Richard Hammond is tired and in need of a stiff drink at the end of a long and exhausting day, launching The Smallest Cog. From out of nowhere appears a wine glass almost full to the brim with gin and tonic. “Do you want some tonic with that?” comes the joke from Neil Greenhouse.
Greenhouse is partly to blame for Hammond’s exhaustion. The pair met about five years ago, not long after Greenhouse had been asked to respray four Reliant Robins, for four friends who’d recently found themselves out of work and decided to set up a television production company together – Chump Productions. You may have heard of it.
Hammond was one of the Chumps. Sorry, directors. The other three were Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Andy Wilman, their producer.
Clarkson had left the BBC after a ‘fracas’, which became forevermore known as steakgate. Not long after, the others decided to follow their old mucker on yet another adventure, and soon, like a scene on Top Gear when a member of the production team would step in and hand them an envelope, they stepped in front of the cameras to announce their next challenge: make The Grand Tour for Amazon.
The four Reliant Robin company cars that Greenhouse prepared and painted were a sign that, somewhat unsurprisingly, the only thing the three amigos were about to take seriously was being silly.
Once Hammond got to know Greenhouse, one thing led to another and soon the television presenter was handing over cars from his personal collection for odd jobs here and total restorations there.
Now Hammond, 51, has gone one step further. He’s launched The Smallest Cog, a business described on Companies House as providing ‘Maintenance and repair of motor vehicles’. Neil Greenhouse brings the technical skills and craftsmanship and is joined by his son, Anthony.
Hammond owns the lot, lock stock and two smoking paintbooths. At the opening of the new classic car preservation and restoration business, Greenhouse tells me that none of what we see in the workshop was here two weeks ago. No wonder Hammond and the team at The Smallest Cog have the sleep-deprived look of new parents.
“The paint’s probably still drying on that wall,” says Greenhouse, gesturing to the white wall which bears the company’s new logo, “We only finished rolling it last night!”
Hammond has put a lot of money into launching The Smallest Cog. He won’t be drawn on the final amount, but those close to him suggest it’s almost half a million pounds, with part of that raised from selling off a significant chunk of his personal collection of cars and motorcycles, during a recent sale through Silverstone Auctions.
He jokes with guests as he takes them on a tour of the new workshop, on the outskirts of Hereford, and shows them the brand new, British-made Todd Engineering paint spray booths, named, perhaps, to reflect the seemingly insurmountable challenges that knackered old cars present to restorers – Olympian, Hercules, Titan and Hades.
“That’s the Porsche 911 T I sold,” laughs Hammond, pointing to the Hades dust collection booth, where the all-important body preparation and sanding takes place. It’s probably £40,000’s worth, Neil later tells me, and is vital as it is compatible with both steel and aluminium materials. Next to it is a painting booth – the Poseidon 4000 Series, “That’s the Lotus Esprit,” says Hammond – and next to that is a paint mix room, which Hammond says he’s getting good at.
Above, on the ventilating ducting, are huge stickers saying Gin, Tea and Coffee. Someone must be a fan of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. And forming railing on the first floor of the workshop are three life-size model-kits that Hammond welded together from Mini parts.
They’re brilliant. I suggest to Neil that The Smallest Cog should make them and sell in limited edition batches, for collectors looking for pieces to accessorise their garage or home, or for charity. A good idea, he replies, but it would take too long – we could 3D print them, he counters. “See,” says Hammond, “He’s so clever!”
Hammond isn’t just putting money into the endeavour. He’s putting his heart and soul into it too. This was his grandfather’s craft.
“My mum’s dad, Leslie Dunsby, was a coachbuilder at Mulliner’s at Birmingham, and then he finished up a Jensen. He was a senior inspector there, and the Jensen we’re restoring would have been signed-off by him.”
The Jensen in question is an Interceptor once owned by Sir Alastair Pilkington, of Pilkington Glass fame. Stripped bare and awaiting restoration, it appears to have more holes in it than a block of Swiss cheese left out for the mice. But Hammond assures me that the car’s value lies in its originality as much as its history, with matching numbers and even the serial numbers on parts such as the headlight clusters suggesting it’s never been crashed, repaired or restored in its lifetime.
Clearly, Hammond wants to give something back to the industry that, he says, has been so good to him over the past 20 years. It will also make the basis of a TV show for Discovery+, in a six-episode season that’s currently being filmed – including the launch event we’re at.
Inevitably, there are questions over The Grand Tour, and whether it will continue. The word amongst those in the know is that James May is ready to hang up his driving gloves and concentrate on solo shows, of which he has enjoyed considerable success, while Jeremy Clarkson is content with his smash-hit series Clarkson’s Farm, which has earned as good as full marks from reviewers, on IMDd and Google. Hammond needs a Plan B.
The show will be unscripted. So those hoping the real Richard Hammond will step forward should be pleased.
He describes how Neil and son Anthony were on the verge of losing their original workshop, and he stepped in. “I said, ‘Lads, that’s a tragedy, I need you to do my cars but I don’t want to employ you, so let’s set up a business together and you bring the skills and I’ll fund it.’” It was, Hammond stresses, all discussed long before the idea to pitch the venture as a television show.
