British Style: The Enduring Appeal of Classic British Cars
by| 17 Aug 2015
LONDON - When Sir James Pennethorne began his initial design for London’s Battersea Park in 1846, Karl Benz was a mere two years old, and it would be another four decades before he sold his first – many say the first – true motor car.
So Pennethorne would, no doubt, have been amused to hear the 200-acre space in central London resounding to the futuristic whine of high-performance electric motors this past June, when it provided the venue for the final round of the inaugural FIA Formula E emission-free race series.
To some, however, Battersea Park has been synonymous with cars – albeit of the older variety – since RM Sotheby’s set up its European arm in 2007 and chose the park as the location for what has become a much-anticipated annual auction.
THE 1950 ASTON MARTIN DB2 VANTAGE, CHASSIS NO. LML/50/19. PHOTOGRAPH BY TIM SCOTT © 2015 COURTESY OF RM SOTHEBY’S.
That first event – with its Roaring 20s-themed opening party, decidedly glamorous atmosphere and stellar £18.4 million total – changed the perception of what a UK classic car sale should entail. Among the lots were 44 cars consigned by Formula One impresario Bernie Ecclestone, while subsequent London sales have seen the Aston Martin DB5 driven by Sean Connery’s James Bond in Goldfinger and Thunderball sell for £2.9 million and, in 2008, the realisation of a (then) record price for a McLaren F1 at £2.5 million.
Over the past few years, the UK in the late summer/early autumn has become the place to be for anyone and everyone with an interest in the classic car scene, thanks to the burgeoning number of events taking place. These range from Lord March’s much-loved Goodwood Revival on the south coast of England to the now-yearly Concours d’Elegance, which will be held from 4–6 September at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, in partnership with RM Sotheby’s.
It might be fair to say, even, that this booming collector’s scene represents the “coming home” of the classic car to a nation which, for its relatively small size, has contributed a disproportionate amount to the evolution of the automobile, and it continues to do so today as the base of great marques such as Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Jaguar and Aston Martin.
1934 MG PA/B LE MANS, CHASSIS NO. PA/1711. PHOTOGRAPH BY TRAVIS MASSEY © 2015 COURTESY OF RM SOTHEBY’S. PHOTOGRAPH BY TIM SCOTT © 2015 COURTESY OF RM SOTHEBY’S.
In the past, however, the lexicon of British carmakers was vast, ranging from AC, Alvis, Austin and Allard to Vauxhall, Vanden Plas, Wolseley – and even the generally forgotten and short-lived Wrigley.
Among the more than 75 cars being offered at RM Sotheby’s London sale, there will be, of course, a wide selection of models built on home turf. Among these will be several historic competition cars, including the very first Aston Martin to carry the high-performance Vantage badge in the form of a 1950 DB2, which was bought new by Bill Spear, the well-known amateur racer and co-driver to the legendary Briggs Cunningham.
One of just three Vantage-specification DB2s built, the car finished second in class in the first Sebring six-hour race and is now eligible for major historic events such as the Mille Miglia and Le Mans Classic.
Other quintessentially British cars on offer include a 1959 MG MGA in rare, twin-cam format. The rarest and most sought-after MGA, this example spent much of its life in South Africa, where it was regularly used as a press/demonstrator car. Equally significant is a 1934 MG PA/B Le Mans that enjoys the distinction of having been part of the all-women Dancing Daughters racing team, which competed at the famous La Sarthe circuit in the 1935 24-hour race – and was the first team car across the line.
The sale will also present a 1929 Bentley 4½-litre Tourer, one of the more iconic British cars of its day. The previous year (1928), a Bentley 4½-litre claimed victory at the Le Mans 24 Hours, thrusting the model into the limelight. The example on offer at the upcoming London sale is differentiated from its peers as one of just five open four-seaters by London’s Cadogan Motors.
London-based writer Simon de Burton covers old and new cars for the Financial Times, Country Life, EVO and Octane.
RM Sotheby’s 2015 will be on view at Battersea Evolution, London, from 6–7 September. Auction: 7 September. Enquiries: +44 (0)20 7851 7070 or visit rmsothebys.com.