My lifelong obsession with 'resurrecting' classic cars

By Magnus Bennett & Morgan Spence
BBC Scotland News

Media caption,
Charles Palmer talks about his passion for restoring classic cars

Charles Palmer shifts effortlessly through the gears of his 1950 Riley 2.5 litre coupe as he takes it out for a spin in rural Perthshire.

The 79-year-old could not be happier. He is driving his favourite classic car from a stunning private collection which includes a Mark VI Bentley, a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud and a Jaguar Mark 9.

"I have spent more money on it [the Riley] than it would ever be worth but I do like it very much," he says.

"It's a beautiful, very traditional motor car and I wouldn't consider selling it."

He readily admits that motor vehicles have been a "lifelong obsession".

The Riley drophead coupe he is driving is a case in point. It is the very same vehicle he first saw almost 70 years ago.

He says: "As a schoolboy I could see this Riley going around Blairgowrie. I suppose it was my dream car. I eventually got possession of it and rebuilt it over several years."

Image caption,
Mr Palmer's collection includes a 1940s Rover 'Tourer'. which featured in the TV series Outlander

TV viewers may be familiar with the some of Mr Palmer's personal fleet. His 1940s Rover 'Tourer', for example, has featured on the popular series Outlander.

But he is not just a collector. His obsession led to him setting up his own classic car restoration business in the Perthshire town of Alyth 35 years ago.

It has since restored hundreds of vehicles for clients from the UK and around the world, including his beloved Riley.

Image caption,
Mr Palmer's team have started restoring a rare Ferrari Dino "Chairs and Flares" model
Image source, Tom Hartley Jnr
Image caption,
This "Chairs and Flares" model sold recently for about £600,000

There are currently £4m worth of cars on site, either being serviced, repaired, restored or kept in storage for clients.

They include two Phantom II Rolls-Royces - together worth an estimated £1.3m - a Panther J72 and a Bentley S1 Continental two-door coupe.

There is even a rare Ferrari Dino "Chairs and Flares" model from circa 1973 in the early stages of a two-year restoration. One dealer reported selling a similar model recently for about £600,000.

How is the classic car market doing?

Insurance specialist Hagerty estimates the UK's classic car market is worth about £5bn a year, although values were flat between April and December last year.

Hagerty Price Guide editor John Mayhead says "good-quality, usable classics" are currently doing best in terms of auction prices.

He adds: "More modern classics from the 1980s and 1990s are the 'in' thing at the moment - especially high-performance, boxy saloons and hatchbacks such as the Alfa 75, Lancia Delta Integrale and front-engine Porsche.

"The cars that are slipping back tend to be those that rose quickly in value and were actually overpriced - good examples being 80s Ferraris, early Jaguar E-Types and early Porsche 911s."

Mother's disgust

Mr Palmer's early fascination with classic cars went into overdrive in 1954 when he was taken on as an apprentice mechanic in Kirriemuir, working much of the time on pre-war vehicles.

"I declined to stay at school, much to my mother's disgust - she had me as an architect or something," he says with a smile.

In 1960, Mr Palmer was called up for National Service with the RAF before returning to the garage trade several years later.

He found a lot had changed in his absence.

"I had been brought up in an environment where you would overhaul engines or gear boxes or whatever yourself, but by the time I got back everybody had more or less become spare parts fitters," he says.

"I didn't find that interesting at all. There was no challenge to it - it was all pre-determined by somebody else."

Image source, Classic Restorations
Image caption,
An E-Type Jaguar is one of dozens of classic cars on site at Classic Restorations (Scotland)

So Mr Palmer decided to move into technical teaching, using his spare time to work on classic cars.

His first major restoration was a Mark I Jaguar followed by the Mark VI Bentley, which he still owns 46 years later.

It was a passion which eventually led him to launch Classic Restorations (Scotland) in 1985.

Having started with just two workers, the firm has grown to become Alyth's second biggest employer with 19 staff.

Image source, Classic Restorations (Scotland)
Image caption,
Charles Palmer says "resurrection is the name of the game" for classic cars

Today, the company's clients are a mixture of wealthy collectors and less well-off enthusiasts.

Restoring a classic car to its former glory can be an expensive business.

The owner of a Bentley S1 Continental has already spent £90,000 on restoration work at Alyth - and there's still work to be done on the bodywork.

"Six figures is not unusual for a restoration," says business operations manager Graeme Johnstone.

"We had one client spend over £400,000.

"Some customers like that wee extra touch to individualise their car.

"For example, we have a 1932 Phantom II which has been fully restored with a few modern tweaks - it's got an overdrive, power steering and a reverse camera on the back."

Image caption,
Charles Palmer sits at the wheel of a Phantom III which his company is currently restoring

But not all of the company's clients have deep pockets.

Jeffrey Sinclair, 58, is putting off his retirement in order to cover the cost of restoring his 1953 Triumph Renown.

Mr Sinclair, whose 1966 Mark IV Ford Zodiac is also being restored, says: "I just fell in love with the Triumph. I'll keep this car until I'm six feet under.

"I was actually going to retire when I was 60 but I'm going to keep working so I can finance paying for that.

"It's a passion - if you are doing these cars with money in mind, then you're doing them for the wrong reason."

Image caption,
Jeffrey Sinclair has had several cars restored, including this Mark IV Ford Zodiac

Despite approaching his 80th birthday, Mr Palmer still enjoys getting his hands dirty working on classic vehicles at his garage.

"I like to do a bit of mechanics - I'm not an office person really," he says.

"It gives me a certain amount of satisfaction to do these things. Resurrection is the name of the game."

Image caption,
Mr Palmer says he still likes "to do a bit of mechanics", despite approaching his 80th birthday

And if he could choose any classic car for his 80th, which would it be?

"An S3 Bentley convertible would be a dream birthday present," he answers with a chuckle.

"I restored one years ago and I've regretted selling it ever since.

"I should've kept that one - I've not got time to do another."