One of our favorite things to do is meet up with some of our car friends and visit car related attractions around Middle Tennessee. On a recent and very cold February Saturday 53 of us took off for the back woods to visit Chalfant Motor Car Company. Jim Hery has been a craftsman Coach Builder for nearly 40 years. He has built a Worldwide reputation in the process.
Due to the weather most of us left our classic iron in the garage and drove our more reliable daily cars. Some were in minivans while others were in modern sporty cars and a hardy few even drove there muscle cars. The drive down Tennessee’s windy country roads even in the heart of winter is a pleasant and enjoyable activity.
The visit to Jim Hery’s shop was like a step back in time; not only a step back in time but also a step across the Atlantic Ocean! You see, Jim is not just a restorer of old cars; he is a true Coach Builder! In the early part of the 20th Century the wealthy in Europe and the United States would purchase the finest chassis they could find from the likes of Bugatti, Rolls Royce and similar builders. The rich and famous would then select a Coach Builder to construct, by hand, a beautiful body to meet their special needs. The requests could ranged from luxury limousines to sporty boat tail speedsters to all out race cars.
Each car was custom built to the owner’s specifications. There were no standard interiors or even body designs. Everything was custom. To make things even more complicated; there were numerous men working on each car. For instance, one person may make one headlight and another person might make the second. As a result, although both sides of a car may appear the same, each side was slightly different from the other. One might have more flowing lines while the other might be less flowing and more angular. Jim tries to interpret the original design from photos and recreate it as it was built with all of its differences.
Today, Jim not only performs the same remarkable effort but he goes one-step further. It is takes special skills and artistic talent for aCoach Builder to design and construct a completely new body to fit on a chassis. Jim has built many a car of his own design for vintage chassis. However, to me what seems even more impressive is his ability to reconstruct original hand built, one of one, or one of three bodies. These are not cars that come with a set of plans and specifications or even parts list. They are cars that were built by craftsmen nearly a century ago. They were hand built from flat sheets of steel or aluminum on wood body frames.
Working from old photos or drawings and a hand full of parts Jim begins the laborious process of hammering out new fenders, doors, bumpers and all the other missing pieces for the restoration.
It is hard to imagine until you see Jim pick up a flat piece of metal and begin to work his magic; whether it is with a torch, hammer and dolly or on an English Wheel. He gave us all a demonstration of how he does this with his hand tools and even let the brave among us give it a try.
There were cars just being started, cars well into the restoration process, and cars nearly completed in various areas of the shop. His woodworking skills to build the bucks for forming body parts and making wood structural frames for the bodies just like they did back in the day is beyond remarkable.
Do not think that these are just some backwoods TN body shop creations for local hobbyist. Jim’s customers come from all over the World. His completed cars have been awarded Best in Class at Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, plus many AACA awards and the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
After the visit and Jim’s demonstrations and as we walked back to our own humble Detroit iron the restoration of our own cars seemed like a walk in the park compared to the skill and patients Jim exhibits. After all, he can not pick up the phone, look at a catalog and order a fender for a 1930’s Bugatti; he has to make it from a flat piece of aluminum right in his own shop!