Painting by numbers
Whether it's a scraped C-Class or a rusty SL in need of
a respray, Phil Whitney can make it look like new.

Mechanics are a strange breed. Give them an automatic gearbox to strip down and they'll attack it with relish and skilful zeal. Mention bodywork and even the most technically minded are inclined to teeth sucking and vigorous head shaking. Good bodyshops are few and far between and contacts are guarded jealously, so when George Fraser, a previously featured Merc specialist, named West London neighbour Phil Whitney as his panel beater of choice, we thought we'd pay him a visit.

A bodywork specialist of over thirty years standing, Phil started out with an apprenticeship in bodywork and painting before working alongside his father in his bustling Park Royal paintshop. Phil now runs the business himself, although the tradition is being handed down and Phil's son who also works for the firm. What with the demands of London driving and the inevitable hard knocks that come with it, Phil's certainly not short of customers and, with many of his clients earning their livings with their cars, speed and efficiency are the key. "We do a lot of S-Classes for the chauffeurs" confirms Phil. "You have to put yourself out for those guys, too, because they use the cars everyday and you have to fit in with the hours they're working.

"Professional drivers demand high standards and a fast turnaround is no good if the quality isn't up to scratch, so return visits by regular customers have to be earned with high quality work.

As well as crash repairs Phil also works on restoration projects and 107 series SL's and SLC's are common visitors to his paintshop, thanks to both their enduring popularity and inevitable tendency to rot. In contrast to his favoured quick jobs, he's also undertaken some major work over the years including an impressive looking 600 whose photographs stare down from the office wall. When asked about the car, Phil shakes his head and grimaces in a manner common to almost all of those who've ever tangled with the stately saloon. "It started off an enjoyable challenge, half way through became a nightmare and then got better towards the end," he sums up. "When you could see the end near, nine months later, it was OK but there was a lot of work to do." Owned by a millionaire Arab princess, the car was originally white with a blue leather interior but the owner's whims dictated a respray in dark metallic green and complete interior re-trim to match. Phil out-sourced the leather and woodwork and concentrated on the paintwork and chrome pieces as part of an eventual £37,000 restoration. "I'll never forget when she came down to inspect the car," says Phil. "She said: the wood's the wrong colour and so is the outside." Cannily he'd foreseen that the Chinese whispers approach to relaying instructions from the owner through her minions might cause problems and a sheaf of signatures for decisions taken meant he could stand his ground. "That was a bit of luck," he admits, "I thought she might have told us to take it away and do it again!"

Phil reckons over half the work he does is on Mercedes and he's a big fan of the marque citing, like all those who work on them, the quality of construction and thoughtful engineering which makes his job easier. "The way they're made is just nicer, to be honest with you," he says. "They're put together more thoughtfully in terms of the way they come apart and go backtogether and it makes a painter's job much easier." His enthusiasm is such that he's tackled a couple of restoration jobs for his own benefit, including a 1973 280SE. But, as with a 500SEL he recently sold, he didn't hold on to it for long. "I don't know what to do with them once they're finished," he laughs. "They get dirty and I can't be bothered cleaning them, so I start again with another one.