Classic Car Weekly - January 26th 2006
Howard Robinson on a typical call: "Headlight switch for a Cresta? No problem. What year?"
As CCWs own Richard Gunn said: "lf you're looking for an interesting specialist to visit you should give Howard Robinson at Collectors Car Parts a call some time. He's incredibly helpful, friendly, interesting to talk to, and it sounds like he's got a lot of stuff worth taking a look at" And boy was he ever right.
I can honestly say, hand on heart, that I've never been anywhere like Collectors Car Parts before, or probably ever will again for that matter. I've certainly seen places like it on television - in documentaries about obsessive-compulsive collectors who can't bear to throw anything away or, dare I even say it in episodes of Steptoe & Son. But there's no way on earth you could describe the contents of 43/45 Sipson Way as junk It's treasure and one hundred per cent British motoring heritage, too - and my word has Howard manage to pack a lot in there. He's got so much stock that Howard told me he had to buy the shop next door and knock through to accommodate it Although I think it's probably more likely that the walls simply burst apart one night and his stock spread itself around to make more room for itself. The barber's shop next door must be quaking in its boots...
Howard's shop is simple to find. It's right next door to Heathrow Airport and is the building with all the 747 tire marks on the roof. Well, technically speaking, I suppose it's not quite as close as all that, but that's definitely what it sounds like when you first arrive. Although you quickly blot out the noise when you step inside and see all the vintage equipment lying around, and it's so peaceful too and the air has that warm, strangely familiar New Old Stock tinge to it. In fact, it's so handy for the airport that Howard said:"I've had customers fly in, pick up the parts they've ordered whilst the plane is being turned around, then jump straight back on again."
By now you're probably wondering exactly what Howard has in stock. Well, I couldn't possibly do justice to the gargantuan collection of parts that have squeezed their way onto the shelves over the years, but even that is nothing compared to the hoard he keeps in the back Howard believes he has the largest Varied'collection of N.O.S. parts in the UK and unless you can prove otherwise I'm not about to argue.
The shop first opened its doors in 1982 and caters for all types of British cars from as early as 1907 right the way up to a self-imposed 1980 cut-off point. Howard said: "You won't find parts for any foreign cars here as I've got my hands full already with our own. England first, then maybe the rest of the world later." You will, then, find bits for Triumph, Rootes, Jaguar, Vauxhall, Ford and a whole lot more besides, but Howard first cut his teeth on a 1927 Riley Nine Tourer at the tender age of 17 and kept with old cars from then on.That first car was followed by a 1929 Morris Cowley and, like pretty much everyone who's lived with an old car, he began collecting spare parts on the off-chance they'd come in handy some day. With a few surplus bits and pieces kicking around the garage a friend introduced him to the world of autojumbles and Howard has never looked back He said:Tve traded at all but the first two Beaulieu autpjumbles, but was selling parts before then anyway. Now I run the Ardingly Autojumble and I'm the chairman of the Autojumblers Association itself."
...like total chaos
I FELT my jaw hit the ground as soon as I walked through the door.There is simply stuff spilling out everywhere and to be honest it looks like total chaos to begin with. But, give yourself a few minutes to soak it all up and you start to notice there is method and a system at work Everything is stored logically and numerically and years of practice has made Tony familiar with their location, as he zooms up and down the network of aisles to find parts for customers. Every room in the building is bursting at the seams.The corridors are stacked floor to ceiling and many of the windows are obscured by parts.Trying to keep up with Howard as he gave me the full tour was quite difficult and it's not a place to wander about in if you're at all claustrophobic.There probably isn't a spare square inch of space anywhere and as I picked my way around I found myself in the shock absorber area, looked in the wheel trim cupboard and examined row upon row of head gaskets, although my favourite discovery by far was the pipe room, which is a former bedroom, now filled to the gunnels with rubber hoses and pipes of various sizes. It looks like a cross between a kiddies'play area and the snake scene from an Indiana Jones movie.Working my way back at the front desk, I noticed a tiny hand-written sign that says'If you can't see it just ask', and Howard reinforces that by saying:"Never assume we haven't got it" It's probably there somewhere, but it might take a bit of time for him to find it is all. So it's good that the majority of customers are mail order, as otherwise there just wouldn't be enough hours in the day. On a busy day Howard reckons on receiving about eight to ten personal callers to the shop, although I saw five just in the time I was there. And, when one customer asked what parts he has for the Rover P6, Howard had to shake his head and say:"No. You have to tell me what parts you want and I'll go find them for you."There are hundreds of well-thumbed and rare parts catalogues to reference and some of them, like the 1927 Brown Brothers catalogue, goes as far back as to mention bikes and carriages, so if he doesn't know it off the top of his head, Howard can usually tell you the part you need after a couple of minutes leafing through his reference library.
the old fashioned way
ONE of the many amazing things about Collectors Car Parts is that everything is done the old fashioned way, i.e. on stock cards.The only computer in the building fights for space in one of the upstairs rooms and is only used to sell parts on eBay. As Howard said:'The computer is on my shoulders. I know where everything is, each shelf is numbered, all of the parts are labelled and if I was to try and list everything on a computer now it would probably take me about 25 years of solid work to do it."
There's more than just what's in the shop, too. Howard has another premises on a mushroom farm in Egham. His 'Practical Classic Garage' looks after a wide variety of customers'cars and houses his extensive stock of exhaust pipes as well. Howard has so many that he currently spends most weekends labelling and cataloguing them all, so if you need a classic exhaust for your car or vintage commercial, do him a favour and take one off his hands.
Not that you can ever have too much New Old Stock, in Howard's eyes. He said: "ln the future the cars will be around but the spares won't. At some point there's going to come a time when the supply of NOS is going to dry up, so I reckon he who stocks longest wins."Not
so much Aladdin's cave as Howard's haul, Collectors Car Parts is a unique specialist with so many spares for British classics and commercials it's simply mind-blowing. If you want original parts you didn't think even existed anymore, vintage exhausts or jobs like having brakes re-lined, give Howard a call or visit his amazing shop yourself - you won't be sorry you did.