The Collector – Nick Jones

Retired engineer Nick Jones is no ordinary collector, buying dishevelled British sports cars and restoring them himself

Words Sam Dawson  Photography Richard Pardon

Nick Jones has a problem; he’s addicted to restoring cars. True to form, when I arrive at the affable retired engineer’s self-renovated 18th Century cottage overlooking an idyllic Shropshire valley he’s in the garage sitting on the rolling chassis of a 1972 Triumph TR6, head in a dog-eared manual, planning the next stage of its rebuild.

‘I don’t sell cars anymore,’ he says as he recalls four decades of mechanical endeavour driven by petrolheaded – and some would say irrational – enthusiasm. ‘I’ve sold one car in the past ten years, but after one project ends, I just move on to the next one.

‘It all began when I went to work as a mechanical engineer in Kenya in 1971. I was on the way to work and drove past this bungalow. There were several cars in a state of disrepair in the garden including a Brabham BT22 single-seater, a Porsche of some description and a Lotus Seven.’

Nick recalls his first classic British sports car acquisition with the kind of energetic reverence usually reserved for memorable birthdays. I knocked on the door and was faced with a big Irishman, all six foot five of him. He was known to be a bit awkward, but I asked him if he would be prepared to sell the Lotus. He asked for £300, which I didn’t have, and said I could have it if I could find the money.

‘I went to Barclays in Nairobi, asked for an overdraft, then went back to the bungalow. There was grass growing through the Lotus’s chassis rails and the garden was heavily overgrown, but after three solid hours of searching I found all the parts for the Seven. I had my first project! After I rebuilt it, complete with an Ian Walker engine, I raced that Lotus in Kenya, then Zambia, then took it back to the UK, and finally brought it out to South Africa. I did sell that one in the end, and lost track of it. I’d love to buy it back one day,’ he adds.

Motor sport got the young Nick into trouble though, ‘I rallied my company Cortina in Zambia,’ he recalls. ‘Things were going fine because it was all undercover – I’d just swap the wheels at the weekend and wash the mud off. Problem was, I won the local championship and it made the papers. The next morning I was summoned to the MD’s office and reprimanded.’

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Cars were bought and sold throughout the Eighties, including a Jaguar XK150S found under a house in South Africa and an accident-damaged De Tomaso Pantera picked up in Botswana for £4500. ‘I went out to buy a house, but I ended up buying the Pantera instead,’ recalls Nick. ‘Then the engine blew the first week I owned it, and the chassis turned out to be a heap of rust. I spent seven years rebuilding that car, then sold it immediately.’ Porsches aside, the Pantera remains Nick’s only foray into exotica. British sports cars have formed the backbone of his collection ever since.

‘I always keep an eye out for new projects,’ he says. ‘Whenever I’m abroad, or just out and about, and if there’s something lurking under a tarpaulin or the back of a barn that I think can be saved, I’ll always make an offer – if you don’t ask you don’t get! Obviously it’s got to be financially viable – there’s no sense in pouring thousands into a car that you’ve no chance getting back, or taking on something that only a marque specialist could do justice to – a Maserati, for example.’

Nick keeps his current projects in a three-car garage next to his house – in this case the Austin-Healey 3000 and the Triumph TR6. Surrounded by dusty, yet meticulously ordered stacks of owners’ manuals, tools, spare parts and rally plaques attesting to decades of African motor sport, the British cars sit alongside Nick’s rather more reliable weekend fun car – a bright yellow 2005 Porsche 997.

1972 TR6 is Nick’s current project. Triple garage in Shropshire countryside is a haven

1972 TR6 is Nick’s current project. Triple garage in Shropshire countryside is a haven

1972 Triumph TR6

‘It belonged to my son-in-law. He’d had it 22 years, picked it up in London with the intention of rebuilding it. It was a runner, but very bad,’ says Nick of the 1972 car currently separated from its chassis awaiting attention in the garage.

‘There was rust in the rear scuttle, sills and belt points, and someone had cut holes in the footwells for speakers. The chassis had rotted through near the rear crossmember,’ says Nick.

