Saab, Lan­cia, Hupmobile – Robert Ely’s col­lec­tion is one of the most eclec­tic there is

Robert Ely was about to do some­thing sen­si­ble with his money, but where’s the fun in that?

Classic Cars (UK) - - Contents - Words MAR­TYN MOR­GAN JONES Pho­tog­ra­phy ALEX TAPLEY

Back in 2013, Robert Ely was all set to in­vest his hard-earned in bricks and mor­tar. Then he had a clas­sic car epiphany and his plans changed. ‘I’d been sav­ing for quite some time,’ Robert ex­plains. ‘The plan was to buy a big­ger house. But, to be hon­est, I’ve al­ways been a bit anti­estab­lish­ment, and have never re­ally liked the way the hous­ing mar­ket seems to work. Plus, newer houses have very lit­tle in the way of park­ing spa­ces. So, mid-2013 – and it re­ally was a spur of the mo­ment thing – I de­cided in­stead to use my sav­ings to in­dulge my pas­sion for clas­sics... and it all started with a Piper GTT. ‘I spot­ted the Piper for sale on­line. I hadn’t ac­tu­ally been look­ing for one, but I’d had West­fields be­fore, so the idea of own­ing a Grp-bod­ied clas­sic re­ally ap­pealed. In fact, it was just my cup of tea. How­ever, prior to buy­ing the Piper, I’d set up a sports equip­ment re­pair busi­ness and the spi­ralling work­load meant that the plans for the Piper, and the col­lec­tion, had to be put on hold.

For­tu­nately, by 2014 Robert’s emer­gent busi­ness was look­ing very good and he could at last spare enough time to fo­cus on the Piper, and his plans for the col­lec­tion. ‘I sent the Piper to a lo­cal bodyshop for some re­pairs and paint­ing,’ he re­calls. ‘It’s been there much longer than an­tic­i­pated, but I’m hop­ing to have it back soon. In the mean­time, to tide me over, I bought a mod­ern clas­sic – a Lo­tus Elise. Un­for­tu­nately, al­though a joy to drive, the 1.8 VVC en­gine was hope­lessly un­re­li­able. So much so, I ended up sell­ing it – one of the few cars I’ve ac­tu­ally sold!

‘The Elise was re­placed by a 1934 Lan­cia Belna. I’m a huge fan of the Lan­cia mar­que, in fact I en­vis­age my col­lec­tion even­tu­ally be­ing pre­dom­i­nantly Lan­cia-based. In 2015 I en­tered the Belna in a rally in China. Un­for­tu­nately, be­cause of an ex­plo­sion in the port of Tian­jin, my Belna and the other Bri­tish com­peti­tors’ cars were de­tained by the au­thor­i­ties, then shipped back to the UK. Hap­pily though, a num­ber of the Chi­nese com­peti­tors had some cars we could bor­row. I did the event us­ing a BMW E30 318, an Alfa Spi­der and a Rolls-royce 20/25!

‘De­spite the prob­lems with the au­thor­i­ties, the trip was a huge suc­cess and ev­ery­one I spoke to agreed that my plan to col­lect clas­sic cars, rather than in­vest in the hous­ing mar­ket, was the way for­ward. En­thused and en­cour­aged, upon my re­turn, I rented a large in­dus­trial unit and started grow­ing the col­lec­tion in earnest.’

1973 Saab Sonett III

‘At the be­gin­ning, I was ac­tu­ally look­ing for a Volvo 142S,’ ad­mits Robert. ‘But, while brows­ing Swedish auc­tion sites, I came across this Sonett. It looked orig­i­nal, in great con­di­tion, was priced right, and re­ally piqued my in­ter­est. It has such an in­trigu­ing shape and is un­de­ni­ably quirky. Al­though I did even­tu­ally end up buy­ing a re­ally good 142S – which is cur­rently in Scot­land be­ing used by my fa­ther – I bought the Sonett there and then, sight unseen. I also bought a car trans­porter, which has proved to be a very use­ful ac­qui­si­tion. I drove the trans­porter to Sweden, four­teen hours a day, right into the Arc­tic Cir­cle, to col­lect the Sonett. I slept in the trans­porter at night. The only real prob­lem was a speed lim­iter set at 56mph! This re­ally slowed the jour­ney, which took six days in to­tal, but it was still a won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence.

