Featured in BBC Top Gear Magazine
I'm suprised Nigel Sandell ever manages to mend anybody's car, because he seems to spend all his time washing his hands. As he stoops for the umpteenth time over the small workshop sink, he says, "I wash them at least ten times a day". Every week the catering-sized tub of hand cleanser needs replacing.
He is a very tidy man and encourages the same trait in his two assistants and two trainees. Tools are neat and tidy, cars are clean and shiny; I even witness the floor being polished. And there always seems to be one bloke at the sink pumping the plunger on the soap dispenser. I've been in quite a few small garages in my time, but this is the first one that smells of lemons.
In one corner of the workshop is Nigel's office. The shelves are neatly stuffed with books on Rolls and Bentley. There are models of cars, car badges, pictures of cars, a painting of his own concours winning 1979 Shadow and a representation of a Phantom II made from old clock parts. Upon entering, one is invited to wipe one's feet on a Rolls Royce / Bentley doormat. Being a Rolls-Royce and Bentley man at heart is essential to understanding the culture of the business he is in. "I love 'em" he confirms. But he's no snob. He once mended a Ferrari. Like most independent specialists, Nigel began his spannering career as an apprentice at a Rolls-Royce dealership. Five years later he was snapped up by another big dealership and worked there for six years until something obviously p****d him off very deeply. "The trouble with big dealerships is they don't know how to treat their staff," he says cautiously.
It transpires that our man completed a £60,000 restoration job on a car belonging to Elton John, and with which the popstar was well pleased, but was given only a £100 bonus and instructions not to complain or "We'll take it away again." So he packed up his Snap-Ons and that was that
He then worked "very happily" as a self employed contractor to Royce Service and Engineering and regularly travelled the world to tend people's cars until he realised he could go it alone and, in '98, sank all his cash into the industrial unit he now occupies.
It's not very big. There's just room for four cars, three up in the air and one on the ground. As our Turbo R is elevated, its rear wheelarch clears the wall of the office by only a few inches; if you left the office at the wrong moment, you could lose a few teeth on the rear bumper. The bays are full and there are more R-Rs outside. This is a good sign, like finding an Indian restaurant frequented by Indians.
Nigel caters for real toffs - he has a nearly new Arnage on his books - but also appreciates that many old-car owners are strapped for cash or are, as in the case of Top Gear, skinflints. His golden rule is: spend a little, and often. "Treat the car as a project," he says."Make a list, and tick something off every year." Given a car like ours, he will list everything that ought to be done in order of priority, from the essential (the rear spring cups) to the merely desirable (hardened bushes). Nigel is, as I said, a meticulous man, which reminds me of a famous saying of Henry Royce himself: "Whatever is rightly done, however humble, is noble." With an ageing Turbo R, it is tempting to think that whatever is rightly done, however humble, will cost a bleeding fortune. But it needn't.
His 'to do' list was long but not far from our budget - until he discovered that the exhaust blow demanded a new pipe section at £479.61, that is. Parts can be a below-the-belt blow. Still, the personal attention of Mr Sandell works out at less than half the price charged by some main dealers. And with this bloke, there's absolutely no risk of finding an oily thumbprint on the upholstery.
Article courtesy of BBC Top Gear Magazine, September 2000. Writer: James May; Photographer: Julian Hawkins.