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Mind the Gap, Please: The Importance of the Space Between

A reader asked the meaning of a photo with a finger pointing to – well, apparently an empty space. So let me confess: I am rather fascinated by panel gaps.

In the report from Brussels InterClassics I posted more than a hundred photos, but one in particular raised an eyebrow with one of our American readers – the photo below:

My finger fits between the door and the bonnet of this E-type. Which equals a rather large gap.

The reader focused on the fact that I used the middle finger – rude perhaps, but that’s not really the important thing here. I promised an explanation, and here it is: I am rather obsessed with panel gaps.

It hasn’t always been like that, but then again – maybe it has, only subconsiously. The thing is; I grew up with Triumph Spitfires – well, at least in the classic car enthusiast sense. My first two cars ever were both Spitfires and I have in fact owned two more since – well, still have, actually. I clearly like them, those little roadsters.

My first two Spitfires were both Mk3 with the then new 1300 cc engine, my present ones are both 1147 cc.

If you are at all familiar with the Triumph Spitfire, you’ll probably know that it was built on the basis of the Triumph Herald saloon – a car which also spawned its own Cabriolet version, a 6-cylinder variant in both open and closed form, the Vitesse. As well as the pretty little 6-cylinder coupé GT6 – and an Estate version of the Herald as well, in fact. The model series was so versatile because the Herald was built on a separate chassis – the classic and conventional way of building cars in the olden days.

The separate chassis – what a wonderful thing.

True, it had gone a bit out of fashion by the time of the Herald, but Triumph went along with it anyway as it was cheaper – not least considering the possibility to hang other body styles on what was basically the same chassis. Thus came to be the Spitfire – and thank God for that! I’ll make no excuses for this car as I owe everything to its concept of a cheap little roadster: I bought my first Spit in 1993 and ever since have I had at least one parked in my garage.

My second classic car was a GT6. Mine was a Mk 2, not the Mk3 as shown here. But the important thing: Note that the panel gaps on these brochure cars are unusually narrow.

Now, besides still being extremely affordable, practical and very pretty, they all share one thing: Huge panel gaps. In the beginning I did not pay much notice to this, to be honest – but then again, there might have been some subconsciousness observing the gaps, storing the information only to let it out many years later when I progressed to other classics of my own and even more classics on my path in general. In the later years, I have become very observant towards what is not there: The empty space. It’s become such an obsession that the distance between panels is now one of my favourite shots at various classic car exhibitions and meetings.

This is an early Range Rover which has supposedly never been restored. A fine gap, that is.

The Spitfire usually has large gaps between the one-piece bonnet and the bulkhead, as well as along the lower edge of the doors. And actually, I am in no doubt that most left the factory like that – as this is the curse of separate panels hung off a ladder frame. But then again, you’ll occasionally see something extraordinarily large and wonder whether this left the factory on a particularly bad day – or whether it could be the result of a home restoration? The latter is not unusual either and in fact it is quick way to judge the quality of a Spitfire restoration: It is absolutely possible for the avid amateur to complete a restoration to a higher standard than the original factory job – but not all do so.

So I’ll usually have a quick glance around any Spitfire to assess this aspect – only to conclude that many are better than mine. Some are also better than the factory cars – and a very, very few actually display very narrow, very even and not least symmetrical panel gaps all around. That’s when you know the bodywork has been totally done – and properly too. But that’s a rare sight on a Triumph Spitfire.

Being burdened by this trauma, I have become quite fascinated with the art of panel gaps – and what you could and still can get away with in terms of huge empty spaces of nothing, which is essentially precisely what a bad panel gap is. It has almost evolved into a pet hobby of mine while I tour various exhibitions: When I encounter a really great panel gap – and for reference I then use my fingers so the viewer can easier judge the scale – I very often take a photo and save that to the harddisk of never-to-be-used-photos.

This Lotus Esprit was for sale and “totally restored”. The panel gaps were huge, though. All as original, then?

Which perhaps goes some way as to explaining why I just can’t find all those pictures at this very moment? They’re hidden somewhere – that much I know. But from memory, I do recall those pictures having a significant overrepresentation of British built cars in the discipline of creating unnecessarily large panel gaps. Oddly, it is not just a phenomena which is accepted on cheaper cars like the Spitfire, as my Rover 3500 equally displayed significant gaps between the doors – as does in fact my Jaguar XJ12, itself a measure of a proper luxury car. Actually my Reliant Scimitar is much better in this respect than all of the mentioned – despite being hand built in glassfibre and all. In general, this tells me that is is not actually the process in itself which is important in order to achieve a high quality finish – the people assembling the cars are of much greater importance.

