So where do you get seats and a trim kit for a 1953 Jaguar XK120 Roadster these days? bodyshop co-founder, Chris Mann, working on a recommendation, gave the task to Aldridge Trimming and was very glad he did.
Some 10 years ago, I was lucky enough to acquire a 1953 Jaguar XK120 Roadster from motoring journalist Ray Potter. Ray had previously researched the car’s early history and discovered that, back in the mid-50s, it had been given as a 21st birthday present to a Michael Brook, whose family owned a large industrial electric motor manufacturing business in Yorkshire. A letter from Michael stated that he had ‘used the car for courting during the week and racing at the weekends at long lost airfield circuits such as Marston Moor, Full Sutton and Rufforth’.
Helped by the car’s history competition (and, probably to a much greater extent, by the fact that my co-driver was to be F1 legend Jo Ramirez), I managed to win the classic car buff ’s lottery and gain an entry into the 2014 Mille Miglia in the XK which, whilst a sound and solid car that drove nicely, had reached a stage where a major mechanical rebuild was becoming a priority.
Getting my Mille Miglia entry was the catalyst needed for me to put this in hand and, on the advice of XK Club head Philip Porter, this was entrusted to leading XK guru Simon Hemsley, who also agreed to prepare the car for what was to be a hotly-contested Italian challenge.
Simon convinced me that the XK’s standard bench type seats would be far from ideal on the Mille Miglia and recommended that I substitute a pair of the ‘works’ type bucket seats, as were the cowlings and Brooklands-type aero screens and sump guard also advised by Simon, the latter two items sourced from XK parts specialist Leaping Cats.
‘The only place to go’ for the seats and, indeed, any and all XK trim items was, according to Simon, Aldridge Trimming. ‘They are brilliant,’ he said, ‘a proper family fi rm producing top quality products and totally reliable.’
Encouraged, I contacted company boss Simon Aldridge, and explained my requirements and the tight time frame the car was to be ready in time for the Mille Miglia, which took place back in May. Whilst the critical items were the competition seats and a tonneau cover, there was a whole raft of other parts on my wish list including the door panels and pockets, a complete carpet set, leather handbrake gaiter, centre arm rest cover, boot-lid panel and even a competition-type bonnet strap (XK bonnets are, I am told, notorious for fl ying up at inopportune moments). I emailed the list to Simon and in no time he came back to say that he was confident he could provide what I needed and meet my deadline. ‘I’ll give you a call when everything’s ready,’ he said.
Just over two weeks later, Simon’s call came; everything was ready. Three days later, when I arrived at Aldridge’s 20,000sqft factory in Wolverhampton, I was impressed to see the superb quality of my magic XK transformation package, with every item on my list neatly laid out ready for collection.
Invited by Simon to look round the Aldridge facility and talk to the staff who had produced the kit, it soon became clear how Aldridge achieves its amazing combination of quality, speed and efficiency. I was first introduced to Tom and Gerald, who had produced ‘my’ seats and trim. Gerald has been with Aldridge for 27 years but was, by no means the company’s longest serving employee. Tom is a relative new boy, having been with the company for only eight years, joining as an apprentice.
On the day of my visit, the workshop was a veritable Aladdin’s cave of classic cars ranging from Alvis’s, XKs and E Types to a Bentley Continental S3 ‘Chinese Eye’, as well as a Lotus Cortina, an Austin Healey 100/6 and a VW Karmann Ghia convertible, the company combining production of its now famous trim kits with in-house trimming services.
There was a real family atmosphere on the shop floor and Dave, who joined the company in 1986, was busy producing a complete trim kit for a Daimler 250, a big change from his previous employment trimming boat cabins. ‘I was made redundant, but it proved a blessing in disguise. I really love my work’, he said. On the next bench, colleague Karen, herself a 25 year veteran of Aldridge, was busy cutting leather panels for a 1950s Bristol using the original trim, carefully unstitched, as patterns.
Opposite, Tony was producing a carpet set. ‘We use traditional craft principles, but we benefit from the new technology, materials and adhesives now available,’ he told me. Tony, like Dave, joined Aldridge in 1986, also having previously been made redundant. Starting as a part-timer, Tony learnt his trimming skills on the shop floor at Aldridge and graduated to become a fulltime employee. ‘It’s a good place to work, there’s real staff loyalty here,’ he said. ‘Several of my colleagues, having left Aldridge to take up other jobs, have then come back. They saw the light, I suppose.’
There’s no ‘them and us’ at the company, and I came across Simon Aldridge’s brother Nick assembling various parts of a complete trim kit prior to it being despatched as one of the company’s many overseas orders. Nick explained the multi-layered processes involved in designing, manufacturing and distributing the kits which have become Aldridge’s signature product. He said, ‘There are so many different departments involved. There’s the design and cutting side, a lot of which is done on our CAD (computer aided design) machine, then the panels have to be trimmed. We have a lad who produces the seat covers whilst another department does the carpets. Most of it ends up in the Sewing Room, so every trim kit is a communal effort.’
I asked Nick to name his biggest ‘trim challenge’. ‘Every job is challenging,’ he responded. ‘Some take longer than others and the content may vary but, whatever the job, the standard stays the same. We’ve done all sorts from mail order trim kits to bespoke interiors for armour plated vehicles. We did 12 Range Rovers for the Metropolitan Police a while back, they were a real challenge. We took the original trim panels out of the cars and remade them in ultra high-density steel. They were then re-trimmed to look like original Range Rover panels. The thick, bullet-proof glass used reduced the internal dimensions by an inch or so, which meant that we had to create a slightly smaller version that looked exactly like the original, but which fitted the smaller space available.’
As Nick had indicated, the Sewing Room plays a vital role in Aldridge’s production process. Dawn, one of the four-strong sewing team, was busy making a head-lining for the VW Karmann Ghia convertible I had seen on the shop floor. She joined the company in 1993, having previously worked for a soft furnishing company. I asked if the skills she had learnt making soft furnishings were similar. ‘The techniques are completely different,’ she replied. ‘This is mainly down to the materials – we use a lot of leather (at Aldridge) and heavier fabrics. With trim work, total accuracy is vital – it has to be spot-on every time. Also, you have to understand how things work, to ensure that what you are making does the job properly.’
My final port of call was the locked room where the company’s computer aided design (CAD) and cutting machine was installed. Software programmes are developed that allow the machine to cut leather and vinyl trim pieces with total accuracy and minimum wastage. This helps ensure that the Aldridge product is competitively priced, without any quality compromise.
Prior to my departure, Simon Aldridge provided some background and history. The company was, he said, established in Oxford by his grandfather in 1931. Then a one man operation providing trim for the burgeoning local motor industry, Aldridge grandpere moved the business to Wolverhampton a few years later. Since Simon and Nick took over, Aldridge has grown significantly, currently employing 25 full- and part-time staff. The main driver of the company’s growth has been the development of its trim kits, which are distributed to every corner of the globe and, today, mail order makes up more than 60% of the company’s £1.3m turnover.
We are very lucky that there are specialist craft companies here in the UK, serving the classic car market, using traditional skills but taking advantage of modern materials and production techniques, and where quality, efficiency and customer service come first.