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Cars

Classics with a twist

A prime location, 40-seat cinema, art gallery, extensive library – and 30 exquisitely restored classic cars. Welcome to a new genre of showroom that aims to encapsulate the lifestyles of its clients. Simon de Burton reports. Photographs by Jude Edginton

November 01 2012
Simon de Burton

Drivers arriving at the aptly named Landmark Car Company are directed alongside the building, where a door automatically rises to give access to an underground cavern. As I manoeuvred in, my headlamps landed on a ghostly looking Bugatti Type 35 – which closer inspection revealed to be a bronze by Christian Maas, priced at £100,000. And this was just the car park.

The ground-floor showroom featured more dazzling wares, including a Lamborghini Miura in acid green, a brace of Aston Martins, three Ferraris and a Porsche 956 endurance racer. “We’ve set a lower-value limit of about £100,000 for the cars, and keep around 30 here,” chairman Jeffrey Pattinson says. “Finding really good examples is becoming more difficult. We rarely buy at auction; I tend to source them privately in places such as Italy, Germany and Greece. The quality of restoration is usually far higher than in the UK.”

Pattinson knows a bit about the vintage-car world. He started selling classics in the 1970s from romantically named premises such as Paradise Garage and the Clarendon Carriage Company, before taking a stake in Coys in 1981. Coys had been founded in 1919 by former Royal Flying Corps engineer Wilfred E Coy, who opened Britain’s first petrol station and developed a garage in Kensington’s Queen’s Gate Mews, from which he sold cars by Morris, Singer, Rover and MG, among others, to well-to-do City types. Under Pattinson’s stewardship, the showroom became a magnet for collectors and was called by the cognoscenti simply “the mews”. As canny a businessman as you’re likely to find, he parted with the firm in a management buyout in 2004, leased the premises to the new owners for five years and then converted them into three luxury homes.

Shortly before the buyout, however, Pattinson had acquired an old pub called The Feathers on a prime commercial spot beside London’s Hogarth Roundabout on Great West Road. He knocked the pub down and replaced it with a 20,000sq ft building that was originally intended to be the new Coys showroom. Instead, he rented it to Nikolay Smolensky, then the new owner of British sports car company TVR. It served as TVR’s swanky London base until the 50-year-old marque entered administration in 2006. Pattinson’s next tenant was Imagine Homes, the buy-to-let property business set up by Grant Bovey that collapsed in 2009.

Throughout this period, Pattinson had retained his ties with the classic fraternity, travelling across Europe and the USA to race his historic cars, including a Shelby Mustang, and keeping a weather eye on the escalating values of the most sought-after vintage models. Might it be time, he thought, to get back into the game?

“It was clear that classics were doing well during the recession, and of all the things I’ve done to earn a living, working with cars has given me the most enjoyment,” explains Pattinson. “Buyers and collectors nearly always have an interesting story to tell, and hunting them down has taken me all around the world. I became a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society thanks to my exploits.”

What Pattinson observed during his time out of the business, however, was that some aspects were changing rapidly. Classic-car buying is no longer a niche activity, and the new consumers expect a different experience from long-standing players, for whom the surroundings in which they find their latest beauty are virtually irrelevant. The obvious idea was to turn his dormant building into a classic-car showroom the like of which has never before been seen in Britain – one in which the entire “lifestyle” aspect of ownership is encapsulated.

Dotted among the four-wheelers on the ground floor I saw jewel-like, lightweight Italian motorcycles by makers such as Ducati, Benelli and MotoBi. “At £5,000 or £10,000 each, they’re the sort of thing that clients might buy as decoration for an office or just to add a bit of interest to a motorhouse,” says Pattinson matter of factly. Elsewhere in the light-filled space, refreshments can be served to customers from a serpentine coffee bar, while a peaceful, glass-walled office doubles as a reading room for Landmark’s 10,000-volume automotive library.

A glass stairway rising to the next level of the building brings visitors into an extensive art gallery equipped with plush furnishings and bedecked with top-quality scale models, posters and other objects motoring types might find interesting. During my visit, another area was being used to display pieces from the Red Bull range of car-inspired art. A mere £12,000 buys you a reading lamp made from the exhaust system of a Red Bull Racing Formula One vehicle, while £795 will secure a solitaire game based on one of the car’s brake discs.

The next room, however, is the most surprising. A legacy from Bovey’s tenure, it contains a luxurious, 40-seater cinema, where Pattinson holds film nights for motoring clubs, historic racing groups, corporate clients and, on occasion, members of the House of Commons Motoring Club. Pink Floyd drummer and classic-car obsessive Nick Mason is among the enthusiasts who have provided rare early motor-racing movies for viewing there. “The idea is to make the showroom a destination for anyone who is interested in old cars at the top level,” says Pattinson, who also uses Landmark’s giant digital screen – among the largest in London – to publicise classic-motoring events, from the annual Chelsea Auto Legends to auctions and race gatherings.

“The location of the place gives it an incredibly high profile and, although we’ve been open for less than a year, I can see how different the market has become compared with the old days, when enthusiasts would seek out a smaller dealer tucked away in the middle of nowhere. Here, we have as many as 500,000 people passing by the front door every day, many of whom are extremely wealthy and looking for something to invest their money in. Customers we have never dealt with before might pass the place six or seven times, but then they drop in because they can no longer resist discovering what goes on here – and often end up buying something.

“The business has become far more mainstream, with people buying cars as a way of protecting the value of their money, as well as for enjoyment. A number of clients have bought from us as an alternative to owning a new supercar. They don’t need something for daily transport and appreciate the fact that an old car is less complex and won’t depreciate.”

Robert Coucher, international editor of leading classic-car magazine Octane, concurs with Pattinson’s belief that modern-day buyers are far different from those of the past and, therefore, expect to do business in a different way. “There’s a tendency to forget that the term ‘classic car’ was only invented in 1973. Before that, enthusiasts simply bought old vehicles either because they were cheap or because they were fun. It was just a hobby.

“But once Lord March inaugurated the Festival of Speed in 1993, messing about in these cars became the smart thing to do, and their social status quickly moved up the ladder. Now people are often advised to include a classic car in their investment portfolios – and if they are spending a huge amount of money on something such as that, they expect to carry out the negotiations for it in a high-end environment.

“By opening up Landmark, Jeffrey Pattinson has made classic cars available in the prime location of the Great West Road that has proved key for many modern, prestige manufacturers, such as Audi, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz, which have established showrooms there in recent years. There are similar ‘destination’ dealerships in other parts of the world – notably Australia’s Classic Throttle Shop – but Landmark is really leading the way in the UK. I suspect others will have to follow.”