A class apart

In­side Essendon’s new multi-mil­lion pound As­ton Martin her­itage cen­tre

Hertfordshire Life - - CONTENTS - PHO­TOS: Will Broad­head

Ni­cholas Mee is show­ing me around the re­fur­bished exposed brick and oak build­ings he has spent the past few months turn­ing into a her­itage As­ton Martin fa­cil­ity James Bond wouldn’t be out of place in. He pauses to peel a cover back along a gleam­ing bon­net.

‘Johnny English,’ he says. ‘It’s Rowan’s car. The static one they’re us­ing in the next film.’

And here it is, not the blue DB7 Atkin­son drove in the 2003 film to mem­o­rably trash a speed cam­era, but the red Van­tage he’s due to in the next. And, for those who’ve seen the trailer, not the one with the rock­ets on the bon­net to clear the road of cy­clists. That one be­longs to Univer­sal Pic­tures.

What I’m see­ing is the real one. The fully re­stored V8 Van­tage the co­me­dian and long-time client has had fully re­stored to the last stitch of its creamy hide up­hol­stery. Ni­cholas draws my at­ten­tion to the dash­board. ‘We even re­in­stated the old graphic equaliser,’ he says.

But then again, he is all about de­tail. That be­comes ap­par­ent as we stroll around the two acres of his­toric farm build­ings he’s been de­vel­op­ing a few acres down­wind from Essendon vil­lage on part of the Hat­field House es­tate.

I call it a fa­cil­ity. It’s a loose term for what prom­ises to be a cen­tre of ex­cel­lence; one where a lead­ing her­itage brand can source, sup­ply and main­tain these most iconic of cars.

Aside from the newly-built steel show hall with gallery that greets you as you climb the drive from the B158, there are some se­ri­ous

‘What do they say about the dif­fer­ence be­tween men and boys be­ing the size of their toys?’

state-of-the-art work­shops; the sort Q would be proud of. We pause in one of them. There are no over­alls, no oil-stained floors and no smells. Not garage ones any­way. The en­gi­neers – more tech­ni­cians these days, given what’s un­der these bon­nets – are all liv­er­ied up in black slacks and po­los, the oil’s piped in, me­tered and ‘on tap’ at the push of a but­ton and thick ex­haust ex­trac­tors pull down from the ceil­ing to fit over pipes and send fumes off into the ether.

‘Ul­ti­mately, what we want to

‘The en­gi­neers are all liv­er­ied up in black slacks and po­los’

do here is cre­ate an ex­pe­ri­ence,’ Ni­cholas says. ‘If you’re spend­ing £200,000 on a car, you de­serve that. And, no, there are no smelly, greasy work­shops. Ev­ery­thing’s or­derly and pro­fes­sional. I’d say a hus­band could com­fort­ably bring his wife here and she’ll see this and im­me­di­ately un­der­stand why he’s in­vested the way he has.’

And who is that hus­band likely to be?

‘We tend to get a fair few foot­ballers and City types in ar­eas like this,’ he says. ‘I’d like to think we at­tract that sort of at­ten­tion. We’re set back from the road but vis­i­ble in a sub­tle way. We pre­fer it like that. We tend not to shout.’

Cer­tainly, in the years since he be­gan as a fit­ter’s mate in 1970, built a se­ri­ous CV in luxury mar­ques and even­tu­ally opened his own As­ton show­room in Kens­ing­ton, the one he’s just va­cated, he’s traded keys for cash with just about ev­ery­one.

He re­called in one re­cent in­ter­view greet­ing film stars, sport­ing icons and even roy­alty. Among them, El­ton John, who waltzed into one show­room with his en­tourage, ‘or­der­ing a few cars and waltz­ing back out again’. In 1985 he per­son­ally de­liv­ered a Royal Cherry V8 Van­tage, built to the singer’s spec­i­fi­ca­tions, and pre­sum­ably as well tuned as his Yamaha Disklavier grand piano, to his home in Old Wind­sor. And last year he sold Led Zep­pelin front­man Robert Plant’s re­stored 1965 DB5.

