It’s easy to like Simon Ayris, the owner and founder of RPS, based in Witney, Oxfordshire. He’s not brash, he’s not one of those egregiously ‘larger than life’ caricatures that our classic car world can play host to. He’s just a bloke who is clearly very happy, passionate in fact, to be doing what he’s doing. There’s a sense of pride about Simon that you warm to. He explains things; staff members, cars, events, all with a very real and captivating enthusiasm. Simon isn’t in this game because it’s cool (though it is, as you’ll learn, very cool indeed), nor is he in it to make a quick buck. No, he’s in it because it clearly still lights his fires and still motivates him. And that’s special.
What is it then, you may be asking, Simon does? Well, he’s the gaffer at RPS, which stands for Rally Preparation Services. You don’t need to be Poirot to work out what goes on in the Oxfordshire-based workshop. However, while your mind’s eye is probably drawing up an image of old cars with roll cages, that’s only half the story. Yes, there is your traditional rally fodder dotted around the premises like the Lancia Deltas and the Ford Escorts, but they’re only part of the story. The chunk of the business for RPS is building cars to take on endurance, long-distance rallies. Events like Peking to Paris, for example. And the cars in question aren’t generic rally names. No, they’re a bit more special. Fords from the 1940s along with Chevrolets of a similar vintage, or more oddball stuff like the pre-war 1929 Buick 25X, or how about a ‘70s W116 S Class Mercedes-Benz complete with cage and rugged tyres?
Walking around the RPS workshops, Simon beams as he tells us about every car, some of which are his own. He knows each car, where it’s been, where it’s going and what it’s in the workshop for. And he talks about each car as if it were his own, backing it with levels of detail to make you believe any given car could be. Simon knows his customer’s cars better than we know our own!
Of course, RPS isn’t a business built solely on Simon’s enthusiasm, though we suspect it could run on that now. It actually stems from a time in Simon’s life when enthusiasm was a word rarely uttered.
Simon’s background comes from the motor trade, the service side of things to be more specific. It was… okay. It paid the bills, and there was a degree of progression with Simon working his way up to being Service Manager. It wasn’t rewarding though. In fact, as he explains to us, it was a job based around customers having to make distress purchases, rather than days filled with happy customers at the service desk. It was exhausting for Simon, who longed to do something else. And that something else involved classic rally cars.
With experience on the tools himself, and with plenty of experience of rallying thanks to his out of work hobbies, Simon pondered the implications of going it alone. He had plenty of work already – he was known in rallying circles, and people were more than keen to book up Simon’s spare time for some wrenching. It was a huge risk though. The dealership job might have been dull, but it was solid, it was regular money, but was that enough? No, thought Simon, and he took the plunge. In 2007, RPS was born.
Those early days were stressful, but only in the sense that Simon was going it alone. The worries of whether or not it was the right move soon faded, as the work began to roll in. Soon more staff were needed, and then the small unit wasn’t big enough, so the company had to relocate, then more staff, more cars, more customers, even more staff and yet another move to the premises RPS is in now. As of today, the company boasts two buildings, 19 staff and more activity than you can imagine.
Simon attributes a great deal of the company’s good fortune to a now dearly departed customer, Steve. A wealthy man, Steve entrusted RPS to build and maintain his classic rally cars, pushing what the company could do in the process. He also entrusted Simon to sell his collection of cars when his health deteriorated. And while sales isn’t Simon’s background, he was happy to oblige. This in turn led to the creation of the sales side of the business, which is booming. You can buy a car from RPS, and they will be your helping hand from purchase, to prep, to event, to return and rebuild. That’s something else.
In terms of the work RPS does, the main bulk of it is, as we said, focused on building cars for long-distance rallies. We can’t tell a lie – we had no idea there was such a strong and vibrant customer base for this, but every day is a school day! The workshops at RPS are brimming with cars that are being prepared for events, or that have returned from one. Then there are the ‘new’ builds. RPS doesn’t just look after or adapt old cars for rallying. It will also build you one from the ground up, resulting in an effectively ‘new’ 1939 Chevrolet Fangio, for example.
And when we say build, that is exactly what we mean. RPS can serve as a one stop shop, and project manage any build you wish. Simon has built up a huge number of contacts within the classic car world, so if it’s something RPS can’t offer directly, he can still create a build for a customer, taking all the hard work out of it. And the extra helping hand doesn’t end there. RPS will prep your car for any specific event, they’ll help with the logistics of getting it to and from the start/finish, they will offer on-event support, the list goes on. RPS build these cars because the team, Simon especially, is passionate about the sport. Plus, they take pride in knowing that a 1930s car they’ve built has taken on, and beaten, some of the most gruelling roads in the world.
And then there’s the way in which Simon and RPS as a wider team looks to the future. Simon’s son, Lewis, is already a big part of the business (as is Simon’s wife, Sveta, and daughter, Millie-Jane) and is being primed to take it into the future when Simon decided to hang up his tools (though that won’t be for a while yet!). The company also employs two apprentices, with a view to taking on a third. New blood, new passion for the industry, new torchbearers for the next generation.
RPS is as fascinating as it is impressive. The cars, the people, the story behind it and the stories that are waiting to be told. It represents a corner of the classic car world that is disruptive, different, hard-fought and rugged, and we love it. RPS truly is proof that old cars don’t die, they just get more hardcore!