When writing a book, particularly one of my larger works, I have often referred to it as being ‘in prison’. You are locked away for very long hours, generally in solitary. Failing to learn the lesson, I am ashamed to say I have offended something like 35 times.
Furthermore, since I started Porter Press 15 years ago and commenced publishing motoring books, unforgivably I have coerced many of the world’s leading motoring writers to offend, some several times. Equally appallingly, this offending has embraced distinguished editors and designers, all at the top of their game. The numbers make grim reading. I’d like about 60 cases to be taken into account.
How did all this begin? I could blame others, such as Stirling Moss. I could try and claim I just started with petty offences, such as writing articles for classic car magazines, before being myself forced by others into writing books.
I suppose, if I am really honest, one can trace the character traits all the way back to childhood. Parents can be an influence for good and bad. My father was a car enthusiast and had an XK 120 roadster – white with red upholstery – an intoxicating combination for an impressionable four-year-old – for a while as a spare car. My parents took me to Silverstone aged five (me, not my parents) and there I saw my hero, one Stirling Moss, and others such as Fangio, Hawthorn, Collins… These people must bear much of the blame for influencing my future.
The beginning of my indoctrination: the 1956 Silverstone Daily Express International Trophy meeting. I was only five – what chance did I have?
…and allowed to watch on television – there were no guidelines for parents in those days, I cannot blame them – saloon car racing with such as Graham Hill, Roy Salvadori and Mike Parkes in Jaguars. What chance did a poor boy have? It was exciting; it was addictive.
Not content to have a straightforward pedal car, like normal children, my father’s engineering company added an engine. My buddies at school would be keen to see it on the way home. Their doting mothers would be persuaded to pop in with their little horror and I would give a demonstration in the back garden. Lacking a little development, the rudimentary brakes would fail or the throttle would stick open, with a dramatic conclusion to the exercise. Mothers would grab their child, and with much shaking of the head, and loud tutting, drag it away, swearing their angel would never be allowed to associate with me again.
At school, the art master did some rallying for fun. Of course, I painted motor racing scenes. He wrote on my school report, ‘Porter has a one track mind, and that is the race track’. For God’s sake, people should have seen the signs and given me the support I needed. But no, they actually made it worse – like, for Christmas, buying a young boy Hugh Conway’s then seminal book on Bugatti. The slippery slope … it was the old story.
The sad paintings of a little boy who even came under the undue influence of an art master who was an amateur rally driver. Shades of Monaco (note the white helmet, blue overalls and number 7) and Le Mans.
I dabbled with politics, meeting Prime Ministers, such as Heath and Thatcher, as a student. Managing to escape, after a few long months, from an even worse fate – chartered accountancy – I tried to immerse myself in business, starting two of my own at the age of 20 and becoming MD of one of the family companies, but I could not throw it off.
From an early age, I had collected model cars (which I still have) and had taken up slot racing, building my own track and cars, joining a club and finishing second in the National Junior Championships (after the winner cheated!). Another failing is that I am horribly competitive.
This is one of the slot cars I built. With this one, I finished as runner-up in the National Junior Championships. I chose the F1 Honda as it had an exceptionally wide rear track.
When I became old enough to drive, my parents failed me once again and generously bought me a secondhand Mark 2 Sprite. That was replaced, when I was about 18 by an MG Midget. Having fed my habit for many years by being a closet-reader of such depraved publications as The Motor and, even worse, Autosport, I revered the name Ralph Broad. He modified my Midget up to half-race and I started competing in sprints and hillclimbs, just one or two to start with because I was still at school, manfully endeavoring to lead a normal life. But, tragically, I could never be normal.
My first car, an Austin Healey Sprite, parked outside my parents’ home in Edgbaston, Birmingham. From memory, it cost £400 and petrol was 20p a gallon (4.5 litres) then!
…I became mixed up with a company called Aldon Automotive and together we built a Modsports Sprite with which I won 10 out of 12 events in 1970. Purporting to be studying business at college, I regularly dropped out (they tried to call it what was known in those days as a sandwich course) and worked for Aldon as their Van Driver/Accountant. Meanwhile, I was fighting this addiction. Well-meaning girls tried to seduce me away from this slippery slope. My parents finally stopped funding my habit.
