Classic cars reborn

Hand-built recreations of classic cars offer the charm and character of the originals combined with the comfort and reliability of new‑builds – and demand is accelerating. Simon de Burton reports

One of 10 recreations of the Lister Knobbly Stirling Moss, £996,000 from The Lister Motor Company
One of 10 recreations of the Lister Knobbly Stirling Moss, £996,000 from The Lister Motor Company

There are probably some motorsport enthusiasts out there who would happily pay seven figures just to have dinner with the legendary Sir Stirling Moss. But hand £1m to the reborn Lister car company and not only will you get to break bread with the great man, you’ll also get to take home a car just like some of those he raced at Goodwood, Silverstone and Sebring during the 1950s.

Ten examples of the limited edition Lister Knobbly Stirling Moss will be hand-built using the same 3.8‑litre, D-Type engines, lightweight tubular chassis and magnesium alloy bodywork that once brought the 180mph cars giant‑killing success on circuits around the world.

Designed by racing driver and engineer the late Brian Lister and made at his father’s engineering firm in Cambridge, the original Knobbly – so called because of its curvaceous bodywork – saw off competition from the wealthy factory teams of Ferrari, Maserati and Jaguar, winning no fewer than 11 of the 14 races it entered during the first year of production.

Stirling Moss driving an original Lister Knobbly to victory at the 1958 British Grand Prix at Silverstone
Stirling Moss driving an original Lister Knobbly to victory at the 1958 British Grand Prix at Silverstone

Around 50 Knobblies were built between 1957 and 1959, after which Lister continued to develop other racing cars before selling the company in 1986. In 2013, however, it was bought by Lancashire car-warranty tycoon Lawrence Whittaker and his father Andrew, who pledged to return the name to the limelight with an initial run of 10 Knobblies to celebrate the original company’s 60th anniversary the following year.

At the time, says Lawrence, “It was a case of suck it and see – it began as a hobby for us, and we didn’t really have any idea how much it would cost to build the cars or, indeed, whether or not anyone would want to buy them.”

The Whittakers needn’t have worried. Despite being priced at up to £395,000, all 10 Knobblies sold out quickly, and the last are currently being finished for delivery to buyers in Britain, Europe and Asia. Work will then start next year on the Stirling Moss editions, which, because they are made from magnesium rather than aluminium, will retail at £996,000.

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Available in either road-legal or track-only form, they will no doubt sell relatively easily, because they’ve arrived at a time when demand is on the up for collector cars that are clearly classics, but are entirely new-builds rather than traditional restorations.

“I think the magic of the Stirling Moss editions, for example, lies in the fact that a buyer can step in and drive a car that is almost identical to the ones Moss actually raced,” says Lawrence. “Original Listers from the 1950s do appear for sale, but they have almost always been modified within the historic racing regulations, whereas our cars replicate Brian Lister’s true design as closely as possible.”

The growing popularity of such cars has prompted Jaguar Land Rover to set up a whole new department called JLR Classic, which is dedicated to the “new old” and got off the ground in 2015 with an initial offering of six Jaguar Special GT E-Type lightweight racing cars.

One of nine new Jaguar XKSSs, about £1m from JLR Classics
One of nine new Jaguar XKSSs, about £1m from JLR Classics

The six were intended to complete a batch of 18 E-Types that were scheduled to have been made during the early 1960s. Production stopped after only a dozen had been made, but the missing chassis numbers were used to create the so-called “continuation” cars using the original dimensions, specifications, tooling and build methods. Priced at £1m-plus, they sold out within days.

The success of the venture has led JLR to embark on another project, this time to complete the story of the even more desirable XKSS, a 1950s road car once beloved of Hollywood star Steve McQueen and based on a batch of leftover, obsolete D-Type racers. Just 16 were built before a factory fire destroyed five that were awaiting delivery, and damaged four more that were later disassembled so the surviving components could be reclaimed.

Those chassis numbers will now be used to create nine brand-new XKSSs, again priced at more than £1m apiece – which represents a bargain compared with the £10m value of one of the original 16.

Steve McQueen in an original 1950s Jaguar XKSS in Hollywood, 1960
Steve McQueen in an original 1950s Jaguar XKSS in Hollywood, 1960 | Image: CBS via Getty Images

“It was a major decision to set up JLR Classic,” says its director, Tim Hannig. “People have different views on the classic car world, and some are not comfortable with the idea of continuation cars or recreated ones – but the success of the lightweight E-Type programme proved that there is a real demand.

“It has given us the confidence we needed to be able to create hand-built cars from scratch using original plans. We have put together a dedicated team of around 50 people and have reactivated crafts that are no longer used in modern production methods.

“In almost all respects, the continuation XKSS cars will be identical to the 1950s originals, although certain details – such as parts of the braking system – will be upgraded for greater safety. We are even making brand-new D-Type engine blocks based on an original that was found tucked away in a Jaguar dealership,” adds Hannig.

One of 50 new Shelby Cobras, from $75,000 from Superformance
One of 50 new Shelby Cobras, from $75,000 from Superformance

JLR Classic has also started to offer effectively new examples of the Series I Land Rover from the early 1950s. Once a donor vehicle has been sourced, it is stripped to its bare bones before being rebuilt from the ground up with never-used stock parts from the JLR inventory, freshly made components or refurbished originals. An 86in wheelbase version costs from around £60,000; the rarer 80in models are £80,000-plus; and the even scarcer station wagons sell for more than £100,000.

