Simon Bull

From family heirlooms to fast cars, this television antiques expert has an eye for classic engineering

There are similarities between Simon Bull’s two prime fields of expertise: both involve fine engineering accuracy and precision timing. The scale, however, differs radically. On the one hand, Formula One racing cars, especially Tyrrells; on the other, the world’s finest mechanical timepieces. For Bull is one of the world’s leading experts on clocks and watches, and a stalwart of BBC’s Antiques Roadshow.

The clocks came after the cars, though not by much. While Bull, fresh from school, was learning to make Triumph TR wings in a panelbeaters’ shop, he met a wealthy enthusiast who had a kart track in his Sussex garden and needed a weekend mechanic to keep his house-guests mobile. He also collected cars, and when Mike Salmon would bring a Ferrari from Maranello Concessionaires, the young Bull made sure he had a ride.

Work facilities allowed him to spray his first car, a lovat green Frogeye Sprite, bright Porsche orange. “That was the perfect first car,” he remembers. “If I ran a bearing I could pick up another perfectly good engine at the scrapyard for five pounds.”

This same patron collected fine clocks, and when Bull saw a large decorated bracket clock in a Brighton shop he told his friend, who said “buy it; pay whatever you think right.” Bull nervously paid £400 it turned out to be worth £4000. From then on he began to hunt for interesting timepieces, teaching himself from books, and decided this was his field.

Somewhere around 1969, Christies advertised for a clock expert, and his friend advised him to apply. “Tell them you’re an important collector and know everything. There’s no-one there who can find you out.” It was with what he calls this “considerable amount of bluff,” followed by much diligent research, that Bull turned himself into one of Britain’s top horological authorities.

Unusually for such a specialised field, fame came too, with the pilot of an unlikely TV idea called The Antiques Roadshow. Twenty-one successful yeas later, Simon Bull is still enthusing to camera about other people’s clocks, the only remaining figure from that first experiment.

After several years at Christies, Bull started his own firm dealing in clocks, watches and scientific instruments, and since 1986 has been an independent consultant in the field, retained by France’s oldest clockmaker, Leroy, and by auctioneers on the continent.

Meantime the Sprite was replaced by an MGA Twin-Cam “300 miles between pistons, regular as clockwork” after which a Morris Minor provided long-time London transport. But an acquaintance who owned three S-type Invictas made him a fan of the marque, and as well as buying one of these S-types he and Invicta expert Derek Green assembled a racer in 1992. “I’m no great driver,” says Bull, “so when I saw Martin Stretton hurling a 4½-litre Bentley around the Nürburgring, I asked him to race my S.” This spectacular combination became one of the racing highlights of vintage meets in the early ’90s.

Watching historic racing tempted Bull to get into single-seaters, and in 1992 he bought an F2 March, with which Stretton dominated the ’93 European F2 series. Apart from Martin’s highly visible contribution, Bull credits Tyrrell designer Derek Gardner. “Having sized us up, he agreed to help. He has a quite remarkable ability to predict settings and ratios just from a circuit plan.”

Next came an unstoppable Maserati 4CM with which Stretton won almost everything they entered. “I wonder if it’s the most successful pre-war car of all?” Bull muses about what he calls “a go-kart by another name. Back to my origins, really.” The Modenese go-kart was then honourably semi-retired, so the team could concentrate on the next project. “In an idle moment I asked Derek Gardner which Formula One car he’d most like to renew acquaintance with, and he said his Tyrrell 005. And by chance it came up for sale soon after.”

It was the perfect buy. As a youngster Bull revered Jackie Stewart, and here was a car specifically built around JYS. The car was tested in last month’s Motor Sport, so there’s no need to elaborate on how successful Stretton and 005 have been. “It’s notorious for its super-short chassis, but it doesn’t give Martin any problems.” Evidently: he won the FIA Thoroughbred GP title in 1995.

Perhaps Bull felt this was all too easy; he is now committed to getting one of the 034 six-wheeled Tyrrells onto the track. “There’s the small problem of tyres, shocks, body panels…” he laughs. “I must have been completely mad to take it on, but I’ve never had so much encouragement from the old-car world.”

It has confirmed his high opinion of its designer, Derek Gardner. “I think he’s one of the great racing engineers. His Tyrrells were the only serious opposition to Lotus in his day.”

It will be up to Stretton to rediscover the quirks of four-wheel steering; Bull won’t be driving the 034. “I’ve never driven my serious cars. I think a good car deserves a proper driver, and luckily I enjoy being team-manager. And somehow it’s never the right moment – I wouldn’t take the risk before the season starts, afterwards there’s always something to fix, and mid-season there’s too much going on.” He loves his Invictas, though he has retired from VSCC racing. “I like the club, it’s a wonderful outfit, but there’s no point in hammering your car in order to finish behind the specials.” On the stocks are a type 37 Bugatti (“It will be ready next year. Mind you, I’ve been saying that for the last 15 years…”) and a truly rare survivor, a racing Voisin C3.

However, even the six-wheeler looks dull and conventional alongside Bull’s latest project, now being assembled by Sam Stretton, Martin’s brother. It’s a Reliant Kitten estate. With a 1000cc Kawasaki motor, six-speed sequential gearbox, Formula Ford brakes and the terrifying threat of 160mph on tap… GC