The History Man


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Richard_Hall_Norfolk_Garage Richard at home in his workshop : credit: © Dave Phillips
Richard Hall read History at Oxford University, became a high-flying accountant and company director, but gave it all up to work on old Land Rovers. Today he’s a legend among enthusiasts thanks to his popular Norfolk Garage column for LRM, but few know the shy man behind the spanners. This is his first interview…

In the early days of LRM, a popular feature was Mike Manifold’s Country Garage – the fictional tale of a rural workshop and its imaginary customers. ‘Mike Manifold’, of course, was a pseudonym, and in 2014 when its real author decided to retire we searched for a replacement.

That search ended at a real country garage, in Norfolk. For some time I had been following the compelling blog of Richard Hall, who ran a Land Rover workshop (Glencoyne Engineering) in Thetford. I offered him the job and he agreed.

Real Richard replaced fictional Mike and Glencoyne became the Norfolk Garage, where the customers and their problems were genuine. It soon became more popular than its imaginary predecessor and today, six years on, Richard’s monthly diary is required reading for any Land Rover fan. Its author has become a legend in enthusiast circles, but this shy and retiring garage owner is known to few, other than his customers.

So who is the real man behind the Norfolk Garage? I went to Banham, in deepest rural East Anglia, to find out — and the end result is fascinating.

Richard with faithful hound Boris and Discovery 1 for everyday transport

Richard Hall, tell us about yourself... 

I’m 52 years old, born in Stamford, Lincs, son of an RAF officer. I was sent away to boarding school aged eight, read History at Oxford, graduated in 1990. I was trained as an accountant with Ernst & Young; ended up as finance director of a precision engineering company in Ipswich.  I was made redundant 2004 and set up Glencoyne Engineering, initially working out of an old barn in Suffolk, then moved to premises in Thetford, and after nine years there moved the business to Banham in deep rural Norfolk. It’s the ideal place to run a business like this: quiet and uncrowded, reasonable rents, but with good road and rail connections.

I’m married, no children, one basset hound.

Have you always been interested in cars?

Absolutely.  Most of my early childhood memories are of the cars my father owned:  the MG 1300 which overheated on holiday in Yorkshire, a Bedford Beagle Dormobile camper that took us all over the country, and a beautiful blue Triumph 2000.  I remember how proud I was that my Dad owned a car with a six-cylinder engine.  Even at eight years old that really meant something to me.

We lived near Southampton for a while – there was a scrapyard near our home with no fencing at the back, and a few of us kids used to sneak in on Sundays, sit in old Austins and Hillmans and pretend we were driving them.

My father did all his own car repairs and encouraged me to take an interest. I remember dismantling the carburettor on a Ford Anglia, then dropping all the bits on the gravel.  He had to go to a scrapyard and buy another carburettor.

As soon as I had a bicycle I was tinkering with it, stripping and cleaning the bearings, adjusting the chain and brakes, trying to make it work perfectly.  I then started acquiring old lawnmowers, stationary engines and the like, stripping them down and getting them running.

Aged 16 I bought a car, a Fiat 500.  I paid £15 for it, rented a lock-up garage and spent all my spare time working on it.  It had stood for about 20 years but I managed to get it running and sold it to a school friend for a small profit.  I then acquired a Lancia Beta for free, but that was too complicated for me at the time with its Weber twin-choke carburettor and I never managed to get that to run.

At home, I took over the servicing of my mother’s VW Polo, learned to drive and passed my test in it (first time, I would have died of shame if I had failed my driving test!) then went straight out and bought the world’s worst Morris Minor. I put it in for MoT and it came back with two continuation sheets on the failure certificate, so I bought a Triumph Herald, which taught me all about welding and engine rebuilding. Since then I have owned around 50 cars – mostly bought very cheap and needing work.

How did you end up getting involved in Land Rovers?