Though the market for such vehicles is undoubtedly stronger now than ever before, some classics have been available as new cars for quite a while – one of the most ubiquitous being the Shelby Cobra that first appeared in 1962 when Texan racing driver Carroll Shelby had the idea of dropping an American V8 engine into the British-built AC Ace sports car.

The Cobra has since been extensively copied: among the relatively few respected continuations are those from California-based Superformance, which is officially sanctioned by Carroll Shelby Licensing to produce glass-fibre-bodied Cobras that have a starting price of around $75,000, rising to $150,000 for replicas of the hard-top Daytona Coupe racing cars, and $220,000 for one of the 50 examples launched in 2015 to mark 50 years since the marque won the World Manufacturers’ GT Championship.

The car’s interior  
The car’s interior  

Superformance also makes exquisite, authorised replicas of the 1963 Corvette Grand Sport (from $130,000), and the celebrated Ford GT40, which retails for around $250,000. Across the range, the company is now building around 20 cars per month to meet rising demand.

“There is no doubt that continuation cars are becoming more popular simply because many of the originals have become so expensive they are out of most people’s financial reach,” says Superformance’s Justin Mahaffey.

“Our clients also like the fact that they are getting all the fun and character of a classic car combined with the reliability that comes from it being made with new components. We have sold Cobras to people who have them as a second car to use on a regular basis and enjoy both on the road and on the track – whereas an original example might rarely leave the garage because of its high value and the risk of something going wrong,” Mahaffey adds.

A DeLorean DMC-12, around $100,000 from DeLorean Motor Company
A DeLorean DMC-12, around $100,000 from DeLorean Motor Company | Image: DeLorean Motor Company

Another US firm, Utah-based Kirkham Motorsports, also sells Cobra replicas (about $175,000) with a beautifully crafted aluminium body. Small-scale Cobra production is even being continued at AC Heritage in Surrey, which is keeping alive the original AC marque that gave Shelby his inspiration.

Shelby American’s official dealer in the UK and Europe, Bill Shepherd Mustang, can order a 50th-anniversary Daytona Coupe (£449,500) and, for a starting price of £150,000, will also build a recreation of a 1968 Ford Mustang just like the one famously driven by McQueen in Bullitt.

Fans of the movie Back to the Future, meanwhile, should be pleased to learn that Liverpudlian Stephen Wynne is well on the way to reviving production of the famous stainless-steel-bodied DeLorean DMC-12 at a factory in Humble, Texas.

An MGB roadster, £50,000 from Frontline Developments
An MGB roadster, £50,000 from Frontline Developments

Having acquired the entire inventory of DeLorean parts more than a decade after the original Belfast-based firm went spectacularly bust in 1982, Wynne hopes to start delivering new cars in late 2017 thanks to a change to US law that allows manufacturers to produce 325 examples annually of a car originally made over 25 years ago, provided they comply with current emissions standards.

In the DeLorean’s case, that means out with the original, underpowered engine and in with a new one that is predicted to produce at least double the horsepower and give the new DMC-12 the performance to match its looks. Wynne’s DeLorean Motor Company expects to produce around 300 cars, each priced at about $100,000.

But if the DeLorean doesn’t sound exclusive enough, Italian engineer Roberto Negri is slowly building continuation models of the aluminium-bodied Iso-Rivolta A3/C competition car from the 1960s at a small workshop near Bergamo – but these will be super-rare as Negri’s Iso Restorations has vowed to build no more than 10, most of which are already accounted for.

A Ford GT40, $250,000 from Superformance
A Ford GT40, $250,000 from Superformance

But if you simply want to drive a quintessentially British sports car that isn’t riddled with rust, goes like the wind and is unlikely to break down, your best bet is probably long-established Frontline Developments, which will make an as-new MGA, MGB, MGC, Midget or Austin-Healey Sprite that is nicer to drive, faster, more comfortable and more reliable than any fan of conventional classics could ever have imagined.

Frontline starts with a standard car, strips it down and then acid-dips the body to remove all the paint and expose any corrosion damage. It is then restored and refinished as required before being built back up again with a brand new Mazda engine and gearbox, bespoke interior trim, upgraded electrics and instruments, and the paint job of the buyer’s choice.

The result looks and drives like a brand-new car while retaining all the charm and character of an old one – and it is more likely to rise in value than fall.

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“The business has grown immensely in the past five years,” says sales director Ed Braclik. “When we started making these cars, people would often balk at paying £50,000 for what they simply saw as an MGB when a standard example could be bought for a fraction of that amount – but attitudes have changed and buyers now appreciate the fact that they are getting a completely hand-built car.

“The brand new engine and gearbox and the modern brakes and suspension systems make them really enjoyable to drive, and many people see them as cars for life that will remain in their families for decades.

“They are really usable too – we have one owner who commuted from Holland to Germany in his MGB on a daily basis and has racked up almost 40,000 miles in it in three years. The buyer demographic is also changing – a few years ago, we were more or less selling only to men aged in their 60s and 70s. Now, 35 per cent of our buyers are women, and ages range from mid-30s to mid-50s,” adds Braclik. “People seem to love the idea of being able to buy a classic that is elegant and timeless, but that drives like a modern car and is equally reliable.”

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