The bodywork is currently away being prepared for painting. ‘When it’s ready it’ll be polybushed, on Minilites, running Bosch fuel injection, and finished in dark metallic blue with grey leather interior. My son-in-law originally said something about me selling it back to him, but I’d rather like to keep it.’

But this is just the start of Nick’s collection. Next, we jump into his trusty Land Rover and head five meandering miles down steep and narrow Shropshire lanes to the next hamlet, where six more classics lurk beneath covers in an enormous agricultural barn that also houses a friend’s self-restored steam traction engine.

MG TD began life as a Semi-Knocked-Down kit in South Africa. Nick prefers his TC

MG TD began life as a Semi-Knocked-Down kit in South Africa. Nick prefers his TC

1950 MG TD

This TD began life as an SKD (Semi-Knocked-Down) kit built in East London in 1950, making it one of fewer than 20 South African TDs, most of which survive.

‘It was ten years ago and I’d recently sold my Jaguar E-type Series 1 coupé. I instantly regretted it,’ says Nick. ‘I needed another one in my life, so I had a look around and found one for sale in a Cape Town dealership. They sent me details and photographs, and in return I sent them a deposit and promised them my old XJ-SC in part-exchange.

‘When I turned up in the XJ-SC I was disappointed. The E-type was an absolute dog, but I looked around the dealership and this TD instantly took my fancy. It had arrived as a box of bits as a trade-in for a Rolls-Royce, was rebuilt by the dealership and had sat in the showroom ever since.

‘If I’m honest, I don’t like TDs now I’ve realised the TC I bought last year is a nicer car all-round, but my wife likes it – she reckons it looks like Noddy’s car!

‘I also picked up the big ’Healey, an MGA and an Austin Seven Chummy – I needed the Seven to fill the container. It came from the biggest collection of cars in South Africa, formerly the property of a Rolls-Royce dealer in the Western Cape. It had a 1933 chassis, a 1929 differential and as for the engine, we’re unsure, but the car’s history was continuous from 1926-60. It needed work to its brakes and bodywork but it ran very sweetly. Selling it recouped the costs of shipping.’

Ex-works Sprite has a Cooper 1275S motor, disc brakes and a Facet fuel pump

Ex-works Sprite has a Cooper 1275S motor, disc brakes and a Facet fuel pump

1959 Austin-Healey Sprite MkI

‘This is an interesting one,’ Nick notes. ‘It was used by BMC to test engines, before being sold through Speedwell, after which it disappeared.

‘It resurfaced at Brightwells two years ago. I’d gone there to bid on a Lotus Europa that’d been sitting in a field for 35 years, but the Sprite’s history fascinated me – I just had to have it! I was the runner-up bidder, and was disappointed to lose it, but I ran into classic car dealer Bill Postins, who’d bought it and said I could have it if I paid his auction commission. The deal was done there and then.

‘It has a Cooper 1275S engine, and a works hardtop – this needs repairing after it fell off when the car was being trailered home. It has disc brakes, chrome wire wheels, and a Facet unit in place of the  unreliable SU fuel pump. I haven’t driven it for 18 months but I can’t wait to get back in it once I’ve sorted the hardtop.’

TR3A stood for 10 years. The engine ‘needed heart surgery’ says Nick

TR3A stood for 10 years. The engine ‘needed heart surgery’ says Nick

1960 Triumph TR3A

This Triumph stands testament to Nick’s ability to reanimate an abandoned car, found four years ago by his friend Postins. ‘It had been stood unused in someone’s garage in Ireland for ten years. It ran, but it was undriveable – the clutch, brakes, fuel lines and so on were not nice,’ he recalls. ‘And the engine needed open-heart surgery.’

A rebuild later, and the bored-out 2260cc car sports race-specification camshafts, twin Weber 45 DCOE carburettors, a four-branch exhaust, rack-and-pinion steering, an aluminium radiator, a rollcage, hardtop, servo-assisted brakes, navigational gear, and the nose is awaiting a complement of Cibié spotlights. It’s Nick’s rally car, and a labour of love – he’s rebuilt it twice.

