Classic car services: keeping golden oldies on the road

Venerable marques are invigorating their heritage car services as the models of yesteryear become ever more valuable – not just to collectors but to the brands themselves. Simon de Burton reports

The Jaguar Special Vehicle Operations unit in Castle Bromwich
The Jaguar Special Vehicle Operations unit in Castle Bromwich

“The problem, sir, is that you just can’t get the parts any more.”

The Aston Martin Lagonda Heritage Works service repair centre in Newport Pagnell
The Aston Martin Lagonda Heritage Works service repair centre in Newport Pagnell

Words every classic-car owner dreads to hear, but that are all too familiar to many who have spent hours, days, sometimes weeks trawling the internet, poring over magazines and telephoning “specialists” in order to obtain that single, elusive component to replace the broken bit that has turned your pride and joy from a powerfully purring classic into an immovable white elephant.

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But with the value of collectors’ cars soaring, the likelihood of being left high and dry by a paucity of parts if you own an old Aston Martin, Jaguar, Ferrari or Porsche is now dramatically reduced, thanks to the fact that these marques – and several others – are fully embracing the historic models that have lately proved key in transforming such names from mere badges on bonnets into global brands. And the “heritage services” they are providing in order to keep their old cars on the road are not confined to parts but extend – in some cases – to offering ground-up rebuilds in or near the very factories from whence said cars emerged 30, 40, 50 years ago or more.

A McLaren F1  
A McLaren F1  

One of the first marques to recognise the importance – and commercial potential – of keeping its defunct models alive was Aston Martin, which has been welcoming old cars into its celebrated Works Service repair centre in Newport Pagnell for decades. Now known simply as Works following the inauguration of a multimillion-pound facility in 2012, Aston Martin’s heritage centre will sell you anything from a pristine DB5 coupé from the 1960s to a manual gearbox conversion for your 15-year-old Vanquish. Meticulous restorations are also on offer, as well as a host of more than 50,000 off-the-shelf parts covering every Aston Martin model back to the DB4 of 1959.

Models on display at the Aston Martin Works centre
Models on display at the Aston Martin Works centre

“With the value of heritage cars rising all the time, being able to offer parts and service to their owners has become very important to us – and we’ve had to adapt our business model to take account of that,” says commercial director of Works Paul Spires, who has 33 years’ experience with the Aston Martin marque. “There was a time when our older cars were largely confined to Europe and North America – but now that they are being bought by people from as far afield as the Middle East, Asia, China, Russia and Australia we’ve had to offer our heritage services on a global basis.” And that means, he says, being willing to fly teams of specialist mechanics to locations far and wide. “Usually we will wait until a small group of owners requires our services in a specific location and then we send the team out there for anything from a few days to a few weeks to carry out the work. We’ve flown our mechanics all over the place, to France, Kuwait, Singapore – even Japan,” he adds. “In some cases, however, clients prefer to have their cars shipped back to us because they like the idea of them being worked on in the place where they were originally built.”

A range of Aston Martin service manuals
A range of Aston Martin service manuals

Uniquely, Aston Martin Works also has dedicated showrooms for both its new and heritage cars, selling around 50 of the latter each year. It also stages an annual Aston-only auction in conjunction with Bonhams, which in recent years has seen the unique 1960 DB4GT Jet coupé sell for £3.2m and the Bahama Yellow DBS, driven by Roger Moore in the TV series The Persuaders, fetch £533,500.

One of six new Jaguar Lightweight E-Type competition cars, expected to cost in excess of £1m
One of six new Jaguar Lightweight E-Type competition cars, expected to cost in excess of £1m

In June 2014, Jaguar announced that it would follow Aston Martin’s lead by setting up its own heritage division as part of its recently formed Special Vehicle Operations (SVO) unit. Its first major project involved the creation of six hand‑built “Lightweight” E-Type competition cars to add to an original 12 built in 1963. Said to carry price tags of more than £1m apiece, the cars have served to demonstrate the company’s intention to embrace its history – and to be there for the thousands of Jaguar enthusiasts around the world who are drawn to the brand as a result of its glorious past.

Reparations underway at the Jaguar Special Vehicle Operations unit
Reparations underway at the Jaguar Special Vehicle Operations unit

“We have learnt a great deal from the Lightweight E-Type project, not least that there is a huge global appetite for the heritage business, which we have not really been active in until now,” explains Chas Hallett, head of communications for special operations at SVO Heritage. “Building the Lightweights has taught us how to make high-precision components for older cars, enabling us to offer a range of remanufactured parts. Already, for example, we are able to provide newly made bonnets for standard E-Types – a major part that costs a few thousand pounds – and we provide a bespoke restoration service [price on request] that, we believe, will appeal to the type of collector who appreciates the cachet of having a car rebuilt at the place where it was originally made.”

