The restoration of vintage cars has been a
thriving business for 50 years or so. But now there’s a growing market for this whole new level of upgrading. As
Brown puts it, this is a less a restoration as a “re-imagining. It’s taking the original car and making it better”.
That’s not to say each car is just a retro shell around modern engineering. Many original parts are retained, the
likes of the gearbox and suspension, for example. But even these get worked up - stripped, re-built, glass-blasted
and powder-coated. Where the original tech is salvageable but doesn’t offer the performance standard demanded by
many drivers today, it’s replaced with a modern equivalent.
It’s an idea that is spreading too. Eagle,
for example, is a British company that, since 2014, has done the same with the Jaguar E-Type. The UK’s foremost
dealer in the sports-car that defined the 60s, the company was founded by Hugh Pearman. Like Brown’s experience,
Pearman’s lightbulb moment came after a customer who’d bought an E-Type from him “complained why so often vintage
cars like these are, as he put it, ‘more bank notes for the shredder’, and asked why it wasn’t possible to restore
an E-Type to such a degree that it was effectively a modern car” - which is precisely what Eagle went on to
Naturally enough Jaguar itself has since
launched its Reborn programme, by which the maker will offer arguably its most iconic design fully restored to the
original factory specifications, improving safety aspects where necessary and, if customers request, upgrading the
likes of cooling, gearbox and brakes - which is to say all of the problems with the original car. Land Rover now
offers the same service for its first-generation Range Rovers. Aston Martin can re-build you a DB5 to the
‘Goldfinger’ spec, right down to all the Bondian gadgets.
If you want a Jensen Interceptor - surely one
of the most striking, but also one of the most mechanically troubled of British car designs of the 1960s and 1970s -
you can turn to David Duerden at JIA, which has been producing its ‘R’ version of the model for almost a decade.
More recently, in recognition of the growing demand for SUVs - expect classic SUVs to the be next boom market - it’s
launched the Range Rover Chieftain.
“Some of the greatest classics fail to
fulfill their promise in the context of modern life,” as JIA delicately puts it; it builds cars that are “sensitive
to heritage [but] tailored for the driver experience”. All of which is another way of saying it takes the
rubbishness out of old cars and leaves the core design that remains alluring to petrol-heads and aesthetes
“Basically we dial out the weaknesses of the
1960s models while retaining the spirit of the original cars,” as Eagle’s Pearman puts it. And that, he and Brown
alike stress, is the trick: giving what have come to be referred to as ‘retro-creations’ all the benefits of 21st
century automotive engineering, without ending up with an ersatz version of the original beauty that inspired the
work in the first place. It’s for this reason that Brown’s Mini, for example, may have more torque than the
original, thanks to improved engine management, but it’s no faster: the original may have been nippy, but speed was
never its forte, and to give it that quality now would, Brown suggests, be to spoil its appeal. If Minis were noisy
- because the driver was so close to the engine - better sound insulation has taken the edge off without, as could
be done, virtually silencing it.
Brown compares the difference between his Mini and, say, a mint condition original as that between a Rolex and a
Timex watch. “They both do the same thing, but the Rolex does it in a more appealing way,” as he puts it. “Our Mini
just feels different to the original - you’re paying for a much higher overall level of experience.”
Of course, it’s the self-same kind of experience that can be found in many cars in 2019 - they’re called new cars. So
it begs the question why there seems to be an buoyant demand for retro-creations that provide cars perhaps only on a
mechanical par with modern vehicles, rather than superior. But we all know the answer: it’s the look, dummy. For all
of the recent efforts of Ferrari, of Aston Martin and other super-car manufacturers, creating a vehicle with the
spirit of those of the past is not that easy.
Perhaps time must pass for appreciation to flourish - and this in a world in which patience is in short supply; this
is why, as in watches, so in cars, recent years have seen a spate of lazy heritage re-issues, the likes of Ford’s
Mustang, Fiat’s Spider 124 or even its Fiat 500. Or maybe, just maybe, there just was something quintessentially
cool about the cars of the 1960s and 1970s.
“It was, after all, a revolutionary period of freedom in design, which resulted in some of the most beautifully
sculptural products, including cars,” argues Brown. “You know, I had a DB5 for years and, while it’s so fantastic in
its style, well, it’s not a great car - it’s too complicated for its time, and yet without the reliability too. I
like the look, but, driving modern cars too, I’ve become accustomed to a certain comfort and performance. And I’m
not alone in that it seems.”