John recalls his lifelong love of anything motor related, particularly Bugatti cars, his varied working life and his extensive library of motoring books.
I was born at Pigs Pond Cottage, a gamekeeper’s cottage built in about 1700, in East Raynham. It was a quarter of a mile from the nearest road, half a mile from the nearest house, and on the edge of my uncle’s farm. He was the farm manager on a farm of about 460 acres of mixed dairy and arable on Lord Townshend’s Raynham estate. We spent a lot of time around the farm and he sort of taught me to drive a tractor. When I was eight he just stuck me on a grey Ferguson and said ‘Off you go. You can drive that for me’. So I drove round the field while he picked up the sheaves of corn, which had been stood up to dry after being mown by a horse-drawn reaper binder, and put them on the trailer. You wouldn’t see that today. Eventually, in the early 50s, they got a combine harvester, a Claas tractor towed combine harvester which was the most unreliable piece of equipment I’ve ever come across. I learnt a lot from my uncle and always remember him very fondly.
My father was from Wigan and my mother from Suffolk. They met at Nottingham University where they both got degrees in Geography and Geology and eventually both became school teachers. I decided that I was not patient enough to be a teacher as I’d probably have ended up killing someone! My Dad was in the RAF which is how we came to be in Norfolk. They’d got married after university and Dad went to Canada and the United States during the war to train as a pilot on the Empire Pilots Training Scheme and was posted to West Raynham on his return. RAF West Raynham was two miles that way and the USAF at Sculthorpe was two miles the other so we regularly saw aeroplanes going over and that became my main interest.
When we moved to Garvestone, my Dad had promised to take me to the Battle of Britain air display at St. Faith’s but on the day he couldn’t take me and I was very disappointed. He said, ‘Never mind, I’ve arranged for you to go with friends to a motor race meeting at Snetterton’, so I went there instead. A few years later my parents gave me a book on the ‘History of the World’s Sports Cars’ and this started my lifelong obsession with cars. I’d been disappointed that the book wasn’t about aircraft and it was some time before I read it and found a picture of a Bugatti which immediately made me want to own one.
I was expelled from school, Hamonds Grammar School at Swaffham, and did my A levels at City College. The first job that I successfully applied for was with Norfolk County Council as a trainee accountant but the day I was supposed to start I just didn’t go. I thought I can’t spend the rest of my life pushing numbers around. I then got a sandwich course apprenticeship at Laurence Scott Electromotors and did four years at college to qualify as an electronic engineer. As an apprentice we got paid when we were at college so I didn’t have to rely on grants or my parents. During college holidays we went back to the works and spent time in virtually every section. Back then, Laurence Scott employed about 5,000 people, by far the biggest employer in Norfolk, and they had branches everywhere. They had a large place in Manchester where they made small motors and in Norwich they made large motors and control gear. They made a huge range of equipment including all the propulsion motors for the Navy submarines which were large and heavy. We ended up using some of them as test machines when they were taken out of service.
When I qualified I went into the electronics design department and designed control systems for steel and plastics works. I then got promoted to project manager in the steelworks industry, a dead end job if ever there was one. The last big job I did for Laurence Scott was at Redcar in Yorkshire. We did a job with four 10,000 horsepower motors. Two went to Redcar and two to Port Talbot which is still going but I’ve no idea if those motors are still going. If they were normal Laurence Scott quality they’ll still be going in 100 years. Recently on YouTube I watched Redcar Steelworks being completely demolished. It’s been flattened.
The chief engineer of the British Steel Corporation at Port Talbot once said to me, ‘You realise you’re in a completely dead end job don’t you?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, why is that, Gordon?’ and he replied, ‘Well, because you work for a company which is proud of the fact that they make the Rolls Royce of electric motors but nobody wants them any more. They don’t want to pay for a quality job like that, they only want them to last 25 years and you’ve got motors out there that have lasted 100 years’. Of course, in the long term, he was right. But I’d left by then.
Moving on to Duff Morgan
I left Laurence Scott in 1976 after 11 years and went to work for Diamond H Controls in Vulcan Road. They were very nice people to work for but I was bored to tears though they continually told me they were going to find me something better to do but after two years they hadn’t, so I got a job as a car salesman at Duff Morgan and Vermont Limited, opposite the Roman Catholic Cathedral, St. Giles. They’d been there a long time and when they moved onto a new site they built flats where I used to work. Originally Duff Morgan were half way up St. Stephens and were agents for all sorts of interesting makes of cars.
