…ON THE SEEDS OF HIS ENGINEERING PASSION, LEARNING HIS TRADE FROM A MASTER, AND THE CHALLENGE OF GOING IT ALONE
Engineering is in John Watson’s blood. When he was growing up, not far from Chicane’s north Hampshire base, he was exposed to classic machinery from an early age, thanks to his father, who was heavily into veteran cars. ‘When you saw those cars idling, it was like everything’s alive – the headlights wobbling, pushrods moving up and down,’ John recalls. ‘And I always enjoyed playing around with cars and bikes – at the age of 12 or 13, me and my brother were riding Honda C90s around my parents’ garden, and if they broke down we’d pull them apart on the driveway. That – and watching my dad with his cars – was where my love of vehicles and engineering started.’
His main interest as a teenager, though, was sport. ‘When I left school I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do, besides play sport,’ he laughs. ‘So my dad marched me down to Cedar Classics in Hartley Wintney, where they restored vintage cars. I managed to get an apprenticeship and by the age of 21 I was building engines on my own. I worked there for eight or nine years and got a really good grounding.’
And then he got the Aston Martin calling. ‘We used to store cars for Victor Gauntlett and through Nick Mee [then Aston’s sales director] I found out about RS Williams and heard they were looking for an engine builder. So I started working for Richard in the mid-90s. There were only five or six of us there at that time – Richard himself was still hands-on when I first joined – and I learned all the idiosyncrasies of building the straight-six and V8 engines. After three or four, I was left to build these great engines. And not just build them – I’d dyno them and then road-test them when they’d been put in the car. So I got to know the cars as well as the engines.
‘I was there for 17 years and learned so much. But then I was ready to have a go on my own. Approaching 40 was probably the catalyst!
‘I had a couple of classic Porsches, because I’m a Porsche fan as well, so I sold those cars and set up my first workshop in 2009 [in a case of history repeating, he would later sell his DBS to help fund the move to the current premises].
‘Brian Stevens, a Jaguar specialist, gave me a unit and was very supportive – he knew I was taking a big risk leaving a comfortable life with a comfortable wage. My old boss, Richard Williams, still does not believe that I didn’t have any work lined up. But I really didn’t. I didn’t want to burn any bridges, didn’t want to do anything dodgy, I just wanted to start afresh.
‘It was just me and my workshop. I had a few grand in the bank, a lot of passion, a lot of motivation and energy, and I just networked, went to the club meetings, got talking to owners, put a lot of cards into hands. My first job was a 1973 Porsche 911. The owner had a mate with a DB5, who had a mate with a DB5 Convertible… and before you knew it I had a business.
‘I was a one-man band for a year and a half. It was pretty full-on – my girlfriend at the time helped with the admin, though the business later caused us to part. Luckily my current girlfriend understands how demanding it can be.’
Chicane moved to its current base about two and a half years ago. ‘We still look after the odd Porsche, but we’re more or less 100 per cent Aston Martin now,’ says John. ‘We’ve got a new website, a new management team, a really good team of guys out there with the knowledge, and we’re now ready to really grow. We’re ready to take on the big boys.’