My passion for classic motor cars was a late bloom, unintentionally brought into flower by my wife Roma with the innocent gift of a blue Mercedes Benz 300SL sports car on my 40th birthday in July 1990. Had she known how great an effect her gift would have on my life, she might have thought twice about introducing me to such a rival.
Until then I had looked upon cars as little more than a way of getting from A to B. Admittedly, with the arrival of a wife and then children, my choice of mode of transport had necessarily progressed from the two-wheeled variety (Lambretta and Vespa motor scooters) to the four-wheeled variety, but I’d never considered anything as lavish as a sports car.
Even on that fateful day, as I stood dazzled by my birthday surprise, glistening in the sunshine and bedecked in a broad ribbon, neither of us had any inkling of how far my burgeoning infatuation would take me.
Home at that time was a sixteenth-century castle in Argyll, a move that had come about indirectly through another birthday present, this time from my sister Jennifer. On this occasion the seemingly innocuous gift was a year’s subscription to Country Life magazine.
We enjoyed leafing through the glossy pages of my sister’s gift; its property pages were often as interesting as the articles themselves. One day my eye was caught by a property being offered for sale on the West Coast of Scotland. It was a sixteenth-century castle in an idyllic location on a promontory of Loch Fyne, close to Inverary. I immediately sent off for details and asked Roma if she fancied a few days’ break in Scotland. Then I arranged to view the property. Without telling Roma.
It was a fine sunny day so we were somewhat disconcerted to be welcomed into the four storey, 52 room, Dunderave Castle by a housekeeper sporting wellington boots and carrying an umbrella. It soon transpired that they were a necessary precaution. As well as massive fireplaces, spiral staircases and turret rooms, the building came complete with internal running water - down the walls! It was in an appalling state and everything from plasterwork to plumbing was in need of repair. But we were both captivated.
Under Scottish property law there is no advertised asking price, so I offered what we could afford and in October 1988 Dunderave Castle became the Weir family home for £625,000. What we didn’t know at the time, but found out later, was that the castle is the ancient seat of the Clan MacNaghtan and that the Weirs are a distant branch of the family. Roma thought that it would be a challenging adventure, humouring me I suppose.
Until I told her the offer had been accepted and we were moving. After selling the house in Littlehampton we moved up to Scotland and settled the girls in local schools. We set about restoring our new home from the roof down. As the building was Grade I listed we acquired the services of a firm of architects to help us with what was to be a long and costly, although ultimately very worthwhile, operation. Throughout all this, I continued to oversee our various businesses in the South of England, commuting weekly between Glasgow and Sussex.
The castle also had to be furnished and I engaged a West Country firm to make traditional oak furniture bearing the Dunderave coat of arms. However, it soon became evident that although we would never have a problem finding space to put furniture, getting it into the rooms was another matter. The upper rooms could only be reached by spiral staircases, which were too narrow for much of the furniture and left very little room to manoeuvre. So the beds, chairs and tables had to arrive with numbered parts and dowels, which allowed them to be dismantled, and then reassembled in situ. Although we had bought Dunderave as a family home, we realised that the accommodation it offered was much more than we would ever need. As well as our own living area, the fifty-plus rooms could provide no less than seven suites, each containing a bedroom, sitting room and bathroom.
Our efforts in that direction were given a boost through some timely publicity provided by the Daily Telegraph colour supplement, which featured Roma and I in an article entitled ‘Who buys the houses in Country Life?’ With the help of a couple of local girls to do the cleaning, we opened for business in the summer of 1989.
We hadn’t been going for long when one day Roma answered the door to film producer Michael Winner and his agent. He was in Scotland with Roger Moore and Michael Caine to film a comedy called Bullseye and was looking for somewhere for them to stay. The party would include Michael himself and his girlfriend at the time, Jenny Seagrove.
