Classic cars are a Daimler-a-dozen in James Hull's vast and impressive collection — and now he's selling the lot for a cool ’100 million. Andrew Gonsalves meets him
There isn't much that connects car collecting and dentistry (although Maserati's logo is a crown, I suppose). One metaphor works rather well, however: in dentist and car collector Dr James Hull's case, assembling some of the finest and rarest pieces for his ’100 million collection must have been like pulling teeth.
Hull's collection comprises 560 vehicles. Primarily British in focus, it features some of the most familiar 'faces' in British motoring, from Austin to Vanden Plas, and pretty much everything in between. While there are cars formerly owned by a plethora of personalities, the collection also documents the history of brands, social mobility and, indeed, the car itself. As well as the stars, there are humble, workaday vehicles, including five of the Morris Minor Million, the special edition produced in a fetching lavender hue to celebrate the millionth Minor.
On entering the 'sheds' on Hull's estate where about half the collection is kept, you're immediately hit by the smell. It's a distinctive mix of metal and petrol, a feature of all new-car showrooms. Add to this the combination of car wax and leather upholstery and there's a scent to send any car aficionado into raptures.
The cars are lined up neatly, glistening, as if they were fresh off the production line. There's metal owned by (or intended for) the great and good, from a Jaguar XJS destined for Princess Diana to a Bentley, complete with chrome alloys, owned by Sir Elton John. Then there are the icons and influencers, from the stunning Citro’n DS (first produced not in France but in Slough) to the Range Rover, arguably the first 4×4 limousine.
Hull also owns one of the most significant collections of Jaguars in private hands. This includes examples of every convertible that Jaguar has ever produced. Some of these are actually badged 'SS', however: Hull explains that Jaguar was known as SS until the war, when Churchill called Sir William Lyons into his office and suggested that, for obvious reasons, he might want to rebrand the company. Sir William came back to Churchill and asked if Jaguar Cars of Coventry might be a suitable alternative.
Once Hull has acquired a car, it is painstakingly restored in his on-site workshop using original parts. Currently, there's a Jaguar XK150 in the paint shop and an E-Type and an MGF waiting to be brought back to concours condition. And concours-worthy they are: Hull's cars have won innumerable awards, a testament to the time spent on them. The XK150, for instance, has been undergoing its transformation for three months now, and the end is nowhere in sight.
Three cars have especially curious stories. The first is an old Austin once owned by Churchill. 'We couldn't open the boot when we acquired it,' says Hull. 'When we did, we found a trunk in the back, and in the trunk were a set of solid silver maps of northern France, engraved with the message: “To Winston, from your dear friend, Franklin Roosevelt.”'
The second is a Mini Traveller in postbox red with wooden panelling. When Hull bought the car, a letter was enclosed in the history. 'Dear Uncle,' it reads. 'Thank you so much for the offer of the car, but Mama has already sorted one out for me.' The letter was from Prince Charles to Lord Mountbatten.
The last one is a gold Bentley, purchased new by Sir Bernard Docker, industrialist and chairman of Daimler, and Lady Docker. The car transported the Dockers to Monaco for Prince Albert's christening, but while there the couple managed to offend Prince Rainier to the point that they were expelled from the principality and banned from the entire French Riviera. Suffice it to say, the Dockers' christening gifts were returned unopened.
What's as astonishing as the collection itself is Hull's encyclopaedic knowledge of it; wandering round, he points out countless facts about the models, ranges and brands in his care. The collection is Hull's life's work — indeed, it began before his dental career. After failing his A-levels, he set himself up in business in his parents' garden, restoring Morris Minors while resitting his A-levels in night classes.
He finally achieved the grades he needed to get into dental school, but by then the bug had bitten. He'd managed to keep some of the Minors he'd restored, early seeds of the collection. He also kept himself in beer money by returning home each summer with orders for cars from fellow students.
Of the collection, he says: 'I'd never sat back and reflected on it. But then I saw people's reaction to it and it came over me that there's something significant here.' And Hull worries for its future when he's no longer in a position to steward it, which has been brought into stark focus over the past four years as he has battled and beaten cancer three times. Years of illness have taken their toll on his health and he has decided to sell the collection while he has the energy to do so.
He has had conversations with three local enterprise partnerships about the possibility of putting the collection on permanent display, and he's working with a professional archivist to catalogue it and put his knowledge of the vehicles on to paper. He's also been approached by private buyers offering significant sums of money for the collection, but he hasn't sold to any of these parties as he has two wishes for the collection: that it stays whole and that it remains in the UK. And so the search for its new home continues.
Before I leave, I ask Hull if he has any words of advice for anyone contemplating creating a car collection: 'Enjoy it while you've got it,' he says after a pause, 'but don't be arrogant enough to assume they're yours. They're only yours temporarily, so look after them for future generations.'