Not what they seem to be

1984 will see the fiftieth anniversary of the formation of the Vintage Sports Car Club and during that time the activity of “messing about with old cars” has grown from a handful of enthusiasts with their own personal toys to a world-wide money-spinning activity involving just about every aspect of the business world that you can imagine. Old cars have become Collectors Curios, Dealers Desirables, Museum Masterpieces and enthusiasts’ dreams. Much of the expansion of the old car world has been good, but equally a lot of it has been bad. Along the way it has attracted an undesirable element whose only interest has been profit at the expense of the gullible. Old cars are now tolerated not only by the public but also by officialdom and if this aspect had not expanded the right way old cars would have been banned from the roads long ago.

One of the biggest factors in this has been “Pride of Ownership” where owners have rebuilt and maintained their old cars to a very high standard, and for this we can probably thank Brian Morgan and Richard Wheatley for writing the definitive work on old car restoration in 1957. Old cars began to look respectable and moved out of the realms of “tatty old heaps” into interesting curios. The condition of some of the old cars in the VSCC when it was formed in 1934 seem hardly creditable now. Bits held on with wire, appalling lighting systems and totally bald tyres were the normal state of things and some of the exhaust systems that were tolerated were indescribable. The law was not bothered about old cars in those days so if it ran, you drove about in it and the last thing anyone worried about was originality. In fact, special-building was part of the scene and one well-known car in the VSCC in those early days started life as an HE tourer, and ended up with a Vauxhall front end, a Bugatti rear end, a home-made body and a petrol tank from a World War Bristol Fighter, and the overall result was very effective.

The tightening of motoring laws as the “Swinging Sixties” got under way encouraged old car owners to tidy up their vehicles and naturally they needed mechanical help. In consequence a flourishing “cottage industry” grew up comprising some very skilled craftsmen who, tiring of mass-production and mechanisation, turned their skills to the old car game. An industry built up that would do anything from making a special nut and bolt to rebuilding a complete car. And then the rot set in.

These skilled workers who had made a new part to replace something that broken or worn out were approached by de entrepreneurs to make another one “as spare, old boy” and this activity expanded into making complete cars, some of them indistinguishable from the original car. Then the dealers moved in and the “Replica Racket” began.

The first time I became aware of dishonesty within the used car business was in 1939, though it most have started in the horse and carriage days and been passed on to the motor trade at the turn of the century. A friend of mine had a sports car made by small firm at Tolworth in Surrey, and they made so few that each one was easily identified. The car in question was built in 1936 and registered for the road in Wales, where the first owner lived. In 1939 my friend acquired the car and as he had a friend in the Croydon taxation department it was re-registered with a 1939 Croydon number. In my youthful naivety I could not see the point of this until he advertised it for sale as a “low mileage” 1939 car. I now realised why he had spent money on an expensive brand new 150 mph speedometer to replace the original 120 mph one. It was a super car and very fast, but it did tend to spray oil on your trousers, so when we drove to Brighton to see a prospective customer, my friend took a clean pin-striped suit with him in a hold-all. Just round the corner from our destination he changed from his oily trousers and jersey while I cleaned the car, and then leaving me on the pavement with his hold-all he drove to the Grand Hotel in his best suit, and hand on heart, could say “I’ve just driven down from London”. I was learning fast about the motor trade.

