Letter to Readers, December 1990

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Registers

Dear Reader,
I am not referring to Cash Registers, but to car Registers, in particular those kept by one-make car clubs, or small groups of people with enthusiasm for a particular make or model. These Registers of Cars range from the Aston Martin Owners Club, the Bentley Drivers Club, the Bugatti Owners Club, which deal with many hundreds of cars, to a small hand of enthusiasts for a long-extinct make like Dellow or Kieft, of which only a handful or more still exist.

Collecting data to compile a Register is a fascinating pastime, as I know from personal experience with Alta, Delahaye, Frazer Nash, Lago-Talbot, MG and one or two more. It is very time-consuming, but very satisfying if you enjoy facts and figures, and many a phone call has brought a smile of contentment to my face when the caller says, “I have found number 423 that we were looking for”, or “You know that car in Italy that we thought was number 10, well I had a good look at it and found everything is marked underneath as number 8, which explains that anomaly we seemed to have.” Other phone calls come from ‘dealers’, either bone-fide well known people, or those posing as ‘enthusiasts’ and such calls can either be dealt with in a straightforward factual manner, or they get the reply “Oh really! Tell me more,” though usually there isn’t much more to tell. Even with genuine enquiries you have to be cautious and it pays to get the caller to give you his numbers or identification letters on a car, rather than tell them what it ought to be.

Then there are the devious callers, who naively ask: “What can you tell me about number 2345?” to which the answer is “no more than you can tell me at the moment,” because you know they have probably just built a completely fake car and hope to give it an identity. I don’t think I can be accused of being rude in such cases, but ‘short shrift’ is the best expression. It is surprising how many queries I get that sound vaguely genuine until I ask for the chassis number, when the caller then says, “I don’t have it with me at the moment, I’ll call you back”. That is the last you hear!

Having compiled your Register, the problem then arises as to what to do with it. Some people and clubs think it should be kept secret, made available only to owners of the car concerned, while others are happy to publish their data for all to see and use. Unfortunately there are those amongst us in the ‘old car world’ who abuse the knowledge provided by a Register, and it only needs one example of dishonesty to make those who feel that Registers should be kept secret, to become almost hermit-like, which means that much interesting data and information is kept under lock-and-key. It tends to question the point of compiling a Register.

One activity of the dishonest few is to ‘discover’ a long lost car. By looking through a Register of cars these people pinpoint one that disappeared long ago and then claim that the car they have just made, claimed as being ‘rebuilt’ or ‘restored’, is that long lost car. Before the making of fake cars was really under way, these people would usually open the conversation with, “You will never believe, but. . . .” There have been some wonderful stories, but that gambit seems to have worn a bit thin and is no longer in use.

Most of the problems confronting a Registrar arise from cars that the cottage industry or professional Fakers have created. One classic example is a car that was completely manufactured a few years ago and fitted with an original carburettor from a 1935 model. The constructer gave his finished “new, old car” the identity of the long lost 1935 car from which the carburettor had survived. How did we know the carburettor was genuine? Because it came from the man who destroyed the original car.

Some Registrars and clubs don’t want to know about fake cars, while others expose them for what they are by listing them in their Register, with all the details of their construction. The Aston Martin Owners Club have a very thorough and detailed register of all known Aston Martins, including “new” ones made long after a particular model ceased production. The Bugatti Owners Club also list all known Bugattis with detailed notes on each car’s history, and make no bones about saying “This car has no known history and was built in 1985 from second-hand parts and newly manufactured parts.” There can be problems for the Registrar or club when owners challenge their remarks and threaten lawsuits, so one has to be pretty certain of the facts before you say “This car is a fake.” It might pay to read some of the Auction House catalogues (if you can afford to buy them!) for classic examples of “not quite saying what you mean.” Quite often you read the blurb on a totally fake car, described in glowing terms as “a Replica” and almost believe that the car in question is a real one!

The French Delahaye Club had a rather nice idea when they welcomed all Delahayes to a gathering, but in the parade they were due to make round a circuit, they specified that any fake car should go at the back of the column.

Very few people are able to make a car in its entirety, but modifying a standard production car into a fake “competition” or “Le Mans” model, even if it means shortening the chassis frame, is not too difficult. Altering the axles, brakes, steering column and engine, and making a new body can transform a saloon or cabriolet into a “Le Mans Type”, according to many advertisements. There is nothing particularly wrong in doing that, in fact our National Motor Museum at Beaulieu was one of the first to put on display a fake Le Mans car, although the information placard never said “This car never ran at Le Mans,” equally, it never said it did.

Examples are known of Alfa Romeo, Bentley, Delahaye, Delage, Talbot and many others, and in some cases a car that appears to be a 1938 Le Mans car was actually made from a 1947 production saloon. Such cars are not only fakes, they are dishonest fakes.

My feeling is that all the Registrars should keep details of unacceptable cars and keep them on record for all to see. Some very good fakes are getting quite old now and with the passage of time people, and journalists in particular, forget that an apparently 1937 car was made in 1972. In my filing system I have a “Black” file for apparently genuine cars that are known to have been built long after the model went out of production.

If a Registrar is going to keep the knowledge and information secret it means that fake cars can be sold without anyone knowing it is fake, apart from the man who built it, as only he and the Registrar will know the truth. If a Register is published then the facts are there for anyone to see, and the good it does should compensate for the occasional abuse by dishonest people. But always in the background is the risk of lawsuits and legal attacks, and with our funny law system a judge need not necessarily consider the truth to be the end of the story. If a Register concerns itself solely with known established facts, which can be proven, there should not be too much trouble. What is never going to be published are the details and information in my “Black” file, and I am sure many Registrars have similar files.

Perhaps the safest thing is to remain hermit-like and revel in your own knowledge, but that can get dull and stultifying. Contact between Registrars and clubs is all important and a cross-pollination of information is invaluable, as well as being interesting and amusing. Yours, DSJ