Revival instincts

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 March, 2012, 12:00am


Bob Fountain bought his first Aston Martin in 1984 after responding to a newspaper advertisement. 'It had been off the road for 12 years and kept in a chicken shed,' he says. 'It was covered in chicken droppings and full of mice nests.'

Despite the sorry state it was in, he bought the DB5 - the model Sean Connery's 007 drove. 'It was virtually a complete restoration. It needed a lot of work on the chassis, new brakes and electronics, and it had a cracked engine block. I even had to buy another car for the engine.'

Fountain started tinkering with engines at the age of 12, and honed his mechanic's skills building rally cars in his teens. With this experience, and the help of a few friends, he spent his weekends over the next 18 months returning the DB5 to its former glory.

The restoration was the beginning of Fountain's lifelong passion for the British marque and led to the founding of Aston Workshop, the entrepreneur's facility on a farm in Beamish, northeast England. He is now looking to expand this to Asia.

At the workshop, a team of 40, including mechanics, technicians, metalworkers and finishers, breathes new life into neglected old Astons, kitting them out with benefits of modern technology. New steering, gears and other features are fitted but hidden from view, ensuring the integrity of the original design.

After restoring several hundred cars over the years, Fountain has now registered Aston Workshop Asia in Hong Kong, and is looking for a partner and scouting for premises for a workshop, probably in the New Territories. He has brought a restored late-1950s DB4 with him, which is available for viewing and purchase.

'It's an ongoing project and hopefully we can develop the market out here,' he says. 'We're looking at Singapore, Malaysia and, of course, China. A lot of mainlanders with properties here might want one. Initially, where the law prohibits us from flying them into mainland China, we'll base ourselves here.'

Many successful people aspire to owning a classic car, but Fountain says that once they get behind the wheel they are often disappointed. 'These 1950s cars are very old-fashioned. If you get in one and drive it, they're like old trucks. They're gorgeous to look at, but they're not nice to drive. The steering is heavy, they wander around on the road and the gears are clunky.

'We put in electric power steering with variable control. It's very discrete. You can't even see it's in the car. We also put in a five-speed gearbox and racing brakes, and upgrade the suspension so they feel nice to drive and hold the road well. There's a lot of other stuff, too, like aluminium radiators, new fuel pipes and modern electronics. A lot of it we make ourselves. Other features are specially designed.'

Apart from their nostalgic appeal, Fountain says the rarity of vintage Aston Martins has made them reliable investment propositions amid the volatile financial markets of recent years.

'In the past 10 years we've seen a 700 per cent rise in the value of Aston Martins. I never like to sell a car as an investment, but we've seen very healthy profits. For the enthusiast, investment returns are a great way of convincing the wife to buy one. The trouble is, you can't just instantly sell them when you want out.'

Aston Martins are among the most sought-after classic cars and some are extremely rare. They are all handmade and their value is increased by the fact that they seldom come up for sale. Only 1,023 DB5s were made between 1963 and 1965. Of the previous model, the DB4, 1,210 were produced. The DB2 and DB1 are the rarest - only 411 and 15 of them were made, respectively. The DB3 was made exclusively for the race track.

An index compiled by Historic Automobile Group International (Hagi), an independent investment researcher of rare classic cars, shows an almost 14 per cent rise in the value of 'exceptional historic automobiles' last year alone. Another Hagi index - minus Porsches and Ferraris, and covering 50 models of which no more than 1,000 units were built - rose almost 22 per cent.

The price of gold, which performed better than stocks last year, rose about 10 per cent.

As Aston Workshop is also a service agent for Aston Martin, the premises holds about 100 cars at any time, with models dating back to the 1930s and at different stages of repair.

'Most come from owners who want them renovated. They've had them lying around in the garage for years untouched, and they come from all over the world.'

With precision components and 5,000 expert manpower hours going into a full makeover, a restoration can cost between ?200,000 (HK$2.45 million) and ?300,000, Fountain says.

To run a viable workshop in Hong Kong, he says, the business would have to initially also renovate other classic models, something he has done in the past.

'We couldn't survive, despite the number of cars here, so we'd have to take in classic Mercedes and classic Porsches. Anything that's a bit old that local dealers don't have experience in. There are a lot of old cars around. If we had a workshop in the New Territories, I think we'd be very busy.'

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