AUG 19th 2014

Best of British: 'There's nothing that can't be done,' says historic specialist, Jim Stokes

Found an Alfa 8C 2300 in bits? Need a new engine for your Lancia D50? Have a hankering for a Sharknose Ferrari? Who you going to call?

The name at the top of your list will almost certainly be Jim Stokes. Jim – plus his wife and business partner Hilary and the 45 people they employ – pride themselves on doing the impossible and delivering the unobtainable in the higher reaches of the pre-war car market.

Jim Stokes Workshop

Jim Stokes

Among the greats Jim Stokes Workshops have restored or resurrected are many of the world’s rarest, most significant and valuable racers. Some would never be seen in action today but for JSW’s efforts. Many of course are among the stars at the Goodwood Revival each year.

Cars like the 1932 Le Mans-winning 8C 2300 Alfa Romeo, the 1959 winning Aston Martin DBR1 and – what Jim calls his ‘signature’ model – the wonderful Alfetta 158, complete with its 425bhp 1500cc engine.

‘The deal for the 158 was done in the Alfa Romeo boardroom,’ remembers Jim. ‘The car was transported to us in 1986 – the only 158 in private hands. Alfa were upset when they realised it had left Italy. They weren’t so upset when they saw the car in 1989 after we had finished restoring it. For me, to be involved in restoring it to that level was very special.

‘We took it to Monza for its first run. To see it doing 160mph down the straight was the stuff that dreams are made on.’

JSW have been at every Festival of Speed and every Revival since the beginning. This year at Revival they are fielding a Maserati A6GCS (and if you think you’re a Maserati mastermind, then test yourself on these 100 facts here).

If you can’t get it, make it

Jim Stokes doesn’t just restore, he re-creates – both individual parts and entire cars – thanks to a difference with many classic car workshops: the heart of JSW is its machine shop. Bits they need, they make.

A cylinder block for a Blower Bentley, carburettors for a Ferrari grand prix car, a crankcase for a racing Alfa – all is possible. And they do it not just for themselves but for restorers around the world. The parts are made to original drawings – pre-war Alfa parts even use original Alfa parts numbers – so they are guaranteed to mate with original componentry.

Jim Stokes Workshop

When GRR called in, two New Zealand-bound Alfa 8C engines were being assembled, part of a number (in double figures) of brand new 8C engines. A surprising quantity given there are only 156 8Cs in the world? ‘The owners tend to use our engines for racing and save the originals,’ says Jim. Each engine costs £130,000 – small beer really in the context of the several millions that an 8C is worth. The engines are identical to the original in every way save the conrods; ‘they were a known weak spot,’ says Jim.

A few years ago JSW found they had made so many parts for the Alfa 8C 2300 they could build an entire new car. So they did, for a UK customer. At around £750,000 it was substantially less expensive than buying an original – but of course has no history past last week. Jim’s message is clear: if that’s what the customer wants, that’s what the customer can have.

One of their most recent jobs was for GRRC member Paul Gregory whose beautiful Alfa 8C 2300 took honours at the recent GRRC Open Day.  That car was literally in boxes when it arrived at JSW after an eventful life that included a spell in the US as a Cadillac-powered hot rod before being left to rot in a garage.

JSW works on all marques but has made its name with Italian cars. What is it about them that Jim loves so much? ‘Look at cars like the Alfa 158 and then at solid, functional English cars like Connaughts and Bentleys. The Italians did things in a whole different way, building beautiful machinery not only with their hands but also with their hearts.’

Even Ferrari approved

Re-creating masterpieces is not the work of a moment for JSW. When they embarked on a project to build a Ferrari 156 Sharknose an entire year was spent researching the car before the first lathe turned. ‘There are no cars left so producing a Sharknose to exactly original specifications was always going to take time. Even Ferrari liked the result though – the car is in the Modena museum.’

JSW has also been involved in the re-creation of a Cunningham C4R and, famously, six Lancia D50s, the mid 1950s grand prix ground-breaker that became the Lancia-Ferrari D50 and gave Fangio the 1956 world championship.

Jim Stokes Workshop

Lancia D50 recreation

Says Jim: ‘Most people haven’t seen or heard cars like this racing so bringing them back is incredibly special. At Goodwood when we had Alain de Cadenet driving the Lancia-Ferrari it was just awesome. When we did the Cunningham, the owner of one of the two original cars – neither of which will ever race again – said he would be delighted to help us recreate the car because people should be able to see the car racing.

‘We use as many original parts as possible but if we can’t get original parts we are not shy about recreating them, even if the end result is a new car. We are more than happy to recreate any vehicle a customer asks us to make.’

