Despite its somewhat esoteric name—at least as it concerns today’s automotive world—British European Auto isn’t the kind of shop you’d expect to find way off the beaten path, but you can find this hidden gem on the rougher side of San Pedro, California, where homelessness is rampant, a strong police presence is the norm, and street vendors sell a variety of goods.
Situated between the West Basin Container Terminal and Fort MacArthur U.S. Air Force Base on Pacific Avenue, I’ve cruised by countless times and always think it belongs in a tonier locale like Montecito or Beverly Hills—especially considering all the gorgeous consignment cars on its showroom floor. The shop specializes in the restoration and repair of classic marques such as Austin-Healey, Lotus, MG, and Triumph, and at night the white, brightly lit building provides most of the illumination for its otherwise dark corner, emanating a kind of hope for the future of the neighborhood.
With the help of his retired business partner Bernie Sloan, his daughter Alicia, and his son-in-law Dane Couto, owner and founder Jeff Taw has managed to thrive in San Pedro for more than three decades. In between college classes, his son Andrew Taw also drops in to help. We recently paid a visit to British European Auto to chat with Jeff, Alicia, and Dane about the business and to get a personal tour of the shop.
Automobile Magazine: How did British European Auto start?
British European Auto: When I arrived to the U.S. from England in 1980 I started working at a shop in Lomita where I met a mechanic named Bernie Sloan. Bernie was from New Zealand, where he had completed his apprenticeship. Bernie knew a guy in San Pedro that was opening a radiator shop and the owner wanted to sublet part of it to a mechanic. We both came on board, and eventually ended up leasing the entire property.
With a limited amount of cash, we opened British European Auto on Gaffey and 18th Street and later relocated to Pacific Avenue. We had to borrow the jack and axle stands Bernie’s roommate because we had no equipment other than a small set of tools each. On a handshake we started British European Auto and worked together for more than 35 years.
AM: What is the average number of cars brought to you annually for restoration?
BEA: The extent of the restoration varies a lot and very few cars are brought in to be fully restored from start to finish. It is often the case that we get partial restorations where we do some of the work and the customer does the rest. With that being said, at varying stages of restoration I would wager an average of 20 cars a year are brought in for restoration—that’s not counting the cars we do repairs on.
AM: In your 30-plus years of business, is there any project in particular that you’re most proud of or that stands out from the rest?
BEA: Back in the 1980s my business partner and I were contacted by a 16-year-old girl that got a Triumph TR4 from her father. She had been working on the car herself and pulled the engine out to have us rebuild it. A few years later in the 1990s she saved enough money and brought the car in for a complete restoration. The Triumph TR4 is her daily driver and she still brings it to our shop for service.
AM: What is the genesis of the shop’s name?
BEA: In the beginning we worked on anything—Pintos, Thunderbirds, etc. We were open seven days a week and did everything we had to do to stay a float. Initially we wanted to specialize in British cars only, however, we started working on Volvos and BMWs, and that’s why we called it British European Auto.
AM: From start to finish how long can it take to fully restore a car?
BEA: It depends on the customer, their budget, and how fast they want it done. From start to finish if we were just charging through it nonstop, the fastest we could get it done is six to eight months. It is not like what you see on television where you bring in a car and get it back two weeks later.
AM: What model was the most recent completed restoration?
BEA: A 1964 Triumph TR4A.
AM: Of all places in Los Angeles County to open a shop, why San Pedro?
BEA: For opportunity, and geographically it was not an ideal place. It was also against the advice of others that we chose San Pedro. Most people would say: Why would you open a shop in San Pedro? That’s the worst place you can possibly open a business. There are a bunch of Chevys and longshoremen all over that town. And they were right, because in the beginning it was tough and it still can be. If we would have opened British European Auto in another beach city such as Redondo we could have been more successful. However, over time San Pedro has proved to be good. Other shops that opened at the same time in more ideal cities are now permanently closed. Three-plus decades later we are still here like an underdog beating the odds.
AM: How often do you get customers that are women?
BEA: We get more women customers than you would think. Women usually bring in cars that they inherited from their father or a car they are having restored as a gift for their husband. They are very good customers, easier to communicate with, and are more trusting of the work we are doing.
AM: What is one of the most unique cars the shop has worked on?
BEA: We recently did some mechanical work on a coachbuilt Rolls-Royce Shooting Brake, also called a “woody” for its wooden body. That was definitely one of the rarest cars we have seen here.
AM: Have you performed any restorations or repairs for celebrity customers?
BEA: One that we can mention is [The Letters director/screenwriter] William Riead. There are many others we cannot disclose.
AM: Does the shop have a favorite car model or brand to work on?
BEA: Austin-Healeys, because we know them quite well and they hold their value. They’re not simple cars to work on, but we’ve restored several of them.
British European Auto
1525 S. Pacific Ave.
San Pedro, California 90731
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