After my half-race Midget modified by Broadspeed, I built this Modsports Sprite with much assistance from Aldon Automotive and won my class at 10 out of 12 events in 1970. Below, TR4A road car/tow car and racer.
Aldon, already complicit in my life of grime, offered me the chance to drive the new F1300 sports racer they were building. It was delayed. It was my chance to escape.
Did I take it? Did I finally show some resolve, some strength of character?
No. Was it salvation, was it ruin? Was it better, was it worse? I know not. It was 1972. I discovered classic cars. The die was set. There was no hope for me now.
Clutching at straws, I even joined the Sherlock Holmes Society – anything to stop me from mixing with car enthusiasts. I attempted to concentrate on running one of the family engineering businesses but the two other companies I started were, tragically, involved in restoration. Why?
My excuse was that I had bought a number of classic cars and, not being able to afford examples in good condition, had satiated my low desires by acquiring a quantity in need of restoration, an act that was to impact disastrously on the rest of my life. In an attempt at absolution, I will share with you the sad detail.
My weakness centred around Jaguars. Again I blame my father. Though a highly respectable businessman, rather than a getaway driver, he had had Mark IIs, a Mark X, and XJ6. Jaguar Cars was a customer of the engineering companies and, as an impressionable young man, I used to visit the hallowed reception cum showroom at Browns Lane. I was weak. I was easily impressed.
There was something about XKs that had an unhealthy hold over me. I was only 10 when the E-type was sensationally launched. I remember seeing my first one competing at Shelsley. I was young, I was impressionable – there was no hope for me. As my poor mother would say, throughout my life, ‘Why can’t you be normal, like everyone else?’
Registered as 2 BBC, this is Robin Sturgess making the first competitive run at Shelsley Walsh by an E-type. Chassis number 12, it would later appear in The Italian Job as 848 CRY. In the crowd was a certain 10-year-old.
I acquired a 120 Fixed Head (£150), which turned out unfortunately to be chassis number three, the earliest RHD one sold and have a rally history; a 140 Drop Head Coupe which though sad I drove home (£340); a 150 ‘S’ FHC (£220) from Owen Wyn Owen (famous for digging up and restoring Babs) and a 120 Roadster (£800 and three-quarters restored. Originally white with red upholstery – it was as though fate was against me) and a very rare 140 Roadster which was actually on the road (£800). I bought the last-named from a gent called John Pearson who compounded the situation by becoming a great friend and feeding my addiction with tales of Jaguar’s past.
Not the local scrapyard but my unrestored Dutch barn in about 1980 with 9600 HP, XK 120 Roadster, XK 120 FHC, XK 150 FHC and ex-Experimental Dept. XJ-S. I still have them, bar the 150.
For many years, my 140 Roadster was the only one of my old cars on the road. I used it extensively, did the odd hillclimb at Shelsley and, to publicise my restaurant in one of the outbuildings, did the Beaujolais Run which explains why this pillock is holding a glass.
I had to wait many years before I could afford to gradually restore the cars. This is the 120 Roadster – white with red upholstery, just like my father’s which influenced my downfall.
I am ashamed to admit I still have them all, bar the 150 which I sold some years later making an obscene profit which I frittered on the others.
I also acquired several Austin 7s, an ex-Red Rose Racing Chevron B8 minus engine, a B16 tub (swapped for a Hewland gearbox – turned out to be the car that Brian Redman drove to win the European Sportscar Championship in 1970) and others I am doing my best to forget.
If this was not bad enough, I then fell into seriously bad company. I met and became very friendly with a motoring writer, a very distinguished one at that. This was my downfall. Little did I know that a chance meeting at a party would impact, so seriously, on the rest of my life. His name – for a I feel he should be named and shamed – and to hell with the consequences – was Nick Baldwin.
This distinguished muttering rotter (motoring writer) is one Nick Baldwin Esq. The author of a vast number of books, Nick, who ruined my life, is the leading authority in the world on vintage commercial vehicles and tractors. He was also a member of the Sherlock Holmes Society and took part in our Swiss adventures.
