Robert Siemsen

Robert is an extremely talented metal worker and coach builder with a wealth of experience. I (Jack) actually followed Robert for some time pre We Are Makers, So as you can imagine being able to feature his story in our fifth edition was an honour.

Robert Siemsen

Edition Five Feature
Words by: Robert Siemsen 
Location: Dubbo, New South Wales, Australia  
Photo Credit: ©Robert Siemsen @robertsiemsen  

What is it that you do and how do you do it? 

I’m a traditional coachbuilder and I manufacture car bodies. It’s an old craft, started in England, and it’s all based around creating contoured sheet metal for car bodies. The metalworking is very broad: plenty of welding, brazing, soldering, and wheeling to create shape. 

I also restore classic cars, which is the bread and butter of the workshop. The really bespoke work – making full car bodies – is a very niche industry, so I take on good restoration projects as well to make a decent living. 

Starting my own business was a big step. I opened full-time in August 2020, at the height of the pandemic. But I’ve been busy ever since, so it’s been good. 

When you make a full car body, is it your own design or do you use historic designs? 

They are all other people’s designs; I don’t step outside the box too much. Most of what I do and where I specialise is the making, and with restoration there’s not much of the car left, so my skills are specialised in getting the bodywork correct. If you make compromise after compromise by taking your own approach, it doesn’t look correct. 

All the measurements and patterns that I have here are taken off original cars, and I then reproduce moulds, tooling, hammer forms and so on from that data. None of the bodywork is my own design, but how the finished product is created, that’s all me – courtesy of those moulds, etc. I have to figure out what tooling is going to work to get the car to look correct, which is really what the owners are after. That’s really what sets traditional coachbuilders apart from your regular smash repair shop. 

Those restoration projects give me an opportunity to take patterns and collect intimate information about a car, which lets me continue to create new panels for that particular car design in future. As they are usually very rare cars, having moulds taken from original parts is invaluable for me. That’s where the business is going organically, and it’s exciting. 

How did you get into such a niche area? 

I really just fell into it. My father was heavily into motorsport, and somehow it was just drilled into me that I had to do something with cars. I was very lucky to be classically trained, which is really rare. I got an apprenticeship when I walked out of school aged 15, and I just stuck at it. Seventeen years I’ve been at it now. 

I’ve always really enjoyed doing it and worked for the best people I could find. There was no social media back then, so it was all just word of mouth and research to try and figure out who was doing quality work. I have always worked with great people who I really got along with, some of whom are my closest friends and mentors. 

Along the way, I’ve been inspired by the history of the craft and some photographs that I saw of Jack Payne, a panel beater in Surrey, England, working on an AC Ace. And the coachbuilders in the Midlands really are the best in the business – it really is the Mecca of what I do. 

A few years back I reached a barrier in Australia, where I couldn’t figure out how to get better or what my next move was, so I applied for a Winston Churchill Fellowship. Being awarded the fellowship allowed me to go to England for three months in 2019 to really immerse myself in the coachbuilding culture. It was a really rewarding experience that let me get even more in tune with the craft. 

Prior to that, I had worked with some of the best coachbuilders in Australia, which really put me in good stead to go to England and not make a fool of myself. If you go and work for a master, you can pick up a lot more if you’re already experienced than if you’re just a novice. 

Most recently, I worked with Nugent Coachbuilders here in Dubbo. Mark Nugent is a great friend and mentor, as were the previous guys I worked for in Sydney – Fidel Alfarro and George Schorta. Before that, I did an apprenticeship with Mercedes-Benz. The boss, John Prendergast, had a collection of older motor cars and that’s pretty much where it all started: it was just four years of restoring an old Mercedes-Benz SL 500. It planted a seed, and the hunger of wanting to get better has really pushed me throughout my whole life. 

Where are you based and what’s your set-up like? 

Dubbo is a regional city in New South Wales, about 4½ hours’ drive from Sydney. For this trade, you really want 100 sq m of space. Being in Dubbo keeps the overheads right down compared to Sydney, which is very expensive, but we’re still very well-connected. We have trucks doing overnight runs to all the capital cities and it’s not too far for owners to come and check their cars out once or twice. They save a little bit of money too, as they’re not paying to have a car in a workshop in Sydney. It’s really what has given me an advantage, I think. 

Where I am is a good space but very no-frills. It’s 120 sq m with three-phase power and concrete floors. I’m in these really poorly designed freight docks, so I’ve been able to take the walls out of each bay as the business has grown. It is very, very cheap, which has allowed me to put what profits I make into buying the machinery that I need. Having that low rent has also let me make a lot of mistakes and figure out how to invoice properly, how to manage my cash flow and how much to charge without huge amounts of financial pressure and pain. 