The Classiche service unit at the Ferrari headquarters in Maranello, Italy
The Classiche service unit at the Ferrari headquarters in Maranello, Italy

In July 2014, Jaguar further demonstrated just how seriously it is taking the classic aspect of its business by paying an undisclosed sum for 543 British cars from the collection of dentist James Hull, which had been on the market weeks earlier at a reported estimate of £100m. And, in April this year, Land Rover announced that it too would begin to manufacture and sell original parts for vehicles that have been out of production for more than a decade. The values of early Land Rovers have soared, making their restoration more viable and providing a major boost to what is already an extensive network of parts suppliers. But only Land Rover will be able to offer components made using original methods and sell them with its factory guarantee.

Ferrari’s archive includes technical drawings for every car made since 1947
Ferrari’s archive includes technical drawings for every car made since 1947

That is something, however, that the Classic division of Mercedes-Benz has been doing for years. At its Classic Centres in Fellbach, Germany, and Irvine in the US, the firm offers comprehensive restoration and servicing facilities for old models, carries 50,000 genuine parts in stock and can manufacture difficult or impossible-to-obtain components on request. The Fellbach operation also fields a permanent display of classic Mercedes-Benz cars dating back to the prewar era – all of which have been either rebuilt or thoroughly overhauled on-site. Some are available to buy (prices on request), while the marque’s Classic Customer Centre holds a comprehensive and remarkable archive dating back more than 100 years, which is available to owners and restorers of collectable cars as well as to dealers, students and historians.

A 1955 300 SL Gullwing Coupé being repaired at the Mercedes-Benz Classic Centre in Fellbach, Germany
A 1955 300 SL Gullwing Coupé being repaired at the Mercedes-Benz Classic Centre in Fellbach, Germany

Another legendary German marque, Porsche, has also undertaken to help keep its famously long-lasting older cars on the road through the development of its Porsche Classic programme, which caters for cars that went out of production at least 10 years ago, making it possible to buy components for long-discontinued models such as the 356 of the 1950s, right up to the last air-cooled 911 of the mid-1990s and later cars such as the Boxster and 911 Type 996. “The Porsche approach is the same for all models,” says the company’s press officer Rob Punshon. “The factory wants to preserve the authenticity that distinguishes the cars. Over 70 per cent of all Porsche models ever built are still on the road, and to ensure this remains the case Porsche Classic manages the supply of parts worldwide, distributing them through more than 750 Porsche centres. There are 52,000 parts in stock that are available over the counter.”

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Each year, Porsche reissues as many as 200 parts that had previously ceased to be available. Some are ordered from the original suppliers, others from current specialists and some are newly manufactured using original factory drawings and descriptions. The company even maintains a stock of 1,000 sets of driver’s manuals and operating instructions for classic models, and it undertakes major restorations of customer cars dating right back to the earliest years of production. The restoration service (price on request) has recently become available in the UK with the opening of Classic Partner centres at two major Porsche showrooms – in Hatfield and Leeds – that now incorporate special facilities dedicated to caring for older cars.

At the Ferrari headquarters in Maranello, meanwhile, the marque’s Classiche service – officially inaugurated almost a decade ago by former Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo – does a brisk trade in authenticating and certificating classic models. Values and saleability can be considerably enhanced by the presence of the official Ferrari seal of approval, attesting to the genuineness of a particular car in a red-hot market, where many buyers have been badly burned on examples with dubious provenance. Ferrari Classiche also provides a comprehensive restoration service for classic models.

Perhaps surprisingly, however, neither the revered Rolls-Royce or Bentley marques currently offer an in-house service to care for their classic models. “Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, as it exists today, has only been operating for 12 years and is entirely geared to making new vehicles,” says the company’s UK and Scandinavia communications manager James Warren. “But we do have an exceptionally strong relationship with our Essex dealers P & A Wood, which has a superb reputation for the quality of its restorations. We always introduce any client who is looking to have work done on an older car, though there is no formal arrangement in place. It’s more about a gentlemanly gesture.”

A British marque that certainly does offer a full care and restoration facility to the owners of its classic models, however, is McLaren – the Woking headquarters of which are, essentially, the only place to go in search of care for the F1 model produced by the firm between 1992 and 1998. With F1s now fetching upwards of £6m each, the £7,500 charged by McLaren for a major service is relatively insignificant. And it’s not something you’d want done by a back-street garage.

One enthusiast who regularly takes advantage of the heritage services provided by marques such as these is Geneva-based classic-car authority Simon Kidston, who believes they are invaluable. “I use them in my work when we require historical information or authentication of cars, and I employ their repair and restoration services for some of my own collection, which includes a McLaren F1, an Aston Martin V8 Vantage X-Pack and a Porsche 911 2.7 RS. I always send the Aston back to the Works and wouldn’t let it go anywhere else. I’m a great believer that historic cars are best looked after in the place they came from, where there is a wealth of knowledge about how they were built and where it’s still possible to find people who worked on them originally.

“But if I were going to award a prize to any of the marques offering historic services, it would go to Mercedes-Benz,” he adds. “Mercedes has been celebrating its heritage in word and deed for longer than any other manufacturer, has an excellent parts supply, a superlative archive and operates in a businesslike and friendly way. I’m currently trying to buy back my late father’s M-B 300 SL Gullwing – if I’m successful, I shan’t hesitate to send it straight to Mercedes-Benz in Germany for a full restoration. It’s where it came from and no one could do it better.”

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