‘The Sonett owner was a re­ally pleas­ant chap and the car was as good as ad­ver­tised. It had done just 107,000km and I’m only its third owner. With its Saab 96 un­der­pin­nings it drives re­ally well. The only an­noy­ance is the free­wheel. When you take your foot off the throt­tle it dis­en­gages the roller clutch, which can hin­der smooth and quick progress. But the V4 en­gine pulls well, it sounds fab­u­lous and the chas­sis in­spires con­fi­dence.

‘I love the de­sign – it’s so Swedish! There are some lovely touches such as the brown cor­duroy/vinyl high-back bucket seats with in­te­gral head­rests, the open­ing rear win­dow, Kamm-style tail and pop-up head­lights. Then there’s the usual Saab safety; the Sonett has the steel floor­pan from the 96, the Us-in­spired im­pactab­sorb­ing bumpers, three-point seat­belts and a roll-over hoop.’

1965 Autobianchi Stel­lina

‘Small-ca­pac­ity, light­weight, nim­ble cars have al­ways been a fas­ci­na­tion. I’ve long had an ad­mi­ra­tion and de­sire for the Fifties and Six­ties cars made, and/or mod­i­fied, by Abarth,’ says Robert.

‘Sadly though, they are hugely sought af­ter, highly prized and priced ac­cord­ingly. Which is why I bought the Stel­lina, a two-seater cabri­o­let that’s based on a Fiat 600D and uses its wa­ter-cooled 767cc four-cylin­der en­gine and other me­chan­i­cal com­po­nents. In­ter­est­ingly, the body’s GRP over a stain­less steel frame – it’s ac­tu­ally the first-ever glass­fi­bre-bod­ied Ital­ian car, not that this helped sales. Only 502 were made be­fore the model was dis­con­tin­ued in favour of the Fiat 850 Spi­der.

‘This par­tic­u­lar car came from Bel­gian col­lec­tor Dirk Van Eyck. Again, as with most of my cars, I spot­ted it quite by chance. It was on an auc­tion site and I ended up bid­ding on it and win­ning the auc­tion. In terms of spe­cial-bod­ied Fi­ats, the Stel­lina is rea­son­ably priced. Mind you, it’s cer­tainly not an Abarth ri­val be­cause it doesn’t have the urge or the han­dling prow­ess. That said, it has cer­tainly grown on me. It’s a fun car, quite nippy, very at­trac­tive, and cer­tainly turns heads. Plus I think that mine is the only ex­am­ple in the UK, al­though I might be wrong!’

1973 Ginetta G15

‘The G15 is ev­ery­thing I wanted the Autobianchi to be,’ en­thuses Robert. ‘I bought it from Sil­ver­stone Auc­tions; I’d been look­ing for one for ages. This one was priced com­pet­i­tively and looked to be in good con­di­tion. Typ­i­cally, I bought it unseen! When it was de­liv­ered I was pleased, and re­lieved, to dis­cover that it was as good in the flesh as it looked in the pic­tures.

‘I don’t know much about its his­tory, but it is in re­mark­ably orig­i­nal con­di­tion and has ob­vi­ously been well cared for. Even so, it did have a few cool­ing is­sues. Th­ese were cured by a spe­cial­ist com­pany who re­did some of the plumb­ing and re­newed the hoses. It’s been run­ning cool ever since. Ac­tu­ally, the sys­tem is so ef­fec­tive I never have to use the elec­tric fan.

‘I bought the Sonett sight unseen. I also bought a car trans­porter, which has proved to be very use­ful’

Ginetta G15 was another ‘bought unseen’ re­sult

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