I was drawn to his lifestyle of fast cars, and even faster women. And the glamour of the magazine he edited: Old Motor. Unsurprisingly, it was not sold by newsagents but arrived monthly in a plain brown wrapper. This Baldwin forced me to write an article for his magazine; even worse, he introduced me to the Editor, Mark Hughes, of Classic & Sports Car magazine, a hard-core publication, brazenly available in supposedly respectable shops. Remember these names for they will appear again in this sad tale.
A seemingly kindly personage (like all the best con men), this Hughes gave me a series of articles to write, tragically accepting they should be about collections and collectors – the Mr. Bigs of the classic car world. Nothing could have been worse.
Becoming aware of my scant knowledge of Jaguars, the Baldwin character went further – he made me write a book on them. Very sadly, one of his two partners – the wonderfully-named Prince Marshall, Prince being his christian name – died and the company was bought by Frederick Warne, a venerable publisher famous for the Beatrix Potter books.
Shamefacedly holding my first book, I had the honour of being photographed with Sir William Lyons. For the centenary of his birth, I co-wrote a biography of Sir William for Jaguar Cars.
They published it and were shortly after bought by Penguin, who then sold their motoring titles to Haynes. I’d now written one book, but had four publishers. This fatally introduced me to Haynes, then the leading motoring publishers in the world. This was bad news. They commissioned books from me and, crucially, failed to discourage me when I suggested a definitive history of the E-type. ‘How many words will it be,’ they asked. ‘I’ve no idea,’ I replied. ‘Well, a definitive history has to be at least 100,000 words.’ ‘My God,’ I thought, ‘how on earth could I write 100,000 words on one model.’ Fatally, it ended up as 300,000 words and it won awards which only made it all worse. It was downhill from hereon.
My first really serious offence: Jaguar E-type – The Definitive History (this is actually the revised second edition). It is good for weightlifting exercises and ideal for holding open doors, however strong the wind.
…which, with the help of my father, I managed to purchase. Just one was on the road. This one had no history and, as I could not afford to keep it, had to be sold. The other three did have some history: chassis number one RHD Fixed Head, which I would sell for £1 many years later – another story. Then there was the 12th Roadster which I later discovered had been raced by Robin Sturgess in ‘61 (as 2 BBC) and, when I spoke to Robin subsequently, learnt had been in the film The Italian Job. Robin was the first to compete at Shelsley and I was there. Aged 10, it was the first E-type I ever saw. Finally, there was 9600 HP, which we knew had been at Geneva for the launch but, as I was to gradually discover, had far more significance, especially when I was persuaded by one of the world’s leading mainstream publishers to offend again and write a book about the car.
This is 9600 HP which was the first E-type the world saw, as it was the Press car at the Geneva launch having been driven flat out from Coventry by Bob Berry, arriving with just 20 minutes to spare. ‘What kept you, Berry?’ asked Lyons.
This was published with the pretty obnoxious title (not my choice) of The Most Famous Car in the World, a title which was to do me great harm and cause much resentment. I might expand another time.
Over the next few years I wrote at least a book a year, mainly on Jaguar subjects, for the smallest gangs of publishers to the largest. Some, knowing I was an easy touch, even asked me to write pilots for series. I was very proud that one had a foreword by the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher – even the highest in the land were complicit. It was scandalous.
I tried hard to breakaway from my serial offending and follow other pursuits, some professionally. I began flying hot air balloons and had a brilliant sponsor with whom I was to enjoy a wonderful 10-year relationship. With beginner’s luck, at my first competitive event I won a championship with the highest cash prize ever offered in the UK and could have won the ‘key-grab’. I need to digress to explain.
Balloons cannot, of course, be steered; they go with the direction of the wind. However, there are variations of direction at different heights. As a general rule, going higher takes you to the right (I feel another blog coming, assuming anyone actually reads this load of old rubbish). This is the basis of competition flying, with organisers setting targets for the balloons to drop markers as close as they can.
Two of my favourite lines when flying low were: (while in the UK) ‘Excuse me, are we in France yet?’ and ‘Good morning, Madam. May I interest you in a vacuum cleaner?’ On one occasion I flew over a football match: one side looked up … and the other side scored!
