Last December, a simple, white cotton motor-racing suit decorated with the blue and orange stripes of the Gulf Oil logo crossed the block at RM Sotheby’s New York classic car sale. Included were some flameproof Nomex underwear and a chipped and scratched crash helmet – an ensemble that might ordinarily fetch $1,000 at most. In this case, however, the outfit realised $336,000, because it had been worn by Steve McQueen in cult 1971 racing movie Le Mans. But it’s not just celebrity provenance that’s making vintage motoring kit increasingly collectable. As the market for classic cars has steadily grown, so has interest in anything connected with it – including the apparel worn behind the wheel.
Bradley Price, a New York-based designer and founder of driving-watch brand Autodromo, has a penchant for cars built in the golden “classic” era of 1950-80, as evinced by the Ferrari 208 and Alfa Romeo Montreal in his garage. He’s equally keen on the clothing worn by professional and amateur drivers of the period. “As a designer, I’m drawn to the materials and styles, especially the colour schemes and graphics,” says Price.
“I have a 1960s Dunlop Les Leston racing suit that is branded as a Stirling Moss suit – he was sponsored by the firm and was often seen in immaculate Les Leston garments while racing. I also have a Lotus suit from the same era in the iconic Gold Leaf livery, which was worn by American team driver Roy Pike and is embroidered with his name – I even managed to find a photograph of him wearing it while racing a Lotus 47 Europa.”
Among other prized items in Price’s collection is a pair of Westover driving boots made from soft leather, with leather reinforcements. “They were very popular with professional drivers in the 1970s but were usually worn to destruction and then thrown away – I managed to find a pair that had been very lightly used and still had their original box.” Price acquired the “bargain” boots through eBay, but says a dealer would expect to sell them for £1,000 because, like much classic motoring kit, examples are very hard to find in good condition.
Toby Wilson, head of automobilia at Bonhams, says boots, suits and early racing helmets by makers such as Herbert Johnson and Everoak, mainly from the 1940s and ’50s, are becoming harder to come by as they are increasingly bought to decorate garages housing high-end car collections, and because owners rarely want to part with them. “We last sold a Herbert Johnson helmet in 2014,” says Wilson. “It belonged to Bob Roberts, a former vice-president of the Bugatti owners’ club, and fetched over £1,600. Like most vintage helmets, it was sold for display – but we find early leather motoring coats attract collectors of veteran vehicles who want them for an authentic look at events like the London to Brighton Run.” Bonhams offers such items at its dedicated London to Brighton auction each autumn, with three coats crossing the block at last year’s sale, including a patinated, belted, double-breasted bespoke example that sold for £600.
According to Tim Bent, founder of Bentleys, the London shop famous for its vintage motoring equipment, the market has also been transformed by the annual Goodwood Revival racing weekend, where visitors have to dress in period costume. “It has definitely influenced prices and made it harder to find good-quality items, but wonderful pieces do appear now and then,” says Bent, who managed to acquire a remarkable collection of 99 pairs of motoring goggles dating from the early 1900s to around 1950. “They were from the archive of German firm Christian Kraus & Co and included some with tinted lenses and others with built-in leather facemasks to protect the driver from dust and stones,” says Bent, who has around 50 pairs left at £395-£595 each. The shop also stocks leather, wool-lined helmets, with one on offer for £395.
Another rich seam of old-fashioned motoring wear is JoJo’s General Store in Sheffield, owned by 27-year-old JoJo Elgarice, who has a particular passion for early automotive garments. “Prior to the second world war, as cars were relatively few and far between and only the wealthy owned them, their drivers could afford top-quality clothes – made specifically for driving at a time when roads were rough and dusty and heaters not very effective,” he says. “I recently found a 1920s English motoring coat that is particularly unusual because it is leather on one side and heavy tweed on the reverse so the owner could wear it as a more formal coat when he arrived at his destination.” Elgarice is asking £2,000 for the coat, and £1,250 for another by the long-defunct Ad Astra label, which is a double-breasted design with the original leather belt and a wool, leopard-print lining.
Currently, however, his pièce de résistance is a c1910 floor-length driving coat (£2,450). “It was discovered during the clearance of a Scottish stately home,” he says. “Rather than leather, it is woven from tweed in vibrant green and lined in a combination of silk and wool. Everything about it speaks of the wealthy, adventurous pioneers of the art of motorised travel.”