HUGE NUGE, SID THE QUID, AND MEE
The Vantage was born in very different days for Aston Martin. Nick Mee (above), who joined Aston Martin Sales in 1976, recalls the buccaneering spirit of the ’70s and ’80s, and some of the unique characters he came to know
IN MARCH 1976, at the age of just 23, I started a journey into the unknown. I’d spent the previous 18 months selling luxury cars at HR Owen in South Kensington, under the management of a rather large and domineering ‘gentleman of the motor trade’ called Tony Nugent – ‘Huge Nuge’, as hewasknown.then,injanuary1976,tonywasapproached by the new owners of Aston Martin Lagonda to establish and manage Aston Martin Sales Ltd, a newly formed subsidiary that would be opening showrooms in Sloane Street, Knightsbridge, and Tony recruited me as the one and only sales executive.
This was just three months after AML had been rescued from receivership. Aston Martin Sales would be the London distributor, selling new and pre-owned Astons as well as expediting personal export sales. And so, with eyes wide open, heart in mouth and my bank overdraft eagerly anticipating the doubled salary I had been promised, my journey and education began.
And an education it certainly was. One of my earliest recollections is my first encounter with a long-term Aston owner, an obviously very wealthy gentleman, who, after exchanging pleasantries, proceeded to give me a lecture on Aston Martin. There were, he informed me, three types of car in this world: saloon cars, sports cars and grand touring cars. What I had to realise was that Rolls-royce made the best saloons, Ferrari the best sports cars, and Aston Martin the best grand touring cars. And, he told me, I was never to forget this.
Wensley Haydon-baillie was his name and he was a serial Aston owner. His last V8 Vantages were indeed very special, the list of additional specifications covering four sides of A4! ‘This car,’ the instructions would read, ‘must have: extra-high-speed wipers, maximum power, the darkest possible veneers, special paint colours applied to maximum depth as the car will be polished many times over many years; a half-roll-cage trimmed in leather, full four-point safety harnesses with F1 type aluminium clasps and the very latest in-car entertainment.’
Asked why the half-roll-cage, he answered: ‘When I’m in Europe, I drive at very high speed and I want to know, if anything happens while at speed, I have a reasonable chance of getting out.’ There was a sound reason for every one of his options, even though they could add up to 50 per cent to the list price of the car!
Fairly quickly I came to the conclusion that selling Aston Martins wasn’t exactly going to be like shelling peas. Customers who knew better than the manufacturer; cars that were special but hardly at the cutting edge of new technologies, built by a company not long out of the
financial mire and not far short of the price of a new RollsRoyce. My task wasn’t made any easier by the fact that the first new cars I was selling, completed after production restarted in 1976, had entered build in 1974 before the factory closure. A two-year build from similarly aged components! It was a slow start.
Fortunately, later in ’76 the new owners of AM – Alan Curtis, Peter Sprague, George Minden and Dennis Flather – performed a masterstroke. Revealed at the London motor show in October, the futuristic AM Lagonda became front-page news and even featured on News at Ten. Aston Martin was suddenly perceived as alive and kicking. On the show stand, I had new customers literally queuing to sign order forms and hand over cheques. Even Prime Minister Jim Callaghan took an interest.
Another godsend was a new breed of buyer. Arab Sheiks, whose coffers were awash thanks to increasing oil prices, were launching themselves into Western cultures and luxury goods, and our showrooms in Sloane Street were well positioned near Harrods and the Carlton and Park Tower hotels, where our new best friends stayed on their UK visits.
Selling to these guys was a whole new ball-game – one involving bright colour combinations, complicated specs and tricky negotiations, usually in broken English, and often via intermediaries. One occasion I particularly remember involved a new V8 Volante, built in white with white hides and a white hood for a Saudi client. It was brought to the showrooms for the handover, and the client’s entourage arrived one morning to take delivery. The only problem was that we hadn’t been paid.
I explained that we could not release the car until the balance was received. There followed a great deal of
indignation and a whole day of several limousines parked outside in Sloane Street, the entourage crowding the showroom and the emissary asking why I was insulting him. Apparently they were not able to collect the funds from their bank until the following day, but the car was for a member of the Saudi royal family, he wanted it now, and I would have the money tomorrow. Why didn’t I trust the Saudi Royal family and let him take the car now?
