150212. Cape Town. Steel bender Barry Ashmole speaking to the Cape Argus about his job and the process of bending steel. Picture Henk Kruger/Cape Argus
150212. Cape Town. Steel bender Barry Ashmole speaking to the Cape Argus about his job and the process of bending steel. Picture Henk Kruger/Cape Argus

The art of creating custom cars

By Henri du Plessis Time of article published Feb 16, 2015

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Cape Town - There are actually some people who’d prefer to build a car rather than go to the nearest dealership and buy one, new or used, off the floor - but not all of them get to do it in real life.

Barry Ashmole has. And he is still happily engaged in the various arts and crafts that have allowed him to do it.

Like an artist “sees” his sculpture in the block of wood or stone before he even picks up a chisel, Ashmole can “see” a shape, a part of a car’s body, in a straight piece of steel or aluminium sheet.

And, as the artist would use the chisel and hammer to carve away that wood or stone to begin the process of revealing his work, so Ashmole will use a variety of tools to bring up, or lower, the surface of the metal to take the bulbous or hollow shapes associated with the body of a car.

In a well-sized workshop hidden among the vineyards of Stellenbosch, Ashmole shapes and fabricates parts for a variety of old cars, while farmworkers harvest the small, black cabernet berries for a nearby cellar.

SPECIALISED HAMMERS

It all starts with a hammer, and a good surface on which to work. As metal shapers will tell you, it is like working with clay, the material just moves shorter distances.

In fact, a whole collection of increasingly specialised hammers and some hammers that don’t even remotely look like hammers, called slappers.

And then, to aid the hammer’s work, there is a variety of steel panel shapes, sandbags and large pieces of hardwoods and tree stumps with specially designed depressions in them. The famous and mysterious English wheel, a large, manual machine with two wheels that run against each other, is an important part of a metal-shaping workshop. Straight sheet metal is moved to and fro between the two wheels in specific patterns and the metal is raised or depressed the way the craftsman wishes.

Ashmole has helped bring the art of metal shaping back to life here after some decades during which it disappeared completely.

Back in the day, this was real panel beating. But then, along came body filler, uninspiring car designs and replacement body parts. And out went real craftsmen.

“I’ve been doing this now for 12 years. I have always had a strong interest in hot rods and custom cars and I knew I wanted to do it in metal, not glass fibre,” he explained.

‘PEOPLE WANT THE LOOK’

Even now, glass fibre is a strong contender in the hot rod scene here in South Africa. That’s understandable; people want the look, but there are too few veteran, vintage or classic cars left that can justifiably be chopped and there are almost no artisans left who could shape the steel to make a new body.

So Ashmole began reading up, watching videos and doing a lot of study and homework.

“I also went to the UK for a couple of weeks to work at a company called Contour Autocraft in Peterborough, where I learnt a lot.

“I believe this is an art form. It has all the elements of a craft or a trade, but it offers all the opportunities for a free expression of art. I believe it is a craft when you repair things, but an art if you build from scratch.

“I like all the elements of the work, although there can be tedious parts too. But I like the process even more than the finished product.”

Ashmole has made 80 percent of his tools himself and collected the rest over the years, to create what he points out are functional artworks that are safe and reliable and have good aesthetics. When it comes to hot rod design, he is a purist who believes in having respect for the roots of hot rodding.

“The South African market is very limited. There are fewer than 10 real, period correct, hot rods on our roads,” he points out.

“You have to do what is right in terms of tradition.”

The Argus

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