Anyone with a passing interest in the classic-car scene can’t have failed to notice that the market is currently on fire. Since July last year, for example, the world-record price for any car at auction has been smashed twice by Bonhams, first with the sale of the ex-Juan Manuel Fangio Mercedes-Benz W196 for £19.6m (around $30m), and then, in August of this year, by a Ferrari 250 GTO that fetched $38m at Quail Lodge, California. Another GTO is also rumoured to have changed hands privately during the same period for $52m.
But perhaps even more telling evidence that the status of the collectable car has reached the very upper echelons will be seen this month, when an all-new showroom opens in the heart of Mayfair to cater for those moneyed passers-by who, just as they might slip into Hermès for a new carré or swing by Blain Southern for a Bill Viola, may also fancy dropping a small fortune on a “classic”.
Mayfair has long been known, of course, as a prime location for purveyors of luxury cars, with Jack Barclay’s Berkeley Square Bentley premises having been a landmark since 1953, and Stratstone of Park Lane being the place to go for a new or “pre-owned” Aston Martin. But generally speaking, it is difficult to spend more than a few hundred thousand on a car at either location – whereas offerings in this new emporium will carry, on average, seven-figure price tags.
The name that will be above the door, JD Classics, sounds rather unimaginative and, I’ve always thought, has the ring of a dealer who has set up on a postwar bombsite, rather than in the most expensive region on the Monopoly board – but the firm overcomes that with a 25-year reputation for excellence that is virtually unrivalled in the old-car world.
Its origins are somewhat unlikely. Back in 1986, dentist and classic-car enthusiast Derek Hood was tinkering with his latest project on the drive of his home when, as luck would have it, one of the world’s leading collectors happened to drive by, and felt moved to slam on the brakes by the quality of what had caught his eye.
It was the meticulous, almost clinical attention to detail that had clearly been employed in the car’s restoration that the collector found so remarkable, and it caused him to make Hood an offer for it that, as they say, he couldn’t refuse. Hood subsequently used the money to buy another car, which he restored to a similar, superlative standard – and a different collector bought that one too. Seeing the germ of a business in his hobby, Hood decided to make it his full-time occupation and, despite the fact that he chose to do so at a time when the 1980s classic-car bubble was preparing to dramatically burst, he slowly grew JD Classics to become one of the most respected restoration companies in the world.
The firm is now based in Maldon, Essex, and incorporates seven showrooms stocking an average of 100 immaculate, road-going classics and usually around 50 or so historic competition cars. But a major part of the 14,000sq m premises is given over to its core business, which is restoring cars from the ground up to as new (or even better than new) condition.
For many years, the company was synonymous with classic Jaguars and subsequently became the worldwide Jaguar Heritage Racing partner for Jaguar Cars, looking after their increasingly important (and fast-growing) historic-vehicle collection. But JD Classics’ reputation quickly spread among owners of other marques and now the firm has become almost equally well-known for turning out immaculately renovated Astons, Ferraris, Mercedes, Porsches and AC cars, as well as many others.
The secret of its success is that a car arriving at the Maldon premises, in even the most parlous of states, will not see the light of day again until it is ready to emerge from the JD Classics workshops in all its gleaming, restored, good-as-new glory. “The key to the whole operation probably lies in the fact that we do almost everything in-house,” explains CEO Anthony Wenyon, who came to the company from the world of mergers and aquisitions, where, he recalls, his lifelong passion for classic cars was left distinctly unsatisfied. “We have a long-standing reputation for establishing exceptional relationships with our clients and one of the reasons for this is that they know any car they buy from us, or which they leave with us to be restored, will not have been worked on by any third party – we even carry out MOTs on the premises. The simple rationale behind this is that we can then have total control over the restoration process and be certain that every operation that a car undergoes is done to the required standard.”
The workforce needed to make this possible is considerable: there are around 60 craftsmen and women employed at the Maldon HQ, many of whom have been recruited from established specialist restorers and race technicians in marques such as Ferrari and Rolls-Royce. They therefore have the specialist knowledge required to restore specific models correctly.
It is a system that clearly works, because JD Classics boasts an enviable cabinet of trophies culled from many of the world’s most prestigious classic-car events. This year alone, for example, competition cars prepared and entered by the firm have achieved outright or class victories in many events, including the Goodwood 72nd Members’ Meeting, the Monaco Grand Prix Historique, the Brands Hatch Masters and the Silverstone Classic. At this year’s Chopard Mille Miglia historic, meanwhile, it was the largest single entrant and several of its cars were driven by A-list stars such as Jeremy Irons and Jay Leno.
But it is, perhaps, the JD results in major international Concours d’Elégance competitions that are most impressive. At Salon Privé, held at Syon Park, a Jaguar XKSS, which recently emerged from a 10-month JD rebuild, took the award for “most sympathetic restoration”, with the firm landing further trophies at Pebble Beach – one of the most important events of its type in the world.
Yet if this company has a problem, it’s that it is based in the relative wilds of Essex, where the super-rich, almost casual buyers of top-end classics (who now exist in ever-greater numbers) are simply very unlikely to venture. Which is why the decision was made to open a Mayfair showroom to attract a little more “passing trade”.
The new premises are situated off Mount Street, which itself is fast becoming Mayfair’s latest “retail destination” as more high-end brands move in to bring fresh life to a street that, until relatively recently, was a quiet oasis compared with the more recognised areas nearby. “There seems little doubt that being in Mayfair will bring us to the attention of many more high-net-worth people who might not currently be sufficiently involved in the old-car world to know of our existence,” says Wenyon, who reveals that the firm has already entered into an “arrangement” with the the luxurious Connaught Hotel to provide handy, over-the-road accommodation for its big-ticket clients. “But, as well as making us instantly accessible to the many visitors who come to this area from all around the world for both business and pleasure, we are hoping the showroom will give us an opportunity to communicate the work that goes into our cars, in much the same way that premium fashion houses and other luxury-goods brands major on their own levels of craftsmanship. Only when people see this with their own eyes can they really appreciate it – and begin to realise that while the very best of anything may appear expensive, it is invariably better value for money, despite the fact that it commands a premium.”
With large swaths of Mayfair retail space being relatively hard to come by, the new showroom is a bijou affair with the capacity to hold around 10 cars – but, in terms of value, the initial offering is suitably impressive, and includes the aforementioned Jaguar XKSS, which once belonged to Fangio and is widely believed to be worth in excess of £10m.
That might sound rather a lot – but it is in a very fetching shade of grey that might go well with a nice, dark Louis Vuitton suit…