Can you translate a passion for classic cars and motor racing into both a hobby and a business?
Yes. Read on!
The following is an insight into how author and motor sport enthusiast, Philip Porter, transformed his love of old cars not only into a successful publishing company but also two classic car clubs. Porter Press International is both a book publisher and a classic car and motoring bookseller. It has an ever-growing range of highly sought-after books for sale online and at significant motoring events. Read on to find out how Porter Press began…
Background – The early years
In the '50s when I was growing up, my father had a rapid succession of everyday cars but, unusually for the time, he also had the odd spare car that today would be called a classic. The one that stands out in my mind was his white Jaguar XK 120 Roadster with red trim.
In 1956 my parents took me to Silverstone and I saw Fangio, Hawthorn and my hero Stirling Moss racing Grand Prix cars and sports racers. Later they took me to Shelsley Walsh hillclimb and once to Goodwood. On television, we used to watch Graham Hill, Roy Salvadori and Mike Parkes battling ferociously round the race tracks of the UK in Jaguar saloons. As a child, I was terribly spoilt and had every Dinky and Corgi model made (and still have them). I was an early Scalextric devotee and later went on to build my own slot cars and finished second in the National Junior Championships (the winner cheated!).
My father took The Motor magazine and annually bought Automobile Year. I pored over these lovely books, which covered the season's Grands Prix and sports car classics, for many, many hours.
These were my influences when growing up. They fired my enthusiasm and passion.
Of course, I wanted to be a racing driver like my hero. My first car was an Austin Healey Sprite and my second an MG Midget which the great Ralph Broad, of Broadspeed fame, tuned up to half-race spec., and I started sprinting and hillclimbing while still at school. I then began building a full race Modsports Sprite which became the works entry for highly respected race prep company Aldon Automotive. I won 10 out of my 12 events in 1970.
Then I discovered classic cars which were just starting to take off in value. I realised that unless I reacted quickly, everything would soon be unaffordable. In the early '70s, I bought five XKs, a Chevron B8, several Austin Sevens and so on – all restoration projects, which was all I could afford. In the later '70s, I bought my historic E-types.
Around this time, I had the good fortune to be introduced, at a party, to a character called Nick Baldwin. Nick was carving out a career as a writer and became Editor of a magazine called Old Motor, run by a gent called Prince Marshall (Prince was his Christian name; his sister was called, yes, Princess). Nick and I became, and remain, very great friends.
For some reason, Nick asked me to write an article on XKs for the magazine. I had always enjoyed English at school (and Latin – odd boy) and the satisfaction of writing. Prince also published a selection of very esoteric books. It was decided they needed something a bit more commercial, like a book on Jaguars. But who to write it? They took a chance on me. Amazing.
Piece of cake this writing lark!
Meanwhile, Old Motor had been bought by Haymarket and became Classic & Sports Car. Very sadly, and prematurely, Prince then died and the book side was taken over by an august publisher by the name of Frederick Warne, famous for publishing Beatrix Potter and the Observer books. They now had Porter as well.
In 1983 the company was bought by Penguin who published my book, Jaguar – The Complete Illustrated History. So I had gone from one of the world's smallest publishers to one of the largest. Piece of cake this writing lark!
Penguin promptly sold their motoring titles to Haynes which began a fruitful relationship for me for a few years. Until then I had been writing in parallel with running several small companies. I decided to sell off the active companies, retaining the investment side, and sink or swim with my writing.
For a while, and in parallel, I became a professional hot air balloon pilot, and then airship pilot, including acting as Airship Test Pilot for Per Lindstrand's company. He was famous for flying the Atlantic and Pacific with Richard Branson. During that time, I became the first person ever to fly an airship in Africa.
When my sponsors hit hard times, a wonderful 10-year relationship came to an end. It was not the end of the world because it meant I had, in theory, a bit more time to use some of my cars that were gradually, after a very long wait, getting restored.
My wife and I then formed the International Jaguar XK Club in 1997 and I edited the monthly magazine for the next nine years, and also one for E-types when we formed the Jaguar E-type Club in the mid-'00s.
‘I think you’re crazy’
When Sir Stirling Moss became our XK Club Patron, I suggested his wonderful scrapbooks would be a great basis for a series of books. He said, literally, 'I think you're crazy, but OK'.
With that catalyst, we began publishing books. I had no training, no experience, no track record, with publishing. It is true I had written about 15/20 books by then but I had no direct experience of publishing. However, my eyes are always wide open, trying to continually learn from life and others.
We took the plunge. It helped that we could share our very small team between the clubs and the publishing. That team has grown and grown, and is still growing.