‘I was driving it back from Silverstone and was stuck in traffic when I got this overwhelming smell of petrol. There was a tinkle and clatter, and one of the banjo bolts from the carburettors came off. I found it in the middle of the road, and ended up cutting up a credit card to make an emergency washer.

‘After I’d got it home, I was moving it off the trailer and forgot to apply the brakes. It rolled over the fence and down the bank, 400 feet into the valley. It took two recovery vehicles to get it back up the hill. I ended up repairing all the damage myself.

‘I could never get it to run right, but after a rolling-road session in Birmingham, and re-jetting the Jaguar D-type carbs, power has jumped from 48bhp to 150. Once it’s all ready, I’ll work out what it’s eligible for and get rallying.’

Hard to believe now but this Lotus Elan Sprint was so waterlogged it took Nick two years to dry the body out

Hard to believe now but this Lotus Elan Sprint was so waterlogged it took Nick two years to dry the body out

1972 Lotus Elan Sprint

‘I’ve found it seven years ago in the New Forest – it had been sat under a wet tarpaulin for four years and the body was full of water,’ says Nick of the gleaming blue Elan Sprint. ‘But being a Lotus it took me right back to that Kenyan Seven, so I just had to have it. 

‘I stripped the paint off – it took two years to dry the body out – during which I rebuilt the mechanicals. Surprisingly, the engine was fine, but it needed new wishbones, brakes and CV joints.’

The carburettors spit flames as Nick coaxes the Sprint into life. ‘I must confess, I’ve never really driven it since the rebuild,’ he admits. ‘It’s only ever done 45 miles in my hands.’

1984 Porsche 911 SC/RS was kitted out by a previous owner with a 3.4-litre engine

1984 Porsche 911 SC/RS was kitted out by a previous owner with a 3.4-litre engine

1984 Porsche 911 SC/RS

This is a 1984 911 kitted out with a 3.4-litre engine and an RS bodykit by a previous owner. ‘I stripped it three years ago for a bare-metal respray as the paint was bubbling and rust was starting to appear, but mechanically it’s always been superb,’ says Nick. ‘I took it to Longmynd Service Station, just down the road – they’ve repainted the Elan, the TR3A and they’ll do the TR6 too. They’re very professional and competitively priced, but they’re true enthusiasts and always have lots of projects on the go – don’t expect your car back from them the following week.

‘I have two Porsches – this one, and a bright yellow 997. I took both of them to the Porsche Nationals last year, myself and a friend sharing the driving. We both decided we prefer the older car. Nothing is assisted or false about it. Like a Ford Escort MkI, you’re totally at one with it. As a driver’s car, it’s perfect.’

The Porsche represents the one point where British sports car let Nick down, though. ‘I’ve had it 15 years but it followed a string of TVRs – firstly a 2500M in the Seventies, then a 450SEAC in 1985, and finally a Griffith. I could never keep them running, and their cooling systems were always unsorted. I gave up on TVRs and traded the Griffith in at a sports car dealer for this – what’s the point of a great driver’s car if it keeps coming home on a trailer?

Garish tail of Nick’s Porsche 997 Carrera S contrasts with his understated Healey 3000

Garish tail of Nick’s Porsche 997 Carrera S contrasts with his understated Healey 3000

‘They’re my pension fund, in a way,’ quips Nick as he reflects on his collection. ‘They keep me busy in my retirement – they constantly need fixing and fettling, and so long as I do as much as I can myself, they don’t cost that much to keep – with the exception of the Porsches they’re all tax-exempt and on classic insurance. Ultimately I’ll have to sell them as and when I need to, but once you restore a car, you build up an emotional attachment to it.

‘But restoration itself is just the product of a practical mind. After the war my father would get me to help him in his garage, fixing up his old Jowett as we didn’t have much money. By 13 I’d charge £5 to decoke neighbours’ Morris Minors. I just enjoy the thrill of bringing abandoned things back to life.’

Then his mind begins to rocket off again in search of stimulus. ‘I know there’s an Elan just down the road. The guy won’t sell it; he’s had it 26 years, but I really want it. I know of an XK120 as well.’

‘This is a problem, isn’t it?’ He chuckles. It’s clearly a good problem to have.