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Pedal To The Metal: Ben Radcliffe Talks Wireframe Cars

. 8 minute read

Ben Radcliffe is known for taking iconic vehicles like the Subaru Impreza, Lamborghini Countach and Ferrari F40 and transforming them into 1:1 scale wireframe cars. He uses his background in architecture, engineering and metalworking to turn lengths of mild steel round bar into mind blowing neon 3D geometric structures.

Once he’s done heating, bending, and welding his life size models together, they’re parked up in the personal collections of car lovers, as well as on the kerb sides of corporations who want in on some of the static action. It’s not as simple as it sounds though. Why do these fluorescent replicas have the power to attract commissions from such companies, and trip up crowds of unsuspecting passers-by?

Practically speaking, Ben works from blueprints, carefully picking his lines and producing the external skeleton of a car, and then rests his auto creations on four wheels made from rolled steel circles. Using jigs and an acetylene torch, he makes compound curves that add width and depth to his creations – especially with the grooves of the tyres, making them look almost as if they’re spinning on the tarmac.

While his builds are tactile, they’re transparent in nature – you can peer past the framework into an uninterrupted backdrop, find a gap and step into the car without so much as touching a door handle, placing your feet firmly on the street below.

His work is both there and not there, loud and subtle, exclusive and interactive, phenomenally detailed yet strikingly simple, and as an artist, he both commands public spaces and confounds minds with his ethereal pieces. You’re almost in two dimensions at once.

To find out more from the man himself, we sat down with Ben in his Shoreditch workshop and asked him some really serious questions like, is he driven by his own passion for cars? How does he shift things up a gear? What does he do to refuel?

Ben Radcliffe working on one of his wireframe sculptures in his Shoreditch studio, cutting with sparkles.

What was the first thing you ever built? Tell us about your love of machines and engineering…

I was 4 or 5 when I learnt how to ride a bike like most kids, then I got serious bmx fever and was popping wheelies and making jumps in the back garden at 6 or 7, and then ragging old mopeds around orchards at 10 and driving tractors at 12 or 13… I think the first thing I built was was a go-cart contraption using a golf trolley and a lawn mower!!

Wow so that’s quite prophetic!

That was! It was my dad. He was really into cars and motorbikes and I grew up around them, so it was fairly… you know, I was kind of going to go that way.

He was super practical as a mechanic and builder, but couldn’t weld and weirdly enough that was something that I do remember him saying, “it would be really good to know how to weld…”

I studied architecture at the Mackintosh School Of Architecture in Glasgow for three years. Then one day whilst out exploring on my bike I saw some sculptures outside an industrial unit in Maryhill and just went up to the chaps outside having their tea break and asked, “do you need any Saturday help?” So I learned to weld whilst working with Simon Hopkins at Scott Associates – Sculpture and Design. We literally made everything and anything. Stage sets for the Scottish Opera, furniture, art fabrication, casting, steel, aluminium, lighting. It was a fantastic learning experience and I loved working there, and it was all fortuitous I suppose and I evolved from there.

What does your dad think about where you are now?

Oh yeah, he’s thrilled. He likes seeing what I make. I remember I was working on what was more or less my first commercial project, a Toyota Corolla wireframe car for a Japanese client, and I was getting a bit close to the deadline and I asked him to help out – he was like, “My glasses are steaming up and I don’t know if I’m grinding the right bit.” Turned out he’d spent 20 minutes grinding and polishing the parts that we were going chuck in the skip! But he gets involved and yeah, he does love it.

Ben Radcliffe, siting in front of one of his wireframe sculptures.
To find out more from the man himself, we sat down with Ben in his Shoreditch workshop and asked him some really serious questions.

So you were studying architecture, what was it that made you think, no, I’m going to take these skills and apply them differently?

When I completed my part 1 of the architecture degree I continued to work at Scott Associates and really liked the work and the atmosphere in the workshop and just decided to go down that route rather than architecture. I was working with architect’s artists and designers, helping them produce their designs like spiral staircases or cast concrete benches. After four or five years, I started making my own work using what I learned.

What was the first full scale model that you made?

It was a Subaru Impreza made from 10mm mild steel round bar that I built at the Glasgow Sculpture Studios, where I rented a studio after I left Scott Associates. It had a huge fantastic metal workshop that I basically had to myself.

Did you drive a Subaru Impreza? Are your projects often born from a feeling of nostalgia?

I never owned one but a friend did. I grew up in Kent and once I was 17, passed my test and loved cruising about the countryside. We all had battered Golfs, Novas and Fiestas but longed for something like the mighty Impreza – what a car!

