The converters : Radford

Radford came late to the coachbuilding industry, and despite undertaking a wide variety of work, the name – like that of rival Wood & Pickett – would become indelibly linked with luxury Minis.

DECLAN BERRIDGE tells the story of a name that was always synonymous with craftsmanship and quality – as well as swinging Minis…

A potted history

THE creator of Radford Coachworks, Guy Harold Radford, started out as a Rolls-Royce and Bentley dealer, pursuing a successful career between the wars from his West London showrooms; during the war years his company – Harold Radford & Co Ltd – worked on goverment contracts to supply modified vehicles to the military. By 1948, he was ready for a new challenge, and set about designing a estate car conversion for the Bentley MkVI with then-conventional wood-framed rear bodywork.

He christened the conversion ‘Countryman’ (without, it seems, attracting any complaints from Austin), and commissioned a small north London firm called Seary & McReady to carry out the work. Such was the quality of the conversion that an example won first prize at the 1948 concours d’elegance at Cannes, and on the strength of that and Radford’s own reputation in this upmarket sector of the motor industry, orders for the Countryman were relatively brisk; within a couple of years Radford had purchased a majority shareholding in Seary & McReady, and it was renamed as Harold Radford (Coachbuilders) Ltd.

Radford’s original Countryman bodywork, seen here applied to a 1948 Bentley Mk VI.

The company moved into premises in the west London suburb of Ealing, and by offering something different to the norm it continued to thrive in the face of the tough times being faced by most traditional coachbuilders at the time. The company made its debut at the 1951 London Motor Show, by which time Harold Radford had completely rethought his Countryman conversion; while the name remained the same, it was no longer a “woody” estate car, but something more akin to a hatchback, as he had devised a means of fitting an opening tailgate and electrically-folding rear seat to the contemporary Rolls-Royce and Bentley saloons, without having to alter their graceful profiles at all. In doing so, he unwittingly sowed the seeds of a feature that would become the trademark of Radford’s Mini de Ville GT conversions during the following decade.

This 1954 Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn shows the later evolution of the Countryman coversion, which opened up the rear end of the standard saloon bodywork.
This 1954 Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn shows the later evolution of the Countryman coversion, which opened up the rear end of the standard saloon bodywork.

For the next ten years or so, Radford continued to turn out these high-quality Countryman conversions – with the full approval of Rolls-Royce – while also accepting a variety of other one-off coachbuilding commissions. In 1958, both Radford’s companies were acquired by the Swain Group, which had also owned rival Rolls-Royce & Bentley dealership HR Owen since 1946. Harold Radford stayed on with the company until 1963, by which time the business was just embarking on a new venture.

Having relocated to King Street in Hammersmith, the company took a leaf out of Vanden Plas’s book in turning its attention to up-speccing standard production cars. April 1963 saw the introduction of the first fruits of this new approach: the now-legendary Radford Mini de Ville, which was offered in a range of three varieties and – initially – with the option of Speedwell tuning. In October that year, Radford endowed the Vauxhall Cresta PB with Daimler-like levels of refinement (somewhat ironic, when you consider that less than five years previously, Daimler had been planning to launch a new V8 model based on the PB’s predecessor).

When the Swain Group decided to dispose of its coachbuilding activities towards the end of 1963, Harold Radford (Coachbuilders) Ltd once again became an independent company (while the Harold Radford & Co Ltd dealership was subsumed into HR Owen); this move saw Harold Radford himself back on the scene in an advisory capacity. The sale also appears to have included the rights to the name of former coachbuilders Freestone & Webb, which the Swain Group had acquired as a going concern in 1955, but which from 1958 onwards had operated solely as a showroom facility.

Mini conversions continued to account for the majority of the company’s turnover, although various BMC 1100s – including the already-luxurious Vanden Plas Princess – also came in for the Radford treatment (albeit without the Mini’s option of a hatchback conversion), and other mid-Sixties conversions included a very stylish shooting brake version of the Aston-Martin DB5 and DB6, and a remodelled Alfa Romeo Giulia GT coupé. After a turbulent but nevertheless busy few years, the company was renamed Radford, Freestone and Webb in the summer of 1968, and relocated once more, this time to the so-called Radford Works (not to be confused with Daimler’s historic Coventry factory of the same name), nestled amongst a cluster of other coachbuilding companies (including Wood & Pickett) at Park Royal in north-west London.

The latter-day Radford Mini de Ville S, wearing the same numberplate as Harold Radford's early Countryman demonstrators, is seen here in 1995 posing outside Radford's George Street showrooms (formerly home to the UK's Lamborghini importer and now the premises of Italian car dealership Lancia Zagato).
The latter-day Radford Mini de Ville S, wearing the same numberplate as Harold Radford’s early Countryman demonstrators, is seen here in 1995 posing outside Radford’s George Street showrooms (formerly home to the UK’s Lamborghini importer and now the premises of Italian car dealership Lancia Zagato).

By the beginning of the 1970s Radford’s position was looking precarious. The Mini craze had peaked, and the company increasingly found itself competing (poorly) with the likes of Wood and Pickett for an ever-dwindling amount of conversion work. Indeed, the fact that some of Radford’s key staff – including managing director Len Minshull and marketing supremo Eddie Collins – had jumped ship to arch-rivals Wood & Pickett in 1966 can hardly have helped matters, especially as they reportedly took many of the firm’s best customers with them. In fact, in the late Sixties even Harold Radford himself commissioned Wood & Pickett to uprate his own Triumph 1300. What’s more, while Wood & Pickett were actively broadening their portfolio during the Seventies to include other cars, such as the Range Rover, the Radford company appears to have stuck doggedly with the Mini until, by 1975, they finally decided to throw in the towel.

By the time of Harold Radford’s death in March 1990, he had given his endorsement to the rebirth of his once-proud company in a rather different guise. In 1989, with the Mini enjoying something of a renaissance in the run-up to its 30th anniversary, car designer Chris Humberstone saw an opportunity to relaunch the company, with a particular eye on the lucrative Japanese market. Thus, in a blaze of publicity Humberstone opened a new Harold Radford showroom at George Street in London’s West End from where he sold a new breed of lightly-modified Mini de Villes, with the actual conversion work being sub-contracted to other companies (a situation not dissimilar to that of the late 1940s, in fact). This venture lasted in one form or another until around 2000, since when the Radford name disappeared from the motoring scene.

However, the Radford story took a positive turn as of 2005, when the company found itself under new ownership, and is now in the hands of three ex-Wood and Pickett craftsmen, headed up by Managing Director, Marc Eden, who are undertaking all sorts of coachbuilding commissions for a large number of select clientele.

The company re-launched the Radford-Mini, although predictably, this is now based on the new generation BMW-era MINI. The models available are the Bel Air, De Ville, De Ville S and MINI Miglia, recalling the names from the company’s heydays of the Sixties and Seventies. The current incarnation is built to the same standard as the traditional Radford Minis, with conversions being carried out to customer requirements, while retaining plenty of Radford character…

Radford Minis

Radford’s Mini De Ville was the first high-spec Mini to be offered prêt-à-porter, and it soon won a high-profile following amongst the Sixties glitterati.


Radford 1100s

While the Radford Minis were getting all the attention, Harold Radford was also quietly converting a few 1100s of various types. Indeed, he used an uprated Morris 1100 as his own personal transport during the 1960s…


Tested: Radford MINI Miglia

£34,000 for a MINI? Expensive, but boy, is it cool…


Keith Adams

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