In 2018 it will be 25 years since Lord March inaugurated the Goodwood Festival of Speed and inadvertently lit a touchpaper beneath the corroded underpinnings of the classic-car world that helped to send it into turbocharged orbit. Old cars can now make better investments than property or even gold, and there are more opportunities to use them than ever before, thanks to a host of organised events that enable owners to test the mettle of their metal on anything from gentle countryside tours to reliability trials, road rallies, all-out circuit races – or even odysseys of endurance such as the 16,000km Peking to Paris Motor Challenge.
But as well as growing into an industry worth an estimated £5.5bn in the UK alone, “the collector car hobby” is developing a thriving social scene where owners and enthusiasts get together at a purpose-designed venue on any day of the week, look at one another’s wheels, talk old motors and make the most of a community that’s famous for overcoming barriers of status, sex, colour and creed.
Among the latest such venues is The Classic Motor Hub, which opened for business earlier this year on the site of RAF Bibury, a former fighter command base in the picturesque Cotswold village of Ablington. Once home to Hurricanes and Spitfires, it became an MoD storage site after the war, before being sold off for commercial use.
Until recently, its well-preserved “blister” aircraft shelters were used as workshops for the repair of giant combine harvesters – but when the five-acre plot and its buildings became available last year, classic-car dealer Martin Chisholm saw a golden opportunity to create a multifaceted venue at which vehicles could be sold, stored and maintained, as well as one that would serve owners and enthusiasts on a social level.
After a tasteful and sympathetic £300,000 refit, the site is now home to Chisholm’s retail business, which maintains a stock of around 50 vehicles, from “popular classics” priced at up to £50,000 to high-end exotica with seven-figure price tags. There’s a fully equipped workshop, a 300-bay storage facility and a staff of 12 to keep everything running smoothly.
But according to Chisholm – who started in the classic‑car business 30 years ago and ran Sotheby’s car department before setting up on his own in 1999 – the key aim of The Classic Motor Hub is to bring enthusiasts together. “I was planning to build new premises that would enable me to expand the car storage side of my business when I discovered that the former RAF Bibury was for sale,” he explains. “The more I looked into its history as a fighter base for Hurricanes and Spitfires and the more I looked at the land and the buildings, the more it seemed to provide the perfect opportunity to create an environment that was not purely commercial but would give enthusiasts somewhere to go – hence calling it The Classic Motor Hub.
“As a result, we’ve set up a 30-seat supper club, installed a drive-in cinema that accommodates more than 100 cars and arranged regular Coffee & Classics days to which anyone can turn up, meet existing friends and make new ones,” says Chisholm, who hopes to establish further “classic hubs” elsewhere in the UK. “Few people keep a classic purely as transport these days – the cars have come to represent a lifestyle and they are there for fun. Not everyone has the luxury of time to be able to spend seven days on a rally or a weekend at a race circuit – but plenty of people love the idea of being able to look out of their window on a Sunday morning, see that the sun is shining and take their classic for an impromptu spin.”
The Hub is surrounded by roads that are ideal for classic cars, and people typically come from a 50-60km radius – although a number travel from London and further afield. “They tend to meet here in the morning, admire one another’s cars, make new friends and look at what we have for sale. Then a small group might go for a drive around the area and perhaps stop at a local pub for lunch before heading home. They end up having a great day out and, importantly, they have used their old cars instead of just leaving them in the garage to deteriorate.”
Those looking for an even more in-depth classic-car experience can find it an hour or so to the east of The Classic Motor Hub in the Oxfordshire town of Bicester. Best known for its outlet stores that attract shoppers from around the world, the town is fast becoming an internationally recognised centre for classics thanks to a unique setup called Bicester Heritage.
The brainchild of venture capitalist and classic-car fan Dan Geoghegan, Bicester Heritage has given a new lease of life to another historic and remarkable RAF base, which housed Bristol Blenheim bombers and Spitfires during the war. The RAF moved out in 1976, leaving behind the most complete second world war bomber site in the UK – but during the following 35 years, the 50 period buildings were left to fall into disrepair.
Geoghegan discovered that the 348-acre plot was for sale while recovering from a fractured pelvis sustained when his 1930s Riley Gamecock over-turned. “It was in 2012 and, being unable to walk properly or drive, I was enjoying the first guilt-free holiday of my life,” he explains. “Previously, I had restored an Austin 7 that had been abandoned in a woodshed – a project that led to me clocking up 4,500 miles driving around the country, visiting various specialist restorers. It made me realise that there simply wasn’t a one-stop shop anywhere in the UK where an enthusiast could find a specialist capable of carrying out every possible job on an old car, and where they could take a car to have fun with it.”
