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Where are they now? - Keith Atkinson

Keith's latest project already looks stunning in bare metal 

Anyone remotely interested in hot rodding in the UK will have no doubt heard the name of Keith Atkinson, a prolific hot rodder and car constructor with over 10 significant hot rods to his name.  We wanted to find out more about Keith’s hot rodding roots and ended up in hot rod heaven while visiting him at home in Camberley, chatting about his past projects and looking at the new cars taking shape within the walls of his extensive garage.

So, the inevitable question! How did you get started in street rodding?

“I suppose in the normal way, you see hot rodding magazines and spot cars locally that spark off that initial interest. I was lucky that the local hot rod meeting (Wheels Day) took place in Bracknell.  This would have been around 1977/78 and I met up with the BracPackers, who were a group of hot rodding enthusiasts. Back then there was Mick Jenkins who is now at So Cal Speed Shop, Pete Fowler, Dave Sturgess and a couple of other guys who have since got into bikes.  I started going to shows with them before marriage and kids and they encouraged me to build my first hot rod.

“I cut my teeth on a Ford Popular called Orange Appeal which I built in 1978/79 when I was 21/22 years of age.  I’d seen a few at shows and thought to myself, ‘I wouldn’t mind building one of those.’  I bought an original stock bodyshell and fitted it to an aftermarket chassis, which you could buy quite easily at the time.  Mick Jenkins chopped the roof and painted it orange, and I dropped in a Ford V6.  My wife and I did the interior – it was a bit gaudy when you look back at the green crushed velvet, but it was all the rage at the time. We took the car to Alexandra Palace and I kept it for a couple of years, but eventually sold it to start my own business, designing and fitting kitchens and bathrooms.

“Funnily enough, I saw the Pop for sale on e-bay about a year ago, and it now has a Ford Zodiac straight six, the firewall had been cut out and the car was painted yellow. I bid for it, but it sold for a little more than I wanted to pay.

“After this, I had about four to five years out of street rodding due to family and business commitments, and I waited until 1987, before I started my second project – a Fordson van.  It had been built by Nick Butler, for a guy called Keith Rawbone, about 10 years earlier.  It had Nick’s own brand of chassis, Jaguar rear end and custom-engineered front suspension, and the stock body came with it.  I channelled the body over the chassis, chopped it, fitted a new floor, and dropped in a 289 Ford V8 topped off with a B&M blower kit.

The Fordson won Best of Show first time out

“I received a lot of inspiration from the BracPackers, and the project moved on apace.  I decided to paint it orange – just like the Pop – and put ‘Tivoli’, the name of my business, down the sides.  It turned out better than expected, and at the first show I went to, it took everyone by surprise.  It was first shown at Billing, in 1987, and won Best of Show.  I was really thrilled about that.  I kept it for 3 years, went to a lot of places, not just in UK, but Sweden, Denmark and Holland.  My kids were about eight years old, and loved going to the shows.  Of course, when you get into rodding in such a big way, you really get the bug, and it wasn’t long before I wanted to build another car, only this time it had to be a ‘34 Sedan.

“For this, I managed to source a body and chassis through a friend of Simon Lane’s.  The car had come in from the US as a rolling project – it was stock, so I sold the chassis, kept the body shell and put a Chris Boyle chassis underneath.  Over a couple of years, I built the car up with a 454 motor topped with a B&M Megablower, and it was pro steeted by a guy called John Hockley, who ran a business called Hot Rod Enterprises.

The '34 Sedan prior to being flamed

“Again, the colour had to be orange, and I met a guy called Steve Brown who applied the flames.  He was a really switched-on guy and became a good friend, but unfortunately, he had a heart problem and sadly passed away about 10 years ago.  He was also a business partner with Neil Melliard – that’s how I got to know Neil, who did the flames on my roadster.  I kept the Sedan for three years, but then needed to sell it on as we were going through the recession.  Fortunately, I took it to a show in Holland, met a chap called Perry (whom I now regard as a great friend) and he bought it from me.

“With some of the money realised from that, I went out and bought another unfinished project – a tired 28/29 Roadster, owned by John Toft, which had been on the road for four or five  years with a Rover V8 engine.  It used a Paul Haigh body and chassis, with his front suspension and a Jaguar independent rear end.  To my eyes, the car sat right, but I didn’t like the black paint or Centerline wheels, so I took it apart.  Gary Kybert then did the interior, I bolted on a set of polished ARE five-spokes, fitted a new bonnet and had it painted orange.  This car was very much a stop-gap project – it kept me in the hobby while things were a bit tight at work, and it didn’t cost me an awful lot either.  I sold it to a guy in Belgium, and then started looking around for another car.