Now one of the world’s most recognisable television presenters, he has, in his words, been stupidly lucky. “I had a choice,” Hammond says. “I could have some classic cars and bikes, or the means of restoring lots of cars and bikes and taking part in an industry that’s enormous. I could do justice to Neil and Anthony’s skills, and I’ve now brought in Neil’s brother [Andrew] as well as we’re going to be busy. He’s the only other person Neil would trust; they used to compete against one another and do opposing sides of a car during a restoration.”
How does he see the future of the classic car industry? “If the classic car business is worth £18 billion to the UK, more and more cars are going to be defined as ‘classic’ and as long as we can be kept separate from the decarbonisation of the transport infrastructure – which is a lot of syllables – as long as cars like these are not wrapped up with the cars that we use to go to the office, to get to work, to commute and do boring stuff, and I had a Tesla for exactly that purpose – then the industry can grow and I can keep putting petrol in my Mustang for a Sunday morning drive.
“And also, it’s about make do and mend. What we are doing is so on-message. The carbon footprint of this bike [his 1927 Brough Superior SS100 Alpine Grand Sports, one of the world’s most collectable motorcycles] is from 100 years ago, and it really is not having a big impact on the world. Classic cars consume less energy than a mobile phone but it’s too easy to demonise them. It’s politically expedient to demonise them because owners are viewed as having money.”
“When we first considered even talking about setting this up,” recalls Neil Greenhouse, “the whole point of the conversation was ‘The skills are dying, nobody can do this job any more.’ A lot of young people in the last 20 years, technology has moved on and everybody wants to be an IT expert or a You Tuber.”
Is it as acute as we are told? “I think it is acute. I think a lot of the older people in the job are coming out of it and there’s no one to take their place. They are more impatient and less likely to be inclined to take the long time it takes to learn the skills.”
In the new workshop is a catalogue’s worth of brand-spanking new Baileigh Industrial tools – American-made metalworking equipment – waiting for sparks to fly and aluminium sheets to be shaped, including a drill press, cold saw cutting machine and a hefty English wheel. “Just those three tools would be about £40,000,” says Neil.
Like James May, Hammond is known to be a tinkerer who’s happy rolling up his sleeves and stripping down a carburettor. How handy is he, in the eyes of the experts?
“Richard’s had a go at repairing things; welding , filling, body repairs and I’ve even got him spraying.” Neil points to a later, original Mini in one corner of the workshop. “He’s actually painted the back of that Mini. I said, ‘I’ll show you what to do’ and he did it. If you look at it it’s as good as the rest of it.”
Later, I wander over and cast an amateur’s eye over the Mini’s bottom, and sure enough, from a few paces it looks perfect, with only a few imperfections when you lean right in and investigate tricky spots like the lip of the bootlid.
In many ways, this is more than a hobby turned enterprise for Hammond. It’s therapy. Having survived crashing a jet car, at a piffling 288mph, in 2006, he struggled with his mental health, at one stage telling his family to evacuate the house immediately because he felt like his head was going to explode.
As if that weren’t taxing enough, in March, 2017 he crashed a motorbike, knocking himself unconscious, while filming for The Grand Tour, in Mozambique. Then in June, the same year, Hammond crashed a Rimac Concept One electric supercar, and rolled down a mountainside, crawling from the wreckage with a broken leg – just before the car burst into flames.
Mindy, his wife, knows what it means to him, Hammond says. “For me to be able to mooch in here on a Sunday morning my own, and actually work on restoring one of my own cars myself; the ultimate for me would be to bring a car out of that paintbooth that I’ve done from scratch – the welding, the fabrication, prep, paint, out the door, I’ve done it – I’ll be the happiest boy in the world.
“And if that’s all I get out of it, after everybody gets their salaries and Christmas bonus, I’ll be perfectly happy. I said to Anthony [Greenhouse], one evening, ‘If you get this right, there’s a career there for you. And more people will join it. And that gives me goosebumps.’”
He stresses he won’t “mess about with customers’ cars”, leaving that to the Greenhouse family, but would like to get to a standard where he could. Is James May coming down to lend a hand? “He is going to come down. I was talking to him about it, yesterday, and I’d love him to come and see it.” And Clarkson? “Likewise. His farm is his real passion and this is my real passion. I know we squabble on TV but we’re quite grown up, really.”
Having spent 25 years living out of suitcase, Hammond says this has been a liberating experience, and is him coming home. He looks forward to hopping onto one of his bikes, rattling over and spending the day in the workshop.
“This thing owes me now. I walk in and I look at it and I think, ‘Right, I’m gonna make you work.’”
After the launch event held on the Saturday, I call back to check on some facts for this story, on Bank Holiday Monday. The Greenhouse gang and Hammond are back in the workshop, preparing a Ford Escort RS2000 for an unveiling at the Salon Privé concours, at the end of the week.
Together with his new, extended family, you sense that he just might pull off one of the biggest gambles of his career yet – and achieve inner peace while he’s at it.