Grant Cotterell's Series III got to share a hangar with a Spitfire as he sneakily gave it the paint job his wife had warned him against...
Having just given up racing motorcycles, with 40 years of body damage to show for it, my wife decided I needed a new interest to keep me occupied. I had dropped the odd hint about getting a Land Rover but was taken completely by surprise when she got interested in the green oval. It was not long before we found a suitable SWB Series III not far from where we live in Norfolk and, on inspection, looked exactly what we wanted for greenlaning, with all the faults the pundits had flagged up. I was going in with my eyes open, at least.
The bodywork had been badly brush-painted and had a good selection of dents – patina my good lady wife wanted to keep. As for the mechanical side. I could fill LRM with all of the work I have done and the problems I have solved over the last year. Brakes, clutch, parabolic springs, propshaft UJs, propshaft phasing and steering were just a few of the issues tackled. The question is, how far do I go with the restoration? How do I keep the character of the SIII but preserve my investment? As soon as I had repaired the front radiator panel, I had a problem; it looked so good, I could see the potential. Should I go for a full resto or do just what was necessary? What would my wife say if I dido the former? For me, there was no turning back. My plan was to do a bit at a time over a couple of years so my wife would either not notice it or get used to it. My cunning plan was working quite well. So far, I had replaced the door tops and renovated the seat box while I was replacing the clutch but the plan was about to be turned on its head by a bit of good luck.
My big brother flies a Spitfire. Well, a Mk 26 Spitfire replica at 80 per cent scale, to be precise. For this reason, he has a hangar. Now, big bro was going in for repair work on his personal left upper ball joint – a hip replacement – and the hanger was going to be free for a few months during his recovery. If I wanted, he said, I could use it to strip and respray my Land Rover under cover. I could push his Supermarine Spitfire outside when painting, then give him a hand to dismantle and crate the Spitfire later in the year when he would be emigrating to New Zealand and taking the aircraft with him. There would be two British icons together for a short time, both made with lots of aluminium and rivets. They belonged together. Supermarine aircraft are now based in the USA, but have been building replica Spitfires for over 20 years now. There is a 90 per cent scale version and plans for a full 100 per cent replica, with a very strong demand. Could the same resurrection be possible for the iconic Land Rovers, I wonder?
My first job was to remove the roof and sides so they could be rubbed down for painting. My 87-year-old dad helped me; without him, the job would have been harder and nowhere near as much fun. Dad had been in engineering all his working life and is a fount of knowledge for all things mechanical – the perfect working companion in fact. The old mastic around the roof seam was rock-hard and cracked, so Dad went to work chipping it all off ready for a new seam seal to be fitted before the undercoat went on. I had a bit of luck with the weather on the week of the respray. It was hot, dry and, though a bit on the windy side, okay for the paint spraying to be outside, saving me the risk of moving the Spitfire out of the hanger. Those wing tips looked very close to the hanger doors.
The roof would be left in its original finish, which involved a bit more masking, but I felt it was worth the effort. Spraying outside was working well, with only the occasional insect entombed in the final coat of paint. It was now time to crack on with stripping out the main body. I was aware from LRM articles that removing the windscreen frame was going to be a challenge because of rusted bolts. With the skilful application of heat and persistence I managed to get the two bolts out without damaging them or the bulkhead, so all was good. The body had been brush-painted directly over the factory paint without any preparation, and it was flaking off. It would all need to be removed. I bought an orbital sander for the job and some JCB 120 mesh sanding sheets. These have a Velcro backing and can be cut to shape to fit most sanders. They worked extremely well and removed all the brush paint, leaving a nice keying surface.
