In the UK we call them ‘Wheeling machines’ but to the rest of the world they are an ‘English Wheel’. That’s a rather ironic as the earliest incarnation (made of wood) is believed to have been used in France in the 1500’s for the making of armour, but the detail has got a little lost over time. Leap forward to the 1800’s and Britain was the centre of manufacturing for the world. Wheeling was reinvented for use with sheet metals in applications as diverse as Jewellery and Roofing, where a double, or 'compound', curve was needed. Feeding the sheet back and forth between the two ground and polished steel wheels formed a curve. The bottom wheel or 'anvil' was shaped and interchangeable so that you could form different radius in the sheet. That favourite goto material of the Industrial Revolution, Cast Iron, was in many ways perfect for the frames of these new machines. It offered the right amount of ‘ductility’ and was so heavy the wheel was going nowhere whilst you pushed your sheet metal back and forth.
By the turn of the century the car was becoming more commonplace and at this time they were still very much a rich mans toy built in small numbers. To produce large volumes of double curvature sheet metal you need a very large and expensive press, with an equally expensive tool in it. This investment only becomes economical when producing thousands of units (as Henry Ford did later with the Model T), but for small volumes the English Wheel provided a low cost way to compound curve your sheet metal. Whilst it was slow and labour intensive, at that time the materials cost more than the man with the skills required. By the 1920’s and 30’s it was common for high end buyers to purchase the chassis and drivetrain from makers like Rolls Royce, Alfa Romeo, Bugatti etcetera and have the body made by a Coachbuilder to their exact specifications, rather like ordering a bespoke suit. Most of these Coachbuilders were advocates of Wheeling and one, Ranalah, even made its own Wheel, which it marketed. Another was the ‘Besco’ brand made by F.J Edwards of London and another by George Kendrick of Birmingham.
As Aviation took off (sorry) the need for curvaceous cowlings and housings became a requirement. Again, the volumes were low and for forming the aluminium, a wheeling machine was ideal. With the coming of the trend for ‘Streamlining’ in the Art Deco age, wheeling found its zenith and photos exist of banks of wheels in factories. Towards the end of the 1930’s coach built cars began to wane and the companies diversified or went out of business, expect for an elite few. Swallow, for example, was a coachbuilders but evolved into Jaguar cars. It is said that it was the Americans visiting British aircraft production during World War Two that took back home ‘English’ Wheeling, though this is possibly just where the derivative name came from as there were well established manufacturers of Wheeling machines across the pond. In the 1890's in Canada, C&B’s historical namesake, Nathan Glass Boggs, partnered with John Morty Brown (it appears second names were much more exciting back then) to form Brown Boggs Manufacturing who built Wheeling Machines amongst their other metalworking equipment. They still build metal presses to this day.
Up until the 1980’s, ‘Panel Beater’ was a respected craft in the UK. My Father, Alfies Grandfather, was one, straightening bodywork that had been mangled in crashes on cars that were too old (and often too low in value at that time) to buy new panels for. He was taught by a Ukrainian gentleman who went by the name ‘Eric’ as his real name was suitably unpronounceable in English. I remember in the 1970’s visiting my Father’s works and Eric had just beaten and wheeled out the roof of a classic Mercedes-Benz that had received a direct hit by a falling tree. The huge dent had been painstakingly shrunk and teased out with an astounding level of skilled craftsmanship.
The Industrial unrest of the 1970’s achieved both good and bad, on the one hand the working man began to achieve a reasonable wage but on the other, labour became the most expensive element to a vehicles manufacture or repair. Look at a humble MGB’s wing from the 1960’s, it is actually made of several parts, welded together and then lead filled at the joints. Look at a Ford Escort wing from the 70’s and it is simple, a single pressing that bolts on. It was no longer economical to reshape a cars panels, a pressed replacement cost less than the labour and could be bolted on and painted in a day. The Lotus Elan bypassed metal pressing completely and came out of a glassfibre mould. For low volume sportscar manufacture glassfibre began to take over and in aviation it was used for streamlined double curved parts, paving the way for the high-tech composites that we know today.
Just as hand metalworking was dying out in the UK, it was being rediscovered in the USA. The surge in interest in the ‘Street Rod’ in the late 1980’s created a need for panels for 1930’s vehicles long out of production. It also required techniques to modify those panels to achieve the look the Hot Rodder was after, so the English Wheel had a renaissance and those decades old wheels were hunted down and restored. It is credit to their engineering that they could still be used and today you will need to pay several thousand pounds for a century old, iron original in need of refurbishment. Whether you have the space or the means to move a quarter ton of cast iron is another matter. Interestingly, American Wheelers tend to use a slightly different technique, hammer forming the basic shape then wheeling the dents out and the curves in. Italian Carrozzeria on the other hand, prefer to use the Maglia power hammer.
At C&B we’ve been investigating the English Wheel and if any of the ones being made today are fit for purpose so we can stock them. To assess them properly, Alfie and I decided we needed to understand the technique better, so we’ve just completed a wheeling course. It was the most fun we’ve had for a long time (which makes us sound really sad, but each to their own…) and made us realise one key thing: It is relatively easy to pick up the fundamental technique (yet requires oodles of practice to perfect) but is one of those things you will NEVER learn from a book or Youtube video. Hands on teaching is required where an expert can take you through the principals. If you do not get those right you will just end up with a frustrating bit of undulating metal (in all the wrong places). Under tutelage, you can feel the changes you are making to the metal, make mistakes and learn how they happened and how to fix them. Because we believe in this so strongly (and had such a good time), we have partnered with our expert trainer and some other organisations to run a series of one day introductory courses on the English Wheel. We subsidise these so they are within reach for every enthusiast and you can use it as a tester to see if you’d like to take the plunge and buy a machine, or just learn a new skill for your own enjoyment. The courses are at the wonderful Heritage Skills Academy facility in the impressive Bicester Heritage, supported by the FBHVC. Just book on our website here.
nb: Please note that the classes are for a maximum of 8 persons each to keep tuition on a personal level and therefore spaces are limited, so we recommend booking early to avoid disappointment. All equipment and materials are provided, including lunch!