At the end of a long and tiring day, the car stayed in the showroom and I had no idea how this was going to play out. What would I do with a white, white and white Volante in stock? The next morning I arrived at the office surprised there were no limousines parked outside. On my desk was a plastic carrier bag containing something in the order of £60,000 in cash, all bound in Crockfords casino wrappers. This was indeed a new type of buyer.
Then there was Sidney Norman, affectionately know as Sid the Quid for his habit of tipping AM’S workforce with a pound note. Sidney owned a catering business in Luton and was passionate about his cars. For almost as long as I was with Aston Martin, he had a new car on order, and on Friday afternoons he’d escape from the office and drive up to Newport Pagnell to see his latest car in build. On firstname terms with a number of foremen and engineers, Sidney would request a little bit of extra sound-proofing here, a couple of strips of leather there, softer suspension damper settings and generally the best of everything. Over the years, his cars were built to his own evolved Sidney Norman spec. The day of delivery would eventually arrive and the very first thing Sidney did, when he got home with his new car, was to feed the hide, polish the paintwork and place his cleaning kit in the boot.
In total, Sidney had something like 22 new cars over 18 years and every time one of them was traded in for the next new one, we rubbed our hands. His V8s made the very best used cars we ever saw and, for customers, they carried a premium. It was around 1981 or ’82 that I took a call from Richard Armitage of the Noel Gay theatrical
agency. ‘We have an act who is interested in testing an Aston Martin,’ he explained. ‘ Have you heard of a comedian called Rowan Atkinson?’
Well, fortunately I had: Notthenineo’clocknews was all the rage at the time. And the first car I supplied to Rowan was an ex-sidney Norman V8, the quality of which no doubt helped in cementing the longstanding relationship between Rowan and Astons.
Then there was John Green, a partner of what used to be called Weatherall, Green and Smith, a West End firm of property developers. Having arrived at his office at 11.00 for what I thought would be a meeting to sell a car, he took me to the local pub opposite their offices in Chancery Lane. Later that afternoon, a few pints down, and having been joined by his co-directors, I staggered away with orders for three new V8s. That was a good day at the office.
By the mid-80s, I had become boss of AM Sales, reporting to CEO Victor Gauntlett, who had previously been a customer. Another change and an inspiration to work for. In 1985, the V8 Vantage Zagato was announced and I travelled to Zagato’s Arese factory in Italy to collect the wind tunnel model, painted and detailed, in time for a customer launch at the Sloane Street showrooms. Covering over the plate-glass windows and decorating the showroom to add some drama, the great launch evening arrived – and the 1/5th scale model was unveiled. It was all a far cry from today’s launches! But it was an important evening because, without the commitment of customers, the project was not going much further. Fortunately, and despite one Channel Island client dismissing it as a ‘stubby little bastard’, we were able to gain enough orders and the project was ‘go’, with deposits banked.
Later the same year saw Aston Martin Sales move from Sloane Street to Cheval Place, on the other side of Harrods, the grand opening performed by HRH Prince Michael of Kent. However, while the new showroom was a great success, it was becoming hard to gloss over the lack of new technology in the cars. At the time the biggest ‘new thing’ was ABS, so how could we explain why an Aston didn’t have it? ‘ABS, sir? It stands for All Bull Shit,’ went the pat delivery. ‘Aston brakes are quite adequate without it.’
Then there were the Zagato’s deformable ‘pop-back’ bumpers – or at least that was how they were described in the launch press release. They never made it onto the production car, being too costly, so were GRP instead. Challenged by Rowan Atkinson about the absence of ‘pop back’ bumpers, the chairman replied that they were indeed fitted to the cars. ‘If you damage a bumper,’ said Victor, ‘just pop back to the factory and we’ll fix it.’ A true story and one that encapsulates those buccaneer days.
After almost 16 years of changing owners, recurrent financial crises and great memories, I left in 1991 to set up my own business, and two years later AM Sales Ltd was gobbled up by the Stratstone organisation in a shake-up of the dealer network. Looking back at the ’70s and ’80s, I’m still very proud to have represented a dedicated and resourceful workforce who produced – from very limited means – a wonderful product, and to have seen the company prosper after so many difficult years. I couldn’t have asked for a better education.