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2019 19 February

Master Class

By George Woodward 19/02/2019

Roger Bray has been restoring 356s to their former glory for nearly 30 years. We meet the man whose meticulous methods are attracting a global following.
 
Words: Matt Master
Photos: Richard Pearce
 
 We enter Roger Bray’s workshop on a miserable winter’s day, closing the door to the small office as a first trace of sleet descends on the Exeter-bound A30. Inside it’s warm and welcoming – firm handshakes and an easy, unpretentious manner from Roger and his team.
 
Through the reception space, Roger Bray Restoration opens up into a warren of workshops and storage. Roger is one of the world’s most preeminent restorers of the 356, and his Tardis-like premises tell the story of decades at the coal face. His international client base accepts year-long waiting times for a six-month process, and they pay handsomely, albeit fairly, for what is understood to be the best.
 
Roger’s career began in the Southeast in the mid-1960s, where a schoolboy who, by his own admission, played truant more than anything else, was encouraged into an apprenticeship by his concerned father. It was, in no uncertain terms, that or the army.
 

 
A natural affinity for all things mechanical soon saw Roger building something of a following amid his employer’s clients, leading him eventually to establish his own business specialising in the likes of Aston, Alvis and Healey – traditional and comparatively straightforward six-cylinder British GTs.
 
In the early 1980s, Roger set up shop near Okehampton in Devon, providing a garage and recovery service while working on cars in the workshop behind when time allowed. And it was during this period, quite by chance, that
he had his first encounter with Porsche.
 
“The RAC sent me out to Tavistock one day to a car that wouldn’t start and I got over there and found this glorified Beetle. I didn’t take much notice of it – it had this appalling air-cooled engine that sounded like a sewing machine. But I got it running and did a few other things to it and a week later the customer brought it to my garage for some more work. Then some more. And then one of his friends brought another Porsche in from Plymouth, and then the phone started ringing and all of a sudden I had Porsches coming out of my ears.”
 

 
From early on Roger was surprised by what was passing for a restoration on the 356, many of which by now were more than 30 years old and born in a period where little or no consideration was given to rust protection.
 
“These jelly moulds were the first monocoque and the strength in a 356 is in the whole bodyshell, not just in the chassis section. And when I looked at what was being done in the UK in the mid-1980s it was terrifying. So we got into doing it what we call ‘properly’. I was told we were very expensive I remember – we were only charging £4 an hour in those days! But the end result…”
 
Roger trails off. He’s not a man who likes to blow his own trumpet and his business thrives on reputation and those results. Clients come from as far afield as Australia and New Zealand, Singapore and South Africa. It’s telling that he takes in a steady stream of cars from Europe too, including Germany.
 

 
What makes Roger’s approach so attractive is the belt and braces philosophy. He is loath to undertake a project where the client is unwilling or unable to see it through properly, which more often than not means full disassembly, back to metal and start again
 
The process begins with outsourced media blasting of the bodyshell, for only then can the true extent of the inevitable corrosion, patching and plating be adequately assessed. “When we’re finished we seam-seal everything and use four different types of primer: rust inhibitor primer, rust proofing primer, primer sealer and all the rest of it. So when a car leaves here it’s done. You could drive it into the sea if you really wanted to.”
 
In its 71st year, the 356 is only ever getting more desirable, but Roger’s frank and occasionally alarming anecdotes about the money pit projects that have come through his doors serve as useful cautionary tales.
 

 
“Auctions are where a certain section of the trade like to offload cars. Because you can’t get them on a ramp, you can only get down on your knees and have a look underneath. A lot of cars look great and command silly money, but all that glitters really is not gold. There’s a Roadster downstairs right now that I wouldn’t road-test as far as the roundabout.”
 
Don’t believe the ‘California car’ myth either, Roger insists. These cars rot from the inside out and are as vulnerable to condensation in their box sections as they are to surface corrosion from without. “We used to bring cars in from South Africa,” he recalls. “If you bring them in from Cape Town it might as well have come from Devon or Cornwall.
 
It’s just this sort of in-depth understanding that makes Roger and his small team so sought-after. His office is full of old books, mostly out of print, original workshop manuals and design drawings – increasingly rare and essential information from every era and for almost every variant of the 356 across its 17-year lifespan.
 
“This is my computer system,” Roger says, tapping a dog-eared notepad on the desk. “Books and paperwork are my trade. I’m a hands-on sort of person. A mechanical engineer – a grease monkey really who, at 71, doesn’t slide quite so easily these days.” With more than 25 years of experience and that wealth of knowledge to share, we should all hope that Roger keeps sliding for a long time yet.

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