Remembering Bobby Bell 1942 – 2017
School for me rather got in the way of my passions. First it was model aeroplanes and then pretty soon after it was cars. Whatever it is I’m into, I’m really into, so as soon as I could I got my first car – an MG J2. I stripped it to bare metal and rebuilt it, and the day I passed my test I took it out for the first time – and drove it straight into a milk float. It didn't put me off. I sold the bits and got an M-type. Then a Magnette, and then a Lotus 7. At last I could do the one thing I wanted more than anything else – to go motor racing.
I turned my back on a career in architecture (the course was much too long) and got a job as a salesman with Coombs the Jaguar dealers in Guildford – with their racing 3.8s and Lightweight E-types it was a way of getting close to the action. I drove my Lotus 7 to work during the week and raced it at weekends. And in 1962 I had my first sports car race.
A front-engined Lola followed the 7 and then a mid-engined Piper – and suddenly I was racing the likes of Jim Clark in support races at the British Grand Prix, and getting paid to do it. That was how things were in the 1960s.
It was my Piper that brought Martin and me together. I had first met him when I was working at a Lotus dealership in Purley, Surrey, in the mid ‘60s. Martin was a customer but also an accountant, and he had been brought in to sort out what turned out to be a real financial mess at the dealership. My Piper was for sale and Martin knew of a buyer for it so we met up. Martin at the time had a workshop assembling Lotus 7s and I was working for a BL dealership, but the fact was neither of us was going anywhere. I happened to mention that I knew of a garage for rent…
The Castrol/Burmah oil rep had told me about it. He said the place in West Horsley had always been a disaster and no one would possibly be able to make it work. But it was just £50 a week and I thought it sounded pretty good for that. Martin thought so too and we decided to join forces. In March 1970 we opened for business at the Windowbox Garage – as Bell & Colvill Ltd, Lotus dealers.
There was so much pent-up energy and enthusiasm that for the first nine years we couldn't do a thing wrong, despite the awful recession and three-day week. Our secret? Hard graft. In our enthusiasm we worked seven days a week. Failure was never an option. We both raced: Martin in his AC Cobra and me in F5000 and Formula Libre, and then historic racing with my Lister Jaguar. We added franchises: at one point at West Horsley we represented Lotus, Alfa Romeo, Maserati, AC, Jensen and Jensen-Healey. We have kept this going today by adding Morgan to Lotus for a fantastic sporting pairing.
As enthusiasts ourselves we have only ever wanted to sell real driver's cars even though these marques haven't always been the easiest to deal with. That's kept us on our toes! It might have been easier but I would never have wanted just to sell just another boring car. We have always gone for the enthusiast marques, not just sports cars but also Saab and Subaru. I think we are the free spirits of the car world.
Of course we haven’t just sold cars. We have modified them too – we did a turbocharged Esprit well before Lotus ever did – and tuned them and come up with accessories. The way buyers could personalise the first Elise with Bell & Colvill accessories was groundbreaking. Because we drive, and have raced, these cars ourselves we know what it is they need.