The famous faces spent a week with us in October, but even better Dunderave got its 15 minutes of fame, featuring in a Highland Games sequence in the film. I even got a role as an extra, walking around the stalls, but if you’d blinked, you’d have missed me.
My most vivid memory of that week is of a dinner attended by all the stars, in the castle’s Red Banner Hall. During the evening I decided to light the fire for the first time. The logs were damp and there was all sort of debris up the chimney. But I gave no thought to these minor details, with the result that by the main course the smoke was so thick you could barely see your hand in front of your face!
Furtively attempting to rectify the situation, I removed the logs from the fire and dispatched them through a nearby window, not realising that the film props were stored directly below. They promptly caught fire.
Fortunately Michael Winner was too busy leaning out of another window coughing his heart out to be overly concerned, although when the phone rang he did rally enough to quip that it was probably the fire brigade asking for directions.
The presence at the castle of some of the biggest names in British cinema also warranted a mention in Nigel Dempster’s Daily Mail gossip column, which did us no harm at all, and we had a good year in 1990. Now, all this leads up to my involvement with sports cars because in July I celebrated my 40th birthday, and Roma unwittingly forged the first link in the chain of events that would culminate in my participation in the Around the World in 80 Days Motor Challenge.
Having never been given such a handsome or extravagant a present, I was delighted with the Mercedes sports car. It was an absolutely marvellous car - fast and luxurious, although as I was to learn, the traditional Mercedes- Benz reliability did not extend to this particular model.
The 300SL had only been introduced to Britain in August 1989, so mine was one of the early ones - and there were problems. One was that it leaked water badly. This and other minor character defects I could tolerate, but what happened as I drove home one afternoon was the last straw. A warning light came on, alerting me to a faulty bulb. That didn’t seem too calamitous - these things happen. But when I got back home I found the bulb concerned was one of the indicator lights and it had failed because the complete housing had fallen out of the car. That did it! I sold the SL with a horrendous drop in price, and vowed I’d never buy another sports car.
Meanwhile, we had encountered a problem over the girl’s education. Donna, our eldest, was at school at Keele in Dumbarton, while the two younger girls were still at the local schools. The time had come when we had to decide where Charlotte and Helena would go next. The only real choice seemed to be boarding school, but, unlike their sister, neither of them wanted to leave home. So reluctantly we put the castle on the market and in 1991 moved back to West Sussex, to the pretty village of Angmering.
One day I was reading a motoring magazine (I could look but I wasn’t going to touch), which contained an article on the F-type Jaguar, then under development. Ultimately this promised successor to the legendary E-type was to be stillborn, cancelled by Ford in 1990 shortly after they took over the Jaguar company. Nevertheless I was very taken by the look of the car.
Later, in March 1993, I read that the F-type formed the basis of Aston Martin’s new DB7. This was possible because by then Ford owned both Jaguar and Aston Martin. The new car looked, if anything, even better than the F-type. I had sworn off sports cars, but the trouble was I had developed an itch that I really wanted to scratch.
The DB7 was unveiled to universal acclaim at the Geneva Motor Show. I thought the styling was streets ahead of anything else on the road and decided that this was the car for me. I contacted my local Aston Martin dealership in Sevenoaks and paid a £10,000 deposit. But when I actually tried a non-running prototype for size I found that at six feet tall I couldn’t fit behind the wheel and complained bitterly. Fortunately, the factory took the problem seriously and effected some modifications.
My act of spontaneity, if not in fact urgency, was then followed by a wait of no less than two years as one production delay followed another. At one stage I wrote to the dealership to see if they were still alive. Not having heard from them since giving up my hard earned money. In optimistic expectation of the DB7’s imminent arrival, in 1994 I joined the Aston Martin Owners’ Club (AMOC). Then Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd arranged a test day at the Goodwood racing circuit where, in the pouring rain, I experienced the joy of three laps with a professional driver in a pre-production DB7 and another three by myself. I was truly impressed with the way it cornered, despite the awful weather, and was extremely pleased to find that its handling and ride were infinitely superior to my old Mercedes.
