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Classic Car Collectors: Nigel Dawes

First published in Classic & Sportscar September 1986

His passion for collecting old cars led to Nigel Dawes becoming a classic car dealer, as Philip Porter discovered.

Pedigree racing cars

Above: Two pedigreed racers: a D-type Jaguar and an ex-Le Mans Cunningham Lightweight E hog the limelight ahead of a GT40 and a Zagato-bodied Aston Martin DB4 GT.

Although he has chosen to make his hobby his business, Nigel Dawes has retained his great enthusiasm for old cars, keeping his own collection alongside those he sells at his idyllic home, Birtsmorton Court, an 11th Century moated medieval manor house. He has owned many interesting cars but, like many collectors, he has honed the collection down to a chosen few.

Jaguar SS100

Above: The Jaguar SS100 first acquired by Nigel's brother Howard, pictured here in front of the family home, turned out to be a fine investment after all.

The first 'old' car acquired by his family was an SS100. Nigel's eldest brother, Howard, was training to be an accountant and given £500 in 1955 by their father to invest in the stock market. When father returned from a foreign trip, a very presentable 100 was sitting in the garage. As their father had always secretly admired the model his wrath was somewhat appeased and the car was allowed to remain. Nigel later bought the car from his brother and only recently parted with it. Of course, the irony of the story is that the car, bought purely with pleasure in mind, turned out to be an amazing investment. "Old cars really came about for me when I read in an AMOC magazine that there was a DB3S coupe for sale. I remembered watching JB 16, which was Jean Bloxham's old car, race at Goodwood and thought it the most beautiful car I had ever seen. I bought it really out of pure and utter love of something I'd seen. Inevitably, that got the bug going.

"I made a list of the cars I really wanted, and sent it to a chap called Peter Harper, from whom I had bought the coupé, and said I was interested in buying the following cars. One was a C-type, one was a D-type, plus a Zagato Aston, a DB3S roadster and GTO Ferrari. I bought every one with the exception of the GTO!

Nigel Dawes Jaguars

"I bought a 'C', then a 'D', and I recaptured my youth by buying an Elite – the first 'real’ car I owned – which luckily turned out to be a Team Elite car. Then I acquired the gullwing Lotus Eleven, which was a fascinating car. I only drove it once, back from London on an amazingly hot day when I had to take the back window out in order to be able to breathe at all. Its steering lock was absolutely ridiculous, and if you went round an island and got it wrong, you had to back off and go and start all over again!

Lightweight E-type

"About this time I had a 16-valve Aston and wanted to buy a Lightweight 'E'. A fellow called Keith Ashcroft had a Riley Imp and a Le Mans Aston and he wanted the 16-valver, while a friend of mine wanted to buy the Imp and Le Mans. I was exceedingly lucky, because the two ex-Le Mans Cunningham Lightweights, 5114 WK and 5115 WK, were on the market, and by doing the deal I had enough money to buy one of them. I chose my car because I considered it the more original of the two." A Labourdette-bodied Phantom I Rolls-Royce joined the collection because the style of the car appealed to Dawes – he is a qualified silversmith by profession and the art form is important to him.

"All cars for me must fundamentally be aesthetically pleasing. I then bought a 3-litre ex-works Bentley which is a fabulous car and still owned by a close friend. It was the Callingham car, raced in the Essex Six Hour race at Brooklands in May 1927 and was first owned by Barnato. I also acquired a little wooden-bodied Brescia Bugatti.

"I remembered seeing the 275 GTB Ferrari launched at Monte Carlo at the time of the Monaco Grand Prix and thought it was the most stunning looking car I had ever seen. I always wanted one, so I had a go at my first Ferrari. I recall driving it back from London, and coming through Henley-on-Thames the carburettor stuck wide open just before the bridge. The noise was pleasant but the bank balance was worrying!

"It had appalling brakes. You could get up to 140mph and back down to about 5mph as quick as anything, but that last five was impossible. I remember often going up banks and all sorts of things to avoid situations, and really this put me back to what I really thought about Ferraris – fabulous cars, but they weren't practical. They got it absolutely right, though, with the Daytona. Funnily enough, and I know I'll be shot down in flames on this one, but I used to reckon that my V8 Aston, because it was very much a race bred one, was as quick as a Daytona and a nicer car to drive.