So what can’t JSW make? ‘Nothing to be honest. We will tackle anything.’

One word of warning: these are deep-pockets projects.

Who is Jim Stokes?

Jim says he was into all things mechanical from the age of five. He left school and got a job as an apprentice to a race team; when he wasn’t at race meetings helping look after his employer’s collection of 14 race cars he was at college. ‘It was a fantastic way to learn,’ he says. One reason perhaps that Jim insists JSW take on apprentices. ‘The workforce in the restoration industry is getting older, we have to find young lads to come into the industry – make them keen to work on cars where you can’t just plug your laptop in.’

Jim and Hilary started their own business in 1981 in a shed at the bottom of their garden. His first project – to rebuild a BRM V16 engine – set a path for the future, but he still found time to go racing. He was a mechanic at Le Mans seven times during the 1980s, with teams that included Aston Martin Nimrod.

These days the JSW Group comprises the Triple M machine shop, JSW restoration, South Shore Coachworks and, the latest division, Classics, where mere mortals can take their Spitfires, MGBs or 911s for servicing.

All the divisions are grouped together in huge sheds on an industrial site in the somewhat unlikely town of Waterlooville, Hampshire. All the skills are represented here but they draw the line at paint – the one thing they always outsource. ‘The majority of our cars are in cellulose so we have to go specialists anyway,’ says Jim. The other thing they don’t do, and never have, is buy and sell cars.

Is the customer always right?

Owners of historic racing cars are changing, says Jim, as younger people come in looking for a safe haven for their money on the back of soaring values.

‘The biggest thing for me is educating new owners that historic cars are not just an investment but cars to be used. A Chinese collector was asked what he did with his cars, and he said he appraised them every month. That was all. He didn’t drive them, just appraised their value. It puts a whole different spin on why people buy these cars.’

While Jim will invariably find a way to keep owners happy he has strict rules about what can and can’t be done. Chief among them is that original parts are never altered. So the owner of a Le Mans-winning Alfa who wanted the seats modified so they folded forward to let passengers in the back was disappointed – until Jim came up with the solution. To make an entire new folding seat to replace the original. It is always clear, says Jim, which are JSW parts so a car can always be taken back to the original.

Jim Stokes Workshop

It would be difficult to take the Bristol 405 (in the workshop when we called in) back to original – the car was being converted into a drophead. That’s okay in Jim’s book because it was done at the time with Bristol’s blessing.

Other Jim Stokes rules? Never build a car for himself; ‘my customers wouldn’t appreciate it’. He is a stickler too for looking after those customers, regularly despatching mechanics to far-flung corners of the world to look after owners’ cars, often mid event. ‘We sent a mechanic to Kazakhstan to work on an Alvis that was taking part in the Paris-Peking rally. There wasn’t a problem with the car’s preparation, it had just got beaten up on all the unmade roads. It’s all part of the service.’

Big new projects coming up? Yes lots, he says, but with non-disclosure agreements galore and plenty of intrigue and mystery about the next ‘barn find’, it’s a secret business, as well as a big-bucks one. There’s far more at JSW that we can’t photograph than we can. To see so many exquisite machines together in one place – outside of Revival – boggles the mind. This small corner of Waterlooville must add several noughts to the value of the whole town. No wonder security here is belt and braces.

‘There is one amazing project that we have bubbling along. It’s a long way off, but I am hoping that when it breaks cover it will do so at Goodwood.’

Watch this space…

Photography: Tom Shaxson


Jim Stokes, your time starts now…

Car nut or businessman? ‘Hands-on engineer. But a car nut as well.’

What do you drive? ‘Nothing of my own at the moment. I am restoring an Alfa Sprint Veloce. But I don’t really get time for my own cars.’

Any other toys? ‘A 1979 Alfa Romeo Hydroplane racing boat which I am starting to restore. I have always liked boats and this one is mad – it’s capable of 100mph on flat water from its 1300cc engine. It balances on the propeller basically. It’s a very dangerous thing. Other quirky stuff has included a 1924 Alfa half track prototype, designed for snow.’

Do you enjoy driving? ‘I do. I get to drive so many of the cars we work on. I have a test route over the downs, or we drive along the coast to Goodwood.’

Are you a racer? ‘No. My expertise and love is making racing cars work, and work properly. Because I know what’s under the bonnet I would never be hard enough on them to race them. I get more of a buzz standing on the pit wall seeing them go past.’

What’s your labour rate per hour? ‘£40 an hour for Classics, £47 an hour for restoration in the JSW workshop.’ (If that sounds like a bargain, it takes between 650-850 hours to strip down and service an original Alfa 8C engine… Ed.)

Share this