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CLASSICAL GAS* June 26, 2009

Posted by markswill in Uncategorized.

Classic cars are a passion of mine, perhaps even a ‘blind passion’ inasmuch as I currently own a car only a few dozen examples of which remain roadworthy in the UK – which is therefore almost impossible to get spares for – namely a Lancia Gamma Coupe. It is, however, subtly gorgeous to the eye and stirring to the soul that drives it.

Gamma Gamma Hey

Gamma Gamma Hey*

Curiously, the first Gamma I drove was being sold by one James Dennison who is quite literally the driving force behind the regular classic car sales I usually attend at Brightwells, an auctioneers in nearby Leominster. The latest of these, last Wednesday, proved as interesting as ever but not just for the huge variety of vehicles James had assembled for the sale, but also as a barometer of what might be happening in the classic car world during a major recession.

The last significant economic downturn in the early ‘90s, saw much speculation in classic vehicles as financial investments, a process whereby quite mundane Ferraris and Jaguars rapidly achieved insane prices which of course plummeted shortly afterwards as chancers who neither knew nor cared about precious metal got their fingers rightly burnt.

Of course reflecting the fact that buyers must beware, the hammer prices at auctions where there are no opportunities to drive the goods tend to be lower than both private and dealer values, but Dennison’s catalogue pretty assiduously describes his wares realistically and of course half the fun of an auction is poring over the vehicles beforehand, especially if there’s something that takes one’s fancy.

At Brightwells there are always lots of lots that take my fancy, albeit cruelly tempered by my financial realities. But this time there was one car that looked like it might be as affordable as it was desirable… a shocking yellow BMW 2002 Cabriolet.



Normally of course German cars leave me cold, but like many classicists, perverse nostalgia rocks the boat of reason and in this case just such a BM was the first, and I hasten to say, only car I ever crashed. The Cabriolet in question belonged to my then American girlfriend who bought it – brand new – in 1974 and whilst she briefly returned to Kentucky that summer I was tanking back to Wales when a tight corner got the better of me and suddenly the car was traveling along on its roof or rather, and thank gawd, the substantial roll-bar that held its targa top in place. Well it was 1.30am, the road was damp and I was stoned (and it was 1974).

As I said, nostalgia for a car which I nearly killed myself in may be perverse, but it was some kind of testimony to BMW’s engineering integrity that I didn’t die. The 2002 was also an eager performer and amusing to drive and so the one offered by Brightwells, which had been lovingly and properly maintained rather than restored in the hands of just three owners looked attractive, in every sense of the word, at a guide price of £3250 – 4750.

Obviously I don’t need another car – classic or otherwise – but with less than 90 of these once very expensive machines imported into the UK, I also rationalised that it might gradually increase in value should I ever need to flog it. Similar thinking was clearly at work elsewhere because oddities like a 1953 Healey Abbot sold for close to its top estimate at £13,500 and a ratty Jowett Jupiter drop-top beat its £7,750 upper guide price..

But several rather more iconic Jag E-types all went for relatively low prices, the best, a 1970 Series 2 model hammered down for £30,000 which is about £20k less than its normal retail value, whereas vendors of a several Austin Healey 3000s clearly had inflated ideas of their worth as they remained unsold having failed to reach their £29-37,000 reserves.

Exaggerated notions of value were also attached to a clutch of Yank tanks, including a rather saucy 1964 Chevvy Impala convertible, but none of them sold, possibly because Brightwells tends to appeal to a more trad. British vendor and therefore buyer, and so last week ten pre-war Rileys and MGs from the Ivor Halbert Collection attracted a huge attendance. The rarest of these, a 1934 MPH fetched way above its top (£130k estimate), namely £195,000, and even a relatively common Kestrel saloon won £23,000 more than its estimated ceiling of £15k.

Mean while vendors of two Lotus Excels perhaps wisely accepted below estimated prices at £2400 and £3300, the same applying to a couple of Jensen Interceptors, including a pristine four wheel-drive FF at £2,000 shy of its lower £20k estimate. But these are all generally unloved cars that would probably never reward speculation and like several ‘unfinished restoration projects’ offered would only find homes with mad enthusiasts.

Interestingly, there wasn’t a single MGB or Triumph Spitfire – the bread and butter of the classic car world –  in the sale, perhaps because their not-so-well-heeled owners are hanging onto their cars simply because they provide fun and solace in miserable times, especially as the market for them is flat. Conversely, only top condition and/or rarity command high prices that will only get higher as the economy continues to descend down the toilet.

