Icons Of The Open Road
A new film pays tribute to the classic cars we can only dream of owning. Here, we meet the man who actually does
“My first word was car.” Mr Paul Michaels, 70, is sitting in the office of his South Kensington garage, a small, but elegant mews plot situated just off London’s Old Brompton Road. There are no oil stains. No calendar girls. No smarmy salesman. But then this is no ordinary garage. It’s home to a dozen or so of Mr Michaels’ current inventory of incredibly valuable and rare classic cars.
Every one is a showstopper. On entering, you weave past a freshly restored 1960 Aston Martin DB4 GT – yours for £3m ($4.3m) – and an electric-blue 1967 AC Cobra 289. In the far window is a spotless black fast-back Bentley Continental, one of only 214 made and last valued at a cool £1m ($1.4m) – it has just been sold. Next to it is a one-off Ferrari 365 GTB 4 Daytona Panther, on sale for “around £800k” ($1.1m).
Gawkers line the windows, instagramming their favourites. Happily for Mr Michaels, the appetite for classic cars is healthier than ever. “The past two years have been unprecedented in terms of classic-car popularity,” he says. “I went through a Vogue magazine with my wife the other day, and I counted five campaigns with classic cars in them.”
It’s true. Everyone from H&M to Johnnie Walker (and MR PORTER) has relied on the charm of a classic car to sell their wares in recent months. Social media has also helped this phenomenon along. At the last count there were more than one million tags on Instagram for #classiccar, as well as more than one million pins on Pinterest (a platform largely used by women), with a 40 per cent increase in activity over the past year. Mr Michaels can easily be credited with making the market what it is today, having worked in the industry for more than 50 years and showing no signs of hanging up his keys. He has three showrooms in London, under his company name Hexagon, and is about to embark on a large-scale project called The Hexagon, a classic-car “destination” in East Finchley, London, that will combine two restaurants, a to-be-confirmed men’s retail store and coffee shop. “It’s a very exciting project,” he says. “We are aiming to have the doors open before Christmas.”
So why opt for a classic? “It’s a more subtle statement,” says Mr Michaels. “Think about it. Most people when they come up to a junction driving a classic will be let out. If you turn up in a flashmobile, they’ll do their best to ensure you can’t get out. People have a more sympathetic reaction towards classic cars than they do to a £1m new Ferrari.”
Ferrari 365 GTB 4 Daytona Panther. Photograph courtesy of Hexagon Classics, London
The film, above, is a fitting tribute to this inimitable sense of charm. “We commissioned this film to be about the cars, and nothing else,” says Mr Michaels. “It’s not about who is driving them. The Ferrari 250 California Spider was the star, and it’s really just an amusing story about how cars relate to each other. Not humans. Cars. Isn’t that great?”
Along with Mr Michaels’ own red Ferrari California Spider, you’ll spot a black Porsche 356 and an Aston Martin DB4 GT as they go about a rather unusual night on the town. To find out more about Mr Michaels and his life in motoring, read on.
Why do you do what you do?
I was born into cars. My father was in the motor industry. It was never going to be any other way. There was never a doubt in my mind from day one what I was going to do, and I was never very good at school. I had one thing on my mind – to open a garage and get into Formula 1. And I did that, aged 17.”
How did you get into F1?
I started motor racing in 1971 with a Jaguar D-Type. By 1973, we moved to Formula 5000 and then, after a conversation with Bernie [Ecclestone], the next season we moved into F1 with John Watson driving for us. We were the top privateer [a team not supported by a car manufacturer] that year, 1974. It was a one-year wonder. It cost an awful lot of money and the sponsor went pop in the middle, so we did one year – a great year – and that was it.
This was the James Hunt era. What was he like?
He was lady-like. God, you’ve never seen anything like it. He was a nutter. It was very sad that he never made 50. Our pit was next to his. You can’t ever conceive of it now, but the first thing that arrived in the pits back then was the champagne. That’s how Lord Hesketh ran his team, and James would spend most of his time drinking it. Can you imagine? He was quite a character.
Racing changed dramatically a decade later, when Mr Ayrton Senna came along. Why was he so good?
Senna was the first F1 driver to left-foot brake. Not many people know this. He used to cover it up. No one knew his secret until about 18 months after he started racing. Now everybody left-foot brakes. It was all about weight distribution. If you brake and accelerate with the same foot, you have to take it off the throttle before you put it on the brake. He thought, if I can stop that transition of the car going up and down, it will allow me to go deeper into the corner with more grip on the front, so I’ll be able to turn in better. It was a rally-driving technique that completely changed F1.
Do you still watch F1?
I’m a cheat these days. I record it and fast-forward to the interesting parts. It’s just got so boring. They’ve lost the plot. It’s got too technical, too expensive and Lewis Hamilton thinks he’s a pop star. It’s so different. The cars have got nothing to do with what you and I would recognise as a motor car.
(From left) Messrs George Kalamarakis and Frank Swanson (Hexagon’s F1 team personnel); Messrs Willy Green, John Watson and Nick Faure (team divers); Mr Paul Michaels (team owner), Silverstone, 1973. Photograph courtesy of Hexagon, London
What classic car should we be investing in right now?
It’s all about low numbers and provenance. Then you’ve got left-hand versus right-hand drive. Left-drive cars tend to be less valuable, because many more were produced.
What determines the value of a certain model of classic car?
The leader of the pricing is always America. If a crackpot result emerges from an auction there, it soon filters down across the market.
Why own a classic car?
Fun. It pays you back in so many ways. Apart from just getting out in the traffic, kids getting married, weekends away – it makes everything much more of an event. It becomes part of the family. It’s also a good investment. Choose the right car, and you should be looking at a 10 to 15 per cent increase per annum, maybe a bit more, depending on what model you choose.
What is your tip for a future classic that’s still affordable?
An E39 BMW M5, which has a 5-litre v8 engine. It’s probably the best BMW they ever built. Full stop. They started making them around 1998 and 1999 and it was designed by Chris Bangle, an American and very amusing character. He was heavily influenced by the Ferrari Daytona, and you can see it in the front of the car. They are fantastic. You can pick up a really good one for between £28 and £35k.
Mr Michaels’ Top Five Classic Cars
The models the car aficionado would own above all others
A convertible Jaguar Eagle E-Type
I had a picture of this car on my wall as a kid, and it was the first serious car I ever owned.
A Ferrari 250 California Spider
I’m lucky enough to own one of these in red, which I’ve had for 10 years or so. It’s so valuable I can’t use it. It was the 1961 Geneva Motor Show car. You’ll spot it in the film.
An Aston Martin DB4 GT
This is a special lightweight model that was driven by Stirling Moss and made for Equipe Endeavour, the team he drove for.
A Porsche 993
The 993 was the last of the air-cooled models that ran between 1993 and 1996. I’d probably opt for the Turbo S, one of just 23 right-hand drives ever made.
I’ve got three of them. They’re silly and they’re cute. It has this certain je ne sais quoi. I challenged a guy once to race me from Victoria to Hampstead. He was driving a Triumph TR4. He took me on and lost.
Photographs by Mr Liam Duke and Ms Tanya Michaels