"I got involved in dealing purely because I had a lot of people offering me cars, and I used to go to auctions. Every single post-war Aston Martin model, with the exception of a DB3, has passed through my hands, and that's a very exciting thing."

As well as building up a superb collection of cars Dawes also created a quite delightful small private museum in his converted barns. The cars share the space with restored petrol pumps, enamel signs and all manner of motoring paraphernalia.

"The next significant thing to happen was that one day a friend, Colin Crabbe, came to stay. He looked into the museum and he said, 'You know the trouble with your cars? You've got too many'. I had seen an advertisement for a supercharged Bentley. Somewhere in the back of my mind, a supercharged Bentley was the most desirable car of all, although I had never bought one. The prices had moved to such an extent that it was by now prohibitive. But it suddenly occurred to me that if I reduced the collection I could fund it.

Jaguar D-type

Above: Jaguar D-type shows off its sleek Sayer curves with more of a Nigel's collection in the shadows behind. 

"I remember spending about six of the most awkward hours of my life at Beaulieu, where the car was in the automart, drinking gallons of wine, sitting in a caravan discussing the problem. Eventually I made a decision and I managed to purchase it from Charles Howard, who was most helpful and allowed me to drive it home! I took the gamble that I could sell the other cars off to fund it. In fact, at the end of the day, I sold off quite a few cars and it cost me exactly £5000 to change.

"This got me going! Later there was another absolutely magic car, totally and utterly out of the realms of my finances – a Monza Alfa. The situation occurred again. Adrian Hamilton kindly put me on to Paul Vestey when he sold his Monza. I decided to buy it and I knew if I sold lots and lots of cars again I could manage it. I was worried about my bank manager's reaction, but he thought it was terrific!"

This process of thinning out left Nigel with his present collection which we proceeded to discuss in some detail. "I think the Blower Bentley is absolutely fantastic. It's the original Motor test car and although it's one of the so-called 'converted to Le Mans spec' cars, it's wonderful. It's a four-seater, the only car you can just sit in and drive on the advance and retard without even changing gears, so it’s the first of the automatics!

"I had an electric moment at Le Mans two years ago when I actually met Amherst Villiers. I showed him a picture of my car and he said, 'Oh, I remember this particular one, the one without the fins on the supercharger, one of the very early ones', and then went into the story of the car. He signed my photograph, which I was thrilled about.

"The Monza Alfa speaks for itself. In my book it's the ultimate car. I particularly like mine because it has the long flowing wings instead of cycle wings. It is a car that Colin Crabbe brought back from Brazil, and has just everything that a boy racer could want – outside exhausts, pointed tail.

Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Monza

Above: Nigel’s moated manor house is the idyllic backdrop for an Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Monza and Supercharged Bentley 4½-litre ‘Blower’ face-off.

"Cars, I think, must have three things. Number one, they have got to have the right name: Bugatti, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Jaguar, Bentley. Two, they have got to perform and all those manufacturers produced performance cars. And three, probably most important, they must look absolutely fantastic."

I mentioned to Nigel that with his love of aesthetics I was surprised he was not keen on Bugattis: "Well, I had one. I would have loved a Type 35B, but the thing is that I am no engineer and Bugattis have scared me".

The first Jaguars Dawes ever owned were a C-type and a D-type. The 'C', an Ecurie Ecosse car has gone, a victim of the pruning, but the 'D' remains. It is one of the original 67 production cars and is numbered XKD 527. It was one of 18 exported to the USA and first owned by Jerry Austin who used it to good effect including a win in a six-hour endurance race. It was featured on the front cover of the May 1956 Road & Track.

Three racing cats of the C, D, and E variety

Above: Three racing cats of the C, D, and E variety lap up the last of the Worcestershire light. 

