David Brown Automotive combines the best of both worlds, producing cars that look old but drive like new, as Josh Sims reports.
David Brown’s road from earth-moving machines to faster moving ones came via an experience in a Ferrari Daytona. “I was at a classic car rally and was really looking forward to driving this car – until I did,” says the man who took over his father’s heavy plant machinery business before launching a Harley Davidson dealership.
“It was like driving a truck, with no modern comforts. And then it broke down. It looked fantastic, but the technology was very dated. The fact is that many classic cars of the past are wonderful in terms of styling, but by today’s standards they’re mechanically awful.”
That conflict led Brown to launch his own company, Silverstone-based David Brown Automotive, to produce cars that are the best of both worlds: taking a donor vehicle and re-building it from the ground up – complete with modern interior, braking and engine systems – to produce a car that looks old but drives new. Brown’s first offering was his Aston Martin DB5/6-like Speedback GT. But now, less expectedly, he’s done it with the Mini. And that’s the Mini from the first time around – 1969.
The appeal to some will be clear, as it is to Brown. While he has no wish to forego the comforts and mechanical superiority of modern cars, he’s less impressed by their cookie-cutter styling. In contrast, the cars of yesteryear – and specifically the 1960s and early 1970s, he argues – came out of a “revolutionary period of freedom in design, which resulted in some of the most beautifully sculptural products, including cars”.
That’s an idea that, increasingly, is not lost on the wider car industry. Put white-walled tyres on it and Cary Grant in the passenger seat and if it was seen snaking its way along the French Riviera it would not have looked out of place half a century ago – yet the Fiat Spider 124 is a new car, built by robots in Japan, yet with lines borrowed from its Pininfarina-styled namesake launched in 1966.
The Spider follows a growing line of cars that have, over recent years, re-imagined a past classic – retro in mood but modern in engineering: from the Fiat 500 to the Dodge Challenger, BMW’s Mini and, before that – arguably the vehicle that started the trend – the homage that was Volkswagen’s Beetle concept.
That was the work of J Mays, the celebrated auto designer who spent much of his career at Ford. He also re-imagined the short-lived Thunderbird and the cultish Mustang for the company, updating the spirit of the original to provide a car of distinction that both helped remind the market of the maker’s historic import, but also gave a certain audience a welcome break from the box-on-four-wheels school of car design.
Marc Newson – the acclaimed product designer, car nut and designer of a concept vehicle for Ford – complains that he can look at most cars on the road today and tell you which computer programme was used to design it. Does this desire to look back speak poorly of car design in the 21st century?
“I wouldn’t say it was laziness, more expediency on the part of car companies, but I reckon maybe just 5% of all the cars on the road now are really competent designs,” argues Mays. “Everything else is a mish-mash of copies.
“Car companies have to work very quickly now but while designs have to be true to the brands, it’s important they still differentiate themselves. Why? Because that’s how cars become meaningful to drivers. They have to have resonance – and resonance to more people than just the designer.”
Even a good idea can be overdone. “People started to typecast me as the [pioneering] designer of retro-futurist cars. But when everybody else starts doing it, that’s when it’s time to get out,” adds May. And he did. That advice, however, seems to have fallen on deaf ears. To re-issue a classic requires that a car-maker has a classic design to re-issue, of course: Land Rover, for example, has its new Defender on the way, while Ford has a fresh take on the legendary Bronco in the pipeline.
But if you don’t, well this year’s international car shows have not been without their roster of retro designs all the same: from Honda’s Urban EV concept to the forthcoming Toyota Century. Given this century’s troubled times, the reassuringly familiar certainly sells: retro – a slightly damning adjective now – is cute, accessible, some might argue unchallenging, but certainly has personality.
It’s easy to see why re-issue or retro seems to make for smart business for the mass market. After all, the re-imagining of an iconic car, or nodding to some mythic past, is to build on something already part of the public consciousness – media interest is guaranteed, it plays to the zeitgeist’s demand for authenticity, and nods to what for many was the golden age of car design, before sales departments, safety regulations and even software made so many cars look much the same.
It’s happening in the motorbike world as well, from Royal Enfield’s “new” Bullet 500 to the Brough Superior and Ural sidecar: these are all, by some viewpoints, outmoded products, brought back to life less out of nostalgia – their customers are typically not old enough to remember the vehicles the first time around – so much as out of an appreciation for form.
Some people, it seems, will pay big money to express their appreciation too. Jaguar’s special operations workshop, for example, has launched a special edition of just six examples of its Lightweight E-Type, a car that dates back to 1961. Sorry, each was pre-sold. Eagle, a specialist car restorer, beat them to it. In 2014 – and akin to the David Brown Automotive operation – it launched its own version of the E-Type, taking a donor car and rebuilding it bolt by bolt from the ground up, but putting in modern advances in electrics, braking, cooling, corrosion protection and the like along the way. It’s yours for £400,000. For £150,000, you can have a similarly overhauled Jensen Interceptor from Jensen International Automotive; £100,000 buys you a David Brown Automotive Mini. Yes, six figures for a Mini.
Despite being an icon of Britain’s “swinging sixties”, it won’t come with a Union Flag. And yet, intriguingly, so many of the cars that have been deemed worthy of re-invention were, in their first incarnations, also symbols of national pride in their respective home countries. Maybe what is driving the popularity of their modern makeovers is less petrol as a touch
Our BQ Bulletin emails will land in your inbox at 7.30am, Monday to Friday, with a mix of the latest local business news, national news, and features to inspire you. Sign up here!
Click here to read our privacy statement