This championship concluded with a Fly-In, whereby each pilot and navigator would decide where to take off, not less than five miles from the target (a large stadium populated with several thousand people) and not more than 10. By sending up a toy balloon filled with helium and tracking it with a compass, one had a fair idea of what the winds were doing. Fellow competitors included European and British Champions, one of whom had taught me to fly. I’d also taken part in the World Championships in the States, as navigator, for one of them. We were proud to finish as the top British team: sixth out of 100, from memory.
Back to this Sunday evening, near Telford. To my suprise, I managed to fly the balloon to the stadium, in the centre of which was a large key, attached to a pole. If you could take it, you won a brand new car. It had been done once in Japan and once in the States but nowhere else.
I will never forget the roar of the crowd as we (my navigator had had to go home – not ideal – so I had ‘grabbed’ the girlfriend of another pilot to come along for the ride) approached the stadium. There was not another balloon anywhere nearby.
I could have done it, I could have taken the key. But couldn’t.
It was physically possible but, not then having a commercial licence (I would have later), I was not legally allowed to win such a valuable prize. Ironically, I’d asked a pilot with a commercial licence to come along with me but he just laughed.
Anyway, by dropping my marker on the target, I won the monetary prize which was a welcome bonus and helped keep me off the books for a few weeks. At my next event, I finished second in a Grand Prix and then won the Best Newcomers’ Trophy at the British National Championships.
One of the stranger experiences of my unfortunate life was to take the role of ‘the greatest detective who never lived’, the incomparable Mr. Holmes, seen with Dr. Watson in Switzerland.
In 1968, the Society had made a pilgrimage to Switzerland, where Holmes was thought to have died together with the Napoleon of Crime, Prof. Moriarty. I saw it on the BBC 9 o’clock News, with the fateful fight at the Reichenbach Falls re-enacted, with the role of Holmes taken by our President, Lord Gore-Booth, former British Ambassador to America and then head of the Foreign Office – a lovely man.
Ten years later, another pilgrimage was organised by the Swiss Tourist Board and the Society. Once again, all participants had to dress in Victorian costume and take a role. Even the press, and there were a great many of them, following these nutters had to wear period dress. I was lucky enough to be one of the nutters.
Fast forward another 10 years and we did it again. At a day’s notice, I was thrust into the role of Holmes, a complete baptism of fire – making speeches, including to the Swiss President (who looked just like Jimmy Carter), enacting scenes, doing hundreds of TV and radio interviews and, unofficially, arresting people! I could not have been more photographed had I been The Queen, an extraordinary experience, especially when you were nobody again the following week!
Though my offences had not, until then, included violence, I had no choice but to fight the evil mastermind, Prof James Moriarty, on the edge of the Reichenbach Falls – 18 times for the world’s TV cameras.
One of the massive press corps was the Chief Photographer at the Daily Telegraph. He became a great friend and, magically, my balloon appeared in the newspaper several times, to the delight of my sponsors.
When I saw a hot air airship, I wanted one! I have always been desperate, in my life, to do things that are different. Airship pilot (actually I preferred the word ‘pillock’) was certainly different. If anyone is interested, I’ll write up the airship story, including being retained as a test pilot, separately otherwise only those in prams will live long enough to wade through all this.
As to the Sherlock Holmes Society, I took the role of Holmes in Switzerland (Swiss roll!) and France on several more occasions (including 1991 celebrating the 100th anniversary of the fight) and had two three-year stints as Chairman of the Society. My relationship with Vax, my balloon and airship sponsors, lasted 10 years until the family-owned company (would you believe, they turned down Dyson) very sadly hit hard times and was sold.
In ‘91 I was also the subject of an ‘exposé’ in a national newspaper colour supplement, as they used to be called, entitled ‘’An Open and Shut Basketcase’ – a reference to the ballooning and Mr. Holmes!
Confirmation, if confirmation be needed, that I am a complete nutter. This is a feature in The Daily Mail magazine. I could not sue: it was all true. ‘The airship’s behind you’!
Proof of another strange episode in my weird life. It turned out this was the first time an airship had ever flown in the whole of Africa. We try not to talk about these things to avoid embarrassing the cat.