At first, when people like myself complained about these fake cars, we were told that it wasn’t important and there were only a few so it did not matter. Often the excuse was made that people were only doing if for their own pleasure. That was alright, but what happens when they tire of their fake toy and then sell it? And after It has gone through the hands of a number of dealers, what then? Somebody is going to buy it as an original car. We were told that we were exaggerating “and anyway, it hasn’t happened” they said. Well it has happened. Every month in the Motor Sport small advertisements you can find a fake car being advertised for sale. Sometimes they are out in the open and are offered as “Replicas” at half the trade value put on a genuine car, which is fair enough, but often they are advertised with discreet and clever wording that does not say they are genuine, nor says they are fakes, and usually the number plates are blacked out in case the modern registration number arouses suspicion. I know people will say that Motor Sport should not accept such advertisements, but it is an impossible task to vet every car that is advertised, even if our advertising staff were knowledgeable enough to spot these fakes. After all, their business is advertising, not motoring history and the Editorial staff are busy enough writing words such as these to fill the editorial pages. Some of these fake cars are now quite a few years old, but apparently even more valuable now than when they were built, or so the second-hand dealers would have us believe. One such car was advertised for £14,000 at the beginning of 1983 and for nearly £28,000 by the end of 1983 and I can hardly believe it was improved that much while standing about in dealer’s premises. Some are even becoming “historic” in their own right, with the passage of time, or so the vendors would have us believe! And history puts the price up a bit more.

All I can say to anyone contemplating buying an old car is to look into it closely. Many firms that are still in business have archives and records, while others have passed on their records to the One-Make clubs, so there is no excuse for being caught out. All D-type Jaguars are well documented, the Bentley Drivers Club have a good grasp on the vintage and post-vintage cars from Derby, post-war Frame Nashes are well documented by AFN Ltd at Isleworth, the Frazer Nash Section of the VSCC knows all there is to know about chain-driven ‘Nashes, the Alfa Romeo Section of the VSCC can always help over the cars from Milan. Almost every make now has an active club or section within the VSCC and whether a car is a fake or genuine can easily be ascertained by a little judicious enquiry in the right place, and Motor Sport will always help on such matters.

In case any one thinks I am making a mountain out of a mole-hill, I append a list of cars from the past of which genuine fakes(!) are known to exist. As the saying goes “This is not a Replica, this is a genuine fake.”

Aston Martin side-valve; Austin Ulster sports; Alfa Romeo 1750 cc Zagato; Alfa Romeo 2.3-litre Monza; Bugatti Brescia; Bugatti Type 35 Grand Prix; Bugatti Type 57 Atlantic Coupe; Bentley 4 1/2-litre s/c; BMW Type 55 Sports; Cooper-Bristol single-seater; Delahaye ‘Competition’ Delage Sport; Ford GT40; Frazer Nash (chain-drive); Frazer Nash Le Mans Replica; Ferrari 250 GTO; Ferrari 250 LM; Ferrari 246 Dino F1 single seater; Invicta 100 mph Sports; Jaguar C-type; Jaguar D-type; Lagonda V12 Le Mans; Lister-Jaguar; MG Magnette K3; Maserati 250F single-seater; Mercedes-Benz 38/250; Porsche 550 Spyder; Riley MPH Sports; Railton Light Sports; SS100 sports.

During the 1950s I spent a lot of time at the Hotel du Cheval Noir at Clères in Northern France. Roger Pichon, the proprietor, and his son were building up a museum and had a small workshop round the back where exhibits were attended to. Roger Pichon had been a master-mechanic at the Renault factory and had worked on the very special closed single-seater record car built in 1926 on a 40cv chassis; the Renault 45 hp as it was known in England. This famous record car was crashed and totally destroyed many years ago, but Roger decided to construct another one for his own amusement. During the 1950s this monumental task took place and having built the original one it was not too much of a task for him to build another one using an old Renault 40cv tourer as a basis. The result was spectacular and his only regret was that he could not find any original hubs of the correct type, so he made do with a later type of Renault hub. It was a splendid machine and I went for a ride in it, crouched in the small space behind the driver. It was not the record-breaking Renault 40cv and was never meant to be. It was a copy that Roger Pichon built in his retirement for his own amusement. Sadly, Roger Pichon is long since departed, but the great Renault copy lives on. You will often see it featured in books and magazines and referred to as the record-breaking Renault 40cv, which it patently is not and was never meant to be.