So what made you go down the wireframe sculptures and metalworking route? What do you like about the material?

I have been working with steel for so long now – 15 years – I just feel very comfortable with it. I spent years making railings, gates and balconies and getting things square. Measuring, cutting, polishing and grinding- its all second nature now as is how the material reacts to the heat from the welding.

How was it transitioning from architecture to commercial fabrication?

Fine. I enjoyed being an apprentice/journeyman and learning a trade and fortunately had good teachers. I enjoyed the satisfaction of creating something and solving problems. I also enjoyed meeting other craftsmen who are knowledgeable and passionate about what they do. Working with these people can be a real pleasure.

No one taught me how to do business, or vital things, like pricing or what to do if people are trying to rip you off, not pay, or how to manage people. It’s really hard. So you have to go from maker to businessman.

When did you actually realise you can go it alone and make a living out of this?

I was beginning to get a bit bored at Scott Associates and I wanted to start making my own work. I felt I needed to have a show to put all of the skills that I’ve learned over the last 4/5 years together and have a little exhibition and that was it really. After the first show and leaving Scott Associates, working for myself was a steep learning curve.

No one taught me how to do business, or vital things, like pricing or what to do if people are trying to rip you off, not pay, or how to manage people. It’s really hard. So you have to go from maker to businessman.

Living in London is quite tricky in terms of balancing being creative and doing what you’ve been commissioned to do, because you’re always trying to keep the wolf from the door. It’s about getting a balance between the creative and fun projects and paying the bills. Yes I mean all of the personal work that I’ve done has always led to more work, but sometimes it is still a bit precarious.

The last year has been pretty good though. I’ve made four cars, all wireframe sculptures, one of them was another Lamborghini Countach that went to a big hotel in Las Vegas called the Palms. I was showing work alongside Damian Hirst, Kaws, Warhol, Murakami. Quite surreal really to show my see-thru car in Las Vegas with these global art stars!

We love the kitchen in your studio – what’s this beautiful floor about?

Yeah, thank you! So this is the left over wood from a skate ramp I made – Quaker Street Bowl. The bowl was big, beautiful and curved, and completely constructed from wood that we were given from a building site in Shoreditch. These are the off cuts of marine quality ply and I just couldn’t bare to waste it, because this is really, really nice wood. I cut it into pieces and tried to tessellate them together using templates and a very sharp circular saw. I got halfway, I was like this is taking forever, but I kept on going. So it took about eight days or something, nine days. I do like the wooden crazy paving effect with the shapes and different tones of the wood.

Do you skate?

I do skate and miss the bowl but still try and skate once a week at a wooden skate park in Barking in Essex.

You can tell from the photographs, that the Ferrari I made is something really special, it’s both curvy and sharply angular and just lends itself to the wireframe technique. Being that picky has paid off and it's one of my favourite pieces. It’s all about that flow and making beautiful lines isn’t it?

Tell me more about the perfectionist within you…

Ha! Sometimes I can go a bit OCD with the details and getting it just right. I’ll be telling myself that I just need to finish this. It’s tricky because you just want it to be – perfect. I had to stop myself chasing the Lamborghini out the door all the way to Las Vegas. For a good couple of weeks I was like, “oh I should have done that. I should have done that. Oh god” It’s really dangerous. You’ve just got to let go and remember you’re probably the only one that can see those tiny little faults but they really bug me. If it takes me a day to cut out something that doesn’t look right and replace it then I will but I’ve also missed deadlines like that. I’m getting better as I get older but I was a nightmare when I started!

Has it ever gotten really bad?

Oh yeah – there have been times when I’ve been working with other people that I have contracted in to help and they have done a half hearted job on one of my big projects. Bits of steel that are supposed to be straight but have warped and curved like a banana due to the heat and I’ve gone berserk because I know it will show up in photographs and I just can’t live with that. It was awkward but I had to tell them to start again and do it properly. This doesn’t happen too much these days because I have a little team of fabricators who I have trained up and they know I want my work to be museum quality.

Also I get so into it, I really enjoying looking at all the reference material when I get a commission and reading about how they made the original vehicle and what made it so iconic. That’s another nice thing when I make these cars, I love the research and looking at all of the background and the history of the particular manufacturer and who the designer was.

You can tell from the photographs, that the Ferrari I made is something really special, it’s both curvy and sharply angular and just lends itself to the wireframe technique. Being that picky has paid off and it’s one of my favourite pieces. It’s all about that flow and making beautiful lines isn’t it?

 

How do you go about achieving those wireframe sculptures?