Which bring me back to ‘my’ BMW Cabriolet. Having not had the conviction to actually bid for it, I was secretly pleased when it failed to sell at £2400, its reserve being £3250. But then lo and behold, the next day it was offered for sale on Brightwells’ website at £3500, including buyer’s premium and VAT. So will I weaken? Watch this space… but do I really want to consign my delectable, ultra-rare Gamma Coupe to Brightwells next hammer-fest with an optimistic five grand guide price?

* No prize whatsoever for guessing the relevant if deeply cliche’d musical origins.

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Dropping the Shopping June 17, 2009

Posted by markswill in Uncategorized.

I’ve been doing a lot of shopping lately. Not ‘shopping’ as in searching for a darling little outfit to wear at one of the numerous swanky soirees I habitually attend, but dashing into a wide variety of convenience stores, butchers, charity shops – especially charity shops – around the Welsh Marches, badgering them to take posters and flyers for the upcoming Sheep Music Festival (see previous blog, Fool For a Festival).  And the experience has inclined me to clamber aboard yet another hobby horse.

A few friends have long if gently ridiculed me for patronising only the emporia of our hometown for all my food and drink shopping, a policy that whilst  hopefully well-intentioned, is increasingly hard to sustain. A few years ago Presteigne had two butchers, two greengrocers and three mini-supermarkets, a chemist, a baker, two ironmongers, and two newsagents. Both ironmongers, a butcher and a greengrocer are gone, one of the newsagents and the smallest of the mini-marts are for sale, their places taken by what with brutal flippancy, I will call knick-knackeries. Oh, and a sandwich shop, a third hairdressers, a second charity shop and an outlet for a very good organic baker in Way-on-High that keeps not-very-working-mum-friendly opening hours.

In the meantime a healthfood shop briefly came and went (its high prices victimised by the credit crunch) and several premises remain empty. To those who briefly visit the town or indeed live in bigger burghs, our ‘retail environment’  – as current parlance must have it  – still harks back to gentler times before high streets became interchangeable parades of national brands, sucking money out of the local economy and into city portfolios. But my efforts to keep it local are being sorely tested these days, and as I flit around the Marches with my posters the signs of locally-owned retail fragility are becoming commonplace.

On reason is of course that when it comes the weekly shop, the recession or at least the cold, pervasive fear it engenders have forced folk to shop downmarket, even if it means a 45 mile return journey to the nearest Lidl. This has denuded the biggest mini-mart of the choice it once offered (a changed of management hasn’t helped here), the shelving for which has now been stocked with fruit, veg and periodicals which in turn has hurt the newsagents and remaining greengrocer. The latter has rather cannily turned to pet-foods for its salvation, the result being a gradual creep away from human comestibles and a consequent reduction in their range and quality… to say nothing of the acrid, off-putting odour of Bonio. Plus of course those that can still afford better quality are also traveling further afield where there’s a better class of butchery, greengrocery and indeed, fish.

Prone to similar phenomenon, bigger towns such as Leominster, Llandrindod Wells, Knighton and even Ludlow – the Hampstead of the Marches – have already or are in danger of becoming havens for Tesco, Somerfield and Aldi, overwhelming a dwindling smidgen of specialist and charity shops. There are many who’d argue that none of this is important, that the advance of mega-retailers who offer cheaper everything from sun-loungers to CD-players as well as food’n’drink, are what matters to cash-strapped customers. And if you listen to the regular radio bulletins celebrating or bemoaning the latest results from Tesco or M&S as crucial economic barometers you might think that this is all that matters.

But whereas I occasionally if shamefully slope into Aldi on my way home from London in search of cheaper olive oil (or more likely, vodka), I think the homogeneity and ubiquity of a few big retailers is to be deeply regretted, even feared. Regretted, because it does take money and entrepreneurial opportunity out of the local economy, and if you happen to live in a smaller town or village your food mileage and thus the cost to the planet inexorably rises. There is also the social cost: every time I wander up the street for a pint of milk, I meet someone who I can pass the time of day with, a small daub of social glue that nevertheless enhances the local culture. That doesn’t happen if you’re shopping 15 or 25 miles away in a giant shed.

More ominously – and this is where I admittedly risk falling foul of conspiracy theorising – as wafer-thin margins, bankruptcies, mergers and takeovers result in fewer and fewer but bigger and bigger retail consortia, there is an Orwellian danger that we’ll be forced to buy everything from faceless, soulless corporations whose economic might will be greater than the governments whose planning and tax laws they can shape if not skirt. And choice and price will then inevitably fall and rise accordingly.

But try telling that to the pensioner shuffling painfully round our local Costcutter who can avoid crossing the street to buy her veg or Daily Mail and you’d get a blank or contemptuous response. And I doubt she’ll be taking much notice of my Sheep Music posters, either. Same goes for some of the shopkeepers.

