We get lost in the expansive collection of eccentric enthusiast Rodger Dudding, whose favourites include a unique AC 378 GT Zagato and his Aston Martin Lagonda saloons – all 23 of them
Rodger Dudding’s collection has been 40 years in the making, and it’s eclectic to say the least – a bit like the man himself
Blink and you might miss it. Nestling just off the B556 in Potters Bar sits the rather discreet premises housing Studio 434. Its art deco façade, formerly a tram shed, gives little notice of the treasures housed within. From the car park, one or two familiar shapes are noticeable under car covers... then a Lamborghini Countach 25th Anniversary exits from within, instantly obliterating the atmosphere of subtlety. The man following behind it is, in contrast, discreetly dressed, well spoken and with an open, sunny and ebullient manner; Rodger Dudding welcomes us into the fold with a hearty handshake. The foyer houses a cornucopia of motoring memorabilia, frog paraphernalia (his personal mascot) and photos from his business life. Centre stage is a picture of him circa 1970, fully sideburned, holding a ticket from the Lonsto queuing system he invented and which formed the basis of his fortune. Shrewd investment in lock-up garages followed (he now owns 14,000-plus), allowing him to indulge in his passion for all things petrol-related.
‘I bought these premises eight years ago, and shortly after built the mezzanine floor; the idea was to rent space on the ground floor and keep my own collection on the first, but then some idiot called Dudding kept buying cars.’ So many cars, in fact, that Studio 434 MKII is close to completion. ‘We’re creating the Mecca and Medina of car storage facilities and a conference centre.’
So is the original Studio 434 a personal collection or business? Well, the answer is a bit of both, with it having evolved over a period of time. ‘It’s been a learning process,’ explains Dudding. ‘Initially, we had a lot of interest from car clubs, and then we created a silver service ‘dine among the cars’ experience. But over the last few years we’ve begun to provide more and more vehicles for high-end weddings and film shoots.’
The TV programmes his cars have appeared in is like a who’s who of period drama: Peaky Blinders, Mr Selfridge, Downton Abbey, The Crown, Call the Midwife and the more modern Luther, to name a few. And then there are movies and pop videos…
‘I’ll come in and someone will say, “you’re not using the Wraith today, are you?” and I’ll find it’s been booked out for a Bollywood movie,’ he says, feigning displeasure with his typical juxtaposition of self-effacement and showmanship. ‘I’m very clever, very intelligent and very modest,’ he states.
This successful businessman takes as much pleasure in showing you the ‘very first Dalek’, his collection of vintage dodgem cars, a Lotus M250 Concept clay model or a Fiat 500 Topolino (‘the most beautifully designed motor car, so cuddly’) as the various gathered pieces of exotica. So, with 320-odd cars spanning 100 years of motoring history, where do we start? Lead on, Mr Dudding... 1968 Jensen FF This was the car that kicked off the collection – his first foray into the world of high-performance, a 1968 Jensen FF. ‘It was so revolutionary for its age; there were other four-wheel-drive cars, but this was the first licensed to incorporate Dunlop’s ABS technology – developed for aircraft – in a car and I was fascinated by them. I bought it when it was a couple of weeks old, at a very economical price, from a chap who was terrified of the brakes.
In 1969, after crawling through Oxford Street traffic, the wiring loom caught fire in Regent’s Park; I had it restored in its current Rolls-royce Gunmetal Grey. It now has an upgraded cooling system and non-original bonnet louvres to help dissipate heat.’ 1957 Volkswagen Beetle Deluxe ‘I’ve always had a soft spot for Beetles,’ says Dudding as we move on to his ’57 Deluxe. ‘My late wife Gloria had a powder-blue one in the Seventies; I remember her following me when a milk float pulled out, and I stood on the brakes. Knowing we’d be divorced if she hit my beloved Jensen, she swerved right and I remember seeing her going through a pond and out the other end. It’s a brilliant design, with everything above the floorpan – anything else would have sunk. I bought this one specifically for the engineering of the period roof rack; apparently VW only made about ten, but discontinued them because of the enormous cost.’
Of all the jobs for which Studio 434’s cars have been hired out, perhaps the most surprising involved its 1966 Citroën DS21 Décapotable. ‘A few years ago, the telephone rang and it was the BBC; it required a convertible for the inaugural drives on Pall Mall and Piccadilly Circus after they’d been turned into two-way roads – Mayor of London Boris Johnson would be the driver. I offered a Rolls-royce drophead only to be rebuffed, then a Bentley, a Jag and a Jensen. “What else have you got?” they asked. So I mentioned the Citroën. “Yes please,” came the answer. I had a plethora of Brit cars and the Mayor of London would be in a French car. It seems they’d always had them in his family.’
‘We’ve begun to provide more and more vehicles for high-end weddings and film shoots’
Aston Martin Lagondas The jewel – or in this case jewels – of the collection are Dudding’s Aston Martin Lagondas. ‘They’re the ultimate Marmite cars – you either love them or hate them. I bought one back in 1983, and Gloria took one look and said, “it’s horrible, it’s got to go”. We visited a friend in deepest, darkest Cornwall and drove to a local pub for a pasty and a beer. When we came out I was so proud – there was a big crowd around it. But then it wouldn’t start. So embarrassing. It was either get divorced or sell the car... and it was cheaper to do the latter.’
