Historic scene with... Gordon Cruickshank

A day in the country
Among the green fields of Hertfordshire there’s a little farm with a fine harvest on show

I had meant to stop in at DK Engineering for ages, but here’s a funny thing about a top Ferrari shop – it’s always so packed with high-end machinery that if that Testa Rossa you meant to have a squint at has moved out, there will be an interesting 750 Monza or 250TdF in its place. Kind of reduces the urgency. In fact it was a Maserati that pulled me in to DK’s extremely smart and tidy premises, another one-time farm now dealing with a different sort of horse.

The car was a 250F, and before the purists reach for their Maserati histories, yes, it was one of the Cameron Millar cars. Millar was an arch enthusiast who bought a large pile of parts from Maserati during one of its periodic financial implosions and subsequently assembled a number of cars in new chassis, at first with a high proportion of genuine components, decreasing as the run went on. What stands him apart from the many people who have tried to brush over various histories is that he gave them ‘CM’ chassis numbers to make it clear what they were. Jenks, that arbiter of the 250F, wrote that he had no problem with these constructions, “as long as the owners were honest” – but went on to state that at least one of them was already wearing another chassis number…

One that has a well-recorded past is CM5, the one I found in one of DK’s buildings after a tour of the works. In the reception area – rustic beams, Motor Sport neatly placed on top of other car titles, vast case of trophies, books on industrial design, restaurant guides ready to assist wealthy clients – I met DK’s cheerful founder David Cottingham, who in the 1970s found his classic car hobby was getting in the way of his career as a research chemist and began restoring Jaguars. Now Ferrari is the firm’s prime business – DK (named for David and his wife Kate) has sold 150 F40s – and David’s three sons, Justin, Jeremy and James are all involved. You’ll know the names from Goodwood and the Silverstone Classic as David, James and Jeremy are pretty handy on the track, too.

It’s James who takes me into the showroom, where gleaming cars, not all Ferraris, stand in spacious splendour. In recent years selling has expanded, says David, but restoration remains important and clients come from all over the world – they’ve prepared cars for Anthony Bamford and Ralph Lauren. And it’s the workshops I’m more interested in. DK has about 15 people in the restoration shops (a succession of buildings large and small, with more planned) and another dozen staff keeping the business rolling. James shows me 275GTS parts spread out for a customer who is having two done at once, Colombo V12 blocks and innards on stands and benches, and then steers my gaze into the wheelarches of a 250SWB shell up on jacks pointing out the hammer marks of the hand-beaten arches, which makes decision-making complicated. Should you produce the perfect finish that Italian artisan wasn’t worried about, or try to retain that human touch? In the end it depends on the client – if the car is heading for Pebble Beach they’ll seek perfection…

Among all the scarlet paint is a silver GT40 which James often races with owner Andrew Smith, but while their own cars are often out racing they don’t do a lot of customer race prep. Too demanding on staff time, James says, and I have to say I often wonder how the big outfits manage to field so many staff at every race weekend.

Finally we return to CM5. I had an interest in it because I visited Millar in the 1980s while he was assembling (I believe) this car for Scottish enthusiast Ray Fielding. By coincidence I was later invited to see a private collection in Aberdeenshire, which turned out to be Fielding’s stable. Not knowing the name I was expecting E-types and TR4s; instead in an unpretentious barn behind Pedigree Cars in Forres I found a row of tridents. A racer in the 1950s and ’60s, Fielding loved Maseratis and when I got there (shown around by his mechanic Dick Watson, an ex-HRG and Vanwall man) it included a 200S, an A6GCS he bought new, CM5 and one of the pre-war Maseratis Fielding and Watson were restoring. I didn’t know enough then to pin it down, but it was probably the 6CM Fielding raced. They also looked after the Doune Motor Museum, where I went next. Lord Doune’s display had some impressive cars including a Bugatti 57C Aravis coupé, Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B spyder, low-chassis Invicta, and the Whitney Straight Maserati 8CM. A pity the museum later closed, as these cars are now widely dispersed.

