James Martin On Why He Loves Classic Cars
What makes a car a classic then, James?
It all comes down to you. Like art, it’s subjective. It's personal, it brings back memories, it excites – it does a bit of everything. And it probably also comes down to your age and what you remember from your childhood. If you see a car that a loved one in your family used to have, it'll bring back memories and emotions.
What was the first classic car you bought?
It was a Mercedes-Benz SL 1955 Gullwing. I’m saying this just to piss you off, David, as I know it’s one you want! I was in my 20s and was in the market for a nice car. I looked at several modern cars first. I remember driving the latest soft-top Ferrari up to the Lake District and a Pagani Zonda cabriolet. I remember asking my mate who’s a builder what he thought of it. He said, “The car’s great, but you look like a right dickhead driving it.” I thought fair enough, so I started scouring classic car magazines and saw an advert for a car show in Essen, Germany, which takes place every April. I drove all the way there in my VW Golf. There were two Gullwings for sale on a Mercedes-Benz stand as soon as I walked in at 9am. One of them had already sold five minutes earlier. I spoke to the guy and shook his hand – everything was done on a handshake – and he said he’d say it's sold. I loved the look of it and thought it was a beautiful thing, but I didn't know much about it, so over the two days I was at the show I did more and more research on it. At the end of the show, I decided to buy it then and there, and they delivered it three weeks later.
But you don't still have it...
No, when Mercedes-Benz bought Brooklands, I sold it to them as they came searching for it. They called me, I told them it wasn’t for sale, but then they made me an offer I couldn't refuse, so I sold it. I’m a classic Yorkshireman. I still go and see it sometimes, and I’m still allowed to drive it.
Talk us through some of your current motors…
Well, I’ve got the chef Keith Floyd’s Citroën 2CV. When Keith passed away, his family phoned me up and said they wanted to sell his car of 16 years, so I bought it. He used it on a couple of TV shows and series, but it was his daily runaround when he lived in France. I’ve also got the rally driver Paddy Hopkirk’s Minis, which were original Works Cooper S’s; then you step up to three variants of the Fiat 500, the original 595 1000TC Abarths from the 60s. I’ve got a 1988 Drophead Bentley in black and black which is one of the last of the real hand-built Bentleys, before BMW took it over. I’ve got another Mercedes-Benz, a 380SL which is a little bit of a bargain at the moment. People remember it from Dallas and Dynasty in the 80s. It’s a one-owner 1982 car, never been touched and is in absolutely mint condition. I’ve also got a collection of various Defenders…
And then we get to the more serious stuff: a 288 GTO from the 80s, which was the first car I got a little model car of; a 1972 Daytona – I’ve got two variants of that one – one plexi, one non-plexi. Then you step into the more serious serious stuff: I've got the first Ford Mk 1 Escort that Ford ever made for rallying, which was Roger Clark's first ever rally car, which he did the Acropolis rally in; then I've got Petter Solberg's WRC 2002 Prodrive Subaru; plus Colin McRae’s Ford Focus, the famous Martini car that did the Acropolis rally. The highlight is probably my Ferrari 275 GTS from 1965, which I’ve had for 21 years.
Where on earth do you keep them all?
They're all over the place – they’re in museums, I've got an Alfa Romeo ATL that's in restoration at the moment. I have a project going every year, and the Alfa has been in restoration for 3½ years now due to Covid.
Have you got a favourite one to drive day to day?
I’ve got a Toyota Hilux pickup truck that I absolutely love – you can chuck everything in it and it will go forever. All my mates take the piss: “So you’ve got all these cars, but you drive around in a pick-up truck?” But I also have a BMW 760Li which I drive a lot. It was actually Jay Kay who told me to buy one of those. A lot of people buy RSA Audis and stuff like that, but the 760Li is absolutely mega – V12, 700 horsepower… Mega.
How did you get into racing?
I went to the first ever Goodwood 20-odd years ago, when it was just a few stray straw bales and people driving up the hill. That caught my interest, and then over the years I ended up meeting a lot of racing drivers. All racing drivers want to be chefs and all chefs want to be racing drivers! And as a TV chef, you often get the chance to go on TV shows like Fifth Gear… then word gets around that you've got a few cars, then I bought one for racing. I’ve got a Ford GT40 that won the Whitsun trophy at Goodwood four years ago, so I'd like to race that. Goodwood is the shining star of racing events. I prefer the Goodwood Revival over the Festival of Speed, as people get dressed up and I love seeing the Spitfires. I also have a soft spot for it as I learned to fly at Goodwood – I got my pilot’s licence there, so it brings back good memories, alongside all the racing. I’m by no means a winning race driver – I won one race at Brands Hatch – as I’m not built for it. I’m too old and too fat… and too slow as well.