A few years later I was ferreting about in the museum workshops of Daimler-Benz in Stuttgart when I became aware that about half a dozen 19th century Daimler V-twin engines were being assembled. These were copies of the original V-twin engine built by Gottlieb Daimler, which started the whole business of the motor vehicle. Daimler-Benz have Gottlieb’s original engine in their own magnificent museum in Unterturkheim and as various other museums and collections had been pestering them to sell or loan the original engine, they decided to make a small batch of copies to satisfy various industrial friends. After all, they had the original drawings along with the original engine, so here was this small production on in progress, for there was no way they were going to allow the original engine to leave their own safe-keeping. These perfect copies of a unique historic engine really made me think, especially as they were being built by Daimler-Benz themselves.

On another occasion, while passing through some well-known industrial premises I noticed a brand new radiator and stoneguard for a supercharged 4 1/2-litre Bentley. It had just been finished, at enormous cost it seemed to me, and I assumed someone was restoring one of the Birkin blower-Bentley’s. I was wrong someone was having a drophead coupé production blower Bentley rebuilt into an exact copy of a Le Mans-type blower Bentley, right down to authentic looking four-seater body, large petrol tank, Union Jacks, bonnet straps, the lot. The finished job was magnificent as found out when I saw it on display in a well-known museum with a placard that did not say it was a Le Mans car, but equally did not say it was a fake. As it cost £X to build and a genuine Birkin car was fetching £2X at auction it was considered to be a relatively cheap way of having something apparently desirable on display for the public to gaze at after they had paid their entrance money to the museum.

As the big multi-national tobacco firms got into Formula 1 racing they often needed a racing car from their team to put on display in connection with a publicity sales drive. It was not long before special “show cars” were being built. At first they used up worn-out or obsolete parts and blown-up Cosworth engines, but this soon developed into a business where the whole car was made of plastic and glass-fibre, even the V8 engine being a fake moulded in glass-fibre. Meanwhile the business of building fake cars for display or museum use was proliferating in all manner of small “back street” workshops unwell as out in the open by big manufacturers. I found a man with a works drawing busily converting an SSK Mercedes-Benz into an SSKL, drilling all the holes very carefully by hand and making copies of all the special parts. This car ended up in a museum ostensibly as one of the ultimate in 38 / 250 Mercedes-Benz but in fact a complete fake. I found another man building a fake Grand Prbc Bugatti for a museum, the tubular steel front axle actually being copied in cast aluminium! The disease was spreading as interest in old cars was growing and just as the worlds of art, literature and furniture have gathered undesirables within their circles whose only interest is to make money regardless of history or ethics, no has the world of old cars.

In addition there are individual historic racing cars that have been built over the last decade or two, purporting to be “reconstructions” of the original cars. Some of these do actually incorporate a number of original parts and all are beautifully made, the skill and enterprise of the builders must be admired. They have all been built for the owner’s personal enjoyment, as was the copy of the 1926 Renault 40cv record breaker mentioned earlier, but people die and cars live on and cars have no way of telling the truth. Gradually some of the well-intentioned resurrections are beginning to take on an air of originality, particularly with the “powder-puff press” and the younger generation who cannot be expected to know about cars that were built before they were born. The most recent work of mechanical art to be completed in the “resurrection” syndrome is the Veteran racing Napier “Samson”, much lauded by the media last summer. It is not the real “Samson” but that does not detract from its general interest. Other cars that are fascinating and interesting, but not really what the seem to be are the Wolseley Moth, the blue supercharged side-valve works single-seater Austin 7, the 3-litre Vauxhall “New Racer”, a monoposto Tipo B Alfa Romeo (shortly to appear), a contemporary Type 59 Bugatti GP car, the Bi-motore Alfa Romeo single-seater, an A-type ERA, a B-type ERA, various GP Bugattis, a Tipo 625 Ferrari and many more.

When I suggested a handicap race for fake single-seaters, for which I would put up a fake silver cup, there was a stony silence! I even suggested the entry fee could be paid in counterfeit money, but no-one even giggled. Fake cars, like fake paintings or fake furniture is a serious business and business is obviously good, otherwise people would be relaxing and enjoying themselves. Fingers are pointed at me with the accusation “you are irresponsible”. DSJ