However, he couldn’t resist the Lagonda’s charms for long and went back – again and again. He now has 23, spanning all series and special editions. ‘One of them is also responsible for my biggest mistake. I usually buy cars that are original or have already been restored, but I received an email from a North Sea oil engineer called Gerry and agreed to buy his example blind. When my mechanic inspected it he told me, “You’ve bought a pig in a poke here; it’s so rotten underneath that if you went over a humpback bridge it’d break in half.” I said, “You’d better fix it then.” Five years and £180k later, I got it back.’
He then met its previous owner. ‘Gerry came down for a BP seminar and popped in. I opened the door expecting a large oil engineer, and there was the most beautiful female creature with a mop of red hair and a mini kilt on. “You really thought I was a man, didn’t you?” she asked. If Gloria had walked in then, I’m not sure I’d have been able to explain…’ There was good news, though, as it later transpired that the Lagonda in question had been owned by Dodi Al-fayed and had been a long-time resident at the George V Hotel in Paris. The White Rabbit Dudding can cite numerous examples of when he’s bought a car because he’d found it of interest, and only later has its history become clear. ‘Those that have a little story make them much more interesting,’ he says. ‘I bought my 1930 Austin Seven Racing Monoposto at a Bonhams auction, and telephoned a chum of mine – architect and Austin authority David Morgan. I remember saying, “I bought this little white thing, looks a bit home-made and inside it’s got a tortoiseshell with a white rabbit painted on it.” His reply, “Bloody hell, it’s the white rabbit!” surprised me; I’d never even heard him say ‘damn’ before. It turns out to have been built by Marcus Chambers, who together with Peter Clark raced a HRG at Le Mans under the team name L’ecurie Lapin Blanc. The White Rabbit had been raced extensively in the VSCC – at Monaco and all over the world – since the Thirties, before disappearing.’ 1958 Porsche 356A 1600 Coupe A similar history was unearthed on what appeared to be a standard 1958 Porsche 356A 1600 Coupé road car, albeit the original Earls Court Motor Show car. ‘A former owner had traced it on Google and made contact; we exchanged emails and I invited him and his wife to come over and take it for a spin. On their return, she was crying and I thought they’d had a domestic. It turns out she used to take the kids to school in it in the Sixties and he had raced it all around the world. It had a great racing history that was completely unknown to me prior to this – many greats, including Derek Bell, had also driven it. It was special feeling to reunite the couple with it.’
He admits there’s neither rhyme nor reason to his collection, but any car has to have something that catches his eye. ‘Friends say, “For God’s sake, Rodger, this ratbag collection – why don’t you concentrate on this marque or that model?” How boring. A Ferrari or Rolls-royce is beautiful, but to have an identikit line-up of them… if I go to a car auction and see something that appeals to me – no matter how quirky – if I can buy it, then I buy it.’ 1964 Trojan 200 microcar That explains the Heinkel-based 1964 Trojan 200 microcar. ‘It had a huge stuffed toy meerkat inside it, and that convinced me buy it. Stephanie Bentley joined my company ten years ago and she’s become my left-hand person, managing the maintenance on 1000 sites of lock-up garages. Her aunt and uncle breed Meerkats, so I bought it and told her, “I’ve bought you a car.” It’s a bit of fun, and why not?’ 1974 Zagato Zele 1000 & 2012 AC 378 GT Zagato It’s this outlook that also saw a 1974 Zagato Zele 1000 join the fleet. ‘I couldn’t believe it was a Zagato,’ he says. ‘I thought it was petrol, and didn’t even realise it was electric until told by my mechanic. To see the Zagato name on something like this; because of the fuel crisis the company was getting no commissions for exotica, so it turned to small electric cars to stay in business.’
Dudding is a self-confessed Zagato fan, and it’s in good company with his Aston Martin V8 Volante Zagato and the prototype 2012 AC 378 GT Zagato. ‘The AC spent some time in the Goodwood Museum before going to a Historics auction; when I saw it, I had to have it. Fully type-approved and functioning, with a 434bhp 6.2-litre General Motors V8 it’s a very fast motor car, and if you look at the contours it’s just gorgeous. I hate to think what the design and production cost for this one-off may have been.’
The Zagatos sum up Dudding’s collection – curiosities sitting side-by-side, with exotica, one-offs and odd car that simply caught his eye. ‘It’s taken 40 years to put it together,’ he says. ‘Why do it? Why not! I know I’m very privileged to indulge myself, but I get just as much pleasure from people coming here to see it all and talk about it. There’s a commonality between any enthusiast who likes driving cars, talking about them and enjoys your enjoyment of them – it’s something that cuts through any class levels, kith, colour, kin or religion.’ The Keeper – 1955 Morris Minor Of all his cars, it’s the beige 1955 Morris Minor that exerts the biggest emotional pull. ‘It’s the car I’d save if the place went up in fire, because it was my father’s. He had a Naval-issue chauffeurdriven Humber Hawk and would call when he was coming back for a long weekend and tell mother to get Rodger to ready the Morris. I’d get it off the chocks, pump up the tyres and get it running.
‘However he’d summon his driver back if it rained rather than take the Morris out. When he died mother gave it to my sister – but there was no way some arse was jamming a trolley into it in the local Sainsbury’s car park, so I bought her a car and took it. It’s never been restored or painted. The value of a car isn’t important, it’s what it means to you.’
He buys anything that catches his eye, like this Dino 246 GTS
Ordinary looking 356A was brimming with colourful history