Heritage Aston Martin cars in Essendon
PUBLISHED: 10:31 22 October 2018
Historic farm buildings in Essendon have undergone a multi-million pound redevelopment to host a different kind of animal – heritage Aston Martin cars. Richard Burton visits the state-of-the-art showroom and workshops
Nicholas Mee is showing me around the refurbished exposed brick and oak buildings he has spent the past few months turning into a heritage Aston Martin facility James Bond wouldn’t be out of place in. He pauses to peel a cover back along a gleaming bonnet.
‘Johnny English,’ he says. ‘It’s Rowan’s car. The static one they’re using in the next film.’
And here it is, not the blue DB7 Atkinson drove in the 2003 film to memorably trash a speed camera, but the red Vantage he’s due to in the next. And, for those who’ve seen the trailer, not the one with the rockets on the bonnet to clear the road of cyclists. That one belongs to Universal Pictures.
What I’m seeing is the real one. The fully restored V8 Vantage the comedian and long-time client has had fully restored to the last stitch of its creamy hide upholstery. Nicholas draws my attention to the dashboard. ‘We even reinstated the old graphic equaliser,’ he says.
But then again, he is all about detail. That becomes apparent as we stroll around the two acres of historic farm buildings he’s been developing a few acres downwind from Essendon village on part of the Hatfield House estate.
I call it a facility. It’s a loose term for what promises to be a centre of excellence; one where a leading heritage brand can source, supply and maintain these most iconic of cars.
Aside from the newly-built steel show hall with gallery that greets you as you climb the drive from the B158, there are some serious state-of-the-art workshops; the sort Q would be proud of. We pause in one of them. There are no overalls, no oil-stained floors and no smells. Not garage ones anyway. The engineers – more technicians these days, given what’s under these bonnets – are all liveried up in black slacks and polos, the oil’s piped in, metered and ‘on tap’ at the push of a button and thick exhaust extractors pull down from the ceiling to fit over pipes and send fumes off into the ether.
‘Ultimately, what we want to do here is create an experience,’ Nicholas says. ‘If you’re spending £200,000 on a car, you deserve that. And, no, there are no smelly, greasy workshops. Everything’s orderly and professional. I’d say a husband could comfortably bring his wife here and she’ll see this and immediately understand why he’s invested the way he has.’
And who is that husband likely to be?
‘We tend to get a fair few footballers and City types in areas like this,’ he says. ‘I’d like to think we attract that sort of attention. We’re set back from the road but visible in a subtle way. We prefer it like that. We tend not to shout.’
Certainly, in the years since he began as a fitter’s mate in 1970, built a serious CV in luxury marques and eventually opened his own Aston showroom in Kensington, the one he’s just vacated, he’s traded keys for cash with just about everyone.
He recalled in one recent interview greeting film stars, sporting icons and even royalty. Among them, Elton John, who waltzed into one showroom with his entourage, ‘ordering a few cars and waltzing back out again’. In 1985 he personally delivered a Royal Cherry V8 Vantage, built to the singer’s specifications, and presumably as well tuned as his Yamaha Disklavier grand piano, to his home in Old Windsor. And last year he sold Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant’s restored 1965 DB5.
The move to Essendon involves a daily commute from his home in Fulham, but there are local links. His great-grandfather was James Gray, the 19th century wheelright and coachmaker who set up and ran for years an eponymous business in Old Hatfield.
In rural Herts, he says, not only will he have the space to display and work with quality cars in surroundings that does them justice, they can be properly tested on the open Hertfordshire roads. Until recently, road-testing a suspension rebuild, for example, would mean driving out ‘to the other side of Heathrow to avoid the speed bumps, 20mph limits and all those Uber and Amazon drivers’.
As we wander around, it seems to get even more hi-tech – the ramps with their wheel sensors, laser-driven Hunter alignment systems and ballast packs placed inside to replicate driver and passenger weight. This is nothing like the garage where I take my car; all double-parking and rolling tool chests in the doorway. More of a private hospital; one that throws in the odd facelift.
I counted several dozen cars in either various states of repair or just polished and awaiting sale. Quite a haul for someone minded to pick the lock.
He shakes his head. ‘It’s not the cars, it’s the spares and parts,’ he says, then goes on to explain the detail behind the tiered security system with its alarms and tannoys and how police could be on site within four minutes.
There’s still clearly a healthy market for these stunning cars, even though values fluctuate with the economy. There were times in the ’80s when owners could make 25 per cent profits, on paper at least, simply by driving them off the forecourt. Nicholas is known for anecdotes about handing over the keys to new cars and seeing them driven to the end of the road and re-sold for a profit. All long before the 1990 recession, which came shortly after the launch of the Virage and saw values plummet. Stories abounded at the time of drivers who’d invested heavily, taking delivery of cars they couldn’t pay for.
The price of a DB5 like the one Sean Connery drove on screen cost around £4,000 in 1963 (£80,000 in today’s money). A well-maintained one today could fetch upwards of £450,000. Although one that actually appeared in Bond would probably be worth around £3m.
But for Nicholas it’s more about doing justice to the heritage. ‘You have to understand that people who come here are purchasing something discretionary,’ he explains. ‘They’re luxury items. They’re not white goods. They don’t need them. But if someone wants one, we need to make the experience as pleasurable as possible.
‘And this won’t be the owner’s primary car. It’s a trophy; something to take out at the weekend or, perhaps, for a run abroad.’
So why, even if you do have serious reddies, would you want a car you’d only use at weekends? He shrugs as if to suggest the answer’s obvious. ‘Cars are the ultimate toys. When we are children we play with them. As we grow they just get bigger. What do they say about the difference between men and boys being the size of their toys?’
And he should know. His firm once created the DB Junior. At £16,000, it was a tad over two feet high but did have a three-speed gearbox and could reach 46mph.
Its target market? The over-10s.