How many people in the Porsche 911 world do you know with a PhD in seabed geomorphology? I’d hazard a guess that, right now, you’re struggling to conjure up even a single name.
That is unless you know Alan Drayson, founder of Canford Classics (a man who knows more about the shallow water seabed formations around the Dorset coastline than most).
“Once I finished [in higher education], I started a business in what the PhD was about,” Drayson explains. With an office and a staff of ‘sometimes ten to 12 people’, he went to work in a suit until ‘the grating lifestyle’ caught up with him.
“I’ve been working on cars since I was a kid, like kids do when you transfer from your BMX to a motorbike and a motorbike to a car,” enthuses Drayson. “I bought my first Porsche – a 912 from America – when I was 17. I had that for six months and realised there was no power, so I put a 911 engine in it at 18 years old!”
Along with classic Volkswagens (his first car was a Beetle), Drayson has always had a passion for Porsches. During his PhD studies he “probably imported between 30 and 40 911s from America. Maybe more.”
After work and on weekends, Drayson could be found in his garage working on cars until his future wife, Dominique (now sales and marketing manager at Canford) said, “Why don’t you just carry on and do this full-time?” That moment, “eight or nine years ago”, was the birth of Canford Classics.
The Dorset countryside is home to many wondrous vistas. But, if you can pull yourself away from the outstanding natural beauty of the area, there are not many sights more visually arresting than the daily scene at Canford.
Nestled away in a quiet corner between Dorchester and Poole (near the coast that Alan studied for his PhD) the pastoral premises is a veritable cornucopia of classic 911s for, if you want your air-cooled Neunelfer returned to a factory fresh finish, there are not many better than Drayson’s team. Chasing the perfect restoration is undeniably their raison d’être.
“I just absolutely enjoy it,” Drayson beams. “I still don’t take compliments that easily though, to be honest,” he adds. He’s remarkably modest for a man of his talents.
In issue 126, we drove a 1972 2.4E fastidiously restored by Canford Classics and described it as “perfection.” However, Alan isn’t satisfied: “I still think there’s more to learn.
There are better ways and there are always different processes to try, different techniques, and we’re forever trying to investigate, down to making your own specific tools, using different paint finishes, different guns on different paints. We always want to get better.”
And, by his own admission, he does feel that they’re moving forwards. In the eight issues that have passed since that remarkable test drive, Drayson’s team have improved to the point where he admits that he is “probably doing two or three days work for free” whenever a car they restored three or four years ago returns to their rural workshop.
“I’ll go, ‘Oh, we used the wrong bolt there’ or ‘We’ve remade that part now, I’ll go and fit it for free.’ But I probably don’t tell half our customers,” he jokes.
It’s that sort of passion for his job that puts Canford Classics a step ahead of many in the Porsche 911 restoration game. But it’s not just Alan who has such enthusiasm; the entire team have an insatiable passion for Porsches, something you can always see on their faces whenever you visit their den, deep in the Dorset countryside.
“All of them are second to none,” Drayson points out. High praise indeed. Passion can only take you so far in any business though. Thankfully, Alan and the team have the skill to back it up, something that is led by Drayson’s years of experience.
“When I started detailing suspensions, trying new processes, and posting on forums, no one else did that kind of thing,” he explains. “Now it’s a standard practice to show a photo of every single part [during a restoration].”
Much of Alan’s almost boundless knowledge of early Porsches is self-taught. Somewhere, between the PhD and the time fettling in the garage, he found the hours to search and read everything he could about classics 911s, absorbing it all.
Today, the man is a walking encyclopaedia of Zuffenhausen trivia, with all that learning – which Drayson is adamant continues to this day – passing into each restoration. Canford’s quality, as that 2.4E proved, is second to none, something Alan feels is a result of his PhD studies:
“Every single sentence had to have a reason for being there. Otherwise my supervisor would say, “Why are you writing that?” That level of detail is what transfers into our cars.”
In order to control that quality, most of the work for any restoration is carried out in-house. Engine and gearbox work is done upstairs (a few paces away from an Aladdin’s cave of spare parts), with Canford able to do everything from cylinder head and engine case work to crankshaft polishing, while the lathe is used “to make all the little bits and bobs that you need” during any rebuild.
They’ve also just started remaking carpet in collaboration with a carefully chosen supplier, while the planning permission was recently granted to move their paint shop next to the main workshop – a move that will give Alan even greater control over auditing.
Having sprayed a few cars in his youth, he’s even going to pick up a gun and get in the booth himself, just so that he can get some experience and understand what it’s like.
For Drayson, it’s important to be on the shop floor rather than behind a desk. Identifying as a mechanic first and foremost, he is most comfortable when in overalls.
Away from the much-vaunted restorations, is there anything else Alan wants to shout about? “It’s really difficult, because we do pretty much anything and everything,” he explains.
And, with a little bit of digging, it becomes clear that they really do, from Fuchs refurbishment and seat retrimming to simple servicing for their loyal base of enthusiastic customers.
The big thing is the new showroom, housed inside a converted mill. A simple space big enough for four cars, the building marks a new step forward for Canford.
“I’d love to afford cars like Hexagon but this business started from £1 and me,” explains Drayson, pointing out that cars featured in the showroom will be a mixture of sale-or-return stock and 911s owned by the business. Alan wants to keep it simple, providing customers with one or two options rather than “snow-blind them with 50 cars.”
Having been running for “maybe eight or nine years and only just able to develop a showroom,” he is aware that it’s taken some time for Canford to expand in this direction. But he’s sure that now is the right moment: “It’s organic growth. You get to the stage where it’s right to do and it’s necessary.”
With such a pragmatic approach to business, it’s no wonder that Canford Classics has quietly built up such a mighty reputation. With an unerring focus on knowledge and quality, their handiwork is deservedly renowned. It would be surprising if, in years to come, their retailing doesn’t come with a similar seal of approval.
First opened: 2007
Location: Winterborne Kingston, Dorset, UK
Rarest 911 through the workshop: The 1987 Frankfurt Motor Show car, a Porsche 930 3.3 painted in a three-stage pearlescent gold. “They only painted three cars in that colour, and that was the only 911,” explains Drayson.
Favourite Porsche 911: “Probably a 2.2S. People’s favourite cars tend to be based on experience and, in my university years, I had a Signal orange, right-hand drive, 2.2S. I just had so much fun in that thing!”
Telephone: (+44) 01929 472221