"The reason I wanted the Lightweight 'E' is that I was fortunate enough to have a 'C' and a 'D'. We have it a lot more sorted now than it was for road use and it is an absolutely amazing piece of machinery. A Lightweight 'E' is fundamentally a 'D' with a different body. It has the dry sump and all the special bits and pieces. It is on fuel injection and has a five-speed box which makes it a wonderful road car."

Next, we spoke of the Aston Martin DB4GT Zagato. It retired at Le Mans in 1962 and '63, but achieved a second in the '63 Dakar Six Hours. In 1964, according to the AMOC Register, the car won something entitled the Snow & Ice Rally! It then passed to the well-known Aston enthusiast Tom Leake who campaigned the car with success in club events until 1971.

"I remember my route to London used to be via Oxford and just outside there was a black and white boathouse. Sitting on the bank was David Skailes' Zagato and I recall looking at it and thinking, fantastic, wow-ee, and so it went on the original list. 

"It's a lovely long-legged car. Mine has a naughty but very nice conversion in that it has a five-speed 'box which makes it a much more usable road car. I don't compete in racing because there are many, many people much quicker than me." Nigel's loyalty to the Aston Martin marque is evidenced by the fact that he still owns several examples in the slimmed-down collection. In the early sixties, the factory built four competition cars known chronologically as Project 212, 214 (two off) and 215. The last has been owned by Dawes for some years, and is a very important car.

It has an extremely light box section girder frame chassis. The two 214s were to run in the production class but 215 was intended for the prototype class and had an engine of 3,996cc producing 323bhp. Uniquely, 215 had an independent rear end and CG537 transaxle.

"I bought Project 215 at auction needing an enormous amount done to it. It was on the wrong wheels with the wrong engine, with a bent chassis, which I was fully aware of, and I have quietly over stacks of years been getting that car sorted out. I've now got the correct wheels. I was very lucky in being able to purchase the only other dry sump competition engine Aston ever made. I approached the chap who has my original engine which he has as a spare for 214 but he decided he wanted to keep it, which is a shame.

"Luckily the factory found the engine that was due to race at Indianapolis in a Cooper and I bought it. It has been rebuilt and is ready to drop in. I have since had the chassis completely straightened and the car is going through a mammoth rebuild. It has had a chequered history. It raced at Le Mans in 1963 driven by Phil Hill and Lucien Bianchi. It actually led briefly early on but the transaxle failed. Later it was involved in a major accident on the M1 just after AC had been ticked off by the police for testing Cobras there and I believe that's the reason the 70mph speed limit came in.

"Aston, I am led to believe, dumped the car. They took the engine out and sold the car to a scrap metal chap for 25 quid. It then passed through a number of hands until I bought it at auction.

"When I came to do the rebuild, Michael Bowler very kindly sent me some of the original drawings of the car and clearly marked was five-speed 'box coupled to engine – no longer transaxle. So I now have a five-speed 'box which is correct. The body was badly damaged in the accident and it took on the spare works body.

"Everyone gets terribly excited about GTOs these days, but the 214s and 215 had the beating of them, as Salvadori proved at Monza in '63 in what John Wyer considers to have been his finest race for Aston Martin. After a three-hour race-long battle with Mike Parkes in the Ferrari, Salvadori won by 100 yards, with the other 214 third."

Completing Nigel's trio of Astons is the famous Horsfall car. It started life as a Speed Model fitted with an Ulster body. In 1937, it won a couple of handicap events at Brooklands in the hands of R.S. Wilkins and then ownership passed to St John Horsfall who continued the car's successful relationship with the Weybridge track. Victory followed in the 1938 Leinster Trophy in Ireland and a first in class and second overall in the Tourist Trophy at Donington Park. In 1946, Horsfall won a sports car race at Chimay known as the Belgian Grand Prix. Nigel acquired the partially restored car in 1981.

"I think I have one or two 'passion' cars. The D-type will never go. I think the Lightweight 'E' is one of the finest road cars you could ever get, and I am very fond of the Zagato.

"I still love the whole thing today – the experience of being involved with these cars and dealing hasn't altered my attitude at all. I'm the happiest man in the world in terms of the job that I am doing."

Books by Philip Porter 

Other articles by Philip


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