We learn what makes these classic pre-war cars so special... and valuable
Oops. Just like the gent that ignores the black tie exhortation on the wedding invite and arrives in stylish casual, my mode of transport and attire may have been a trifle sudden for anyone near a window at William Medcalf Vintage Bentley, West Sussex. Jumping out of a red Lamborghini Huracán wearing matching faux pax red trousers, I wished I’d toned things down a tad.
The first thing that hits you when entering William Medcalf’s facility in Liss is not the array of fabulous Bentleys. It’s the smell. If you're old enough to have grown up in the 1960s, you'll remember that the world had a particular aroma that’s now lost forever. A unique mixture of oil, old books and your late grandmother’s drawing room, it transports you back to a different era. Subliminally it probably helps cement any question of credentials for the visitor with a valuable Bentley in need of urgent fettling.
I’m greeted by the boss who extends a firm handshake (bonus points for ignoring my red trousers) and a broad smile. He quickly kicks off the conversation. “The business started 22 years ago in a lock-up garage with a bag of tools in Edmonton, North London. I just wanted to build a business out of repairing and restoring vintage Bentleys.” We walk past the showroom and upstairs to the boardroom to talk further. “We are very lucky to do something we enjoy doing – my wife still thinks this is a hobby,” says Medcalf.
The business has been in Liss for five years and employs a staff of 18 people which will have a further four by Christmas. “The team have been five years at this location and we literally tripped over the place; we were lucky enough to get it. West Sussex is a great location and a lovely place to live. It’s half an hour from the ferry and 55 minutes from London by train”
“We are very lucky to do something we enjoy doing – my wife still thinks this is a hobby.”
The business attracts customers from everywhere – Australia, Canada, United States and Europe. But 65% of customers come from Germany, Switzerland and Austria. They, according to Medcalf, are bonkers about vintage Bentleys. He explains the appeal: “It’s an entrée into a brand new social circle. With the [modern] PlayStation cars the more miles on them the worse the value is; whereas with one of our Bentleys, the more miles on it the better. Drive it like you stole it, and you look like a complete hero.”
I’m interested to know about the customers. “We still have a few remaining owners for whom their cars are part of the family and for whom the Bentley is arguably worth more than their house. It’s our job to support those people to ensure they keep the car in the family. It goes beyond the vulgar talk of money. Money does not open all doors and with many owners of vintage Bentleys the cars will never be for sale.”
So high net worth clients, then? “Yes, the majority of our clients are high net worth individuals who want the best and most reliable pre-war car to go around the world in. When you look at pre-war cars [in rallys] Bentleys usually come out on top.”
What about restoration? Medcalf’s face winces. “We now live in the right time. In the '80s you had complete and utter over-restoration and garish rebuilds and yes, there is still a serious market for it in places like Pebble Beach, but even there you have a Preservation Class which recognises that there are cars that should be untouched to represent the benchmark of construction. To over restore a car is criminal”.
"Money does not open all doors and with many owners of vintage Bentleys the cars will never be for sale.”
The bulk of the William Medcalf’s business is rally preparation and competition work. “With rally work, our business is very active and we work to very strict deadlines because the car boat is leaving for China next Tuesday and the car has to be on it, “ says Medcalf, “So when shipping cars and flying cars [to destinations] the deadlines do not move. It’s a big driver in our workshop. We deal with whatever the client wants – it can be turnkey or to deliver a car to the delivered to the [rally] start line. We deal with all logistics.”
Leaving the boardroom, we take a tour of the facility. “Because of the rally deadlines every day in the workshop is live – there is no project ‘over in the corner’. Every one of the 20-something cars is programmed and tracked in the workshop on our software systems. We would like 12 months for a complete restoration, but with a rally car we may have just three or four days between events. We can manufacture parts for a car arriving on a Friday night, work all weekend and deliver the car back on a Tuesday.”
The rarity and unattainability of these machines are a powerful draw. Strolling around and examining the cars the levers, engines, grilles and wheels all appear virtually indestructible. And valuable. The most expensive vintage Bentley ever sold 25 years ago for £10million. Probably the most valuable Bentley in existence is the Ralph Lauren four-and-a-half litre Blower Bentley raced by Tim Birkin. Its value? £25millio. And it’s not for sale.
Outside we jump into one of the cars and make off around the corner up a hill and back down by Rogate Downhill. For a hack used to a six-point harness or at least some form of seatbelt, the experience of powersliding a vintage Bentley unbelted at a fair lick while hanging on for dear life was hilarious. I’d say Medcalf’s got it spot on when he said: "drive one and you look like a complete hero". You’ll find no arguments on that one. Now where did I park that PlayStation car?