Swimming pools, cinema rooms, built-in saunas, even – for reasons I simply cannot imagine – a personal gym. On the list of lottery-win home features, these seem to be high on most people’s dream additions. Not me, and I bet I am in good company here.
What I want tacked onto the side of my multi-million-pound house is an immaculate, fully-equipped workshop. We’re talking two- and four-post lifts, a wall entirely covered in fresh toolboxes, an uncluttered bench and retractable airlines falling from the ceiling. If I have to sacrifice, say, the kitchen to make this happen, so be it. Pop a kettle and a microwave in one of the matching workshop cupboards and I am done. Hell, I’ll even sleep there if I need to.
I suspect a room like that all of my own will remain a just an aspiration for quite some time. That’s why I will never turn down an invite to a professional workshop. The lure of neatly organised apparatus, enclosed engine-build rooms and complex-looking machining tools is too much for me to resist. Throw in GT3-car expertise, a car restoration area, a historic motorsport parts and support department, like there is at Tolman Engineering, and I’ll probably need to be physically extracted from the building.
With no knowledge of my workshop fetish, Chris Tolman has – possibly inadvisably – invited me into his facility to take a look around. In 2007 Chris set up his business just down the road from where it is based now. It outgrew that location, moved here and outgrew it again. This time it expanded into the neighbouring buildings.
Tolman’s success has, in part, been to the fact Chris was no newbie when he started out on his own. He worked in professional motorsport for 12 years, including stints at both Prodrive and Ralliart.
“Prodrive was my first professional motorsport job, right after coming out of the Ministry of Defence,” he says. “Coming from the MoD where I think we were paid for 37 and a half hours work a week, and probably worked about 12. To go into Prodrive where I was paid for 38 hours a week, and on average did nearly 100, it was just absolutely nuts.
“Sometimes you’d go in at eight o’clock on Monday morning, you’d get an engine, strip it. Then you literally wouldn’t go home for three days just to get it turned around. It was relentless.”
But it wasn’t all bad, as it turns out. “It was hugely fascinating. I learned so much. And when I started Tolman I wanted to replicate Prodrive. But look after our staff a little bit better.”
“I’m proud to say that in the 13 years that we’ve been going here, I don’t think any of them have worked an all-nighter in the workshop; not all the way through. We’ve had a couple of nights that have gone on to three or four in the morning, but the guys have had a couple of hours of sleep. And it’s not been regular.”
That’s the nature of motorsport though, isn’t it? There will always be tight deadlines. Races are not put on pause until everyone is ready. The show goes on whether all the competitors are ready or not. But there has been a change of culture in the industry, and Chris has witnessed it firsthand.
“I was very lucky when I was at Mitsubishi on the World Rally team. It was work hard, play hard. And I was a single guy; they were fantastic years of my life travelling the world.
“The difference now, with GT racing, we aim to finish at a sensible time on the Friday. We get back to the bar and I’ll be the first one there to buy everybody a drink. On a Saturday if we get back, which is not usually the case because we eat at the circuit, I couldn’t buy my guys a beer. Because, “no it’s Saturday, we’re racing tomorrow not drinking.” That’s not anything that I’ve installed in them. It’s not anything I’ve asked them to do. It’s just what they do. It’s the culture around motorsport these days.”
You can sense this same level of professionalism in the workshop. Not only is it neat and tidy and all the freshly-painted cars are shrink-wrapped to protect them from scratches and scuffs, but every vehicle also has its own set of notes. There’s a rack of clipboards, each one assigned to a car and detailing where the project is and what needs doing next. Almost as if the cars were patients awaiting surgery.
This attitude is not just superficial, as Chris explains. “I try and look after my guys as much as possible. They’ve got everything that they need here. They’ve got nice premises to work in. It’s heated, there are nice floors and they’ve got all the right equipment. And they’re paid very well for what they’re doing, and their age and their experience.”
Combine Chris’s attitude with these facilities and an expert team (clearly), and the results impressive. Amongst many achievements and trophies, they include things like being given the contract to look after McLaren’s own driver development programme, a Lotus 19 built from practically nothing that went on to win at Goodwood, and the outrageous Sunbeam Lotus resto-mod we recently featured.
And there’s something else about this place, too. Not another beautifully presented car, although there are plenty of them. It’s less tangible than that, there’s a personality to what’s going on. And that’s because it’s honest.
Before, my ideal workshop would have been practically interchangeable with an operating theatre. The clean, clinical place you’d choose if you someone, a doctor, was going to rummage around in your insides. Tolman is not like that, it has more heart. There are pictures on the walls, stickers on the toolboxes and Mitsubishi memorabilia hanging up from Chris’s early career.
Then there’s the fabrication area, where the atmosphere holds the dust of freshly cut metal and the smell of cutting fluid from the lathe. It’s where some of the most skilled work takes place; whole chassis are built in this space, the bodywork for one of the Formula Juniors was handcrafted in this room. It’s a fundamental part of what makes Tolman so successful, and it isn’t hidden away around the corner just because there’s oil and swarf visible. No, despite the bustle of activity taking place, Chris proudly shows me around.
I wonder if all those bright white facilities I dreamed of are actually nothing more than just showrooms with a set of spanners on the wall. Corporate-controlled brand extensions, where all the real work takes place behind closed doors. If any real work takes place at all.
The longer I spend here the more my fantasy workshop morphs into something like Tolman’s facility. I contemplate hiding in the bathroom, waiting for Chris and his team to go home and then maybe claiming squatter’s rights. The one thing I haven’t seen so far is any sort of security guard, someone official who will forcibly remove me from the premises if I become a nuisance. Chris emerges from the building interrupting how I plan to start a new life in his workshop, and I remember just how much bigger he is than me and his Ministry of Defence background. I guess I won’t be staying here then, I’ll just have to go back to saving up for my own workshop.
Photography by Jordan Butters