The Bridge Interviews
This month’s interviewee is a second-hand car salesman. But probably not what you think of as a second-hand car salesman. He doesn’t wear a sheepskin coat or a trilby or use expressions like “nice little runner” or “it’s a good little bus, I would stake my life on her”. He works in a very different part of the business and the cars he sells are very special. He is also a Lord of the Manor.
Martin Chisholm was born into an army family and experienced the usual peripatetic lifestyle that such a background entails. He claims that his academic achievements were unexceptional. After leaving school he travelled for a bit and then sat down to think about a career. He was interested in antiques although he had no family background or connections with that world. He went around various antique shops and asked “How do I get into the industry?” Eventually someone advised him to try one of the auction houses. He applied to Christie’s in London and was taken on a salesroom porter.
He explains: “The system was that all men started as porters and all women started on the front counter. You were paid virtually nothing but, if you stuck it for a number of years, a position might become available in a department you were interested in.” In Martin’s case this was the silver department. However in 1987 Christie’s opened a car department. They held an auction in the Royal Albert Hall in which they sold a Bugatti Royale for a record sum and they started holding auctions in Monaco. Business took off, and he was from time to time drafted into the car department when an auction was coming up. His break came when Robert Brooks, who was the head of that department, left to start his own business and Martin was able to move into that area full time. He freely admits that beyond making Airfix models of cars as a boy he did not have a strong interest in cars at that stage.
He left Christie’s after three years in that job and worked in classic car insurance at Lloyd’s for a year which he didn’t enjoy. He then joined Porters, a classic car dealership in Kensington. “They sold pre-war classics and cars such as Mercedes gull wings and roadsters. At that period there were lots of dealers all within an area of a square mile.” Then Sotheby’s contacted him. Robert Brooks had poached their entire car department to go and work for him. “I was drafted in as director of the car department and a director of Sotheby’s. We had four sales per year. It was a big jump up but I found auctioning cars rather impersonal. Contact with the item being sold was very limited. I would see the owner and the car at the beginning but I wouldn’t see the car again until the auction, perhaps months later, when it would be one of 60 or 70 being sold. The junior people had all the fun. I spent my time doing budgets and strategising. It was soulless.” However, one important thing happened while at Sotheby’s. It was there that he met Tania, his future wife. She later went into public relations in the fashion industry and for a time worked for Sophie Wessex.
Martin left the auction world after four years and started his own business selling classic cars from a showroom and garage in Kensington. “The market was quite strong, we were living in a lovely part of London and I was selling two or three cars at a time. It was great”. Their first son, Jack, was born in 2002. “We were living in a two bedroom flat. When Harry (their second son) was expected we had to move to a bigger flat in the countryside. I was doing a lot of travelling and needed to be within about an hour and 20 minutes of Heathrow. Then serendipity came into play. A customer in Brockhampton (near Cheltenham) told me that a house was coming up nearby.” They moved to this house, Cotehey Farm, and lived there for nine years. He moved his business to a farm building nearby where he could show off about 20 cars. He then found that some buyers would ask for their cars to be stored for a time so he set up a storage facility in a warehouse at Fosse Cross.
As the business expanded he looked for new additional premises, initially in the Fosse Cross area, but he then heard that the CLAAS combine harvester depot near Bibury had became available. Martin, who has a strong interest in military history, discovered that it was on the site of the former RAF Bibury, home of the Hurricanes of Fighter Command No. 87 squadron and later the Spitfires of No. 92 squadron during the Second World War. The buildings included a wartime aircraft hangar. Martin tried to arrange for Geoffrey Wellum, who had flown with 92 squadron and later wrote the best selling book First Light to visit the site. Sadly Wellum died before this could happen.Martin moved the business to Bibury and was able to launch some new initiatives. The first of these was a meeting for classic car owners on a Sunday morning. To his surprise and delight 140 drivers and cars turned up. These are now a regular feature and sell out with up to 300 cars at a time taking part. Twelve gatherings are already planned for next year, some in aid of Kate’s Home Nursing, a “hospice at home” charity. He sponsors the rallies organised by Manfred and Gabi Schotten in aid of the same charity. He also runs Ride It days for classic motor cycles which raise funds for the air ambulance service - apparently 70% of air ambulance call-outs are for motor bike accidents.