Rubbing through to the aluminium here and there was always going to happen, especially as I was leaving most of the dents. Spray etch primer soon covered them but needed wet sanding around the edges of the primer to avoid the edges showing through. After undercoating the car and popping it into the hangar overnight to dry, the time-consuming process of wet flatting the undercoat started. I forgot my rubber gloves and managed to rub the skin off my hands doing this, a mistake I won't make again. Any painter will tell you this is the most important process, because rough undercoat will affect the final look and finish. Do a small area at a time, keep it wet and change your paper regularly because clogged paper will mark the paint. If you're working in sunlight or hot weather, water dries quickly on the undercoat, so wash dust off with clean water as you go.
With the top coat I am using, two coats gave a good finish. It's a synthetic coach enamel from the Paint Man (paintman.co.uk / 01777 710100) who can supply all the factory colours and even match a sample of paint. The paint proved very nice to use and the finish superb. If I was going for a showroom finish I would probably have taken even more time with the prep work and even wet-flatted the top coat off after the first two coats before flashing another two coats on. While my SIII had new front doors only about five years ago, they didn't seem to have been primed or undercoated and that top coat had been brushed directly onto the doors. This resulted in the paint flaking off as soon as I tried to rub it down so I had to strip all the old paint off back to the aluminium skin. The same undercoating, wet-flatting with 800 grit wet and dry then top coating, soon had them looking good. With the body and roof now dry, Dad could start bolting things back together when I was painting other bits. As he worked, I remembered being a small boy, when he would check the quality of my work and then retighten the nuts and bolts I had missed, and how I wanted to be like him.
Fast forward 45 years, and I now tightened the nuts and bolts he no longer had the strength to tighten. I had to be diplomatic as I tightened things up or put them on the right way around. I will escape this indignity in my old age because only one of my sons, Sam, had mechanical ability and, having secured an apprentice with Cooper Roller Bearings at King's Lynn, was killed in a road accident on his way to work six years ago. I'll be working alone when it's my turn. The bonnet had to be professionally sand blasted to clean up the steel framework inside and to remove the build-up of brush paint around the rivets. What I didn't know was the amount of filler that had been applied over the years. Although I was happy to keep most of the 'character' dents, the bonnet had to be refilled. After undercoating the bonnet, a guide coat of top coat was misted over the bonnet. As you wet-flat, you can see any low spots where the red guide coat is still showing. Theoretically, using this method would result in a good finish, but for two schoolboy errors.
I'd rushed the job and had not allowed the high-build undercoat to fully harden so there was a small amount of shrink after the top coat was dry, resulting in a slight orange peel finish which still bugs me. Finally, I started experimenting with paint finishes to replicate the look of galvanising, a subject covered in the October 2016 issue of LRM. The windscreen frame and other door capping were first spray-coated with Rust-Oleum Hard Hat Galv Zinc – aluminium paint, product code 1017. On the body capping I applied the Rust-Oleum paint by roller because I was concerned that the top coat was still soft and I didn't want to damage it with masking tape. The spray finish proved to be the better of the two options and has a less textured look to the roller-applied paint. I then used two Simoniz steel and silver wheel paints to spray the galvanizing pattern as before but, for large areas, you will need a lot more mask templates because they get a build-up of wet paint on them. I had five sets, used in rotation to allow them to dry between use.
All that was left now was to clean up the hanger and dust off the Spitfire but again those wing tips got the better of my courage and try as I might I just could not get the Spitfire out for the full clean-up and photos, so it was a case of clean the front of the hanger and push my brother's pride and joy out as far as I could to sweep the back of the hanger. It was only much later when my brother was up on his feet again and I was regaling him the story that he told me about a hidden hanger door fixing that allowed the doors to be fully opened... Throughout this my rock has been my wife Jackie, who has always had the ability to put my feet back on the ground. When I returned home, full of pride for a job well done in the newly-painted and shining Land Rover, she turned to me: “You had better back it through the hedge now to scratch it." I did detect a glint in her eye, so all is not lost. All that's left now is for me to help big bro dismantle and crate the Spitfire for its journey to the other side of the world. For an all too brief time the two British icons were together – and something I will never forget.Pictures: Grant Cotterell/ Alison Cole