Geoghegan formulated a business plan for such a centre from his sickbed – and serendipitously discovered that the MoD had put the RAF Bicester site up for sale by tender. “It was a very difficult situation, because it involved finding 10 investors and being ready with the cash in a very short period of time. But we put 1,000 hours of work into our bid plan and managed to buy the place.”
In exchange for £3.5m, Geoghegan and his consortium got the 50 listed buildings, the 248-acre airfield, its 3km of perimeter road and a 100-acre brownfield site. Careful restoration of an initial series of buildings followed, and in April 2013 the first classic‑car specialists set up their workshops and the place opened for business.
Almost five years and an “eight-figure investment” later Bicester Heritage is home to 35 individual companies that offer everything from classic sales to full restorations, magneto repairs and specialist storage. “We received 400 enquiries for 40 business units, which meant we were able to be very discerning about who we gave them to,” says Geoghegan. “We based our decisions on the perceived integrity, honesty, customer focus and future vision of each company – ideals we think fit in with an old-fashioned way of doing things that suits the classic-car world.”
Bicester Heritage went into profit within two years, and phase four of the restoration – which saw the return to service of a further 10 buildings – was completed in October. There is also a thriving apprenticeship scheme, in keeping with Geoghegan’s dream to make Bicester Heritage a “centre of excellence in which skills are preserved in order to ensure that old cars don’t end up in museums, but continue to be driven”.
In addition to housing specialists capable of making, mending or restoring virtually any classic car or part of it, the place serves as a meeting point for owners and enthusiasts. So-called Sunday Scramble meets are held regularly, along with the annual Flywheel Festival, which celebrates “historic motoring, aviation and military endeavour”.
The airfield perimeter road offers the chance to drive classic cars in a track environment, is suitable for speed testing and “shakedown” trials, and has been chosen as the site of next year’s Classic & Sports Car Show. Permission has already been granted for the building of a 300-room hotel, with further, provisional plans afoot to create a small series of “motor lodges” that would combine garaging with living accommodation, while exhibition halls and an autonomous electric vehicle centre are also in the offing.
Such vast tracts of land might be few and far afield in central London, but that hasn’t prevented Paul Michaels from also creating a venue that’s aimed at getting classic-car owners behind the wheel and out onto the road. After selling his BMW dealership in 2013, Michaels established Hexagon Classics at a one-acre site off north London’s celebrated Bishops Avenue, and his stock of various marques – with an emphasis on Porsche – has come to be regarded as among the finest in the capital.
Recently, however, Michaels has set about turning the business into a “destination” through the addition of a high-end art gallery that extends into the car showroom with an impressive array of contemporary paintings, sculpture, ceramics and photography from 30 artists, along with work from celebrated designers such as Georg Jensen and Knoll. He’s also adding a Mediterranean-style, 100‑seat restaurant, which will include 25 parking spaces for classic cars. “Quite a large number of people who live in central London have classics, but they seldom use them, either because they don’t have time to go outside the M25 or, quite simply, because they are terrified of parking a valuable car in the chaos of the city,” says Michaels. “We believe that creating a destination that’s centred around classic cars but with other attractions and easy parking will give owners a reason to drive here, meet like-minded people and have an enjoyable evening.”
And it’s that simple “enjoyment” of classic-car ownership that inspired petroleum tycoon, entrepreneur and insatiable car collector Jonathan Turner to establish the private Bowcliffe Drivers’ Club at his rambling home, Bowcliffe Hall, near Wetherby in West Yorkshire. “I have a mad passion for both old cars and interesting people, and the two often go together – so I decided to set up the Bowcliffe Drivers’ Club as a place for enthusiasts to meet,” explains Turner.
“The majority of cars in my collection are British, so the club house is quite heavily themed on British marques and is decorated with one of the country’s largest collections of prewar motoring art. It’s open every weekday, and members can simply drop in to relax and have lunch or hold business meetings and, in the evenings, it can be hired for corporate or private events.”
Gatherings featuring speakers from the old-car world are held several times per year, and the club currently has more than 500 members – all of whom have “joined” for nothing. “The requirements of membership are quite simple – you have to love old cars and be an interesting person. If you can manage that, you’re in.”