I only worked for Duff Morgan for three and a half years which wasn’t very long but, ridiculously, as a cars salesman I earned three times as much as I did as a senior project manager with a degree level qualification in electrical and electronic engineering, so something amiss there. I was a good salesman. In one famous month I sold about 32 Rovers, more than all the other Rover dealers around Norwich put together. I soon got fed up as I was only paid by commission. It was a ridiculously low salary plus commission and they controlled how much you earned by adjusting the write down value of the cars you took in part exchange. I was paid 10% of the gross retained profit which they could determine, so I decided to do it for myself.
Setting up a car hire business, by mistake!
I borrowed £2,000 from my Dad to buy office furniture, a photocopier and fax machine and I rented an office at the garage in Thorpe End and set up selling any make of new car without a franchise, a pretty revolutionary idea at the time. I would buy my new cars from main dealers, some were brilliant and others just didn’t want to know. I sold Fords, BMC, Jaguars and Mercedes Benz, turning over about three quarters of a million pounds in the first year. We did it! However, in the process we became a car hire company. I needed new cars when visiting potential large customers as I couldn’t turn up in my banger Cortina which I traded in as the deposit for two new Escorts from Browne’s at Loddon. Pat Potter ran the workshop side and Alan Shearing was in charge of sales and was incredibly generous to us over the years. I took the new Escorts back to Thorpe End and said to my wife, Sue, ‘You’ve got to hire one of these out to pay the finance on the two of them’. The next day my partner and I went out and by the time we got back they’d hired both our Escorts out for a month! So we hadn’t got a car at all which rather defeated the object. I then bought an aged Fiat 128 for £300 from Goff’s, the Vauxhall dealers on Aylsham Road, traded it in for two more Escorts from Browne’s and our car hire business grew from then on. I did that for 11 years and then went back to engineering.
Back to engineering
I was offered a consultancy job at APV Baker in Peterborough for a fortnight. I was supposed to be filling in until the new guy turned up and I would then have been out of work again. However, he turned out to be completely useless and I stayed on for two and a half years until I fell out with a guy I worked with. I was self-employed and they could say ‘We haven’t got any work for you next week’ and that’s what happened.
I was travelling from Norfolk to APV every day, 72 miles there and 72 miles back. I did it at ridiculous speeds, the best time was 54 minutes going through Terrington and all places in between, before the dual carriage way from Kings Lynn to Peterborough was there. I would get up at half past five aiming to be there by half past six. APV manufactured bakery equipment and I was involved in the design of an industrial dough mixer for big bakeries and, by chance, the first one was sold to Betabake in Vulcan Road, Norwich. So I spent some time sorting out the teething problems there, and then wherever we installed the mixer. I went to a big bakery in Orpington, to Meritt’s in Cardiff and Warburton’s bakery in Newcastle. I spent a lot of time away from home, up to three to four weeks sometimes, which didn’t go down well as my son, Simon, was a young lad then.
When I left APV I did some contract work for Lintott, a company on Bowthorpe, commissioning a plant in Newport, South Wales, and that was even worse. I was there for 11 weeks because Lintott’s chief engineer kept persuading me to work the weekends, ‘You can do the weekends, my guys want to come home’. I earned a lot of money but I didn’t enjoy being away all the time.
I had restored an old car for myself and people then asked if I would do one for them and so my car restoration business began, along with the car hire business I was running with my partner, Ken. I mostly worked on pre-war cars, Rolls Royce and Bugatti engines, and a 1929 Chevrolet for a multi millionaire. He was a lovely guy but wouldn’t pay to heat the workshop, an old barn with a cobbled floor, snow blowing in under the double doors. As I was lying under his Chevrolet I decided I had had enough.
Living the dream!
I do own a Bugatti which is worth £1,095 ‘cos that’s what the lady who bought it new in 1930 paid for it. It was built for the 1929 motor show and the company had kept it as a demonstrator. She kept it till the 1970s when she sold it for £7,500, so it’s never been sold for less than it cost her new. When I told Sue I was going to buy a Bugatti she just said, ‘Yeah, why not’. I’d committed to buy it in October but didn’t have the money till the following April. A friend, John, and I brought it back from Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire on the back of a trailer and I had to tell Sue that we only had £35 left. She said ‘What are we going to do with that?’ I said, ‘We’re gonna take John to the Parson Woodforde and blow the lot’ and that’s what we did. I’ve already given the Bugatti to my son. I’ve got three other cars, a 1922 Citroën, a 1937 Riley and a 1961 Jaguar which will all be his one day.
I was offered a job by the Vintage Sports Car Club, editing their magazine, and I did that for 11 years. At the same time I also edited the Bugatti Owners Club magazine which I still do, though I’m supposedly retired, it’s an honorary position. So funny how often I’ve lasted 11 years doing things. In 1967 I went to Prescott near Cheltenham, the home of the Bugatti’s Owners Club, in my first reliable car, a Mini, and I’ve been going ever since. I became obsessed with vintage cars and collecting motoring books.
