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Monday, July 03, 2006

Road Trip - Vintage Car Auction


I might be running 33 years late but I’m certainly making up for lost time. I am undergoing a most demanding induction course into the automobilia world and steering me unflinchingly, while barely peering over the dashboard, is my eight year old son. Whisper it softly but I do vaguely recall a passing infatuation with cars at that age. The passing soon passed, however, and I became deeply immersed in footballing ephemera instead. It wasn’t enough for me to simply play or even, from time to time, attend a big match. I can remember still the pinch of excitement as I opened my new packets of football stickers, sharing joy and pain with my friends, concocting shady transfer deals behind closed doors and wondering if I was ever going to see George Best again. This was but a prelude to a more sinister development, whereby I started recording the results of imaginary matches in my exercise books, complete with scorers, half times, crowds and league positions, if appropriate. Oh, I did things properly. If they’d handed out prizes for footballing obsession, I’d have hoovered up every time.

There is often a thin dividing line between passion and obsession and my son is already starting to exhibit some disturbing parallels with his father. My relationship with cars hitherto has been strictly of the A to B variety. In other words, as long as I can reach my destination safely, securely and speedily, I’m a pretty happy bunny. I am strangely unmoved by upholstery, sound systems, alloy wheels and other delights. I have never spent an afternoon washing my car. My son, however, spent an hour painstakingly polishing and sprucing his car yesterday. And as for the remote control, glad you asked, a solid ten minutes checking the electrics.

Yet it all started so innocently. An occasional reference to a car in the street was an entirely natural form of curiosity. My mumbled acknowledgement was usually enough and we went on our merry way but I felt a frisson of alarm as my son started to recognise cars he’d seen before and ask me about them too. The first time this happened I thought he was talking to someone else until he looked me in the eye with a quite disarming sincerity and repeated the question. “Dad, did you see that red Porsche, isn’t that the one from the end of the street I showed you last week? That was so cool, how fast did it go? Can we go in one?”. Well, there’s off guard and there’s on the canvas. As I groggily sought to compose myself, I nonetheless realised that my son had achieved a major landmark. He’d entered football sticker country.

No longer would my studied nonchalance suffice. My son was already in second gear while I was groping for the ignition. I could have handled simple car spotting but my son started to display a much wider repertoire, engaging in a running commentary on every journey and inviting from me, normally at a moment of maximum inconvenience, some expert analysis on the virtues of the latest BMW convertible

Frankly, I was rocking. I was all over the place when, quite serendipitously,echoing that unforgettable proverb that I’ve unfortunately forgotten, I got very lucky indeed. I was sitting in a sushi bar intermittently dabbing at a proof I was reviewing while watching a conveyor belt, with all the contours of a Scalectrix track, pass before me carrying an assortment of dishes. It all looked pretty tasty but the tastiest thing of all was the ingenious billing process. Nobody took my order so I just helped myself as, indeed, did everyone else. As I munched away, while simultaneously tiptoeing around the proof, admiring the female population, worrying about Arsenal’s recent form and staring vacantly into space – I believe it’s called multitasking – I had a sudden epiphany. Each bowl was painted with a different trim around the rim. There were pink or green or blue or whatever stripes around each and they all had a different price, reflecting their contents. At the end of the meal, you might tot up three green for £3, two red for £4 and an orange for £5. As I ruminated upon this creative thinking, a familiar face sidled up to the stool next to me. It was none other than Robert Brooks, chairman of Bonhams and a doyen of the classic car auction market. We exchanged small talk before my eye was inextricably drawn to the catalogue he had evidently intended to read over lunch.

The catalogue related to a forthcoming sale by Bonhams of classic cars and related automobilia. As we chatted away, I hinted that my son was leaning that way and the conversation dramatically moved on to an altogether higher plane. I then let slip, accidentally on purpose, that my father in law had been a racing driver of some repute in the 1950’s, notably for Jaguar and Allard, and that his old AC might still be lurking in the garage. Instantly, the catalogue was thrust into my hand as was an open invitation to join Bonhams at the next Festival of Speed at Goodwood. As this famous circuit is but a mile from our house in Sussex, even I may struggle to find any logistical obstacles to our future attendance, unless Arsenal obligingly have a home fixture that weekend. I suddenly felt a hot flush at the prospect of my son and I fighting off the groupies as we were ushered into the pits to mingle with the cognoscenti and talk race tactics. Then again, probably a belated reaction to those Japanese pickles.

I could tell my son was very impressed. His knowing look told me I’d found first gear. He pored over the catalogue, enthralled by the wonderful photographs, and I had to admit that there were some fabulous motors. The mechanical aspects left me stone cold but the voluptuous lines of many of the post war sports cars warmed me up considerably. Although I wouldn’t recognise a camshaft if it introduced itself to me personally, I can certainly recognise a thing of beauty when I see it. I could quite understand why so many of these models, with their gorgeous styling and lush interiors, have become design icons in their own right.

Then I took a quantum leap. I bought a copy of Classic Car. There was plenty for the obsessive, ranging from the rebuild of some obscure, but paradoxically important, car to fantastically detailed classified advertisements. The most interesting revelation for me, however, apart from my conspicuous failure to correctly identify two cars in succession, was the coverage of auction activity. I discovered that Coys were conducting a sale in ten days time but a mile or two up the road in the grounds of Chiswick House, formerly a family home of the Duke of Marlborough and now owned by English Heritage.

