Turbo Pickers: Saving classic motors one at a time

Turbo Pickers presenters
Paul Cowland (L) and Dave Southall - Credit: Discovery Channel

Classic cars are big business. As modern cars risk becoming soulless, homogenised bits of metal, with manufacturers aiming for global appeal, car enthusiasts are turning to the motors of yesteryear to restore the thrill of driving.

For those looking for inspiration on where to start with restoring a classic car, particularly on a modest budget, Discovery Channel is on hand with its latest show, Turbo Pickers, in which motors destined for the scrapyard are given a stay of execution, before being lovingly restored and sold on for a profit.

We caught up with one half of the show's presenter duo: mechanic, automotive journalist and dyed-in-the-wool petrolhead Paul Cowland, to find out about the show, his extensive car collection and his passion for all things motoring.

What is your background?

I've been involved in motoring my whole life really. I left school at 18, spent two weeks at a booze company, didn't like it, and then went to work for the local Saab garage. I was there for about eight years, rising through the ranks of the sales team before becoming dealer principle. I loved that, so I then set up my own Saab specialist garage with my father, which we then turned into a Subaru tuning specialist.

Ten years ago I broke into automotive journalism and photography, because that allowed me to work with my passion, write about cars and hang out with car people. In the meantime, Adam - who's on the show – and I have been buying cars, flipping them, doing them up. So it's been a life of cars from start to finish really!

Where did you learn your car restoration skills?

I've literally been exposed to cars from a very young age. My third word was 'car' if you take a look at my old baby book. I've always been in and around cars and around car people. I actually bought my first car when I was six – I went halves on an old Bedford CF van – we paid about £2 for it from the scrapyard and used it as a den. We pulled it to bits and learned how to do bits and pieces to it.

Then when I was 11, another friend and I went halves on an Escort van. His dad was a farmer and we used to drive it around the fields on a Saturday, but we'd have to cycle to the petrol station to get fuel for it! We just drove it round continuously until we ran out of money.

So it's literally been cars from day one then?

My whole life, yeah. Everything I've ever done has involved cars, from matchbox cars as a kid, to going to car shows and the races with my dad at Brands Hatch. It's the same sort of thing I'm doing now, only on a slightly bigger scale.

What was the inspiration behind creating Turbo Pickers?

I can't take credit for that – Discovery actually contacted me after recommendations from former colleagues due to my eclectic interest in cars, and asked if I'd be interested in doing the show. It was a simple answer really - who wouldn't be interested!?

How did your partnership with Dave Southall (Paul's partner in crime on the show) come about?

Dave and I – and this is a true story – actually met at a scrapyard. There's this really amazing scrap yard in Doncaster, the old-school type where cars are stacked precariously all around you, and you can just pick what you want yourself, like things used to be. I was there getting car bits and he was there getting bike bits when our eyes met across the bonnet of an Austin Ambassador and life was never the same again.

I get on with Dave really well. He's an amazing guy – an academic turned street performer who just happens to rebuild the most beautiful rare and vintage 1920s-1930s motorcycles.

When we were chatting to Discovery about doing the show, Dave was the obvious choice to sit alongside me. Adam, who's also on the show, is also a very close friend. It does help that he is a total genius when it comes to cars – he can turn his hand to bodywork, mechanics, electrics – absolutely everything.

Turbo Pickers

Turbo Pickers

What is your normal criteria when it comes to choosing a car for restoration?

I've got to be interested in the car, firstly. You have to buy it with your heart – the car has to be rare, interesting and unusual. But you also have to buy it with your head. There's got to a market for it, so there's no point in buying something just because I think it's amazing and then not being able to sell it, so I'm always weighing those two things up: it is something I can get excited about, but can I also make money on it?

What was your favourite vehicle to work on during the show?

There are so many – there are bits of each build that I love. The car in the first episode is a peach, it's the one that we all dream of finding: one owner from new, full service history, 27,000 miles, never been touched. No one in the Triumph world even knew that car existed, which is unusual. Normally when you have a car like that, everyone in the enthusiast scene will know it's there. We stumbled across as if by complete fluke, and were the first to see it and I did something that I've only done once or twice in my life, and that was to pay more than the asking price. The seller didn't know how much the car was worth, and was asking £1,100 for it when in reality in the condition it was in it was actually worth around £2,000, which I was happy to pay – though he couldn't quite get his head round it!

Which of the show's vehicles was the most difficult to work on?

Without a doubt the Citroen H van – that lovely old corrugated French commercial vehicle that was made from the 50s into the 70s. It's bits of Traction Avant and bits of what looks like bits of old tin cans they found round the back of the staff canteen. We bought it four grand, and I got Dave to give it a quick inspection in the field it was sat in. He looked at it as best he could, but when we got it back to the shop we filled three whole dustbins with rust. It was the worst car I've ever bought in my career. We had to start from scratch and fabricate many of the parts for it ourselves.

What's the biggest profit you've made on a restoration project?

In terms of restorations we once did an old Bentley T1 from the 1960s, which we made around £12,000 on.

And the biggest loss?

Touch wood, I don't generally tend to lose money on the cars. I'm something of a hoarder – I've got 24 cars myself – and when you've been in the business for a long time, you realise there's always a right and wrong time to sell a car. And if you pick the right time, whether that means holding onto them for six months longer than anticipated, you'll make a profit.

If you had the choice of any car to restore back to full glory, what would it be?

The car I've always really wanted – though I doubt I'd fit in one – is the Ferrari F40. You don't really find those in anything other than pristine condition, though. The next car I probably will restore is a Karmann Ghia, which is a coach-built Volkswagen built mainly using Beetle components. They are very good looking, but an absolute nightmare to restore, as they're built from many small pressings, much smaller than you'd get from a full-size manufacturer. They're very underrated though and to me, extraordinarily beautiful.

Is there anything you'd avoid without question?

Everything's a challenge, really! Some cars you know will be a headache or will prove difficult to work on, but I prefer older cars, 25-30 years old. More modern metal is rather soulless, but I think every car needs saving. There are a couple of models on the show that I'm so glad we saved from the scrapper, like a 70s Citroen CX GTI. It was actually three of four in the queue from the crusher at a scrapyard, and we managed to get them to stop while I convinced the show's producers that it was something we needed. We restored it back to health, got it road legal and now its fighting fit and ready for someone else to enjoy.

Finally, what do you on a daily basis?

I'm a bit like a stereotypical girl with her handbags really – I drive whatever I'm in the mood for, or more realistically whatever's parked closest to the end of the driveway, that day. I've got 24 cars - I like old American stuff, old Volkswagens. I've got some old Saabs as well and a Subaru Impreza and BRZ. My favourite though is probably my Knight Rider replica. I built it around 10 years ago, and there is no car at 10 times the price that gives you a smile like that does.