The stop-gap Roadster

“At around this time, John Unsworth asked me to help finish his fat-attack ‘46 Ford Coupe, which had been partly built in the ‘States by a company called Flatlanders, who operate near New York.  They set it up as a rolling chassis, put the body on the chassis and then shipped it over here.  It came complete with engine and transmission, plus a unique-for-the-time TPI injection set-up.  Sturge did the wiring, Tracy Chantry sorted the paintwork, and Gary Kybert did his usual magic on the interior.  It was painted peach and blue, which was very contemporary for its time.

John Unsworth's fat-attack Ford

“While working on John’s car, I was looking around for another project for myself, and came across a Model A Sedan, which I purchased from John Hall, who had been building it for three to four years.  It was an old Jeff Beck chopped body and rolling chassis.  I struck a deal with John, got the car home and started to take it apart. I fitted a new Superbell axle, front brakes and Ford 9-inch rear, and zee’d the chassis to get it to sit right.  It came with a small-block Chevy, which I fitted with a Jon Golding tri-carb set-up.  The reason it ended up purple and not orange is because John Emery had just finished a Model A painted orange, and it would have been too similar.  I found a purple shade I really liked, and had that applied by Tracy, with my trademark orange limited to the California Kid-inspired flames by Steve Brown. 

“The Model A was a great car for us.  It drove well and was even featured on the cover of Chelsea Football Club’s merchandise catalogue in 1995/96.”  This tied in rather nicely, as Keith is a keen Chelsea supporter.

California Kid-inspired flames on the Model A

In 1996, Keith was asked by his Dutch friend, Perry, to put together a knock-out Willys Sedan, pro-street style, with a blown 454 for motivation.  Perry had bought the car from Andy Saunders, and taken it home as a complete street rod, but then felt it was in need of a total makeover, so back it came to Keith’s garage for remedial therapy.  This was at the height of Keith’s street rodding notoriety, and was another project he responded to with his usual professionalism.  It featured a Tony Jarvis, race-influenced chassis that was tubbed and fitted with custom, black leather upholstery.  Adding to the extrovert appearance of the Willys, there was a 6/71 GMC blower sticking through the hood, a wicked stance and a purple paint scheme.  The usual suspects – Dave Sturgess, Tracy Chantry and Gary Kybert – were all employed to help complete the car over an 18-month period.  It was later flamed by Chris Froggett, and appeared on the show scene in the UK, where it won Best of Show at the NSRA Supernationals at Knebworth first time out.  

The wicked Willys built for Perry

While the Willys was under construction, the Model A was used for about three years, and Keith had no intention of selling it until someone knocked on his door sometime in 1996.  “I was selling a 1940 Ford Coupe for Perry, and this guy had seen it advertised for £12,000, and came to give it a once-over.  Afterwards, he said he was really disappointed with it, as he thought it was a finished car to the standard of my Model A – he wanted a show car.  I apologised, and said sorry if he’d been misled, and then he asked if I’d consider selling my car.  Well, at this point, I hadn’t even considered it, but I was just about to move into a new house, which had no garage, and was thinking I could build my own garage if funds became available.  I gave him a realistic price, and as he figured it would have cost him more to build up the ‘40 Ford to show standard, we struck a deal on the Model A.  This was in 1996, and I got £17,000 for that car, which at the time was good money.  This enabled me to build a fantastic three-car garage.  The Model A was later bought by Nigel Lockley, and then sold on to a guy in Germany two to three years ago.   

“I’ve often thought that it’s good to have a hobby where you have something that’s worth money at the end of it, rather than going jet skiing, for instance, and spending £150 every weekend, or similar – at least when more important things in life come along, you can offload a hot rod.”  Getting back to my garage, though, I now had a great place to work in, but nothing to put in it.

“At around this time, I received a call from Chris Boyle, who said he was building a stock-height, three-window coupe for Richard Hartley.  It was a rolling chassis with the body on, which needed finishing, and he asked me if I’d take it on.  I went down to see it, and after checking it over, decided it would be ideal.  I told Richard I would build it in my spare time in the evenings, with people like Sturge, Tracy and Gary assisting.

Richard Hartley's coupe

“I prepped the body, Tracy primed it, I flatted it, he applied the top coat and I flattened and polished it.  I was doing all of the laborious jobs to help keep the costs down.  It took about nine months to complete, and the car debuted at Billing in 1997, where it took a Top-10 award.  Afterwards, I kept it for about six months to debug it, as Richard wasn’t too bothered about getting it back.  It had a 351 Windsor and an auto ’box with independent front and rear (Jaguar) suspension.  It drove very nicely on coil-overs front and rear, although we had to shorten the front coils to get it to sit right.  I was pleased with the way the car turned out, and so was Richard.