Interest in classic cars shows no sign of waning. “Thirty-five years ago people thought that there was no future in veteran (pre-1918) cars. The owners were all in their 70s or 80s and seemed to be dying out. Now the cars are still owned by people in their 70s or 80s but different people. The annual London to Brighton run is massively oversubscribed.” A classic car is defined as being at least 35 years old. At the beginning of his career that meant pre-1967 but now cars from the 1990s are classics. A car does not have to be from an exotic brand to be classic, he points out. He cites models such as the Morris Marina and the Austin Allegro which were cheap and unexceptional in their day, but the few surviving examples are highly prized. Another definition he gives is that a classic car is “one which a schoolboy today would want his parents to have dropped him off at school in.” However the more upmarket cars do tend to survive longer. It is estimated that 90% of all Porsches ever made are still around - not something you could say about the Austin Allegro.
Can he see electric cars becoming classics? They have already had one of the early Tesla Roadsters in their showroom, he replies. Electric cars are nothing new. The first one appeared in 1901 and since then there have been electric taxis and even milk floats.
Has he sold cars to famous people? “I once sold a Bristol 501 to Charlie Watts. After he collected it I took him to lunch at the Wheatsheaf in Northleach. He sat with his back to the room and I sat facing him. I could see everyone else in the room peering at him and whispering ‘Isn’t that…?’ Over lunch he told me that he didn’t have a driving licence.” The reason for this was that the Rolling Stones became very famous when very young, before the drummer had got round to learning to drive. After that they were driven everywhere and hustled in and out by security men to protect them from hordes of fans. Driving themselves would have been impossible. However Charlie was interested in certain past times and collected clothes, music and cars from the era. Martin also sold Prince Charles’s Aston Martin V8 (not the DB6 which the prince says runs on wine and cheese). He is discreet about other celebrity customers.
He is interested in the history of a particular car. He was pleased to be able to sell the chassis of the Maserati racing car in which Juan Manuel Fangio (winner of five world championships in the 1950s) had won his first Grand Prix. He later discovered the body of the car in California and was able to arrange for them to be reunited. He also tells us of how he went to Ireland and bought a Lagonda whose first owner had won the Victoria Cross. After bringing it over on the ferry on a trailer he was able to go past the house of the first owner on Birdlip Hill.
Car storage is now a big part of the business. Many owners are willing to pay for their classic car to be looked after and only take them out a few times a year for a show, a rally or a track day. The hub has around 200 cars in storage at any time and Martin has recently acquired the Black Barn near Burford to provide extra space.
The family moved to their present home in Fulbrook in 2013. It was the former home of Esme Mercer, the widow of Colonel Mercer. By chance Martin discovered that the owner before that, Brigadier Gradidge, was the grandfather of a friend, as a result of which he was able to get hold of a cache of old photographs of the house. He is keen to find out more about its history. After the sale the house underwent a great deal of repair and restoration, not least because water was flowing out from the front door when Martin first saw it, the result of a burst pipe. The lordship of the manor passes with the title deeds so Martin is officially Lord of the Manor of Fulbrook, although he says this does not confer any special privileges. No droit de seigneur, then. When he has any time away from cars he relaxes with his Thames launch. This is another classic, built in 1901. He keeps it at Lechlade. “I chug up and down the Thames on a summer afternoon”. Another classic he owns is a Second World War Willys jeep. He enjoys their garden although Tania is the head gardener. Jack is now at Newcastle University while Harry is at Cirencester College as well as working part time at the Carpenters Arms.
The Classic Car Hub is a treasure trove of motoring history. There are usually around 50 cars for sale in addition to a permanent collection of historic vehicles such as Bentleys from the 1920s. Not all of them are stratospherically priced. We were particularly impressed by a 1967 Ferrari 275 GTS (the middle picture), one of 200 made. It had elegant, understated lines. Just the thing in which to draw up in front of the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc at Antibes. The label said price on application. So we applied. £1.275 million was the answer. Perhaps we’ll stick with the Golf. Anyone is welcome to go in and have a look around, and perhaps have a drink in the coffee shop. Martin points out that you cannot judge by appearances and anyone who comes in could be a prospective buyer. But if you do go, please remember not to kick the tyres.