I had wanted a Land Rover for as long as I could remember. I can’t explain why.  When I was still at school I sent off for accessory catalogues from all the big parts suppliers so I could work out what 'my' Land Rover would have on it – basically white steel eight-spoke wheels, a bullbar with Super Oscar driving lights, and a winch.

I can remember a trip to the NEC Motor Show, I think in 1982, and seeing on the Land Rover stand a yellow 88in V8 built as an attention-grabbing concept vehicle.  It certainly grabbed my attention.  I believe that vehicle still exists.

In 1987 my mother mentioned that she knew someone with a Series IIA for sale at a price I could just about afford. I went to look at it and offered him the full asking price on the spot.  It was a lovely original vehicle with a genuine 29,000 miles from new and full supporting history, up at £650.  The guy must have realised that he was asking too little, because he cancelled the sale, claiming he was worried that the clutch might be almost worn out.  I was absolutely desperate to buy a Land Rover and ended up with a Series III Lightweight, brush-painted in blue Hammerite and mechanically worn out.  It got me banned from the college car park when I left oil stains all over the Tarmac, and broke down blocking a roundabout on the Oxford ring road in rush hour, which made the national traffic news. I learned a huge amount about Land Rovers in a very short time, and although I soon sold it and bought an Alfasud Ti instead, it wasn’t long before I was scouring the pages of Auto Trader looking for another cheap Land Rover. I haven’t been without one for any length of time since then.

And how did you end up working on Land Rovers for a living?

When I was made redundant (for the second time in my career) I decided I had two choices: I could either get another finance-type job, or do something I actually enjoyed.

The older Series vehicles were just starting to be seen as classics rather than worn-out old workhorses and I thought I could make a living from buying and selling them. I quickly discovered that dealing in old Land Rovers wasn’t really something that would make me rich. By the time I had brought a vehicle up to what I considered an acceptable standard to sell, there was never any profit left in it.

I tried moving into full chassis-up restorations but that didn’t make me any money either, so I ended up concentrating on mechanical repairs. For a long time the business was very close to going bust: what saved it was the 200Tdi engine conversions that I started offering, which proved hugely popular and (once I had done a couple) were fairly predictable in terms of cost and time taken.

I started out selling vehicles off my driveway on a housing estate near Ipswich, while I was looking for premises.  My landlord put me in touch with someone who was running a scaffolding business out of an old barn and had more space than he needed.  He rented half the barn to me.  It was a terrible place: draughty, dilapidated and falling down. There was very little light, most of the floor was just bare earth, it flooded whenever it rained, and when the wind was blowing from the east I couldn’t open the doors.  I stuck it out for a couple of years, but as soon as I could afford it I moved to a modern industrial unit in Thetford which had concrete floors and proper lighting.  It was heavenly.

After about four years I got greedy.  My landlord offered me a unit about three times the size of the one I was in, for a much lower cost per square foot. I looked at all the space and jumped at the chance, but the place cost a fortune to keep warm, it gobbled electricity, the business rates were extortionate and all I did with the extra space was fill it with worthless junk.

I was on a five-year, fixed-term lease and couldn’t get out.  It was a grim time: I was working long hours, spending huge amounts of money just to keep the doors open, and I barely had enough left each month to pay the household bills. It was a great relief to get to the end of the tenancy and move to Banham. Here I am always short of storage space, but the place is affordable.

If you are working as a one-man band in this business it is the overheads that crucify you. Most garages only start to make money from the second and third employees: if you don’t have anyone else earning money for you, it is always going to be a marginal existence.

Why have you stuck in Norfolk?

I’m a rural kind of person, always have been. I don’t like big cities and big crowds. Norfolk is uncrowded, the pace of life is a bit slower and there’s a rather old-fashioned kind of friendliness that makes it feel rather like the village I grew up in.

Our man's never happier than in the engine bay of a Series Land Rover

You seem to specialise in pre-2000 Land Rovers. Why is that? 

