Friday, 7 December 2012

The World Famous Paradise Garage

Was there ever a better name for a classic car dealership?

Many years ago, in a different life, I lived in South London. The truculent, non-conformist and somewhat inexperienced younger me had just fallen out with a senior manager at my employers and as a result, early one summer I found myself sitting at home on 'gardening leave'. 

What unalloyed bliss, what an opportunity! Four months of paid indolence, and plenty of jobs available when I decided to return to the life of a wage slave. 

Plan A was to spend the summer watching Test cricket, but after a couple of depressing days at the Oval while a desultory England side was outplayed by the visiting Australians (who would win the six match series 4 - 0), I realised that this plan would be more than my mental health could stand. 

So one fine Saturday morning I found myself in Scout Lane, off Clapham Common, offering my services as cleaner and Gofer (go for this, go for that...) at the Paradise Garage. For some reason my services were required, and the following Monday I reported for duty.

It was the best job I ever had. The Paradise Garage was run by three public school chaps and a Yorkshireman, each with a long history in the top end of the motor trade. Their usual stock was the sort of quality classic that had long been the bedrock of the collector's car market; David Brown Aston-Martins, pre-badge engineering Bentleys, Lagondas, and the odd Italian exotic. The showroom was a surprisingly large space tucked away in a yard at the end of a small alley, big enough for a dozen or so cars. In one corner, being stored for a customer, was the Embiricos Bentley, an elegant streamlined special that had competed at Le Mans just after the war. 

Upstairs was the sales office, the walls lined with shelves holding reference books and the sort of old car ephemera and junk that props up every motoring auction's sales list. Outside, on the other side of the yard was a large wooden workshop, smelling of ancient engine oil and the musty scent given off by old cast iron components.

Would-be customers usually arrived in taxis, emerging wide-eyed and anxious, many never having ventured this far south of the river, but they would be genially welcomed by one of the chaps and a cup of my instant coffee. None of the cars were adorned with anything so vulgar as a price, nor did the display adverts placed each month in prime positions in all of the better motoring magazines. If the would-be buyer was lucky, one of the chaps would gently let them buy a car. 

It was bubble time in the market, in six weeks I watched the quietly stated price of a lovely DB6 Vantage Volante rise by £50,000 to match the latest auction results. It sold, too, probably to some poor sod who'd borrowed heavily against rising values to buy it. Two years later the bubble burst, and that Aston would have struggled to move on for within £100,000 of what the over-leveraged buyer had coughed up.

More interesting than the buyers were the sellers, turning up in long-cherished old cars that were suddenly worth more than their house. I remember the appearance down the little alley of Grand-Prix Bugattis, beautiful Bentleys, various MGs, a Mk2 Jaguar with 15,000 miles on the clock and still owned by the original buyer, and a Ferrari 250 with a crackling engine note. Often another dealer would drop by, keen to compare the latest fantastic auction results or just talk over old times. Without exception they were interesting characters, though whether it was the effect of years wheeling and dealing or their unemployability in the real world I couldn't rightly fathom. One old chap, not a day over 70, used to race an eight litre CanAm McLaren for relaxation, and once arrived with his arm in a cast having come off his 140bhp Yamaha OWO1.

Apart from coffee making, my duties involved keeping the stock clean; a daily gentle dusting of bodywork and the occasional hoovering out of old interiors. On one occasion I took the Brasso to a pre-war Bentley's brass chassis plate and got a proper bollocking for removing priceless 'patina'. I also used to help out with the photographs needed for the adverts, which usually took place against the backdrop of one of Capham Common's ponds. This meant a ride in one of the old cars, a definite highlight.

The much younger me, with vintage Bentley and duster
When it became clear I wasn't a complete idiot, I was allowed to move some of the stock - usually the postwar stuff with synchromesh gearboxes. The most terrifying experience was driving a MG TC across the river to Chelsea; negotiating the maelstrom of the Wandsworth one-way system without meaningful brakes had me waking up in a cold sweat for a week. I remember the disappointment of a baggy, truck-like Aston-Martin V8, the surprisingly contemporary feel of a E-Type Jaguar, the sweet weightlessness of a Bristol-engined AC Ace, and the quality and refinement of a lovely Derby Bentley tourer.

A source of additional income for the garage was loaning stock for commercial photography. One day I was asked to take a car to a studio in nearby Battersea. Arriving, I positioned the car on a raised dias as directed, and started removing blemishes revealed in the gleaming bodywork by the studio lights. Stepping back to admire my efforts, I almost fell over an obstruction on the floor. It turned out to be a naked girl lying on a low bench, the photographer lining up his shot of her generous feminine curves against the car's.  For a week I hung around the studio, safeguarding expensive coachwork, wiping bum-prints from leather seats, chatting to the models, and generally having the time of my life while the next year's Lucas calendar was photographed. 

Towards the end of the summer I started looking for a 'proper' job, and shortly after started working for a Chelsea advertising agency. The Paradise Garage struggled to weather the recession of the early 90's, the four became two, and for a while was located in a Chelsea basement garage, before quietly folding a decade or so ago.

I still keep in touch with one of the chaps, now retired to a Cotsworld pile. Of the others, one runs a classic car dealership in Hampshire, while a third still works in the trade as an agent, usually helping rich Americans find cars in Europe.

But that trading name has never been beaten.


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