Where should a novice start with trying to buy a classic car?
Sadly, these days people are buying for investments, but you can't really tell what's a worthy investment, as one minute you lose a load of money and the next you might be lucky. But predominantly, if you ask any collector, they buy because they like them. This might sound crazy, but I never drive any of my cars until I’ve paid for them, because I like the excitement of being able to get in and drive it for the first time knowing I own it. I don't take them out for test drives – I’ll get somebody else to do it and I’ll get advice from other people. My biggest advice to anybody that's going into this sort of stuff is it can be a bit of a minefield and there are sadly a lot of sharks out there that will see you coming. Take advice from other car collectors and they’ll tell you where to look and where they service their cars. The car game isn’t that well regulated and you can get stung if you don't know what you're doing or looking for.
First up, set yourself a budget and stick to it because, like any auction, it's so easy to just keep going and going. Take that budget and take into consideration that it's going to cost you a little bit per year to run and maintain it. Look after it, but above all use it. Most of these cars will have a problem if they’re sat there doing nothing. Think about what you want to use it for – if you live in the middle of the countryside, do you want something that's really loud and really low? Are you going to take trips out with the family – and if so, does it need four seats? And whether the price goes up, down, left or right, or you try it for the first time and the oil spills out on the floor, it doesn’t matter if you still love it. That’s the nature of a classic car.
How much money do you really need to get involved with classic cars?
It really varies. You can pick up a classic car for £10,000 and get the same enjoyment out of it as someone spending millions. The enjoyment is not a financial thing, it’s what brings memories to you. If your dad was driving around in an MG Midget, you'll be able to pick one of them up for a little amount of money. My dream car when I was a kid was a Mk 1 Ford Fiesta XR2. I could never afford one when was a kid – I couldn't even get the insurance for it until I was in my 20s – but I found an absolutely mint one for £7,000 and now it’s in my garage, and I love it. It drives like a piece of shit compared with modern cars, but it’s great.
What are the trends shaping the market right now?
Again, I think it all comes down to your age. You’ll see a peak now in the market for cars from the 60s, 70s and 80s because people in their 40s, 50s and 60s have earning power. So you'll have seen a massive increase in prices related to those cars – you could have bought a Ford GTO 288 ten years ago for around £350,000. Now you're looking at over £3m. You could have got a Ford Capri for less than £5,000; now a Ford Capri 2.8 Brooklands or variants of that go for between £30,000 and £80,000. I’ve seen Ford Escorts go for £750,000! It’s all to do with evoking childhood memories, and people with a bit of spare money now the kids have moved out will go back to the car they remember – and the price of it's gone up because the demand’s gone up. Whether that’s sustainable or not, I don't know. Then it’ll come round again. I think the younger generation will be looking at electric cars – they’ll be looking at first-edition Teslas like we’re looking at Escorts. Again, it’s like art – it’s swings and roundabouts. Look at Banksy. The price of his work has gone nuts, but it’s all related to the age of the buyers. Would granny have a half-a-million-quid print of graffiti on her wall? She’d think you were bloody mad.
Any common rookie mistakes to avoid?
Be careful, do your research and if you can't get the information you need, find somebody who's knowledgeable. Listen to people’s opinions, but always make your own decision based on research and plenty of background checks on people. Think with your head and your heart – it's not like buying a boat where you’re potentially getting into a nightmare – it's meant to be an enjoyable experience. It’s not business: it’s a fun hobby because you meet so many interesting, like-minded people who’ve got a reason why they bought a classic – and you’ll find it’s usually the same reason you bought yours. Whatever value it is, it doesn't matter. Above all, love it, use it and enjoy it.
And finally, have you got a ‘one that got away’?
I do – a 1964 Ferrari 250 SWB. I got the opportunity to buy one around 15 years ago. I got it delivered to the house. I’d bought several cars off the gentleman before, and he dropped it off one Friday and I think he forgot to pick it up ’til a week later. He’s a car dealer so he said: “Use it, and if you like it buy it”. I loved it, but I just couldn't stretch financially – unless I was selling everything from my kidneys to my legs, house, everything. It’s definitely the one that got away, as I still wouldn’t be able to afford it now – they are so far out of my range.
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