I had a fun day with Millar too, not least when we had to go to lunch in my Alfa because his Ghibli wouldn’t start. “It’s constant trouble,” he groaned, “but the 250F always fires immediately!”

CM5 went to Fielding incomplete and was later robbed for parts, but after a comprehensive seeing-to by DK last year I’m sure CM5 gives no trouble to its new owner. Certainly it went well at the Goodwood 72 meeting. To think that, as Millar said to me, “they were just going to shove all those parts in the skip!”

Brown and proud
Flares and flock seats at Seventies session

You know the feeling when you’ve been staying in a smart hotel eating fine food and you suddenly realise you’re dying for beans on toast? Maybe it’s a symptom of a diet of Miuras, Maseratis and Monzas, but the idea of a concours of utterly unexciting vehicles tickled the whole office. Indeed the Festival of the Unexceptional, sneaked in before the Silverstone Classic, seems to have garnered Hagerty’s Insurance as much attention as all the classic cars they cover. Featuring all those cars that make you say “I’d forgotten about those”, it brought together the Morris Itals, Triumph Acclaims, Fiat Stradas, Montegos, Renault 6s and Allegros that were staple joke-fodder from the Sixties to the Eighties.

Of course buyers loved them then, and despite the lessons of history, their new owners love them now, lining them up in a symphony of beige, brown and mustard.

What’s more, spares shortages can make them as hard to restore as an exotic: there’s a demand for Ferrari indicators and Porsche door rubbers, but not for Montego interior lights. As I admired a much-travelled Renault 30 and the gold paint on a Cortina Mk3, I listened to one fan describe searching for three years for a trim part for his Opel Commodore and wondered if it was worth the effort for a car of no great significance. I suppose for the sake of historical completeness at least one example of each ought to be preserved, in the way a small pot of smallpox virus is still kept in a lab somewhere.

While it was a concours de l’ordinaire, everywhere there were little outbreaks of interestingness, like a forest fire that won’t die down: that’s not just an 1100 but a Vanden Plas with picnic tables; at this distance in time the Mini’s Clubman restyling comes over as a clever and cost-effective scheme; and apparently that’s the only British Volkswagen 412 on the road. There was a Peel P50, the minuscule microcar, which made me smile when it set off for home sitting in the middle of its trailer like a toddler on a ping-pong table. A Scimitar GTE should have been disqualified outright for being a handsome, fast and interesting device, while an Allegro with Rostyles was on the verge of looking sporty. Confession time: am I the only person who thought Harris Mann’s Allegro styling was novel, inventive and a just bit cute? Plus a square steering wheel! Come on…

In this harvest of the humdrum, one exhibit had to be even more undistinguished than the others and the palme beige (a china mug) went to Ed Rattley’s Nissan Cherry Europe, one of the plainest-looking cars ever. Journalist Giles Chapman, one of the judges and an aficionado of the utterly conventional, told me, “We all alighted on the Cherry because it’s a rare survivor, you couldn’t find a more enthusiastic advocate of forgotten Japanese metal than its owner, and the interior was amazingly original, even down to the plaid seats.”

The trouble is, this example was the Nissan/Alfa Romeo co-production with the Alfasud power unit, and there are only a couple of those left running – which makes it actually quite interesting…

Dream garage
How we’d blow the budget this month

Gregor Fisken
Bugatti Type 46S
The mammoth Royale may top Bugatti’s league for sheer presence, but the 5.3-litre T46S ‘Petit Royale’ is an impressive carriage. Very rare in four-door cabriolet form.
£POA, www.fiskens.com

Rawles Classic Healeys
Austin-Healey 3000 MkII
A careful recreation of a works Sebring car. With triple Webers, ally body, rose-jointed suspension and straight-cut gears, this is a fearsome contender for historic rallies.
£85,000, www.rawlesmotorsport.co.uk

Renault Spider
Track day fun distilled to its essence. Basic, but this one has the later windscreen that made it a practical proposition to drive to the track. Just a 2-litre four, but it’s plenty!
£24,995, www.meridien.co.uk