Niche work if you can get it

Aftermarket pops in on 2007 Top Technician winner Clive Atthowe, to see how things roll at CAT Automotive

Published:  07 May, 2019

It's been a while since Aftermarket has been over to CAT Automotive. They sound out the letters you know - C.A.T. –  It is an acronym, Clive Atthowe Tuning.  The personality of the owner is stamped as firmly on the business as his name.  
"We are specialists, mainly German cars but Volkswagen is our bigger market," explained Clive. Another side is classic cars: "Classic cars are something I've always done, probably because I am a classic age. It is quite a big part of our business. I was brought up with carburettors and have progressed right through to modern vehicles. We also do a lot of tuning and a lot of modification and remapping, I just remapped a car this morning."
 
It is a mixed bag, but all highly specialised, as Clive observed: "We do a lot of what you could call niche work I suppose."
It's a bit more than basic servicing and repairs, but as a previous Top Technician winner, you know he is going to know his stuff.  Clive certainly has the chops, but he had a pretty good grounding early on: "I started in an old fashioned dealership. It had been Talbot and Hillman, and I was working on Hillman Imps, Avengers and Hunters. They changed franchise after a year and became Datsun. That was pre-Nissan. I was  working on Datsun 240Zs 280Cs, Sunnys, Cherrys all the early stuff. I did a five year apprenticeship there which was excellent. We learned to do our own machining, cut our own valves, using lathes, make special tools. It was a very good background. We used to do a lot of classic car restoration there as well.

"I had a very good background in those first five years. I briefly spent two years prepping used cars for a major car sales site, which again was everything from Minis to Rolls-Royces.  After that I started my own business."

For those who don't recall, CAT Automotive  first opened its doors in 1982: "I started by tuning cars, in the old traditional Crypton tuning ways. Financially it was quite tough at the beginning, so it was lucky my wife Jean had a very good job. The early 1980s was a terrible time to start a business actually.  Everybody said I was mad to start a business then, but I come from a family of self employed people and business owners. My father had  a very successful restoration business in the building trade. It is still running now, my brother runs it. It is a background of self motivation I suppose.

"Our original garage was an old fashioned dual-lubrication service bay that had been a filling station, if you can imagine that. We ran in there for 11 years. The tuning side of the business was flying, and I had always had a big interest in modifying cars and rolling road. I ended up buying a second hand two-wheel drive rolling road, but had nowhere to put it. We applied for planning permission to build a new workshop on the site but it all fell through after two years, when the landlord wouldn't give us what we wanted for the lease. So we scouted around and found where we are now, which was pretty much an empty shell and we converted that into a new workshop where we could put a rolling road in. That shows how the business changed over the years."

Workshop
Today, CAT Automotive operates out of a 2,000 sq2 workshop with two ramps. About a third of the space is taken up by a sound-proof airflow cell where Clive keeps his pride and joy; A four wheel drive dyno: "The rolling road is something we have been involved in for 27 years. We started with a two-wheel drive, then four wheel drive, then we built this custom set-up about 12 years ago. As a result of having it we do a lot of classic race cars particularly, and that type of work.

"I just put the phone down a few minutes ago after speaking to a customer who just bought a MGC  that he is now going to race. We are not too sure what has been done to it, it has triple webers and cams in it. He is  bringing it in the week after next for a check on the dyno  to see what he has actually bought and what it is like. There is also a Jaguar race team we do a lot with that has E-types. That is the type of thing we get. We do get ordinary classic road cars as well, but we do a lot of race stuff.”

Specialist
It is one of many niches that CAT Automotive excels within. The business is also a German car specialist, leaning particularly strongly towards the VW group: "Equipment-wise, we have in the last few years gone down the dealer tooling route. We use the Volkswagen/Audi dealer tool. We also have the dealer tool for BMW.

"We used to be a Bosch Car Service Agent. We started off in the 1990s as a Jet-Tronic agent, if anyone can remember that. Then we came out of it and went back into it with Bosch Car Service. We left that about two years ago now. We are totally independent again. However we still use Bosch equipment, such as Bosch KTS. We have also got a raft of other dealer tools which we probably don't use very much now because we have tried to guide the business down a Volkswagen/Audi route. Over the last  two and a half to three years we have chosen to specialise, we thought that was a better route to follow.

As you might imagine, Clive is not alone all day in the workshop. Along with his wife Jean providing part-time front-of-house services, Clive also has back-up in the form of 26 year old technician Dale: "He has been with me about six years now, " explained Clive, I trained him from scratch."

The team was not always quite so bijou though: "At one point there was four of us, including me. In the last four to five years, one key member of staff left and started his own business. We never replaced him, we just carried on. We were quite happy to do that."

The skills shortage is the problem:  "I have looked around to try and find a technician who is skilled enough to come straight into the business, but I have not found one yet. So instead I have just run it very lean.
"The skills gap seems to get wider every year. We do quite a lot of work for other garages and also quite a lot of bodyshop programming on their cars. The standards of work we see coming through the door is quite shocking really."

Top Technician
Speaking of standards, as we mentioned earlier, Clive won Top Technician in 2007. If that's not enough, he also came second in 2011. These days you wouldn't be able to do it in that order.

"I know," laughed Clive, "they changed the rules after myself and John Tinham competed last time, where he won for the umpteenth time, with me as runner up after having already won. We enjoyed it anyway."
Clive was something of a serial winner in his competition days: "I started off doing one of the first competitions that was ever brought into the motor trade, which was Crypton Technician of the Year. I won that twice in a row. Then I went from Crypton to using Bosch equipment, and the business achieved second place in the Bosch World Cup in 2002. That was quite a big achievement for us in quite a small garage. Then I went on to do Top Technician.  I competed quite a few times and I enjoyed it."
Clive is a great advocate for Top Technician: "It certainly makes you analyse your knowledge, and taking part certainly tests your abilities, there's no doubt about that. I think it is a good thing for the industry."

Predictions
Looking ahead, the skills shortage is not the only challenge the industry faces according to Clive: "A few years ago I could usually see which way the trade was going and what was the best route to follow. Now though, it is very unpredictable. Even manufacturers don't seem to know where they are going, apart from that they are going to go predominantly electric. Even they seem unsure."

Increasing specialisation is where Clive thinks things may be heading: "With the onset of so much electronic content, and the sheer knowledge that you need for each individual brand to repair it very well, I can't see how you can cover multi-brand at that level and keep on top of if you are a very small business. If you had a technician for each manufacturer who was trained and had the right equipment, that might work, but you have to work with it and you are talking about some serious investment in time and money. Where do you find those technicians that are trained to that level?  It is very hard at the moment to predict. I think brand specialisation will become a big thing. "

Looking ahead for the business, Clive concluded:  "Our plan is to carry on adapting to whatever the future holds. This has always been my philosophy; Constant improvement through training and investment."

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