“At the same time as putting together Richard’s coupe, I managed to get back on my feet financially, and acquired a ‘34 Ford coupe as an unfinished project.  It had a Chris Boyle body sitting on top of a rolling chassis.  I fitted it with a small block Chevy motor and decided to put it together really quickly, as I didn’t have a rod at this time and missed driving one.  I thought rather than going to the trouble of painting it properly, I’d just have it done in satin black.  I got Neil Tadman to do the door panels and seats, and Tracy painted it.  That’s how I drove it for a year in 1998, before selling it to Sas Hunter, and before he in turn sold it on to Perry.

The quick fix me up coupe

“I then started to accumulate parts for my ‘32 Roadster, but at this time, also got involved with Nick Davis’s ‘37 Ford coupe.  It came in as a rolling race car, and we took out the engine and box, dropped in one of his road-spec big blocks, and topped it with a blower (Nick’s now part of ICE Automotive).  We fitted a completely new steel front end with fenders and hood, fabricated the exhaust system, trimmed it out, had it painted at Tracy's and fitted new Halibrand wheels.  It was a race car converted for the road and was almost complete, but the pressure of work meant I just didn’t have the time to finish it, which was a real shame, as it was a lovely car.

Nick Davis's '37 Ford - now on the road apparently

“During the summer of 1998, I went over to the German Street Rod Nationals and saw a lovely red steel ‘34 Ford Coupe for sale for what was a really good price at the time.  I thought it would be a great car to own until I finished my roadster, so I purchased it, kept it pretty much unchanged, and drove it until the roadster was almost complete, at which point – you guessed it – Perry decided to buy it!

“I started to throw quite a bit of money at the Roadster, but it took longer for the car to come together due to pressure of work.  Previously, I’d had a reasonable amount of spare time, but the business had become so demanding that it took about five years in total to get the Roadster completed – it was finished in 2002.  The chassis was originally put together by Chris Boyle, but I took it to Jon Golding and asked him to modify it to use his front and rear suspension.  Jon fitted his ladder bars and put in the dropped front axle and engine mounts.  It uses a Goodwrench 350 crate motor and matching 350 trans, plus a 9-inch rear end, with most parts coning from John Reid.  On top, there’s a Chris Boyle body.  The car was modelled after Brizio’s blue and red scalloped Roadster, with a very subtly modified body incorporating a Duval screen, and flames instead of scallops – applied by Neil Melliard.  The interior was stitched up by Neil Tadman in blue leather and the familiar shade of orange was applied by Tracy.

The Brizio-inspired '32 complete with Duval screen

Flames and pinstriping by Neil Melliard - even inside the hood 

Keith made up the custom dash and Neil Tadman stitched up the blue leather

“It’s the fifth year the car has been on the road. I set out to build the car as well as I could.  I never really intended it as a show car, even though it turned into that kind of car, but it does get driven.  In the first year, I drove it all the way up to Doncaster for a show in March.  I was trying to make a bit of a point that you could still use a nice car in all weather, and I did in the first year after completion.  Now I probably do about 1000 miles a year in it.

“Bringing us up to date, after owning the roadster for a few years, I decided I’d like a three-window coupe along the lines of Richard Hartley’s new black coupe.  Jon Golding built me a chassis, and I thought I’d go the full-fendered route.  Unfortunately, or fortunately – it depends which way you look at it – I just happened to see some pictures of a ‘32 sedan for sale on e-bay.  I particularly like ‘32 sedans with the right chop and rake, and this one had the right chop; however, it was in Michigan, about 15 minutes from the Canadian border.  I bid on it and won, so suddenly I had two projects on the go, one in the 'States and one sat in my garage. The Sedan had been semi-hot rodded, and with the help of John Reid, was transported to California, and with further help from Wayne Streams and California Shipping, was sat in my garage about five weeks later.  I decided to put the ‘32 sedan body on the Jon Golding chassis and the coupe body on the sedan’s chassis, and sell the coupe as a rolling project.  It’s got a 348 Chevy in it and will make a great car.  It has just been purchased by a certain individual in Holland!

The Coupe project has now been sold

“So now I can concentrate on the sedan, which will get a new floor, as I had to cut the old one out to get it to sit properly on the new rails.  I’m hoping to get it ready for the summer of 2008.  It will be fenderless, have a 454 Chevy, be painted orange by Tracy, have a Neil Tadman interior and wiring by Sturge.  

The Model B body is in lovely condition and that chop is so right.  Keith opted for ET wheels on the back with Halibrands on the front

“A lot of people, like my children’s friends who are 23-24ish, look at me now and think hot rodding is the ideal thing for someone who is having a mid-life crisis.  I’m the first to point out, however, that I’ve been doing this since the age of 19, and have never grown out of it – and I’ll carry on doing it, because all the time you have nice friends around you like the BracPackers, who have been involved in hot rodding for many years and have built some of the top cars in the country, it’s very rewarding.  We're not getting any younger, mind you, and it just takes a bit longer to put a car together.”

Story: Andy Kirk & Graham Jones
Photos: Keith Atkinson & Andy Kirk

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