Cars | Finders Keepers

Classic sports cars

When a mobile phone magnate and a motoring auctioneer met, they turned a boyhood passion for classic sports cars into an impressive collection, finds Katrina Burroughs.

February 13 2009
Katrina Burroughs

Tom Alexander, CEO of Orange UK, describes the car journey that sparked his passion for classic sports cars: “It’s a very vivid picture in my mind. I was five or six, travelling with my father through Cornwall, following this beautiful car. I’d never seen anything like it before. We stopped, finally, and got out and it was an old Aston Martin DB2.” There and then, he was captivated – “especially with the connection with James Bond,” he explains. “Aston Martin is a very evocative brand for boys.”

For boys, evidently, of all ages. Four decades later, Alexander maintains the same fervour as his six-year-old self, the only difference being that now he has a licence to drive – and a budget to buy – his beloved automobiles, and has amassed an impressive collection including marques such as Lotus Elan, Jaguar, Porsche, Lamborghini – and Aston Martin.

Alexander’s professional career has been spent successfully steering mobile phone firms into pole position. He was the founding CEO of Virgin Mobile from its inception in 1999 until it was sold to NTL in 2006, and before that was deputy commercial director at BT’s Cellnet. While he was at BT, in the early 1990s, he met James Knight, now international managing director of Bonhams’ motoring department, and an enduring friendship began. Knight remembers: “Tom brought in an Alvis TD21 two-door saloon in gunmetal grey with burgundy interior to sell,” exhibiting his slightly scary total automobile recall. “We just clicked,” he continues. “He had a lovely sense of humour. And the car made top estimate.” He now advises Alexander on acquisitions for his private collection.

Knight’s enthusiasm matches that of his client, though his interest didn’t start at quite such a tender age. He joined the motoring department at Christie’s in 1984. “I had a schoolboy interest in cars and aeroplanes – I thought I’d pick it up.” He certainly did. Five years later, in 1989, having built the car collectors’ market to an unforeseen strength, he left to form a classic automobile auction house with Robert Brooks (Brooks Auctioneers) which, in 2000, merged with Bonhams. Knight now finds himself in the driving seat of the global market leader, holding 26 sales a year, with a network of salerooms from the UK and Europe to the US and Australia. He, too, is a fan of classic British automobiles and is the proud owner of a 1954 Austin Healey 100.

During the 17 years Alexander and Knight have been in close contact, they have found that the best way of working together is arranging to meet up at classic sports car events every other month or so. The classic car world is a tiny principality, with few inhabitants and regular get-togethers from Gstaad to Goodwood, Monaco to Pebble Beach. If there’s a need to communicate urgently outside the calendar of race meetings and auctions, Knight employs a code for letting Alexander know what magnitude of car he has spotted: “I’ll call his PA and leave a message saying it’s low-, mid- or high-priority.”

So what do finder and keeper look out for in potential purchases? Knight says: “Aesthetics. A make and model that was important in its era, and is still well thought of now. And a good racing history.” This is because a notable historic car is a passport to the classic races such as Legends, Le Mans Classic and the Goodwood Revival, in the way a pedigree hound is to Crufts. And Alexander is no collector of motorised baubles; he is a keen and accomplished racing driver. In his youth, he was a star of the British karting team, climbing to rank seventh in the world. In his 20s, he rebuilt an old Austin Healey with a friend and developed an interest in racing classic cars. He now drives in events such as Le Mans Classic and the British GT Championship (where he races a modern Aston Martin). And one of his most prized acquisitions is the ex-works DB2 XMC 76, which was, from 1951 to 1953, Aston Martin’s Grand Touring competition coupé. He says: “It’s great to see these famous old cars out racing again. Driving them, it feels like you’re driving a part of history.”

Additions to the collection are made relatively infrequently nowadays. “It’s a quality, not a quantity game,” says Knight, “and Tom has disposed of some earlier purchases to make way for better examples.” Recently, there has been a Lamborghini Miura. “It marks a historic moment,” explains Knight. “During the 1960s and early 1970s, Ferrari and Lamborghini were vying to be the most prestigious of the Italian marques. Before the Miura, all the sports cars were front-engined. When the Miura debuted in 1966, it was revolutionary: a mid-engined car. In an instant, poor old Ferrari, which launched its front-engined Daytona in 1968, looked pedestrian.”

And Alexander has begun to develop a taste for earlier delicacies. “I’ve always been into the 1950s and 1960s, but I’m learning more about 1930s cars now. I bought a lovely 1931 Invicta S-type Low Chassis. It was the team car that did the Monte Carlo rally [in 1931, the Invicta was the first British car ever to win the Monte Carlo Rally], and raced at Brooklands, and a whole lot of famous races – an amazing-looking thing with a long, pointed tail. It’s my wife and children’s favourite.”

What next for Alexander and Knight? Finder and keeper are looking out for a very special Ferrari, a breathtakingly beautiful 1960s racing car. In the hope of finding the real thing, Alexander has sold a 250GT SWB Ferrari replica. “It was a good-quality replica, made from actual Ferrari parts and worth about £200,000,” says Knight. The pair are excited about some potential candidates in the next Gstaad auction, the annual event where around 30 Ferraris and other Italian exotica are transported halfway up a mountain to a turreted hotel in the Swiss Alps and set on spotless white carpets for the delectation of monomaniacs from all over the globe. “I love that sale,” says Alexander. “It’s a very atmospheric event, in the snow. Even if you don’t buy, it’s such an entertaining environment.”

The location must take him right back to his 007-struck childhood – it would be the perfect cinematic starting point for a memorable Bond car chase.