That said, the British are not alone and I recall some huge gaps on French cars as well. According to memory, a Citroën GS which I once encountered was among the worst offenders.  Even though that car to the best of my knowledge is not hand built at all.

However, the worst which I’ve seen this year, was probably also the worst I have ever seen – and it was, surprise, surprise, German. German? Aren’t they supposedly the masters of panel gaps? Well today, maybe, but when Walter Treser made his dream of a sports car come true, he also looked a lot towards the British, and when the TR1 appeared it not only sported glassfibre bodywork like the British specials of yore – but also panels gaps to make any Brit proud.

Don’t get lost in there!

Chances are slim you’ll encounter one of the rare Treser TR1 anytime soon…

…but if you do check out the brilliant overall concept – and its panel gaps.

When it is quite this bad, it not only spoils a good clean design but probably also airflow – and most certainly the perception of quality as well. The Treser didn’t fare too well either, although in all fairness it probably wasn’t just because of the panel gaps.

In all fairness, it probably IS very difficult indeed to get the panel gaps right on a low-volume car built in exotic materials and assembled largely by hand. Yet one of the most brilliant solutions to that dilemma is ALSO British: The TVR Griffith of 1991. At this time, TVR had thirty years of experience building various models all featuring large and uneven panel gaps, but then they came up with a masterful design that actually emphasised the gaps instead of trying to control or even hide them.

So I feel it is safe to say that while the Brits invented the panel gap, they also invented the solution to end them. Which actually sort of sums up in a nutshell why I love British cars so much.

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6 Responses

  1. YrHmblHst
    OK…so Im not the only one. I too look at gaps ; not only does it tell you quality of ‘fit and finish’ on restorations, but is a prime indicator of prior damage and frame/unibody tweak if theyre not even or the same from side to side. Gaps can tell us a lot.
    Might I propose another ‘reason’ for the huge chasms on a Spit? I imagine some of that – not all obviously as poor assembly is still undoubtedly the main culprit – is actually designed in? The designers knew the car would have some twist in it – as all do – but with that clamshell, they probably designed in some extra also as it undoubtedly moves more than normal. Add in normal vibration and a bit of extra space may well have been deemed necessary to protect paint edges. just a thought.
    Dont know why there would be inordinately large gaps at the bottom of the doors on that model tho…just crappy build quality or using worn out dies long past their ‘sell date’ would be my guess.
    One bit of [probably useless to yall] trivia tho; ALWAYS look carefully at door gaps on first gen F bodies – Camaro / Firebirds. These cars are unibody from the cowl back with a bolt on frame stub at the front. Over the years, especially on the high performance models, the acceleration/torque forces on the tub will actually ‘banana’ the car slightly. The car bends and twists under hard acceleration enough over time that the metal forms a memory and shapes into the stressed form. [especially on convertibles] And it is a booger bear to get straight 40 years later during a complete restoration – VERY few do. Normally youll see a tight gap on one side and a wide one on the other; compensation by moving the fenders a bit helps some in most cases, but then the grille opening is off, especially on Firebirds. A really good body man can get em so close that most folks besides Claus and I would never notice, but it is a huge issue on these cars.
    Im just glad that middle finger wasnt just for me… ;)
    Reply
  2. Himself
    Unfortunately skill to do this properly is getting harder and harder to find. Do it right or don’t do it at all.
    Watch and learn how it CAN be done. Not cheap but done right.
    Reply
  3. Claus Ebberfeld
    , in reality I think it does not just come down to skills as such: It’s just like many don’t really pay attention or think the puzzle properly through.

    As wrote one thing affects the other – and I fact I like to think of the good people in this field as fine 3D-artists.

    With that said it might very well be, , that Triumph on purpose put in some tolerance here and there. The one-piece bonnet is also a huge structure rotating only around two bolts.

    I quite like the thought that they did it on purpose..

    Reply
  4. Anders Bilidt
    I must confess that I’m rather torn on this subject.
    Like and , I too can’t help myself from always having an eye on the panel gaps of pretty much any classic car I come across. It just says so much about the quality of the car!
    But on the flipside, I must confess that I would much rather see a classic car with horrendous panel gaps being driving with enthusiasm by an owner with a huge grin on his face, than I would see one with millimeter perfect panel gaps which lives its whole sad life as some pampered trainer queen.
    So yes, narrow and even panel gaps are a lovely thing, and one which I genuinely do value. But it’s certainly not the-all-be-all of classic cars.
    Reply
  5. GTeglman
    The first picture, are you sure it’s a E-type ?, I can’t get it to match any E-type body – panels / shapes (captured in the red circle) !

    Reply

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