It is a name synonymous with a glorious part of Huddersfield’s past and 2015 saw the town lose another part of its legacy.

Coachbuilders Rippon Bros produced some of the finest cars the world has ever seen and last year their last coachbuilder, Ronnie Matthews, passed away aged 94.

If you see any pre-war and some of the early post war Rolls-Royce or Bentley motor cars, most of the parts were not made by either Rolls-Royce or Bentley at all.

Practically everything except the radiator, bonnet and wheels were the product of a specialist coach making firm and their talented designers whose job it was to transpose the sometimes vague and difficult customer requirements into an eye-catching end result.

One of the very best was Ronnie Matthews from Rippon Bros Ltd in Huddersfield – and he was the firm’s sole body designer after World War Two. Modest about his achievements, it was only when his family was going through Ronnie’s effects after his death last May that they were surprised to discover a cache of information and drawings relating to his design work in the 1940s and 1950s. Ronnie had worked his way up from the shop floor. In 1934 at the age of 14 he started his seven year apprenticeship as a coach maker, earning the princely sum of 7s (35p) per week.

His father, Alfred, had owned a coach building firm in Bath, but it closed due to the Depression. A chance meeting with the chairman of Rippon Bros, William Edward Rippon, led to a much needed job for Alfred and the whole family moved to Huddersfield.

But Alfred was unwilling for his son to go into coach-making, convinced it was a dying trade, yet Ronnie was determined to be apprenticed to a trade with which he had been familiar since being a small boy.

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Ronnie, of Bradley, attended Huddersfield Technical College several nights a week after work, passing City and Guilds examinations in carpentry and joinery.

When World War Two broke out in 1939 new cars were set aside as Rippon Bros undertook a number of wartime contracts, including the prestigious task of overhauling Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. They provided bodies for ambulances and mobile canteens and even though he was still an apprentice the project became Ronnie’s responsibility.

He recalled: “We’d build them on anything going, like old Rolls-Royce chassis. I designed some for Huddersfield Infirmary. It gave me a bit of status and confidence.”

Rippon Bros premises pictured in 1953 on the spot in Huddersfield town centre where Tesco now stands

After finishing his apprenticeship he was called up into the army, serving in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, spending time in India and the Far East. Shortly after the Japanese surrender he was sent into Burma with a train – just him and the engine crew – to pick up 500 Japanese POWs.

After the war Col Reginald Rippon appointed Ronnie to be the firm’s designer.

Ronnie’s first design in his new position was for the bodywork for a Bentley Mk VI (B22BH) for display at the 1948 London Motor Show.

A stylish design of estate car allowed Ronnie to indulge slightly in his love of curved lines along the body and was mounted on a Bentley Mk VI chassis (B91FU) in 1950. Its description was elevated to ‘continental touring limousine.’ This design required considerable skill so as to use the least amount of still scarce materials.

During the austerity of the post war years and with the vast majority of Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars being made with factory-fitted bodies, the number of new chassis needing bodywork seriously declined and so did the coachwork department of Rippon Bros.

Ronnie was the firm’s designer and also the body shop foreman so he worked on the shop floor.

According to David Mattin who worked in the still prospering Rolls-Royce Mechanical Department at the time: “It took close to 12 months for Ronnie and two apprentices, twin brothers Trevor and Malcolm Gibson, to erect the last body built by Rippon.”

This was on a Silver Wraith chassis (WVH4) and in 1952 it marked the firm’s swansong at the London Motor Show. After this Rolls Royce cars were factory made in one place so no longer was the chassis sent out to coachbuilders such as Rippon’s.

The final preparations for the Motor Show always seem to be fairly frantic. However, the photograph of Rippons 1948 show car, Silver Wraith (WYA86) appears carefully staged. It does however show Ronnie Matthews framed by the nearside window.

In 1954 Ronnie left Rippon to teach apprentices at Halifax College but only a year later he was lured away to join Woodall Nicholson’s, of Halifax, as works manager. This was another long-established coach builder, then specialising in converting old Rolls-Royces into hearses. The firm also mounted hearse and limousine bodywork on such as Daimler and Austin chassis.

At Ronnie’s funeral his grandson Ian Hirst, of Mirfield , said: “About this time Ronnie became active in the Institute of British Carriage and Automobile Manufacturers which was the professional body that represented his trade. He was very proud of what he achieved with IBCAM, sitting on committees, becoming a Fellow, judging at the motor show and being President for two years from 1983. Woodall Nicholson’s were taken over by their main competitor in the hearse trade, Colman Milne of Bolton, but they recognised Ron’s value and made him chief engineer and designer of the combined group.

“Aged 60 his career was unfortunately cut short by a heart attack. He then retired and was meant to slow down, but it didn’t quite transpire that way. He remained very active, kept his involvement with IBCAM and was delighted in 1983 to be made their president.“

This honour was particularly sweet for Ronnie since he followed in the footsteps of his old boss, Col Reg Rippon, Chairman of Rippon Bros, who 50 years earlier held the same office while Ronnie was then but a humble apprentice in the firm.

Ian continued: “He kept driving into his 90s, although he reduced the distances, but only slightly. He was proud of being a careful driver, but was both miffed and chuffed when he was caught speeding aged 91 and had to attend a speed awareness course.”

* The history of the company called ‘Rippon Bros a Coachbuilder of Renown’ written by Jonathan Wood is available from www.ripponbrosbook.co.uk price £75, plus postage and packing.