I once read, 'Anything the mind can believe and conceive, it can achieve'. I am a great believer in that.
If you apply yourself with dogged determination, applying as much common sense as possible, and work hellishly hard, you can achieve most things in life. Obviously, you need a bit of luck along the way but perhaps we make, at least to some extent, our own luck.
Obviously, the people you work with are crucially important and there I have certainly been lucky.
What are the joys of writing, and what is the downside?
For me, the joy is the people you meet and the people you work with. Over the last 30/40 years, I have met many of the greats of motor racing, and become friends with some. With a few, I can say, with great pride, we are close friends.
When you are passionate about older cars and motor racing, it is a very special pleasure to meet those who designed the cars, or ran the teams or drove the cars. For me, it is thrilling to hear their memories and to help them relive their era. Sadly so many are gone now but I treasure the memories of having met and known several hundred such people. It is a long list, after more than 40 years of writing.
Much as I love writing, I always aim to quote those who actually were there and did it because I believe this brings the subject alive to a much greater degree. I also strive to get as much humour into my writing as possible. I love good anecdotes.
The downsides? Long hours, I guess. I have always said I could have earned more working behind the bar in my local pub than writing books. Some might consider it a lonely activity but that does not worry me. Striving to do one's absolute best at all times in every possible way is tiring and, I guess, stressful but I have always been very driven.
What has been the best thing for you in publishing?
Undoubtedly, working with Murray Walker.
I have worked with some great people but Murray has been both a fascinating character to work with but also wonderfully supportive.
When we published our Murray Walker book, Murray said, 'Give me five dates in the next 12 months and I will join you.' We had signing sessions in London, Silverstone, Goodwood, at our own Jaguar XK60 event and so on.
We thought, 'Wow, what a bonus to have Murray's support for a year.' To our amazement he carried on in the same way for another four years. We sold 6000 copies, mostly signed by him at events. Just incredible.
Recently, he wrote in an email to me, 'I`ve had a great innings, much of which has been as a result of being privileged to be associated with Porter Press and its great people.' What a kind, generous and unique gentleman, and I use that word in its truest, most traditional sense.
What has given you the greatest pleasure as a motoring writer?
Undoubtedly meeting so many heroes, chatting with them and building a rapport. I have interviewed everyone from race mechanics to the most famous drivers, from factory workers to major bosses, from union leaders to Government Ministers. With just one exception, they have all been a delight to meet.
I am very proud of the fact that I have never fallen out with anyone I have interviewed. Also, it's not like television where you use someone and drop them immediately.
What is one vital requisite of interviewing?
Know the subject. With the best will in the world, people tell you stuff that is wrong. There is nothing malicious or devious in that: it is merely a case of memory in 99 out of 100 cases.
If you don't know the subject, and include incorrect information, you will look an idiot and also risk making fake history.
Do you suppress any humour as irrelevant?
Most certainly not. Humour spices up what can be a dry subject.
I recall, when writing about the development of the Jaguar XK8, an engineer telling me he proudly showed a meeting, headed up by a visiting senior and rather frightening top engineer from parent company Ford, the new cast aluminium front suspension beam. With British humour, he said, 'Now wouldn't it be an honour to be run over by that?'
There was a deathly silence. After what seemed an eternity, the Ford man roared with laughter. Everyone breathed again.
There was an overseas engineer who was continually teased by his British colleagues, partly because his English was rather eccentric. One day he could stand it no longer and shouted at them, 'You all think I know F-nothing. Well, I am telling you, I know F-all.'
Murray Walker was interviewing racing driver Peter Gethin on live television. 'Well, Peter, you've done it all: Formula Junior, Formula 2, sports cars, F5000 and Formula 1. What, for you, has been the most exciting experience?'
'Well, Murray, it was probably those red-headed twins in Bolton.'
Gerhard Berger had a great sense of humour and was always playing pranks on his team mate Ayrton Senna. On one occasion, Berger put a suitcase of rotting fish in the boot of Senna's car and hid the boot key!
I love the story about Sir William Lyons who said to John Morgan, subsequently his Export Director, 'Morgan, we don't offer people a job at Jaguar but, if you were to apply, I think you would be successful.'
Philip Turner, the distinguished motoring journalist, told me he took a V12 E-type for a final run just before production was due to end. Down a dual carriageway with a speed limit of 40mph, he wound it up to a good 130mph. On the way back up the same road, he saw the police had stopped a little Minivan for speeding!
I love the story about the E-type owner who turned up at the Jaguar factory, climbed out in full wetsuit, diving goggles, snorkel and flippers, and said, 'I appear to have a few leaks.'