I guess it was around this time that I joined the Jerome K Jerome Society. His very humourous books, including Three Men in a Boat, had been introduced to me as a child by my grandfather. This led, in the mid-’90s, to me meeting my wife Julie, a professional actress. She was to become my partner in crime.
This is the poor lady who had the misfortune to marry me in a rare moment of weakness. Foolishly, she succumbed to my unfortunate way of life, and even compounded it, by co-founding the XK Club with me. We are wearing our ‘Round Britain Coastal Drive, supporting Prostate Cancer UK’ kit. The XK and E-type clubs raised £250,000 in three years.
…and I wrote a book with them on the new generation XK and XKR.
In 1997, Julie and I made a fatal error that would come back to haunt us: we formed the International Jaguar XK Club for classic XKs. Having been heavily-involved in a large club in the ‘70s (another story, one of legal disputes, fraud and me being expelled for asking too many awkward questions), we ran this as a company, not as a way of making money but to keep out the politics – indeed, our slogan is: no committees, no concours, no politics.
I edited the magazine, Julie ran the events side. Our first Patron was rallying legend Ian Appleyard (NUB 120) and, as he very sadly died within months, was succeeded by the Rt Hon Alan Clark, Government Minister, eminent diarist and eccentric but very real car enthusiast, with a certain reputation with the ladies. He had owned a 120 from new, from his university days (the family still has the car and we keep in touch). I will never forget Alan speaking at our dinner at the House of Commons, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the XK in 1998 – ‘There is nothing in the world like the sound of a 120 on factory twins’. He knew his stuff.
Sadly, he died within a year or two and I tentatively approached my all-time hero (and I have a few), Stirling Moss. He said he hoped he would last rather longer than the other two! He accepted on a purely non-participatory basis …and then attended every one of our Annual Dinners at the Commons for the next 10+ years.
Stirling and Susie were our guests at our Annual Dinners in the Members’ Dining Room at the House of Commons for a good 10 years and we had so much fun. Amazing memories.
I would interview Stirling after dinner and it would be hilarious with Susie – ‘my floppy disc and hard drive’ – reminding him, if required. When I discovered he had wonderful scrapbooks, I suggested these would make great books. He said, and I precisely quote, ‘I think you’re crazy, but OK’.
When Stirling Moss became Patron of the XK Club, using his amazing scrapbooks to unduly influence me, I founded Porter Press International and we created four books together. A truly wonderful friend and remarkable man, he must, however, take much of the blame for the course of my life. Silverstone, 1956 – what goes around comes around.
This was the impetus to become not just a member of the gang but a gang leader – I became a publisher. We did four Scrapbooks together. With fantastic support from Stirling, who must take most of the blame, and then Murray Walker, we became well-established in the motoring underworld. Others, such as Barry Cryer, Martin Brundle, Derek Bell and Gordon Murray gradually joined the gang, to say nothing of the finest writers, editors and designers, a very dodgy lot.
The equal best thing that ever happened to us was doing a book with the great Murray Walker, who was to become another close friend, and like Stirling, gave us exceptional support with masses of signing sessions at Goodwood and elsewhere.
Of course, I could not have offended on such a scale and to such a degree without a host of partners in crime, including the aforementioned Mark Hughes and our amazing HQ team, several of whom have conspired with my wife and me for more than a decade.
After 47 years, most of the XKs are restored and, together with the two historic E-types, are also used as much as possible, often as getaway cars, and on our XK Club and E-type Club tours (we were bullied into forming this additional Club in about 2005). As to the original muttering rotter who introduced me to this life, unable to throw him off, we spent last Christmas with Nick (and Julie) Baldwin.
Will I ever stop and become a reformed character? Unlikely. With at least 15 offences to be taken into account this year alone, and more planned, I am weak and cannot resist the temptation. It is the curse of being an enthusiast, loving the challenge and satisfaction, and the fun plotting with our ‘family’ of the finest co-conspirators.
The Dutch barn today looking a bit different from the earlier photo and with a few of the same cars, now restored – the fruits of ill-spent life.
INSPIRED BY PHILIP PORTER’S WORDS?
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The Classic Motor Hub team extends their thanks to Philip Porter for being such a good sport and coming up with this enthralling read for us all to enjoy!