A concerted effort to boost new talent in the classic car industry has started to bear fruit; hopes are high for an end to the classic skills shortage
The classic car community has long been concerned about a lack of suitably skilled mechanics and restorers entering the sector. Caring for a classic often requires knowledge passed on from previous generations, especially for historic vehicles that don’t see an MOT tester every year, and the worry is that there’s a growing skills gap between retirees leaving the classic car industry and younger folk able to continue their legacy. Thankfully, the hard work put in over recent years to redress the situation is now bearing fruit.
While the number of historic vehicles, owners and total annual spend in the UK have all increased rapidly over the last five years according to figures from the Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs (FBHVC), the average age of an owner has risen from 61 to 63 and the number of jobs in the sector has remained relatively static at around 34,000. The figure rose from 28,000 between 2011 and 2016, but the workforce hasn’t grown since.
What’s more, the historic sector also has to battle the modern aftermarket industry for recruits. Pre-pandemic it was estimated that the UK would need to hire 30,000 new skilled service technicians, parts retailers and support staff over the next five years to keep up with its aftermarket industry.
A positive future for classic skills
The good news is that there looks to be very strong light at the end of the tunnel. The FBHVC was instrumental in introducing a classic vehicle restoration course in 2013, which laid the foundations for the Heritage Skills Academy that originated at Bicester Heritage from 2016. Growth was inevitably blunted slightly by the pandemic but even its temporary online classes received 100% attendance, and there has been an impressive rise from 70 apprentices last year to 110 currently. What’s more, there’s been an expansion into a second premises at Brooklands Museum this year, with four groups based at the Surrey venue and seven at Bicester.
In future, this looks set to expand further as a number of employers already involved look to take on a second or even a third apprentice.
For example, Blue Diamond Riley Services at Bicester is now looking for a third apprentice to join its team. “There’s faith in the scheme,” said HSA Development Director, Owain Johns. “It’s got the reputation and the momentum, and there’s a renewed interest in fulfilling a shortage in the industry. By the end of the year, we’re aiming for 140 apprentices.”
One HSA apprentice has really been in the limelight in recent weeks. Luke Henshaw (main image, left) was recently appointed at Derbyshire’s new visitor attraction, Great British Car Journey, where he helps to maintain and preserve almost 170 classic British vehicles. The 17-year-old, who is also restoring his own Opel Manta A, trains at Brooklands for one week out of six before working at the new Ambergate attraction alongside time-served mechanic, Mark Lawrence.
“I knew I’d need some help, and we wanted to encourage new people into the motor industry and try and pass on some of my skills, because I’ve been in the trade about 44 years.” Mark told Classics World. “It’s difficult to get apprentices; we needed something for the classics but the normal collages don’t cover what we need – the normal criteria of ABS, ECUs, power steering is all out of the window. So we found out about the HSA and that set the ball rolling.
“We try and rebuild and repair rather just throw things in the bin,” he continued. “With a modern car you just plug a computer in and it tells you what to do, but for the old school stuff, you can’t pass the skills on if people are not there. We realised we needed that to keep the heritage going.”
Luke said: “It’s like a dream come true. This place is giving me unique skills because I get to do a bit of everything rather than just one marque. Some days I am working on an Austin Metro and a Ford Escort and other days it can be an Austin Seven or Rolls Royce Silver Spirit. No two days are the same.
“To be working with someone as skilled and knowledgeable about classic cars as Mark is incredible. And at Brooklands, my tutor was an apprentice when he was 16, so he just has so many little tips and tricks that he’s gained from 60 years of experience. I’m looking forward to carrying those skills through.”
As a further positive, the whole scene is increasingly gearing up to welcoming the next generation. The HSA continues to be backed by the FBHVC, while the Association of Heritage Engineers (AoHE) continues to promote, support and facilitate a cascading of the industry’s skills and experience to a new generation of young people. It is also broadening its aim with its Sustainable Skills Network, which promotes a sustainable repair-based future.
The newly-formed The Historic & Classic Vehicles Alliance (HCVA) also aims to preserve skills by promoting he prospects of joining the industry to younger people.
While there is still a long way to go to ensure vital skills are not lost, there are a host of positive signs that a new preservation culture is being ushered in. In a time of unprecedented change, that looks more vital than ever for the future of the industry.