When I first started the business, old Land Rovers were the cheap ones that none of the big specialists really wanted to work on. That was where I saw a gap in the market. I have built up a lot of experience on the older vehicles over the years and have all the tools needed to work on them.  To expand into the newer Land Rovers I would need to put quite a lot of money into diagnostic equipment and special tools, and I’m not sure I would see that investment back.

In any case, it is the old vehicles that interest me. I would much rather repair something than replace it. When I try working on a modern vehicle I always seem to end up with a pile of broken plastic. There must be about 30 different designs of electrical connector out there, each of which needs a different technique to release it, and all of them made of cheap, brittle plastic. I’m happy to leave that stuff to the big boys.

In any case, working on modern vehicles is a totally different game to what I am doing.  If someone has an expensive six-year-old vehicle and it breaks, they want it repaired yesterday, and a courtesy car while it is off the road. Almost all the vehicles I work on are second or third vehicles. They are more like family pets than everyday workhorses, and if I can’t fit the job in for two or three weeks that is usually no problem for the owners. As a one-man operation I don’t think I could meet the needs of modern vehicle owners; I would end up letting people down all the time.

Your thoughts on modern Land Rovers?

The only sensible way to measure that is whether the company is making money doing what it is doing. I don’t know whether that is the case.

Modern car manufacture is so heavily governed by regulations, especially on safety and emissions, that there is no way Land Rover could have carried on making the old Defender or anything like it.  In any case, customers seem to actually want all the toys, giant touchscreens, automatic wipers and so on. Cars that don’t have all that kit, don’t sell well.

The new products, Discovery Sport and so on, don’t really do anything for me. They’re just not my kind of car. But I see an awful lot of them on the roads, so the company must be doing something right.

Your thoughts on electric vehicles? 

In principle there is nothing wrong with the idea of an all-electric car. Electric motors offer massive torque from standstill, are quiet, smooth, easy to package and so on.

The problem is batteries. For energy density, nothing else can touch a tank of petrol or diesel. To get the same amount of energy storage from batteries takes up a huge amount of space and weight, and then there is the issue of range and recharge times. They are getting better, but still a long way off the convenience of internal combustion, where you can get 500 miles range from a five-minute fuel stop.

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For people using a car for a short commute in heavy traffic with recharging points at either end of the journey, electric cars are absolutely perfect. But out here in the sticks they don’t make so much sense, and I don’t know what you are supposed to do about charging your battery if you don’t have off-street parking.

I’m pretty sure the internal combustion engine will outlive me. Once most commuting and shopping trips are in electric cars, pollution from the remaining petrol and diesel ones will no longer be such an issue, but some politicians and campaigners will push for the elimination of all non-electric vehicles, so car enthusiasts have to be prepared to push back.

Richard derives great satisfaction from reviving old items like this Series gearbox

What’s your favourite Land Rover? 

Probably the 109 V8 (Stage One).  I have owned a few of these and adore them. Perfect combination of classic Series looks, permanent four-wheel drive and that rumbly old V8 engine.

Favourite engine and gearbox? 

The 200Tdi engine, by a mile. Undoubtedly the strongest and most durable engine Land Rover ever made. I have taken them apart at 300,000 miles and you can still see the honing marks all the way up the bores. Super-efficient as well, 30-35 mpg, starts instantly without glowplugs even in cold weather, and plenty of low-end torque which is just what you want in a Land Rover.

Gearboxes were never really Land Rover’s strong point, but the late Series IIA box is a nice old thing, with good gear changes, easy to work on and pretty robust.  Series transfer boxes are near enough unbreakable.

Favourite job in the workshop? 

Engine and gearbox rebuilds. I love coming in on a Saturday and putting an engine together: it’s really satisfying when you fire it up for the first time, all the warning lights go out and it sounds sweet.

Least favourite(s)? 