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Posted by markswill in Media.

One of the more pleasant aspects of being under-employed is that I have lots of time to read many more newspapers and magazines than I used to, at least whilst they still exist. No, I’m not going to revisit the withering effect that the interweb has had on print publishing (see Paper Tiggers), but I feel I must comment on the homogeneity of a medium that epitomises the uneasy melding of both newspapers and magazines, i.e. and unsurprisingly perhaps, newspaper magazines.

 Of late I’ve taken all of what were once grandly referred to as the ‘quality’ (neé broadsheet) ‘papers in regular rotation on Saturdays and Sundays, all of which naturally include a magazine. Back in the day when such things were a rarity, I well remember the excitement of reading the grand-daddy of these, the Sunday Times Magazine, still published and still something of an exemplar. Trouble is, it’s become too much like all the others, or vice versa, and as such one might well wonder what the point of these magazines is? In a word of course, it’s advertising. Upscale advertisers hitherto reluctant to suffer the fluctuating if not downright rubbish reproduction of their glitzy car, cosmetic and lifestyle photos on newsprint were generally keen to bung ‘em in magazines whose circulations far outstripped those of conventional periodicals.

But whereas the S. Times original was, well, just that, there’s now little to choose between it and the glossies that come with The Observer, The Times, The Weekend Guardian, both weekend Telegraphs and the less than glossy Indies, that I wonder whether their publishers dare claim to offer advertisers something that their competitors can’t. Or maybe they don’t? Maybe they’re happy to be ‘me too’ titles just as long as they get a decent slice of the cake? Well if so, and as a reader who pays an ever increasing amount of money for this stuff, that’s just not good enough.

And this is of course where I abandon forever any chance of scribbling for these organs,but to illustrate the bland uniformity of which I gripe, consider the evidence.

Most of the above open with frothy amalgams of columnists irritating us with their middle-class bleating: Kathryn Flett in the Observer; Victoria Mather, the Telegraph; a rotating roster the usual suspects in the S. Times and my personal worst, Tim Dowling in the Guardian, whose consistent rubbishing of his wife must surely presage a nasty divorce? They then treat us to incidents of familial grief (or joy) and/or that lazy retreat of harassed editors, the vacuous celebrity Q&A and/or a first person, dryly re-written account of someone’s personal hell, and/or some chirrupy miscellania encouraging us to buy stuff we don’t want, need or can afford and/or photos of alleged celebs we don’t want, need or can afford to see as they fall out of Mayfair niteries.

Once you get past the starting gate, then come the inevitable profiles masquerading, certainly in the case case of the S. Times and the Guardian, as stuff about celebs who are in fact worthy of the designation because they have brains and talent but too often reveal themselves as having neither. If we’re lucky, we then might find a Serious Article about famine, flood, war some other random pestilence and possibly an unsolved crime from long ago or an oriental artist famed (in very small circles) for producing large spheres painted with very small circles. In truth, the S. Times is consistently head’n’shoulders above the others here, but once that ‘difficult-but-important’ stuff is out of the way, we then must struggle through the accursed ‘lifestyle’ pages.

Depending on where you spend your two quid, you get Nigel Slater,  Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall or some photogenic children’s novelist with a West London allotment telling you what to eat this month, accompanied by scrumptious snaps that no dish I’ve ever cooked could realistically pose for – and believe me I’ve tried. In most of the mags fashion abuts the food and, again, this features stuff most of us would or could never buy draped over impossibly gaunt 14 year-old models (the partial exception being the Guardian’s efforts to include a token 50-something clothes horse which I presume is a sop to the age group who are most likely to be able to afford the clothes that they wouldn’t otherwise dare wear).

Then we if we haven’t already had enough, there’s some more unaffordable gadgetry, usually followed by celebrity gardening, reviews of restaurants, wine and housing (see fashion, above) and agony auntestry book-ended by some cute photos or, in the case of the S. Times, ‘A Life in the Day’ which they’ve run with since 1960-something and is sometimes actually interesting.

You’ll have noticed that the FT’s Weekend Magazine is absent from my catalogue of despair, and that’s because it’s a genuine departure from the formula with quirky, sharply written and invariably interesting snippets front and back, a healthy disregard for fashion and foodie-ism and has the only car tests worthy of the name (the rest of the pack providing mere excuses for inappropriate hacks to mouth off about almost anything except the car in question).

Unfortunately the Weekend FT is priced at £2.50, a deliberate ploy to deter plebs like me from buying it, thus ensuring that its advertisers get the discerning and well-heeled customers they pay for. Maybe the rest of the weekenders could learn something from that?

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