During the wait for my car to arrive I drove to Le Mans in a DB7 belonging to Nick Fry, the then Chairman of Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd. My passenger was the delightful Mort Morris-Goodall, founder member of the AMOC. At last my Cheviot Red DB7 was finally delivered in time for my 45th birthday, complete with birthday presents from Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd, an Aston Martin polo shirt and jumper. I’d already got a registration number for it, having seen the flippant ‘WHY 7’ for sale in a newspaper shortly after placing the original order.
Months later, during an AMOC tour of Scotland, I was lucky enough to enjoy a few circuits at Knockhill in Edinburgh. During my eight laps I was able to extend the car for the first time and, with the engine working hard, the chrome exhaust pipes turned gold. I thought of starting the ‘DB7 Gold Pipes Club’ for owners who race their cars. It doesn’t happen when you’re only using the car for shopping! This led to a more serious approach to racing and I took a day’s course at Peter Gethin’s driving school at Goodwood, where I was taught the essentials of skid control and how to handle the car properly.
I only kept the red DB7 for a short while and then changed it for an improved Antrim Blue model. I liked the ‘new’ WHY 7. It had an adjustable steering wheel, which gave a little more room but I was still not happy with the limited leg and headroom, so I decided to fit Recaro air-conditioned seats. These had the advantage of being lower than the originals, making me much more comfortable with plenty of headroom.
Aston Martin kindly gave me permission to do the work at its Newport Pagnell factory and I also added a Stealth radio. The company later adopted both of these features - although the seats aren’t exactly the same as mine - for a new generation of DB7s and I sold them the ideas for a cup of coffee and a sticky bun, as one does!
I was very happy with the car’s performance on the road and Roma also enjoyed going shopping in it. But everyday driving soon ceased to be enough for me. My experience at Goodwood had fanned into flame a desire to compete that I had hitherto not even realised I possessed.
After that I competed in AMOC races at Silverstone and Goodwood and events such as the Wiscombe Park Hill Climb and Curborough Sprint. I held the record for the DB7 in all of them and ‘The World Record for racing the 1st DB7 in competition on a recognised track’ anywhere in the world.
Appearance has always been one of the things that has attracted me to the Aston Martin and, just as I responded to the DB7, so Roma decided that she would like a classic DB6. I decided to find her one and began to look at the classic car auctions and adverts in motoring magazines. In March 1998 I saw that Parkes auctioneers was holding a sale at Sandown Park and decided to go along. From the faxed list of entries, Lot 49, a DB6 in ‘excellent condition’, immediately caught my eye. There was another Aston Martin in the sale, Lot 51, a 1954 DB 2/4, but it looked too expensive and was in any case not the car I was looking for. Not knowing a lot about the DB6, I telephoned fellow AMOC member, Peter Rapkins, who was very knowledgeable on the model, the night before the auction and was delighted when he and his wife offered to come along with me.
By the time we arrived at Sandown Park the bidding had begun, which meant that we weren’t able to give the cars a good look over or start them up. We had to be careful. As we looked at Lot 49, the owner came over and gave us a brief history. The car had undergone a full restoration and there was documentation to go with it. It was just what I was looking for, but would Roma like it?
While we were waiting for the DB6 to come up we took a look at Lot 51, the DB 2/4. Again the car’s owner joined us and this time provided a full history backed up with over 200 pages of photographs, invoices and reports. A four-year restoration had been completed in 1989 and it was atrue concours car. I thought it was a superb example, but I reminded myself that it looked too expensive and was not the one for me, or rather, for Roma.
When Lot 49 came under the hammer, the bidding, up to £20,000 was between three of us. Then one bidder dropped out, leaving just myself and another man at the back of the hall. Turning round I realised that the remaining bidder was the owner himself. At £21,000 I dropped out of the race and let the owner buy his own car for £21,100!
