daily routine of working alongside his dad, Anthony says the transition from running their own workshop to being team players at The Smallest Cog was a “massive jump” that inevitably shifted their relationship. “Before I stood in dad’s shadow a little bit, but now I’ve stepped out of it. We’ve got our own project cars and cameras in our faces but if there’s one thing that it’s done, it’s help me with my confidence. I’m just me, it’s easy to be me.”
Keeping schtum about the Cog’s trials and triumphs so as not to spoil the mystique of TV is one of the most unusual demands of the job, but so far “the Alvis!”, booms Andrew, has proven to be the most testing tribulation. “That was a nightmare.” Hammond is slightly more diplomatic: “That was a hell of a journey.” The project, a 1952 TA21 drophead which belongs to a friend of Neil’s, had fallen victim to misguided tinkering and bodge repairs. According to Andrew, the damaged panel work compared to a patchwork quilt, but nut by bolt the Cogs nurtured it back to good health.
“I did promise I’d always deliver cars they want to work on,” says Hammond, sheepishly. “Now that’s not always the most expensive cars because as much as I love them, cars are inert without a human story. Last year we had a guy with an old Toyota that had been through a Tsunami and we restored and painted that for him on a very small budget.” [Read about Udara David the very same Toyota Sprinter Carib here – Ed.]
Upstairs, in his chilly mezzanine-level office, Hammond succumbs to switching on not one, but two portable electric heaters. “Shall we get warm now?” It’s a habit he’ll have to kick if he’s committed to making The Smallest Cog a carbon-neutral company. So too is his tendency to over-promise. “When somebody comes to us with a budget, that becomes our budget.” Does he make sure there’s enough left in the kitty to honour the fish and chip Friday tradition that’s been inherited from Neil and Anthony’s workshop? “Yes, but they’re all on a diet,” says an exuberant Hammond. “Anthony is particularly determined to shed some pounds because we can’t take any more weight out of the race car. It’s brilliant, I’m saving a fortune.”
Interview: Richard Hammond has crashed more cars (and motorbikes) than you can possibly imagine
The One That Got Away: The Bentley that blew Edd China’s mind then got sold in bits
Steve Parrish: A lifetime of getting away with it