One of our favorite things about publishing this website are the interesting people that find their way here. We received an email the other day from Roy Walter who used to work at the coach builder Hilton Brothers. Hilton Brothers were responsible for building the saloon (P1) bodies. Below is a brief look at what life was like for those who built our cars.
When I was in the forces it was an offence to keep a diary-I suppose it was in case of capture and the subsequent betrayal of serious secrets,-so I never got into the habit, and I've always regretted it. I have problems with dates, but I think I went to work for Hilton Brothers in early 1951. Panel Beaters were an elite bunch in those days, we were mostly head hunted. The factory was basic in terms of plant and facilities. The Coachbuilders or chippies (wood workers) as we called them were upstairs on the first floor where the offices were. One of the Hilton Bros was the boss up there and we seldom saw him. For that matter we didn't see the other brother much either. The Panel shop was run by a certain Bill Merritt.
The completed wooden bodies came down to us in a large lift, and we "tinbashers" formed the aluminium panels. Two guys were responsible for the roof panels, which included the cant rails, the peak over the windscreen and the two panels forming the rear light. I usually took care of the sides over the rear wheels, the boot panels and surrounding bits. Another guy did the boot lid and both doors. All these panels had to be welded together, and during this time, the skeleton skin was supported, resting on the peak at the front and the boot at the back. When the whole thing was finished and tarted up, we all lifted the skin up manually and dropped it on to the wood body, where it was fixed on by panel pins under the body. Such sophistication!
We used mostly 18swg aluminium sheet. We usually cut our own panels up from patterns hung up on the wall. Welding was done by the usual method, OXYGEN and Acetyline bottles. One of us held up the panels to be joined, the other one welded them. We didn’t work in pairs; we just called out for help when needed. The one pair that always worked together was the pair who did the roof panels. These were too big for one to handle on a wheel, so they travelled a bit backwards and forwards from one side to the other then back the other way until the panel had enough shape. Then they welded on the surrounding panels. Hilton Bros never had a power hammer-they frightened the life out of me anyway. We rarely used hammers at all. Mostly it was bashing them judiciously with mallets, bossing mallets and sandbags, then smoothing them out with the [English] wheel. The welding process distorted the panels, and we took care of that with a flipper in one hand and a handweight in the other.
I think there were six of us altogether, not counting the old feller who was a wingmaker. He had been a pre-war wingmaker in the British motor industry, forever telling us how easy we had it. There were a number of other guys who worked on the same floor. They were "fixers." They secured the panels to the wood frames, secured the bonnets, boot lids and doors, plus windscreens. Then the bodies went back upstairs to have the trim installed. Yes, the chippies made the frames for us to work to, but we didn't often get to see them. I mentioned Bill Merritt before. He was the panel shop foreman, responsible for inspecting everything we made; a man with an eagle eye. When he wasn't inspecting, he would help out on the floor. A nice guy. Came from a long line of undertakers so he said, recounting with great gusto some of the gory details.
All British factories had a tea break at 11:00am and usually 3:30pm. We didn’t have a luxury canteen .We kept some planks against the wall, formed a circle with some drums and that was our "canteen." Washing was even more basic; a bucket with cold water and a bar of soap! The toilet was a disgusting old urinal. Eventually, we became fed up with all these primitive conditions, and making no headway at all with Messrs Hilton, we went on strike! All we got was promises, but luckily I got an invitation to work at Hoopers on Rolls Royces later on in 1952. Same sort of money but much more civilized. Sadly none of the old coachbuilding firms exist anymore. Even the Rolls Royce bodies are made in Germany from pressings then tarted up before sending them over here.
Hoopers was an entirely kettle of fish, in that everything was organized. The chassis came in with the customers name on the windscreen, and we tinbashers worked in gangs of five to a car. The gangleader was paid for the whole car and we divided that price by mutual agreement between us, which worked out quite well. Mostly we were doing Silver Clouds , sometimes the occasional Bentley. My contribution was doors, which was challenging because the wing shape ran right through the doors. There was no getting away with any slack. The inspector wore sugar bags when he worked, and I don't think I ever did a door without his chalk marks on it. I was there about eighteen months.
I only left Hoopers after pressure from my father, who, whilst in his late seventies started a business making shopfittings. My brother, an artist designed the product and made all the tools for him and the business took off. So much so that the whole thing ran away with him. Unless he could find someone trustworthy to organize things while he was outselling it was going to fall apart. Within a year our turnover was a million pounds annually. I had ceased to be a panel beater and became a Company Director. My life story stops here. I only mentioned it because I needed a good reason to give up tinbashing!
PS: I had a big disappointment some months ago. Driving on a local motorway in driving rain, I actually overtook an Allard saloon. I couldn’t make him understand my frantic hand signals. He probably thought I had an ulterior motive and I gave up in the end as I had to be elsewhere. The first Allard I had seen for sixty odd years too, and I wanted to tell him we were connected. Ah well. Ce Le Vie!
Thanks for sharing Roy!