Letter to readers, September 1991

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A Can of Worms

Dear Reader,

A spate of letters have arrived recently containing cuttings from various newspapers, but the majority have been cut from issues of The Times. For three days this illustrious newspaper gave a lot of space to looking into the Auction world of old cars, the building of fake old cars and the big business of making fakes respectable and selling them as Replica cars with their own intrinsic value; not as high a value as the original, but high none-the-less. As this investigation was done by The Times Art Market Correspondent, the fakes and forgeries were acceptable providing they were clearly marked and put on the market, or in an auction, with total honesty! Unfortunately the article was accompanied by a photograph of a genuine 250F Maserati said to be racing in the 1950’s. The reader was quick to point out that the car was 2534 being driven by Willie Green and carrying JCB stickers, in a fairly recent Historic event. Nice picture and a very genuine car, and of course a very genuine racing driver, but not in the 1950’s. Another cutting concerned a Mr. Jeffrey Pattinson, a member of the Vintage Sports Car Club and Managing Director of Coys of Kensington, well-known old car dealers. It seems that one of his Rolls-Royce cars that he had for sale was not as old as it seemed. Now that fact in itself would not seem to be all that important, but the Motor Trade value old cars as if they were works of art and if this particular Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost was genuinely a 1913 model it was worth £420,000. If it was a 1922 model then it was only worth £80.000, and the man who bought it thought it was 1913! It has turned out that it is a 1922 Silver Ghost, with some 1913 parts on it and the legal world is having a bonanza trying to sort it all out. We recently had a much publicized High Court action over origins of a famous old Bentley and value and provenance, none of which does any good for the old car movement, other than creating undesirable publicity and bad reflections on the people in every branch of the hobby of playing with old cars. The trouble is that some people have forgotten why most people enjoyed playing with old cars, and a lot still do. It is a very enjoyable and fascinating pastime, but some people have spoilt it with their greed. A much more serious cutting was the one concerning another member of the Vintage Sports Car Club, a Mr. Christopher Mann from Blackheath in South East London. Her Majesty’s Customs & Excise have accepted £1 million pounds in settlement of unpaid import taxes following an investigation into his Classic car importation business. Further investigation showed substantial under-declarations of taxes on over 100 cars imported by Mr Mann’s shipping company, MIT Shipping Ltd. Mr Mann was also a director of a company called Historic Cars Ltd, formed especially to deal in Classic cars. Mr Mann’s crime, apart from getting caught, was avoidance of import duties and VAT by under-valuing the cars, particularly certain Ferraris, at the port of entry. More than one hundred cars were involved, which does not sound like a harmless hobby, and apparently HM Customs & Excise did not think so either. Mr Mann was educated at Harrow, so I would not think the Governors of that illustrious seat of learning looked kindly on the activities of one of their old boys. Other cuttings have been about so-called famous cars that have appeared at Auction sales and been hastily withdrawn when somebody has proved them to be fake cars. Even more complicated are those situations where two identical cars have appeared carrying the same identity, both owners claiming to have the original car. Then there are the examples where a car is carrying the identity of a car known to have been broken up and destroyed. The Times journalists who investigated the old-car scene, in particular the Auction scene, not only opened a can of worms but came close to blowing themselves up. The conduct of Auction Sales of old cars has been closely scrutinised and a number of very unsavoury practices have been uncovered, and this caused a rush of Auction House representatives falling over themselves to explain how they were whiter-than-white and it must be the other houses. Some years ago a second-hand car-dealer was accused of selling an unroadworthy car to the public, and he denied it, saying “I would never sell an unroadworthy car to the public, I would pass it on in the trade.” He seemed to think that made him pure and honest. The fact that his trader friend then sold it to an unsuspecting customer did not seem to worry him. The sad thing about all this messy business is that it has all been done to make money, and greed has overcome honest business, the backwash from which has completely spoilt what was a nice harmless hobby for a lot of people, and worse still it has prevented a lot of people being able to afford to mess about with old cars. It used to be like the water rat said in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. There is nothing quite so nice as just messing about with boats on the river. On a happier note a letter from a motoring enthusiast who has been involved even longer than our Editor, and still competes in Hill Climbs, especially Shelsley Walsh. He has not been to a Formula One Grand Prix for some years, watching it all on television with great interest, but this year he had occasion to go to the British Grand Prix. He said, “I was staggered to find what a wonderful noise the V10s and the V12s make. It took me straight back to 1937 when I went to the Donington Park Grand Prix when the Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Unions thundered down Starkey Straight and literally shook the ground under our feet. How splendid that the current cars are having the same effect. The noise one gets on the television is but a faint whine, matching the commentary somewhat, but conveying nothing of the real thing. I wish they could do something about it at the BBC”. I am sure Reg Phillips is not alone, for I have met many readers who have never had the opportunity to hear a Grand Prix car on full song. I once suggested to Murray Walker and James Hunt that they opened the window of their television box occasionally to let the viewers hear the real noise. They looked at me sadly and said “The windows don’t open, we are hermetically sealed in and air-conditioned in some of the commentary boxes.” I have always evaluated a Grand Prix car’s intrinsic interest by the sound, for as another reader said recently “The exhaust note is the voice of the engine”. If a racing engine starts up and I move closer it is not much of an engine; if I take an instinctive step backwards it usually means that it is a real racing engine. There have been exceptions, like the 4-cylinder Vanwall and the Lotus Turbine, but usually it is a good yard-stick. When the first turbocharged Renault and Ferrari appeared I used to lean forward out of curiosity. By the peak of the turbocharged era, when qualifying engines were using 4-1/2 – 5 bar boost (at 14.7 psi to 1 bar) I took a step backwards when a Honda, a Porsche or a BMW engine started up. It is the same today with the 3-1/2-litre V10s and V12s, and the sound of a Grand Prix start really is something that TV viewers should be allowed to hear. There would be no need for Murray Walker to commentate, and if he did you would not hear him! It might shatter a few of the older television sets, but that is a risk we would have to take.

Yours, DSJ