At this point, instead of heading home we waited as bidding for Lot 51 began. At £23,000 there were no other bids. The auctioneer raised his gavel. ‘Going once, going twice,’ he said. ‘It’s really a lovely car.’ As the gavel hung in mid air I tentatively raised my hand. ‘Going once, going twice,’ he repeated, then down came his hand and the DB 2/4 was mine for £24,000. Classic Cars magazine’s correspondent thought that it represented ‘good value’. I wasn’t sure how Roma would react; after all, the car wasn’t exactly what she wanted, even if it was quite a bargain. But happily, when we got it home she was delighted.
I have often had cause to reflect on my good fortune in my choice of mate. If it were not for Roma’s tolerance, patience and sense of humour, not to say generosity of spirit, I would never have managed to drive around the world, not least because I would have had no vehicle to drive in.
It was April, and as I sat in the kitchen opening the morning post I came across a communication from Brooks, the classic car auction house. Alongside details of forthcoming sales was a flyer from the Classic Rally Association announcing its ‘Around the World in 80 Days Motor Challenge’, planned for the year 2000. It was aimed at owners of pre-1960 cars and, coincidentally, sitting outside on my drive was a 1954 Aston Martin DB 2/4.
So it was just four weeks after buying my wife her new car that I made my small request. "Roma, can I borrow your car?" I asked, as she wandered in and out of the utility room sorting out the washing. "Yes," she replied, continuing with her ministrations. Later in the day she asked me what I wanted it for, but by then it was too late. The deposit of £5,000 was in the post and I was already making plans. There were no recriminations or accusations and at no point did she withdraw the offer of the loan of her car. When she was finally able to compose herself and stand up straight again, and had finished wiping away the tears of hysterical laughter, she promised her unreserved and unstinting support. She couldn’t come because Helena would be sitting her A levels, but she would be in charge and organise things from this end.
From the start I was wrong on at least one count. Roma’s involvement was to consist largely of morale boosting when I was flagging, and giving me the time and personal space to get on with it. The Rally office suggested having a ‘gofer,’ someone to "go for" bits, cups of coffee etc, but I think Roma would have described herself as more of a ‘getit,’ as in ‘get it yourself.’ Her help, and she did in fact help out whenever she could, was appreciated, but with home, the girls and her own personal commitments, there wasn’t time to be my Girl Friday too.
Now I am the most unreligious person that I have ever met. I have an open mind on such matters but no one has convinced me of a god as yet. However, decades ago, as a young teenager I travelled to Cornwall with a friend on holiday. While there we met a group of teenagers renting a caravan. We all went back for coffee and something to eat. You never refuse a free meal! Fifteen of us crammed into this little caravan and it was then decided to have a séance. My friend would not take part, but I did. The glass moved about the table and told a story about a woman burnt at the stake for being a witch. Then it said "I have a message for one of you. For Barry" Now no one at that table knew my name so I played along as John Smith.
Well I had to think up a new name pretty quick. The message was "in time you will understand what life is about". Now that is an odd message to receive from the other side. Anyhow I forgot about it and time passed.
Ten years later I was invited to go to a séance and, curious about the paranormal, I accepted. This time the same message was given to me. Strange but true. Then in my late thirties I decided to go to a Spiritual Church. It was a Sunday and as I was bored, there was nothing on TV, I decided to investigate a bit of the paranormal. I had done nothing in this field for over ten years.
The medium said, "I’ve got a man here in a blue uniform". Several female hands went up claiming it to be their lost husbands who had been sailors. Now I sat there listening and thought to myself how gullible these women were. What a con! The exit was to my right and I wondered if I could leave without being seen. Then the medium pointed to me. I went bright red, as one does. "I have a message for you - in time you will understand what life is about". Now to be told this once is a bit weird. To be told this twice is definitely a bit dodgy. But a third time. Well, would this trip tell me what life is all about?
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