It is not every day that you get to dine alongside a £500,000 1963 Porsche 356 Carrera 2, but that is where I found myself the other day. The location was classic car specialist Hexagon Classics in north London, one of the most venerable car dealers in town and home to some truly mouthwatering automotive wares. It is also now a bustling restaurant and events space. But more of that later.
It so happened that the day I arrived for lunch with the owner there was only one topic of conversation for car people: the recently run British Grand Prix. The debate over the collision between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, who was to blame and which team principal had embarrassed themselves the most was lighting up social media and pub beer gardens across the country. Everyone, it seemed, was suddenly an expert on the correct line to take at 180mph through Copse.
Fortunately for me, the owner of Hexagon Classics, Paul Michaels, is as far from a keyboard warrior or armchair expert as it is possible to get. Readers of this magazine will remember him from his brief foray into F1 as a privateer, firstly in 1972 when he ran John Watson in a March 721 in the non-championship Victory Race, then a one-off entry for Watson in the 1973 British GP and a full campaign with customer Brabhams in 1974.
Under the name Goldie Hexagon Racing, Michaels, then not even 30 years old, entered a BT42 for the first part of the season before swapping to a BT44 and saw Wattie score a memorable sixth place in Monaco (“Because we’d finished in the points, we were invited to the Prince’s Palace. I was running around after the race trying to find a hire shop so we could get some dinner jackets”) and then a fourth in Austria. It would be the team’s best finish. The final GP of the season at Watkins Glen was to be the team’s last.
“Everyone was suddenly an expert on the correct line through Copse at 180”
Michaels’ take on the first-lap shenanigans at Silverstone, told over some wonderful homemade focaccia and organic salads, is infused with the wisdom of experience. “I always used to say to John Watson, ‘To finish first you must first finish,’” he says. “I remember at the German GP he crashed and I was furious: it was an early race in the new BT44 and he put it in the ditch.
“Max was the same. He should never have got involved with that battle on lap one. Horner and the team should have told him: ‘You have the faster car, you have the faster pitstop. You will win the race – if you survive the first two laps’. He should have let Lewis play to the home crowd and take the lead, then Max would have won the race. He is young and will learn. In three years Max will win a race like that by letting his opponent pass.”
Michaels’ showroom has been expanded to include the restaurant, called the Engine Rooms with a menu and quality that wouldn’t look out of place in a West End eatery, a cocktail bar and delicatessen-style shop. He has plans to create regular events where classic car and racing fans can congregate on the premises, compare cars, swap stories and form friendships based around their common interest. He is clear that in order to thrive car dealers must offer more than just a showroom full of exotica.
The idea of creating a space for like-minded car fans stretches back to the Ace Cafe, best known as a centre of bike culture in the ’60s, then reopened and now a regular venue for car meets. More recently we have seen places such as the Caffeine & Machine, the car-themed café in Warwickshire, and social events such as the Bicester Scramble, which has recently announced the formation of a new free membership club where enthusiasts can meet and talk car culture in appropriate surroundings. The Classic Motor Hub in Gloucestershire is another dealer which has regular meets with food, and of course there are the breakfast clubs such as Goodwood.
I can’t help feeling that Michaels is on to something: by reaching out to people even if they are not potential buyers he is surely keeping the forecourt busy even as car ownership and buying changes rapidly. And you should hear his stories about Bernie…
Speaking of venues, the last word should go to Silverstone, which has played a blinder over the past couple of months. Walking around the grandstands and campsites over the British GP weekend was to remind yourself of the joy racing brings to so many – and it was a coup for the circuit to gain permission for a capacity crowd under the government’s Event Research Programme.
A couple of weeks later the circuit was at it again, hosting The Classic after a two-year absence. Fifteen classes across 21 races produced breathless action, and more than 100 car clubs displayed about 10,000 classics. Unlike the baking GP weekend, the Classic was sodden but few spirits were dampened.
And why would they be when a visit to the paddock meant you could see a McLaren M23 being polished up next to a Lola T70 – if you hadn’t already been distracted by the Maserati 250F next to the Cooper T51.
On track, two racing heroes were well remembered: 1970s and ’80s F1 cars diced down the Hangar Straight during the Murray Walker Memorial Trophy, dominated by an Ensign N180B (it’s rare you can say that), while the Woodcote and Stirling Moss Trophies featured Jaguar D-types mixing it with DB3s.
Throw in Minis, pre-war grand prix cars and a 60th anniversary celebration for the Jaguar E-type and there was no doubt historic motor sport was well and truly back.
Joe Dunn, editor
Follow Joe on Twitter @joedunn90