Building an extensive, very heavy, collection of motoring books
My library has grown over the years and that Christmas present about the history of the world’s sports cars, is still there. I now have around 30 tons of books. It’s certainly the largest private library in Weston Longville but I do have two or three friends with even bigger libraries. Dean Butler, the American founder of Vision Express the optician, lives in this country and has a huge library. We exchange emails asking, ‘Have you got this book?’ I probably get more from him than he gets from me as he travels all over the world on business. He found a couple of books in India and sent one to me. When he had a house in America he would buy two copies of every book, one each for his US and UK libraries.
I’ve no idea how many books I’ve got. Ten years ago when I had the extension built the builder asked, ‘How much do these books weigh?’. I didn’t know so we measured a run of average size books, the lengths of all the shelves in the house and then worked out the total weight of books, 28 tons. It’s a lot more now as I’ve not stopped buying. It’s the history of the cars that really interests me but I also buy technical books, in fact anything motoring related. I use them for research. People often ring wanting me to look up something for them. Yesterday I was looking up the back axle of a 1903 De Dion for a friend who rebuilds vintage cars and it enabled him to get the rear axle apart.
I also have a large collection of unit histories for 8th Air Force units which were based in Norfolk, including Attlebridge Airfield next door which was the 466 bomb group. I’ve got a big section on unit history and a lot of aeronautical books as well as industrial archaeology, some bought for research into my ancestors. My grandfather was the general manager of a large colliery in Wigan, part of a colliery group called Winstanley Collieries, the largest colliery group in the world. He managed the Leigh Valley mine which employed about 1,000 people. I’ve always been fascinated by windmills and steam trains and have an extensive collection of books on battleships, most mechanical things really.
Discovering power boat racing
One bank holiday back in 1970 we were driving through Lowestoft, crossed the river by the Wherry Hotel in Oulton Broad and I heard a noise which turned out to be power boat racing. I quickly became addicted and for the next six years we were enthusiastic spectators. I got to know Bob Brister, the club commentator and Sue and I became more involved when we ran their canteen for a year. I was then asked by one of the directors if I would become their company secretary. I agreed and went on to be secretary, company secretary and director of the power boat club for 37 years. I was a senior officer in charge of racing on the day from club races up to world championships and ended up on the national committee, part of the Royal Yachting Association, the governing body of power boat racing in the UK. I gave it up after about 38 years. I still commentate at vintage car racing wherever it is, Brooklands, Silverstone, Cadwell Park, Mallory Park, Loton Park. There will come a time when my memory is not as good.
I’ve had fun but only because I was incredibly fortunate to be married to Sue who I met at Duff Morgan’s back in 1980. She was absolutely brilliant because she just went along with things. I’ve no regrets. Sadly Sue’s been gone five years now but we had so much fun with the car. My son, Simon, went to Reepham High School and then to Norwich City College to do A levels. He was particularly interested in history but the only advice I gave him was, ‘Don’t have anything to do with cars or engineering ‘cos neither of them make any money’, so he went to Coventry University to do a degree in automotive engineering. He’s now a lead engineer at Bentley on electric and hybrid vehicles, so that’s parental influence for you! He and I went to an international rally in Ireland and did 2,800 miles in a week and the Bugatti never missed a beat. I picked him up at Cheltenham, and we drove to the ferry at Pembroke Dock, and right across to Killarney in Ireland. We drove almost every day round a route set by the rally, then back home. 2,800 miles and no problems at all.
I’m not sure I’ve earned the title Mr Bugatti. I’ve got friends who’ve got several, one has seven and another has bought three in the last few months, and already had three. About 12,000 Bugattis were made and probably only 10% have survived. They are rare and much sought after. I had never driven one till the day I collected mine from Hebden Bridge. I’ve never driven any other car that I’d wanted so much.
I hope my legacy is seen through passing on my knowledge and helping others searching for lovely old machines, as well as restoring people’s cars. I did a Rolls Royce for my friend, John Knowles, who sold it to his son who hired it out for weddings in Cheshire. Following two very bad years he’s converted his business to funeral hire and the car is still going well.
I hope we get through these turbulent times but I’m greatly concerned that our world is governed by madmen. We should be worrying much more about the planet, not about profits. I’m very concerned about the new western link road which may be built as it’ll create more traffic, noise and pollution right outside my house. I wouldn’t live in the city for all the tea in China!
John Staveley (b. 1946) talking to Julie Savory for WISEArchive at Weston Longville on 5th October 2022.
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