When it comes to air-cooled Porsches, Autofarm’s reputation extends beyond British shores. Such wisdom is hard earned, as demonstrated by their own rise, fall and resurrection.
From modest beginnings, the company grew to the point where it was not only a Porsche specialist, but also a Saab and Suzuki distributor with over 40 employees.
After liquidation following the Eighties recession, virtually all that remained was founder Josh Sadler’s address book and a pile of spares. Yet the phoenix would rise from the ashes.
30 years earlier, things had looked very different. Sutton Coldfield schoolboy Josh, his passion for cars fuelled by trips to Prescot and Silverstone, got his driving licence. As soon as he had the means, he would go racing.
At Birmingham University, where he studied mechanical engineering with future F1 designer Harvey Postlethwaite, Josh worked on the suspension of Postlethwaite’s car, and the latter reciprocated by fettling the engine of Sadler’s car.
An engineering apprenticeship followed, and by 1968 Josh was a development engineer at Glacier Bearings of West London. Sitting at the desk opposite was Steve Carr, another sports car-mad engineer, who between them spent a considerable amount of time planning their competition careers and how to create a business to pay for their racing habit.
Meanwhile, Glacier’s R&D department, of which Josh was in charge, was also serving as their unofficial workshop.
By 1973, the pair had set up shop in a ramshackle garage in Iver. Another colleague from Glacier, Jack Phillips, joined them, and soon the fourth member of the original Autofarm quartet, Mike Evans, would jump ship from the local Mercedes garage.
By happy coincidence, a scrapyard was situated next door, where one day Josh spotted a Fairthorpe Electron in the yard. An insurance company had written off the little plastic kit car because a door had become detached, but Josh could see there was little else wrong so, used to working on Lotuses and Reliants, rebuilt the Fairthorpe and resold it.
Steve Carr appeared with a 911, similarly written off because of minor frontal damage. Josh recalls that it was a 1968 ‘A’ series car and AFN (the importers) could offer only parts for post-1969 cars, and nobody else in the UK seemed to have spares.
All it needed essentially was a wing. Seeing an opportunity, Josh and Steve commandeered Jack Phillips’s Cortina Estate car, drove to Duisburg and filled the car with Porsche spares from a dealer who also put them on to a wholesaler in Krefeld, which marked the beginning of the 40-year affair with Porsche.
Sadler knew little about the Stuttgart make before this, but their timing was good: the Porsche market in Britain was starting to take off. Autofarm became a marque specialist, and within a couple of seasons he and Carr would no longer be racing Clubmans’ U2s, but 911s.
Iver was soon replaced by new but equally modest premises in Amersham. These were the formative years, when they were still “young and hungry,” as Josh puts it. “We never really gave development of the business much thought,” he recalls, “Steve and I both raced incessantly, and he even went and bought a small plane.”
As the lease reached its end, they began to think of the next move. By now, Autofarm was well known in Porsche circles, and a club member approached them advising to sell the lease which, together with his financial backing and a loan, would fund the next move.
So in 1987, Autofarm upped sticks once again, this time to a four-acre site at Tring where they took over the local Saab and Suzuki franchises. Josh is candid about their business strategy: “We planned to build up the franchises and play Porsches off the back of it.”
They might have pulled it off had the economy not gone into a wild upward spiral as both property prices and classic cars shot up in value. Then interest rates started going up, recession loomed and by March 1991 Autofarm was insolvent.
It was a painful time, but far from exceptional. Porsche UK had stockpiles of unsold 964s and Zuffenhausen would declare over 1,000 redundancies. Josh feels that they were fortunate: their generous, Porsche-owning financial partner bore the brunt of the losses and Josh and Steve kept their homes.
Crucially, the settlement allowed Sadler to recover not just a considerable inventory of spares, but all the Autofarm customer records.
Autofarm’s reputation would save it, and as work came in from old customers, before long Josh was running Autofarm from his home. Happily, the Sadlers’ neighbours tolerated this unregulated enterprise until the reborn company had sufficient momentum to afford a proper base.
In August 1993, Autofarm took up residence in a converted barn at Oddington Grange, mid way between Bicester and Oxford. Finally, Autofarm really was on a farm, and has been there ever since.
Steve had gone his own way, but Mike and Jack returned and by the millennium Autofarm boasted a dozen employees. One of those was Nick Fulljames, who would develop the Silsleeve repair for 996 and Boxster engines.
Josh’s heart, however, was with the air-cooled design, and once Autofarm had established an equilibrium he began to think of the retro-dated 911 design that would become the famous ‘re-creation.’
The Autofarm RS re-creation was received enthusiastically by testers, and the concept would develop into a significant business, thanks in no small part to Autofarm’s credibility.
The last decade has seen Autofarm expand from servicing air-cooled Porsches to encompassing the requirements of more modern 911s and Cayennes. These days, project manager Mikey Wastie, a 13-year Autofarm veteran and Josh protégé, oversees the engineering side, and Steve Wood, a racer with the Brackley-based Wood-Scott team, is workshop manager.
But if day-to-day management is in the hands of an experienced younger generation, Josh has no intention of going quietly. As I leave Oddington Grange, he is filling in his driving licence form: 70 in a few weeks, he has to reapply, but surely this can be done online?
“If you want to carry on being able to drive a 7.5-tonner or pull a trailer, you have to fill out the paper form,” he explains. Does he still have a racing licence? “Oh yes – that’s already been renewed for 2013!” With a little help from his friends, the story of Autofarm is really the tale of a man called Josh Sadler.