Letter to readers, February 1988

The Trade

Dear Reader,
Over the years I have been writing letters to the Editor, the Assistant Editor and the Features Editor on this and that, encompassing everything from Formula One to one-make gatherings. For a change I have decided to write letters to the most important people of all — you, the readers.

The best magazine in the world would not last long if it did not have any readers, and one thing Motor Sport has enjoyed for as long as I can remember is the solid support of regular readers.

Long before I started writing I was a regular reader of Motor Sport, and counted myself as “one of the family” serving my apprenticeship by keeping the faith and believing in The Sport above all else. I felt I had matured when the Editor actually used a letter from me in the >em>Readers’ Letters columns. Little did either of us realise at the time that I was to become a resident writer for the magazine.

Fortunately we have always enjoyed a lively readership, people who do not necessarily agree with what I say, but are prepared to read and then put their point of view. Life would be very dull if everyone read these pages and quietly agreed. Controversy is always enjoyable and the continuous feedback from readers over the years, whether in opposition or agreement, is one thing which is always stimulating.

Occasionally I have been puzzled when I have written something and there has been no reaction whatsoever, and at other times I have made what I thought was a harmless statement, only to have abuse poured some from all sides. Some letters from readers get published, some call for a personal reply, some need no reply, while there are those which are put to one side; but they are not ignored, for all are read and digested, even the unpalatable ones. Some readers’ letters give me a strong sense of proportion.

One such came from South Africa recently, from a Mercedes-Benz enthusiast who reads about the Stuttgart firm and its cars, and in particular about its racing history. He ended his letter with a simple remark: “I don’t suppose I shall ever see one of the fabulous Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR sports-cars, like you and Stirling Moss used to win the 1955 Mille Miglia.”

That remark made me think. It is too easy to assume that everyone can get to see their favourite racing car either in action, on a demonstration, or in a museum. Anyone in Europe who holds the SLR high on his list of great cars, can hopefully look forward to visiting the Stuttgart Museum, a Racing Car Show, a race meeting or something. But our reader in South Africa is a long way from the centre of motoring history and can only look at photographs, having little or no hope of ever being able to leave South Africa. The same can no doubt be said for readers in New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, the Americas and many other places — even Bournemouth or Bradford. For those of us involved in motor racing as a business and a way of life, nothing seems impossible, but I must say that I have always tried to report races and motoring events for those readers who I know can never get very close to the action.

A subject everyone is very conscious of is the escalation in prices asked for old cars. “The Trade” has created a lucrative market for itself in the euphoria of old cars. When I say “Trade” I am using the word collectively for anyone, myself included, who makes money out of old cars. This means people who buy and sell for profit, whether they are legitimate dealers or back-yard dealers, or private owners who cash in on a healthy market; journalists who make money writing articles about old cars; builders of old cars; specialists who make new parts; coach builders, paint-sprayers, wheel-builders, welders; auctioneers, the advertising world, the promotions world and so on.

If a law was suddenly passed to have all old cars scrapped, there would be an awful lot of people out of work. What used to be described as a “cottage industry” has grown into a major industry. To the west of London there is a thriving industrial estate which is living off the old-car world — making things, mending things, buying and selling, even publishing magazines about old cars. If you drive round this busy factory environment it is amazing how many people you meet who are engaged on work to do with old cars. Anything from machining hub-centres for Morris Cowleys to making parts for two-year-old Formula One cars which are now “historic”.

And this is just one industrial estate. You could go into any similar estate in almost any part of the country and find the same busy activity going on. I recently visited three farms in the Midlands and found them a hive of engineering activity. No animals or mud; the only smells were of cutting fluid or paint-spraying. All this provides a very healthy state of affairs for these small business concerns, and some of the skills and workmanship being exercised are incredible.

It is this “industry” which is keeping historic racing cars in full blood, or keeping old cars on the road, for most of the manufacturers have long since disappeared and spare parts are non-existent. Most one-make car clubs have a spares system operating, having new spares made to replace those things which wear out or break. Thankfully various tyre manufacturers, notably Dunlop, are still making certain obsolete tyres, otherwise all old cars would be in museums and the industry would grind to a halt.

All this is to the good, but unfortunately there is a bad side to everything. The bad side are those people who use these spares schemes so build up brand-new cars, which they then surreptitiously feed into an unsuspecting market, proffering them as rebuilt original cars. I think we have gone over the top on this activity and many one-make car clubs are now making strenuous efforts to control these fake cars.

The scene is still very active, but the accent has changed. Whether by accident or design, the second-hand trade and the auction houses, aided and abetted by journalists and private advertisers, have pushed the prices of genuine cars to such a height that many owners are frightened to use their expensive investment. The result is that fakes are being proffered openly as being not only legitimate but actually desirable, at a fraction of the cost of the real thing.

People are paying more for a brand-new fake than for a real car such as a Porsche 944, a Sierra Cosworth or a Renault, Mazda or Toyota. We live in a mad world, or is it just affluence?

Yours, DSJ