Now in his 90s, motoring legend Cliff Byfield has been designing and building cars by hand since the 1940s. A visit to his workshop reveals a remarkable lifetime of motoring design, writes Jane Hammond.

This article originally appear in Horizons April / May 2016 edition.

Article Jane Hammond

Photography Frances Anrijich

 

Its mid-morning and the temperature is climbing into the high 30s but 92 year-old Cliff Byfield shows little sign of fatigue as he labours inside a stiflingly hot tin shed in his backyard in Perth’s eastern suburbs.

The master craftsman is fashioning pieces for his latest project, a handmade Riley sports car. And this is no model; it’s an actual working vehicle that he can’t wait to drive.

The car is currently away from his backyard workshop while it is spray painted a rich plum colour but there is still work to do on the final fit out.  There are the chrome trims, the polished curly-jarrah wood dashboard, and the vintage-look leather seats, to be made. All are being created from scratch.

labour-of-loveMr Byfield looks like a man at least 20 years his junior and I have to check with him that I have his correct age. He is astonishing in his ability to design and work with metal and wood and in his agility and strength.

Mr Byfield has lost count of the number of luxury cars he has designed, built or rebuilt over the years but thinks it is somewhere between 20 and 30. Some of his hand-made cars are with friends and family but most have passed through multiple owners.

But Mr Byfield has kept his all-time favourite car, a heritage green Byfield SS Jaguar. He has declined six figure offers for the unique vehicle and uses it occasionally to go for a spin or to drive to local car shows where it is put on display.

He has hand crafted everything on the convertible green Jag with the exception of the running gear, but has rebuilt the engine. He has even given it an automatic transmission so that his wife Jean can drive it more easily.

“It’s just such a lovely thing to drive. When the wife goes out in it she does the (Queen’s) wave,” Mr Byfield says.

Another of his vehicles is proudly displayed in the motor museum at Whiteman Park. The sporty yellow Jaguar sits alongside a small clay model of its bodywork. It is the only time Mr Byfield has used the clay technique, which is commonly employed by car companies to visualise a completed car.

He finds his cars difficult to part with and describes them all as a “labour of love”. Each takes around four years to make. Mr Byfield spends six hours a day in his workshop six days a week. At night he sits in front of the TV with Jean but doesn’t watch what’s on the box, instead he draws plans for his latest designs.

Ms Byfield describes her husband of 38 years as “quite remarkable” and tells me quietly how proud she is of his work and passion.

“He can see things he is designing as three-dimensional cross sections. That is the way he thinks,” Ms Byfield says.

“He will draw a design but then never take it down to the shed. Once he has drawn it, it’s in his head.”

Mr Byfield was born in Northam in 1923 and left school at 14 to take up an apprenticeship as a coach builder in Perth. It is during this time that he developed the metal work skills he would later use to craft his hand-made cars.

At age 18 he joined the army and later the RAAF where he was a gunner on the Lancasters that flew over Europe.

After the war he briefly studied architecture but says the maths defeated him, particularly calculus so he went back to coach building and completed his apprenticeship.

In the post war years cars were hard to get in Perth and so Mr Byfield set to work to build his own vehicle using the burnt out wreck of an old Citroen. The result was an impressive car and set him on a path for a life-long hobby designing and building luxury handmade sports cars.jaguar-v12

“When I built that one you couldn’t get cars for love nor money. I built it out of necessity,” Mr Byfield says.

“I’ve been building cars since the end of the war. Ferraris and Maserati’s don’t interest me. I like the Aston Martin or the Elvas – the English cars or the early Mercedes.

“I rarely if ever use part of an old car unless it’s the grill, which then identifies the car. I prefer to make it all myself. I always rebuild the motors. I make the seats but I don’t upholster them because I don’t have a sewing machine, so I get someone else to do that.”

It’s not just what’s under the bonnet or a car’s interior parts that Mr Byfield assembles. Remarkably, he also shapes the body panels in his own backyard workshop.

In the post war years Mr Byfield had a business building the bodies of trucks and had up to 15 employees. Under the regulations of the time, chassis could be imported but the bodywork had to be done in Australia.

He eventually sold the business and took up teaching manual arts to high school students. It was at Cyril Jackson High School that Mr Byfield met his wife-to-be, a fellow teacher at the school and the two eventually married.

When students at the school began to ask about his car-building hobby Mr Byfield decided to teach them that building a handmade luxury car was possible. Together with the students he created what he describes as a mongrel, a car built from the parts of many wrecks. That same car has since travelled from Esperance to Kununurra on some of the state’s bumpiest back roads.

Recently Mr Byfield has turned his attention to carpentry and has built many pieces of fine furniture that now adorn his home. Included in the mix are a grandfather clock and a dining table and chairs.

His carpentry skills have also been put to good use in making the dash and window trims in his classic cars.

When designing a car Mr Byfield uses imagination mixed with classic lines and shapes. While most of his creations would not look out of place on a set from The Great Gatsby others look like they could come from the set of a James Bond movie.

“I’ve been drawing cars since I was a kid in grade school,” he says.

“I don’t do it for the financial reward.  I do it because at the end of the day I’ve created something so the day hasn’t been wasted.”

Secretary of the TC Owners Club of WA and Mr Byfield’s mate Colin Bonney says Cliff is an artist.

“Cliff has built some of the most memorable cars in motor sport history in WA,” Mr Bonney says.

“In the days of Caversham and early Wanneroo there weren’t many cars that he didn’t have a hand in.”

RAC Manager Vehicles and Fuels Alex Forrest said Mr Byfield is “an absolute living legend” who is much treasured by car enthusiasts in WA.

“His skills and techniques are phenomenal, particularly in an age when that sort of skill is fading away,” Mr Forrest says.

“The fact he is able to shape opposing body panels, such as two front wings, by eye and using traditional equipment is astonishing given the finished products inevitably look identical.

“He is best known for building the body of a Repco Holden in 1958. The car went on to become one of WA’s iconic sports cars.”

Mr Byfield says his current car project will be his last and then adds that he did say that the last time he finished a car, his beloved Byfield SS Jaguar.

“If something really lovely came up that was of real interest then I might be tempted to build a body on it, but just to go out and get started on another one:  Not on your nelly.”

But whatever happens Mr Byfield says he has no plans to stop tinkering in his shed until he is no longer physically able to pick up his tools.

Cliff’s Cars

After more than a half a century of building cars, here are few of those Mr Byfield remembers most fondly:

This was the first car Mr Byfield built and was fashioned out of the burnt out wreck of an old Citroen.  Its unusual shape and sport look turned in Perth in 1954 when it hit the road.

citroen

One of three best-known Byfield Jags, the V12 was completed in 2003 when Mr Byfield was 82. It is housed in the Whitean Park Motor Museum.

Jaguar

Built by Mr Byfield in the 1950s together with motoring identifies including Jack Ayres, this vehicle went on to win many races in the 1950s and 1960s and became an icon in WA motor sports.  The car was thought lost until it was discovered in a Perth backyard in the 1970s and restored with the help of Mr Byfield in the 1990s.Holden