Imperial College London

Careering Ahead: Interview with vintage vehicle restorer Will Fiennes

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Photo: Tim Wallace

Will Fiennes (PhD Mechanical Engineering 1970) painstakingly restores pre-war Bentleys and Rolls-Royces to their former glory.

In restoration projects that may last years, if not decades, Will Fiennes (PhD Mechanical Engineering 1970) takes the unrecognisable shell of what may, in its heyday, have been a supercar and painstakingly returns it to its former glory.

You’ve made a career out of something you love: what advice would you give to today’s students?

If you have an ambition or a dream, it will always be an unanswered question unless you have a go at achieving it. There’s that nagging “what if” and, for me, that question would bug me for the rest of my life. When something is your heart and soul, you’ll put up with difficulties that people in a regular job just wouldn’t.

Would you change anything about your career?

I don’t have any formal business training and I started out very naive – I remember trying to summon up the courage to send out my first invoice. I used to wonder if I would have done things differently if I’d had any formal business training but came to the conclusion that I’d probably never have started the business in the first place.

What’s been your favourite car to restore and why?

Of all the cars we’ve had through the workshop, the one that gave me a real thrill was a 1938 Bentley known as the Embiricos Bentley, commissioned and built to test the theory of aerodynamics. We had it here about 25 years ago and it was the most wonderful car to drive: even with all the windows down there was no change in air pressure inside the car – which was tricky in hot weather.

What’s the closest you’ve come to disaster?

I was taking the first car we’d ever restored back to its owner in London: our former premises were down a single track lane with a sharp blind bend and I met the Post Office van coming in the opposite direction – we stopped about six inches apart.

Why should classic cars be driven?

Cars need exercise. I remember one customer coming to collect their car: we took it for a test drive on a local route with lots of sweeping bends and they turned to me and said, “I’ve never driven it at more than 40,” and I thought to myself: shame on you! Some of these cars may be over 50 years old but they still more than hold their own against modern traffic.

Why is there such an enduring love and fascination for these cars?

There’s a sense of satisfaction from repairing something and making it work. People who buy these cars often have that sort of interest. These days, if you take something apart, you’ll probably have to throw it away because it won’t survive the process of disassembly. It’s a shame that there are kids who haven’t had the opportunity to really get involved in the mechanics of an object.

Tell me more about the 1932 Rolls-Royce 20/25

Originally shipped to Switzerland with a formal saloon body, the original owner later rebodied it with open coachwork. After his death, the car was sold to an Afghan prince who, in 1939, accidentally drove it into Lake Geneva returning from a party (it was retrieved the next day). The daughter of its 1950s owner tracked the car down to Seattle: she bought it, shipped it to the UK and we got involved in the late 1990s, completing the restoration last year. We were invited to attend the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, where the car won second in Rolls-Royce class, as well as the Lucius Beebe Trophy.

ONLINE EXTRA: See more photographs from theworkshop and find out about the Rolls Royce 20/25 atwww.imperial.ac.uk/imperialmagazine

Photo credit: Tim Wallace

This article first appeared in Imperial Magazine, Issue 37. You can view and download a whole copy of the magazine, from www.imperial.ac.uk/imperialmagazine.

Reporter

Kerry Noble

Kerry Noble
Department of Surgery & Cancer

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Contact details

Email: k.noble@imperial.ac.uk

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