The move to Essendon in­volves a daily com­mute from his home in Ful­ham, but there are lo­cal links. His great-grand­fa­ther was James Gray, the 19th cen­tury wheel­right and coach­maker who set up and ran for years an epony­mous busi­ness in Old Hat­field.

In ru­ral Herts, he says, not only will he have the space to dis­play and work with qual­ity cars in sur­round­ings that does them jus­tice, they can be prop­erly tested on the open Hert­ford­shire roads. Un­til re­cently, road-test­ing a sus­pen­sion re­build, for ex­am­ple, would mean driv­ing out ‘to the other side of Heathrow to avoid the speed bumps, 20mph lim­its and all those Uber and Ama­zon driv­ers’.

As we wan­der around, it seems to get even more hi-tech – the ramps with their wheel sen­sors, laser-driven Hunter align­ment sys­tems and bal­last packs placed in­side to repli­cate driver and pas­sen­ger weight. This is noth­ing

like the garage where I take my car; all dou­ble-park­ing and rolling tool chests in the door­way. More of a pri­vate hos­pi­tal; one that throws in the odd facelift.

I counted sev­eral dozen cars in ei­ther var­i­ous states of re­pair or just pol­ished and await­ing sale. Quite a haul for some­one minded to pick the lock.

He shakes his head. ‘It’s not the cars, it’s the spares and parts,’ he says, then goes on to ex­plain the de­tail be­hind the tiered se­cu­rity sys­tem with its alarms and tan­noys and how po­lice could be on site within four min­utes.

There’s still clearly a healthy mar­ket for these stun­ning cars, even though val­ues fluc­tu­ate with the econ­omy. There were times in the ’80s when own­ers could make 25 per cent profits, on pa­per at least, sim­ply by driv­ing them off the fore­court. Ni­cholas is known for anec­dotes about hand­ing over the keys to new cars and see­ing them driven to the end of the road and re-sold for a profit. All long be­fore the 1990 re­ces­sion, which came shortly af­ter the launch of the Vi­rage and saw val­ues plum­met. Sto­ries abounded at the time of driv­ers who’d in­vested heav­ily, tak­ing de­liv­ery of cars they couldn’t pay for.

The price of a DB5 like the one Sean Con­nery drove on screen cost around £4,000 in 1963 (£80,000 in to­day’s money). A well-main­tained one to­day could fetch up­wards of £450,000. Although one that ac­tu­ally ap­peared in Bond would prob­a­bly be worth around £3m.

But for Ni­cholas it’s more about do­ing jus­tice to the her­itage. ‘You have to un­der­stand that peo­ple who come here are pur­chas­ing some­thing dis­cre­tionary,’ he ex­plains. ‘They’re luxury items. They’re not white goods. They don’t need them. But if some­one wants one, we need to make the ex­pe­ri­ence as plea­sur­able as pos­si­ble.

‘And this won’t be the owner’s pri­mary car. It’s a tro­phy; some­thing to take out at the week­end or, per­haps, for a run abroad.’

So why, even if you do have se­ri­ous red­dies, would you want a car you’d only use at week­ends? He shrugs as if to sug­gest the an­swer’s ob­vi­ous. ‘Cars are the ul­ti­mate toys. When we are chil­dren we play with them. As we grow they just get big­ger. What do they say about the dif­fer­ence be­tween men and boys be­ing the size of their toys?’

And he should know. His firm once cre­ated the DB Ju­nior. At £16,000, it was a tad over two feet high but did have a three­speed gear­box and could reach 46mph.

Its target mar­ket? The over10s.

LEFT: The fa­cil­ity sells, re­pairs and main­tains As­ton Mar­tins from through­out the mar­que’s his­tory

The show hall, a modern ad­di­tion to the former farm

ABOVE:Not your usual garage – the oak barns have been beau­ti­fully re­stored

LEFT: Ni­cholas Mee

TOP RIGHT:The work­shops are more like op­er­at­ing the­atres

ABOVE RIGHT:The site cov­ers two acres of his­toric farm build­ings

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