The sale started at 10am. I had loosely intimated to my son that we’d aim on a 9am departure but, in the manner of excitable eight year olds everywhere, he took it all too literally. As ever, morning had arrived about three hours too early for me and, when I eventually stumbled downstairs, I found him almost consumed by anticipation. I gathered my bits, took a bottle of water to cool his engine and we were on the road. I had a reasonable idea of the location of the house which was just as well, since the map I had printed off told me everything and nothing at the same time. It was a largely uneventful journey, punctuated only by my impatience with sleepy drivers and my son’s impatience with sleepy me. Then, lo and behold, a sign and we were there. We followed a dribble of middle aged men walking along a wide path to nowhere whereupon, looming beyond the trees, we were confronted by two enormous marquees. There were cars dotted all around and my son was so enraptured that I almost had to frogmarch him inside for the main event. I buckled under the weight of the catalogue, truly a labour of love, gathered myself and entered.

There must have been some twenty five cars in immediate view. The vintages were redolent of museum pieces and, though we prodded and probed, I can’t say we lavished them with attention. Conversely, I was intrigued by the rows of old bicycles while my son, realising you were actually encouraged to handle the goods, was caressing a silver Aston Martin as he cast his eye at all the other wonders that awaited him. I decided to register as a bidder as even the wildest optimist in me knew that it would be nigh on impossible to leave unscathed with an increasingly passionate eight year old by my side. I picked up my paddle, scanned the horizon for my son, and salvaged him from the undercarriage of an admittedly dashing Jensen.

Admiring, touching, caressing, yes, that again, we ambled into the auction itself. I wouldn’t say the joint was jumping but the sale moved pretty swiftly. I looked at the catalogue and it dawned on me that this would be an all day affair. The main event later in the afternoon would be the sale of some fifty cars and I expect the arena would then have filled out appreciably. We were participating in the undercard but it was entertaining enough simply being there. My son pottered about viewing memorabilia, cups, toys and so forth while I took the opportunity to properly read the catalogue, enjoy the banter in the room and vainly hope that I might pick up some pearl of wisdom from the assembled enthusiasts.

As one lot followed another and I resolutely clasped my paddle to my breast, I sensed my son was becoming a little agitated. There were still about 700 more items to go under the hammer but, after numerous skirmishes, including a very near miss with a replica piston pump, a cock up of Berlusconiesque proportions, I ultimately succumbed. My son was the proud owner of a 1970 odd limited edition Ferrari. I was much more fascinated by its accompanying box that not only further legitimised its authenticity, as does a dust jacket to a book, but also told me that it had been cared for by its previous owner. I liked that.

Two further lots invited particular scrutiny. The first was an exceptionally scarce game dating from the late 19th century, formed around famous cyclists of that era. It was circular and painted and possibly French but my lingering thought was that, much as I could not afford it, it should go to a good home. The other lot I could afford and I bought it with my father in mind. This was an amusing and uncommon promotional pamphlet from the late 1920’s for Alvis that adapted the style of “The Man Who…” series by H.M.Bateman. It is one of my father’s understated regrets that he sold the Alvis he owned some thirty years ago and that, when he came to reverse that decision, he discovered the car was no longer in production. It struck me as faintly ironic that the pamphlet was entitled “The Terrible Fate Which Befell The Man Who Did Not Buy An Alvis.” As we wandered back to the cashier to settle our purchases, my son insisted on sitting in virtually every car we passed. He was in his element, joy unconfined, as he twiddled with the knobs and spun the steering wheels, while luxuriating amid the resplendent wood panelling and upholstery. His joy became my joy, his beaming smile suffused with the magic of the moment. We’d come a long way together.

More prosaic matters then presented themselves, over a somewhat shorter distance, as we contrived to get lost seeking the car park. My legendary sense of direction ensured we had a very pleasant walk through the pergola but took a most circuitous route back. By this stage, I was ready to lie down, preferably in a darkened room, somewhere quiet and remote. Instead, I had to grapple with the fact that we were on the wrong side of the dual carriageway and needed to be home for the rest of the clan in the next fifteen minutes. After executing a quite masterful three point turn which surprised me, let alone my son, we were off and running. I had a nagging suspicion, however, that I might have peaked a little too early in my induction course and, boy, were my instincts hot.

A week later came another day of reckoning. Acknowledging that his recent acquisition was not equipped for a run in the park, especially minus any batteries, my son decided we should take his other model instead. It was supposed to be a quick twenty minute spin around the park, testing it for speed, durability and a few fancy tricks. It was all a bit humdrum after a while so I decided to spice things up a bit. In what I can only describe as a moment of madness, I suggested a game whereby we had to direct the car along the pavement towards the nearest lamppost within a specified time. My son made it look easy. I made it look very difficult.

It was difficult enough remembering which way the controls moved without having to contend with divots, litter, pedestrians and sundry other obstacles. Although my son generously extended my handicap, I was already 5 – 0 down by the time we were alongside the tennis courts. And it was precisely here that I delivered my coup de grace. My abject performance thus far encouraged me to at least sign off with some aplomb and so, at full speed, I charged off. I was actually making a decent fist of it for once when my concentration was shattered by a whoop of delight on Court Six. A pulsating rally was over and, distracted by the hubbub, I witnessed the car pirouette and turn sharply. As if transfixed by this remarkable manoeuvre, I watched, disbelievingly, as it rotated a full 360 degrees and trundled, almost apologetically, under the wire and straight on to the aforementioned court. I wasn’t sure if the applause was directed at the players or at me but then my sense of direction, as you may be aware, leaves much to be desired. I’ll be wearing my L plates for a while yet.

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