I do have to work hard, but it’s given me a lot of freedom: I haven’t needed to take on work that I don’t want just to pay the bills. 

Tell me a bit about your process for making a car body. 

To make a car from scratch is a very time-consuming project. You do get clients who want a one-off but it’s quite rare, because it’s hugely expensive to set up a jig or a timber mould with all the tooling to do so – you have to make all that from drawings or scans. And once you have the basic outline of the car, you then need to worry about the door frames and all the detailing inside the car, the engineering and the inner workings. To get it right, you have to scour through books and do all your research. 

Where the process is simplified is where you have these rare cars that you can pattern off and recreate. Then you bypass almost 90% of the work needed to create that one-off, because you already have the information right in front of you. That is how I work for the most part. 

I can build someone a Jaguar C-Type because I have a whole buck that was made from an original. Making a full body for a C-Type takes me about 1,500 hours, because I have the correct tooling and the correct patterns. But if someone wanted a Bentley 4½ litre, it would take me years and years and years of painstaking research to get there. And generally, there is someone in the UK who has done it before anyway, so you would go to them instead. 

Even a restoration is a huge job: 700 to 1,500 hours or more will go into the work, depending on the condition of the car. It means that one or two clients a year is my maximum for the big jobs, so owners just hear about me by word of mouth. I had to hustle hard to get business when I first started because I had nothing; I’ve settled down now. But I had to pull everything off Google because I had people ringing up and saying, ‘I have Aus$12,000 to spend on my car, what can you do for that?’ And I’d reply, ‘Well, I’ll wash it for you.’ 

Are you also involved in fitting the engine and the interiors? 

I try to only do the bodywork: the contoured sheet metal, the substructure and occasionally some chassis work. All cars are a little bit different, and some have timber frames, which I don’t do any of, so then it’s just the bodywork. But it’s definitely the most time-consuming part of restoring or building a car, so I just focus on that. 

A lot of the work that I do is for bigger companies that do the engine building, running gear, tyres, paintwork and upholstery themselves. Theirs is a larger entity, with more manpower to do all those aspects. But what I do is really specialised work, and if they come to me, it can save them a lot of money. 

Companies that bring me work usually have their own bodywork team with a particular specialism and they don’t want to take them away from that and have them fart about on something that they don’t comprehensively understand. That’s where my business is competitive, just because I’ve had that great training and experience that not many other Australians have had. 

Do you focus on a few projects at a time? 

Two at a time is my rule, for the moment anyway. I usually have a couple of big projects on the go at the same time, and then I may also take on a smaller three- or four-day job here and there. When I’m making panels or the complete car bodies, it really is open heart surgery. I find I can’t be working on too many of them at the same time because it just gets out of control. 

Clients are generally happy to wait because I have built a good reputation. Everything that comes out of my workshop will be correct. I’m not taking a stab at anything: all of the research is done, all of the proper tooling is made and, when the car leaves, it will be correct. That is my point of difference, and I am classically trained to achieve that sort of work. It takes a long time to learn and it’s not for everyone, and in turn, it’s not for every car owner either. But I am busy, and the work that I do adds to the value of the car, so it does make the wait worthwhile. 

Do you have a favourite piece that you’ve made so far? 

When I work on something, I always think that it is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to make. That’s been occurring forever, so I’m proud of everything that I do, big and small – it is all very rewarding. 

Do you have anyone who helps you? 

I have two part-timers who come in and help me with labour-intensive jobs, and I’m training them up slowly. Putting on a full-time person is definitely a goal but would be a huge responsibility for me. 

But I do also have a nice network. I enjoy just chatting to people – colleagues in England, the USA and Australia – and just checking in. I’ve asked for a lot of help from them, whether it’s for some advice or to borrow some machinery, and 80% of the time, they’ll help you. And you want to help them, so it creates this really good network, and it helps everyone (mainly me!) stay in business. I mostly work on my own during the day and, if I didn’t have this network, I would be very isolated and nowhere near as successful. But there’s give and take in that – you can’t just keep taking. 

I asked a great panel beater in England, Paul Temple, what makes a person really stand out in this field, and he said just being friendly and getting along with people. I think that is so true and it goes for any industry. If you are a good human being and you’re willing to help, you’ll go far. 

What drives you day to day? When you hit a bump in the road, what keeps you going? 

I don’t know how to do anything else! But luckily, I like working on the cars and I really enjoy working with my hands. I’m not overly fond of technology – I’m stuck in the past and I’m comfortable here. 

Having a finished product that you and the owner are happy with is very rewarding. The Porsche 356 that’s sitting here waiting to be picked up is more valuable than my life – it’s going to be around for a long, long time. I find it very rewarding to be a small part of that legacy. 

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