Paul Sweetenham keeps his classic car collection to a strict dozen. “That’s as many as I can realistically drive on a regular basis,” says the founder of fast-growing UK watch brand Farer and former president of retailer TJX Europe, the operator of the TK Maxx and HomeSense retail chains. The car he’s driving on the day we meet, at the restored old dairy near the Wiltshire village of Compton Bassett that serves as the HQ for specialist car dealer The Hairpin Company, is a bug-spattered Eagle E-Type. But parked provocatively on the gravel in front of the building we find a delectable navy-blue Jaguar XK140 Hotrod coupé – as if deliberately left there to tempt a potential buyer. It’s love at first sight for both of us.
“It’s dangerous for me to come here,” says Sweetenham, “because I nearly always end up buying something.” It didn’t surprise me to learn a couple of weeks later that he had added the gently patinated, sensibly modified 1950s classic (worth around £60,000 to £65,000) to his collection, because “well-sorted” old English sports cars that can be driven on a daily basis are right up his street.
It’s a street well travelled by Neil Dickens, co-founder of The Hairpin Company and Sweetenham’s trusted finder since they first met in 2006. “It was an advert for two Porsche 911s that first bought me here. I immediately felt comfortable dealing with Neil; he’s not patronising or pompous in the way that some classic car dealers can be. He just invited me to get into one of the cars – a black 1973 Carrera 2.7 – and go for a drive.”
The Porsche, previously owned by rock star Suzi Quatro and her husband, was an instant hit. “I bought it and drove it all over Europe, from Andorra to Italy and everywhere in-between.” Since then, the pair have built a close relationship. “Paul and I got along well from the outset,” says Dickens. “We come from the same viewpoint that a car has to be ‘right’, especially when it is going to be used as it was intended to be and driven a lot.” On average, Sweetenham has bought three such cars per year from The Hairpin Company, ranging from a relatively humble but immaculate VW Beetle cabriolet – a rare UK-delivered example in “a great colour combination of dark Amazon-green metallic with tan interior, which would be worth between £35,000 and £40,000 today” – to the last Porsche 930 Speedster ever built. “I’ve bought and sold this car four times in recent years,” says Dickens. “I bought it for the first time about seven years ago for £60,000, a lot of money for a Speedster then; I sold it again recently for in excess of £200,000.” Another notable purchase was a Mercedes-Benz 280SL Pagoda (worth £150,000 to £200,000), not to mention various Aston Martins, Bentleys and Ferraris.
“It is actually quite difficult to establish an ongoing relationship like this with most dealers,” says Sweetenham. “They often just focus on a single transaction, but Neil always goes the extra mile. As an example, I bought a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow from him that suffered a broken steering pump; the day after I called him about it, he sent someone to my house to replace the part at his own expense.” Another draw is Dickens’ ability to track down rare vehicles, says Sweetenham. “When Land Rover Defender production came to an end in 2016, I was told it would be impossible to find one of the 400 special edition Heritage models [that sell for around £40,000 to £50,000]. Neil, however, managed to source one almost immediately.”
Cars are second nature to Dickens, who used to help out at his grandfather’s Ford dealership in north London as a teenager. He started his career in 1988 as an intern in an advertising agency but soon realised the life of an ad man was not for him. “I managed to get a job with classic car auctioneer Coys,” he says. “I learnt a lot about the market and it gave me the confidence to start trading alone, even though classic car values were pretty flat at the time.” He worked on his own before partnering with former farmer Charles Reis to set up The Hairpin Company in 2003 – “which was also when the market began to pick up”.
The pair have not looked back. With a focus on top-quality, lightly used vehicles they’ve built up a loyal client base who, like Sweetenham, keep coming back. “There are two things I especially enjoy about dealing with Neil,” says Sweetenham. “The first is that he gets really interesting cars with unusual features, such as the colour or the interior trim. The second is that he is about the only person in the business who is willing to admit when he doesn’t know something.”
And sometimes it’s Sweetenham whom Dickens asks for advice. “Paul has a huge knowledge of retail and has taught me a great deal about business,” says Dickens. “He’s been something of a mentor to me. Having got to know him well, I usually have a good idea of whether or not he will like a particular car, to the point that I’ll occasionally sell to him simply on the basis of a phone call.”
But there are some cars that even Dickens would struggle to sell to Sweetenham – those with a particularly high price tag that are arguably too valuable to drive. “I’m a great believer in buying classic cars to use, not just to keep in a garage and polish, I don’t feel comfortable driving a car worth more than £250,000,” explains Sweetenham. “I once got into a Ferrari Daytona that I had bought from Neil a couple of years earlier and drove it from the UK to St Moritz. I tackled the mountain roads so enthusiastically that by the time I arrived the brake fluid was boiling. After I had parked, someone came over to look at the car and told me it was worth £500,000 – so I drove it straight home again and sold it as soon as possible.”