Working on the steering relay on Series vehicles is a pig of a job: nine times out of ten the relay body has rusted solidly into the chassis. You sometimes end up having to cut out the front crossmember and fit a new one.

Changing leaf springs on a Series is physically hard work – more so when the shackle bolts are rusted solid in the spring and chassis bushes. When I’ve done a full suspension swap on a Series vehicle my body really lets me know about it. I’ll be aching for days afterwards

Do you refer to workshop manuals, etc, or is the information all stored in your head?   

I am largely self-taught but I was helped by some very good and experienced Land Rover experts in the early days, when I was just a young and clueless Series III owner. I have been doing this long enough now to only use workshop manuals for the torque settings and other technical data. 

Old vehicles tend to come apart and go back together in a sensible, logical fashion. My basic approach has always been to try to understand how things work. Once you grasp the mechanical principles behind them, it is much easier to diagnose why they are not working the way they should.

Do you get great job satisfaction?  

I love this job and wouldn’t do anything else.  You can take a vehicle that has been running badly for months or even years, sort it out, and the owner can’t believe how much better it is. I’m working on vehicles that will probably outlive me, and it’s nice to think that they will still be around and giving pleasure to people 50 years from now.

Richard's real Norfolk Garage is any leaf-sprung Land Rover fan's idea of paradise

How did you begin writing about Land Rovers? 

I don’t really remember. I think I just started a blog because it was fashionable at the time. I’d already set up a couple of websites and I have always found writing about vehicle-related stuff very easy. I had also discovered that if you put some interesting content on your website and people link to it, that pushes your site up the search engine rankings. It seems to have worked anyway.

When I was asked to write a monthly column for LRM I thought it was a great opportunity to ramble on about old Land Rovers and actually get paid for it.

What was the inspiration for your book?

I was approached by the publisher, Crowood Press. They were looking for someone to write a book about maintaining Series IIIs.  They wanted something a bit like a Haynes manual: what they ended up with is the Series II, IIA and III Maintenance and Upgrades Manual – a book full of all the problems and pitfalls the Haynes manual doesn’t mention. (It’s still available on Amazon and direct from the Crowood Press website for £15.96 and is an absolute bargain – Ed).

Any more books in the pipeline? 

Writing the book was fun, but I am flat out in the workshop and I don’t know how I would find the time.

Tell us about your customers. Have they changed over the years? 

The customers are one of the best things about this business. They are almost all Land Rover enthusiasts, really passionate about these old vehicles and keen to see the vehicles repaired properly and not just bodged up to get them through an MoT. You couldn’t find a nicer bunch of people anywhere. What they think of me, I have no idea, but I have been looking after some of them for 15 years now so I can’t be doing too much wrong.

How easy is it to spot a Land Rover enthusiast?

There is no such thing as a typical enthusiast. They come in all shapes and sizes. These old vehicles get under your skin, usually at quite an early age. I have customers who will turn up in a business suit to drop off a ratty old Series IIA with the doors hanging off, then get a lift to the station so they can go off to their six-figure city job.

You favourite type of customer?

The ones who contact me to let me know they are happy with the work I have done.  It’s a bit disheartening when I put weeks of work into a vehicle, the customer turns up, takes it away and I never hear another thing.  It leaves me wondering whether I did a good job or not.

Any plans for your business that you can share with us? 

It would be nice to take on an apprentice at some point so that I can pass on what I have learned over the years.  It would be a shame if the knowledge I have accumulated just died with me.

If you could give our readers just one bit of advice, what would it be? 

If you have an old Land Rover, drive it as often as you can. Vehicles used daily give far less trouble than ones that are laid up for long periods. They were built to be worked hard in all weathers, not to sit under a dust sheet and only come out once a year for the local vintage vehicle rally.

Any regrets? 

Just one: I should have read Mechanical Engineering at university. If I had done, perhaps I would now be working on the Land Rovers of the future, rather than keeping the old ones going.

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