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

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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.

V

This page A 23-year-old Nick Mee, hav­ing re­cently been ap­pointed sales ex­ec­u­tive at the newly formed Aston Martin Sales Ltd in London’s Sloane Street. The cap, he stresses, be­longed to pho­tog­ra­pher Roger Stow­ers. The cig­a­rette butts, on the other hand, we

From op­po­site page, top left The first cars that Nick had to sell were the V8s that had gone into build in 1974 – and had sat there all through the fac­tory clo­sure and the sub­se­quent res­cue of the com­pany. The qual­ity was, un­der­stand­ably, not the best. To

Above and be­low By the early ’80s, the Lagonda had been cured of its early mal­adies and be­come a strong seller, par­tic­u­larly to the Arab Sheikhs. Be­low, shar­ing a mo­tor show stand with a young Rowan Atkin­son

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