Swiss Role - A chance meeting that led to the discovery of over 100 classic cars
In the year 2000, a good friend and member of our International Jaguar XK Club was driving his 150 Drop Head in Switzerland when he had a slight overheating problem. In search of assistance, he called into a nearby Land Rover garage. This was to set in motion a quite remarkable train of events.
The garage was run by a brother and sister, and their aging father. Realising that David was very much an English gentleman (actually an ex-Army General), they felt they could take him into their confidence. The daughter explained that they had a collection of cars that required restoration, cars their father had acquired, mainly, in the ‘60s and ‘70s. There was, though, a slight catch - many of the more ‘serious’ cars had been crashed and never repaired. Others had simply broken down, presumably with serious ailments.
What happened was this. When an owner had had the misfortune to have a serious accident or major mechanical problem while touring Switzerland, presumably on holiday, the car would clearly be a write-off and/or not viable to repatriate to the owner’s country, generally the UK. Such cars were, of course, of relatively little value, certainly in the ‘60s.
If they were sports and GT cars, they appealed to father and he purchased the wrecks, with a view to repairing them. Fast forward several decades and he had not actually ever quite got round to repairing any. Meanwhile he had also been acquiring lesser classics and Land Rovers - about 100 of them, many with history. As we were to discover, in total, there were 150-200 vehicles.
Father was now getting on in age and had come to acknowledge he was not going to realise his dream. Instead, he wanted to retire and travel, and needed funds to do so. However, this was going to be a wrench and to lessen the blow, he wanted to sell the lot (bar the Land Rovers) in one go rather than have the pain and hassle of selling them individually over a long period.
David was a classic car owner and a gentleman: could he advise them? Although they didn’t know much about the classic car world, they knew there were many sharks out there and wanted it to be as painless an experience as possible for father.
David, though an enthusiastic owner, was not truly immersed in the classic car world. But he knew a man who was.
This is where I entered the scene. I have never been a dealer but, by then, had been playing with classic cars for a couple of decades. I had owned my own collection of rust since the early ‘70s, been writing books since the mid-’80s and co-founded the XK Club in ‘97. I knew a lot of people, which is handy.
So David approached me and asked if I could assist: they wanted some honest, unbiased advice, which a dealer was unlikely to give. We arranged to travel over to the Swiss set-up so I could see the cars and the scale of the challenge. Accordingly, David picked me up in Paris in his XK 120 Roadster - I happened to be over there on a Sherlock Holmes Society weekend!
We shared a splendid drive down to the town on the shores of Lake Geneva. Next day, the daughter took us on a tour of barns and old workshops up in the hills. Creaking doors of rustic old farm buildings reluctantly opened to reveal various classic car treasures. We viewed around 150 vehicles and a massive cache of spares - everything from XK engines and gearboxes to Mini doors.
Just to add to our challenge, everything was to be kept secret.
It was indeed a challenge, not helped by the fact that many of the cars were, at that time, virtually worthless. There were, however, a number of serious cars which needed saving and to be found good homes - three AC Aces, six Jaguar XKs, a Lotus XI sports racer (reputed ex-Le Mans), a brace of Astons, quite a few Mark I and II Jaguar saloons and at least 10 Jaguar E-types, including one which was supposed to have done only 30,000 miles, plus at least one Maserati, MGA, Lancia, Frog-Eye Sprite… And, as you can see in the photos, some were simply stacked on top of each other!
It was tricky. How do you find one dealer in cars and parts who is going to buy everything from a Lancia Aurelia to a load of seats for Minis, from a Maserati Sebring to ‘A’ series engines? Above all, he had to be someone trustworthy if they were not going to be ripped off - frankly, I had no idea what the majority of the tons and tons of parts were worth - and he had to have the funds and the premises to take all this lot in one go, including the Triumph Dolomites and rows of sad MGBs. Add in the fact that they were in at least five different locations in Switzerland, which is not in the EU, and you can see the enormity of the challenge.
You might say an auction was the answer but you would still have needed to move everything to one location, and how many potential buyers would have travelled to Switzerland to buy cars worth a few hundred pounds, or just a few spares? Additionally, I was advised the Swiss, generally, only buy restored cars.
Over the next few months I spoke to a few trusted friends and sought advice. Two members of the Swiss family then became seriously ill and everything was put on ice for a while. Then, in early 2001, I became, for a short while, a consultant to an internationally-known auction house. I happened to show them the photos of the rows of rusty relics and, to my surprise, they were interested – my instinct had been that there were not sufficient cars of distinction or high value to make a business case for an auction.
After a long delay, due to the illness, the auction house chairman, David and I flew over to Switzerland that November. We valued the cars, advised that the best option was to have a big dedicated auction in the UK where the highest prices would be realised, and all transport would be organised for them, etc., A very professional, and very fair, package was put together. It seemed to answer all their requirements. Everything was confirmed in writing and they said they would give us an answer within a month. After a month, they said they would give us an answer after Christmas. David then phoned in late January to be told they had decided not to sell the cars after all but if and when they did, ‘we’ would be given first refusal. I should add that David and I had never sought to gain financially from this. It may sound rather odd in this day and age but we were genuinely simply trying to do a good turn.
It is not difficult to guess how I felt when I heard the cars were being advertised in a classic car magazine. A Swiss dealer had turned up with cash and bought a handful of the best cars.
You can imagine how we felt: the shock, the anger and the sheer waste of time. I was really looking forward to the fun element, of writing about this ‘discovery’, of hyping it up in the press, of the auction in a barn re-creation with straw strewn over cars and parts piled high, which is what we planned. It would have been pure theatre and, hopefully, have really captured the imagination of a broad spread of enthusiasts, and achieved the best possible solution for the owner. But it was not to be. People!
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