As technology advances, the number of jobs trading the human touch for full automation is only increasing. It really makes you wonder what the employment market will look like in 25, 50 or 100 years from now.
But not everyone has to worry about robots taking their spot in the workplace. Because no matter where technology takes us, there will still be talented people perfecting their craft the good old fashioned way. People like Harry Deetlefs, whose tool of choice dates back to the 1800s.
Harry’s interest in cars and motorsport began at a young age. His parents owned an automotive spare parts shop here in South Africa, and as a family they pulled apart and rebuilt numerous cars during Harry’s childhood.
During those early years, Harry became fascinated by how components worked, and at the ripe old age of 13 he was already assembling engines. Harry also loved classic cars and the notion of owning and restoring one, and while he didn’t have the money for it, during school holiday breaks he’d always be found in the body shop soaking up as much knowledge as he could. Of particular interest to Harry was the ‘English Wheel’, which allowed its user to manipulate a flat sheet of metal to form compound (double curvature) curves.
‘Wheeling’ was prevalent in the early days of the automobile, but as bespoke coach-building gave way to more modern manufacturing methods and large presses began being employed to form body panels, the practise of working steel sheets between rollers by hand waned.
Despite not really knowing what he was doing, Harry got his hands on an English Wheel and went to work. Although the early results were more scrap metal than formed metal, he quickly became hooked; there was something about the way he could work the metal, stretching and shrinking it, that intrigued him.
Harry researched as much as possible about the craft from a number of internet sources, but what he really needed was a teacher. Even though this was around 10 years ago, Harry didn’t hold much hope for that, but surprisingly found a hands-on training course in Cape Town run by Barry Ashmole.
Ultimately, it was the time spent with Barry that sealed Harry’s future. He took what he learnt and put it into practise by forming panel after panel, then took things to the next level, travelling to the United States where he spent time with Wray Schelin at his Pro Shaper workshop in Massachusetts.
Not only did Wray refine Harry’s metal-working skills, Harry left the US knowing he had the grit to pursue his passion. Today, that takes the form of his own shop, English Wheel Fabrication in Johannesburg.
The current projects in the shop should give you an idea of the sort of work entrusted to Harry and his small but dedicated team. The services menu at English Wheel Fabrication includes metal shaping and fabrication for classic car recreations and one-offs – in steel or aluminium with specialist welding – plus full high-end bodywork restorations for classics, right through to paint.
Since starting the business, Harry has hand-made recreations of Ferrari 625 TRC Spider and Aston Martin Ulster bodies using wooden bucks as a base, completely restored Jaguar XK140s, 150s and Porsche 356s, and built custom hot rods and even a one-off Harley-Davidson motorcycle. This sort of work doesn’t come cheap, but I don’t think you could ever expect it to given how much time and effort is required at this level.
That quest for perfection has well and truly entranced Harry, and he admits that he will probably never reach it in his own eyes. Nonetheless, he keeps pushing with the goal to make every panel better than the last.
Even better, Harry is passing his knowledge down to a young apprentice – just as others passed their knowledge down to him. Those pearls of wisdom need to shared to keep this automotive art form alive.
I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone more in love with their trade than Harry, and it really shows through in the passion he extends to every car that comes through the door at English Wheel Fabrication. He might be living in the past, but in this case it’s not a bad place to be.