There’s lots of tricks of the trade that I’ve developed over the years but a new one for me is working with complex wire bending machinery and tools which means we can get some really sophisticated curves without welding and joins.

It all begins with a full size elevation of the car that I staple up on my wall and then use tracing paper to sketch over. There is a lot of standing back, pondering, re-sketching and drinking tea!

It’s interesting that you powder coat those clean lines in hot highlighter colours, what is it about those blazing oranges, cool blues and luminous yellows?

I think it’s the urban environment I place the sculptures in – for example Merchant City in Glasgow and Mayfair in London…if I’m going to put a Lamborghini outside against a greyish kind of building it has to pop and be quite vibrant and make a noise.

How do you find parking?

I just park them like a real car but with the added bonus of no number plates!

I showed some work at the Art Car Boot Fair in the Trumans Brewery 10 or 11 years ago . One of Paul Smith’s assistants saw my work, and as a result I was asked if I wanted a show at his shop in Albermarle Street, so of course I put the Subaru outside and that actually resulted in me getting a parking ticket! It ended up in the paper, the Sun or the Mirror or something, a bit cheesy but also just a bit of fun.

I’ve had some comedy moments ‘parking’ the cars. I’ve just asked people on the street, “excuse me, can you give me a lift with this off the trailer… ?” and then you have ten passers-by, five on each side, agreeing to volunteer to lift the car into position, “right everybody lift together…!”

Do you have a creative ritual, to get your head into gear?

Depends – if I’m in my workshop I turn on my laptop and crank out disco and house through my studio sound system. That can help…

For me it is just about getting up and getting your routine going – I try and get up early and get into the studio and try and get it going as soon as I can and do a nine to five. I have months where I’m super focused and other months not so much, but I try to get on and do the work.

It’s about being productive in the day to day – the creativity happens in the small moments when I’m in there actually bending metal and I think “oh, I’m going to try something like that.” When you’re in the zone, when it’s all going well, you’re like this is fucking great, I love it. But you can’t hope for that to be your whole day.

So what have you done to ease your way in?

Sometimes I will go to like art exhibitions. Just go out and go, right, “today is a write off”, I just don’t feel like doing any work. I’ll have a look at what shows are on. We’re so lucky aren’t we in London? In fact I went to see a good one yesterday called Strange Days which was at 180 The Strand – it’s this huge big old brutalist office block.

When I start a job I’ll break the project into components and make a list and make a schedule and action plan. The first few months are tough, planning how to produce everything and what lines work, but as the project progresses it all comes together in the last few weeks, it’s such a great feeling.

Your cars are more form over function, do you ever think about dabbling with mechanics?

Oh yeah and I do occasionally. My throttle cable broke on my Ninja ZX7R a few months ago and thought I’d have a go myself – such a mission, fairings off, tank off, carbs off – it took me all day just to replace the cable but I did it. Not exactly enjoyable but happy I managed it.

I am also doing a watch course at the Epping Forest Horology Club which is fascinating but also very frustrating when watch parts ping out of the tweezers and get lost! The Club is on a farm in deepest darkest Essex, and such a great place and the tutors are very knowledgeable. I go every Tuesday and I’ve really started getting into watch repairing and experimenting with lathes, it’s really, really fun.

You make some classic sets of wheels. Have you ever driven the real versions?

When I finished the F40, I had a meeting with a guy that works with Ferrari in Milan, He wanted to know if I could do a wireframe Cavalino Rampante – the Ferrari ‘Prancing Horse’. I was thinking it would be lovely to see how they make these cars, how they do all the body work, so I went to Turin and then Modena and visited the museum and factory, and I got to drive a little 458 Ferrari for an hour on the roads around Modena. It was absolutely wild, and such a thrill to drive a high performance sports car… I’m currently pestering my accountant to see if its ok to put a sports car through my books… A 911 993 would be nice!

Ha! What else are you looking forward to?

The wireframe cars are my main thing, but I’ve started doing wall hangings. So, using BMW bonnets and either painting directly onto the bonnets or more recently I’ve been working with a fibreglassing company. So making moulds of bonnets and producing a limited edition of them in fibreglass, before painting them or wrapping them with holographic car wrap.

I’m also trying to go from the full sized wireframe sculptures to smaller sized ones, complete with skateboard wheels, which are kind of fun. I’m looking forward to making multiples of work using my tried and tested suppliers and manufacturers and also finding new ones – I’m getting some work cast in steel and aluminium so excited to see how that will turn out. And I’m going start putting my work on T shirts and do more prints having been encouraged by nice DMs on Instagram!

Check out Ben’s feed here!

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