“My father said to me many years ago, ‘Gary, never fall in love with a car, it’ll ruin you,’ and I’ve always kept that in mind. But each car I restore, I lovingly restore. I put my heart and soul into it, but I’m also always looking for the next project, so once I’ve enjoyed them for a bit, I kind of get bored and move on. At a guess, I recon I’ve restored about 20 cars, and there’s a story behind every one of them.
My first car was a VW Beetle. I dived in with a Haynes manual to keep it on the road, but I properly got started on my restorations in 1989 with a Mercedes 230SL. I was 25 and had been earning quite a bit of money in the acting game, but ITV were selling to the highest bidder so for a couple of years all the different independent TV companies sat on their money hoping to buy the channel. During that time, nothing got made so work was pretty thin on the ground and I was at a loose end. I decided to put my energy into something rather than go mad staring at the phone that was never going to ring.
That something was a shocking pink 230SL that belonged to a flamboyant, eccentric, colourful character and local celebrity, Herbert Howe. He was a hairdresser in Liverpool, where I grew up, who starred in one of the first reality TV shows, a fly-on-the-wall-type documentary that was recorded in his salon. My father, a joiner, knew him because he’d worked for him a couple of times, so one night we knocked on Herbert’s door – everybody knew where he lived because his house was pink, (he loved pink) – and we negotiated to buy the Merc for seven-and-a-half grand.
A year later, the arse fell out of the market and it was basically worth nothing, but I kept it for 28 years and restored it twice. When I first got the SL, so much of it was missing, but I painstakingly found all the parts, including the speedometer, tachometer, the chrome work, and the bumpers and lights. I like to put cars back to standard, the way they were when they left the factory, but sometimes when they’ve got a story behind them it’s quite nice to leave them the way they are. Did it stay pink? Nah, I couldn’t drive round in a car as lairy as that! I resprayed it Old English White.
I think what often attracts you to a certain car is whether it’s evocative of your childhood. My car obsession began when I was a 6-year-old boy and Paul McCartney passed our house in a Rolls-Royce Corniche convertible. We were on our way to church and he pulled into a driveway a few doors down, then, out he popped with Linda. It was the most beautiful car I’d ever seen. I started off my YouTube channel, Classic Obsession, by restoring a 1975 drophead that I’d found in Belfast. It had been sitting in a barn for 17 years and was not only in bits but it was full of chicken poo. I completely rebuilt the car myself. The Mercedes Pagoda reminds me of childhood, too. We lived in quite a poor part of Liverpool so when you saw one it was like wow, what’s that? Is it from outer space?
The earliest one that got away was a white Porsche 356B with race numbers and stripes painted on its side. Two Italian guys had been racing it around Europe when it blew up outside the house of a musical director I worked with in my twenties. They didn’t have the money to get it fixed so he paid for their flights back to Italy in exchange for the car. He said he was going to do it up, but he just kept it in his garage. I did everything I could to convince him to sell it to me but he wouldn’t part with it. I called every year, but eventually, I stopped calling. Two years ago, I bumped into him and my heart sank when he told me he’d scrapped it. In fact, I was gobsmacked, because he knew how much I wanted that car. He said it was too run down, but that’s how I wanted it, I don’t ever want one that’s done! What a silly man I was to stop calling; I used to dream about that Porsche. You win some, you lose some, some get away, some don’t.
The Mercedes-Benz 600 limousine, now that’s a majestic classic car. They almost float because they’re on air suspension, and when you’re in one you feel like no other person on the road, because they’re like no other car on the road. They’re probably the most over-engineered, most complicated, and most amazing cars ever built. For a 1963 design, they were so futuristic, with air conditioning, power steering, and hydraulic seats and windows. And with a 6.3-litre engine, they had an incredible rumble. That’s why it became so popular with some of the big hitters of its time: David Bowie owned one, George Harrison owned one, Elton John owned one, but I owned three, and my three daughters loved to go out in them because they were so quirky.
All of my 600s were right-hand drive – one was an Australian car, one was a South African car, and one was a UK car – and considering they only made a few hundred in RHD it was pretty unusual to own three, and at the same time. They were all in various states of disrepair, and my youngest daughter used to work on them with me. She had her own little boiler suit and could get her hands in where I couldn’t, underneath the gearbox for example; she was a great help and she loved helping dad.
The Australian car, a 1965 model in black, had really low rear seats and I couldn’t work out why until I found out it had been owned by a dwarf who took out the frame from underneath so his feet could touch the floor. He saved a good six inches.
The one from South Africa, a 1971 car, the most original of the bunch, was grey with a red leather interior. It had flag holders on the front wings but I wouldn’t have known why unless I’d made a YouTube video about it. Someone who watched it messaged me saying: ‘I recognise that car, I’ve travelled in that car, it belonged to Pik Botha.’ He was a South African politician who served as the country’s foreign minister in the last years of apartheid. He was a strange and colourful character who also served under Mandela. I’m not sure how, I guess he was a bit of a chameleon with his politics. But the car was certainly designed to keep him safe; it had a special air-conditioning system that would supposedly allow you to survive in it for a few days if there was a nuclear attack. Really!
The UK 600, a blue 1965 car, is probably the one I built the strongest bond with because it was the most comprehensive restoration of all of them. It was delivered new to a London security company, and that normally meant it was a rock star putting a car in the company’s name as a tax dodge. It had been moved from barn to pillar to post to field but even though it had been left out in the elements there was no rot and the bodywork was in fantastic condition. I did tons of work on the hydraulics; the premise of how they work is simple, but it’s expensive and complicated to restore. I also stripped and re-did the brakes, fitted new seats, door panels, and headlining, as well as a new front and rear screen. All the chrome was redone, too, and it sat on smart whitewall tires. By the time it was finished, it was such a pretty car and I got it working real nice. It was very stately. I used to take it to shows and to London, and it always attracted lots of looks.
I haven’t got any of them anymore. They were 20-feet long and that meant there was no room for anything else so I moved them on, and moved on to something else. I do think about them from time to time, but I don’t feel too attached. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that they’ve gone to a good home and I assume they are being looked after.
I’m a fairly solitary person; I like to keep myself to myself. I fit my restoration projects around television work and when I’m home, I’ll go straight into the garage. I’m happy there, pootling around on my own. If I make mistakes, they’re my mistakes and there’s only me to answer to. Classic car restoration has been a great personal pastime for me over the years, but I like how it brings people together. It’s a great leveller.
I don’t go looking for cars – cars kind of find me. But I do feel a little bit of a responsibility to the people I buy them from. I recently purchased a 1977 Lotus Elite from a couple who bought it new. They’re both 92 and the guy said he was going to lose his licence and wanted to see it go to a good home. We sat going through photo albums, and as they regaled stories of trips around the UK, I got a bit of a lump in my throat. He said he would sell it to me on one condition: that when I’m done with the restoration I’ll pick him up and take him to Wales. That’s gold dust to me. It’s more important than the car. I think cars are like a photograph of people’s lives, where they went, and who with, and sometimes that journey spans decades. Cars are never just a car; when they were saying goodbye to the Lotus it was like they were saying goodbye to an old friend.
Despite what my dad said, I suppose I do fall in love with cars for a time, but then something else will always catch my eye. We are merely custodians anyway, aren’t we? We never truly own these old cars.”