Simon Draper

A man with the world's best collection of Aston Martins and the force behind the Palawan press

If you see an unusual Aston Martin at a race, chances are the entrant will be Simon Draper. His collection is the biggest and quite possibly the most complete single-make grouping of any marque. But after some years racing old cars, he has turned his attentions to publishing books about them, creating some of the most lavish and expensive volumes ever seen.

Cars made an impact on him while growing up in South Africa, when his schoolteacher father would often take him to the Roy Hesketh circuit at Pietermaritzburg. But it was at his prep school that one marque in particular made an indelible impression, when another pupil turned up in an Aston Martin DB4. Having finished his degree at Natal University, Draper came to the UK in 1970 to pursue his other interests, music and English literature, working 'temporarily' at his cousin Richard Branson's fledgling business. Twenty years on, he was a director of Virgin, and chairman of Virgin Records, one of Britain's most successful music firms, handling, among others, Phil Collins and Mike Oldfield.

Virgin discouraged the usual company-car status race, and Draper ran practical Volvos, Saabs, and Audis, until a short-wheelbase Quattro Sport caught his eye. "It was hugely practical; I did long Continental trips with the children strapped in the back."

Not so his next machine, Lancia's riotous 037 rallycar, daft but exciting as London transport.

When Virgin was floated in '86, Simon indulged his Aston penchant with a V8, which he still has. "It's just about the best car I have; it gets better and better." But the race bug had bitten, thanks to Nick Mason. "Nick had become a good friend through the music business, and he gave me a ride to Silverstone in his GTO. It was wonderful." He joined the AMOC, and had his first race in '91 in an Ulster. It began a period of intense racing "sometimes four races in a day" which brought his name to prominence as the breadth of the Aston collection he had quietly amassed became apparent. Not only did it indude the highlights DB3S, DBR1, DB4GT Zagato and the DP214 prototype but his commitment to the marque extended to resurrecting one of the streamlined Type Cs and restoring the unique 1940 Atom experimental saloon.

He pursued Astons with the same thoroughness that he collects contemporary art, but there are diversions too: he has a weakness for Bristols, Lancias and for Zagato coachwork, and one of his joys is a Lancia Hyena. Ever seen one? Probably not. Zagato constructed just 25 a few years ago, clothing its lntegrale platform in a svelte coupe body to make a pulse-raising road car. He bought the only remaining Bristol 450 from Tony Crook, and runs a modified Bristol Blenheim day-to-day.

Now, however, glossy paper occupies more time than chrome-plate. When, in 1992, Draper and Branson sold their interests in the Virgin Music Group to EMI, Draper chose to concentrate on a new project, publishing the finest books possible on selected subjects. Palawan Press began with Aston Martin The Compleat Car, which stunned the market by its quality and £750 price, and has stuck to the same formula of the best at whatever cost. If you contrast this with Virgin's image of low price and no frills, Draper is quick to correct you. "The original mail-order business and the airline took that approach, but Virgin Music always went for top quality, the best artists and good packaging." Certainly Palawan's productions are unique among car titles, not just for their excellent photography, layouts and the writings of acknowledged experts, but for their goatskin bindings, numbered brass cover plaques and four-figure prices. But there is usually a cheaper option, cloth-bound at £200 or £300, and remarkably, says Draper, it's the expensive ones which sell out.

The costs would horrify Sir John Harvey-Jones. Palawan is really only Draper and Stephen Navin, who contract photographers and writers, briefed with Draper's vision. As with Astons of old, the books are in danger of costing more to make than they sell for. "I'm happy to cover our costs," he says. "We have a faithful hardcore who will buy the expensive version of the next book. The hard part is knowing how the cheaper ones will sell."

It's the opposite of the usual story; mainstream titles have a sales burst, with discounts to dispose of the run. The Palawan titles, on the other hand, are hardly impulse buys. They aim to be the best, so any historian or marque lover will want one; but because of the high production costs there are no discounts. They sell steadily but not in a frenzy; good news for hesitant collectors but not for cashflow. This doesn't tempt Draper to alter course: "Like the music business I trust my own judgement, I don't try to predict what the public want."

After the success of Ferrari in Camera, a stunning pictorial history, he will this autumn publish the autobiography of photographer Louis Klemantaski, to be followed by a Bristol history by LJK Setright, and the Dick Seaman story, all commissioned from acknowledged experts.

"Ferrari has been our biggest success, but I think the DB3S book is our best so far," says Draper. "But it cost too much to make. I'm considering a two-tier approach, perhaps cheaper editions with smaller pictures around the same text. We'll see." Before that, though, Palawan's most lavish work arrives, and it's nothing to do with cars. The Atlas of Rare Pheasants reflects Draper's interest in rare birds and has taken four years to create. Another of Draper's passions, modern art, has resulted in a uniquely short-run edition of Julian Barnes' novel Evermore, hand-illustrated by Sir Howard Hodgkin.

All this means that Draper races less nowadays. "It takes too much time to stay competitive." The cars compete regularly in others' hands, and the Aston Martin name remains Draper's chief focus; hence two books on Zagatos and Ulsters due next year. And, in case you were wondering, a Palawan is a rare peacock pheasant from the Philippines. GC