My love affair with Lotus began just after I left school. I was training to be a chartered accountant but accountancy never really interested me, not the way cars did. I passed my accountancy exams but at the same time became a pretty good mechanic. By day I was an accountant, in the evenings I built Lotus sports cars. Prior to 1973 and the dreaded VAT, Elans and Europas were sold as kit cars to avoid purchase tax. I say kit cars but what you got was a fully trimmed, painted and wired body, an engine, four wheels and a sub assembly. One skilled person with a hoist, a box of tools and a helper could build an Elan in an evening. I built a hell of a lot of Lotus cars in my spare time, not bad for an accountant!
It was through this Lotus connection that I met Bobby Bell. He was racing a Piper Martin and working in a Lotus garage at the time, but wanted to get into the motor trade for himself. By this time I had a scruffy little workshop where I put together the Lotus kit cars for customers. Lotus got wind of it and said I couldn’t go on building the cars because my place was just too scruffy. They were probably right. That was when Bobby said he knew of a lease going on a garage in West Horsley, Surrey. We met here at what used to be the Windowbox Garage in 1969 and a year later started trading as Bell & Colvill, official Lotus dealers.
We were hardly well financed. I remember we had £10,000 between us, not much when the annual rent to Burmah Oil was £2500 a year. But in that first year we had a stroke of luck. Burmah Oil just kept delivering us tankerloads of fuel. Which we kept selling. And Burmah Oil never gave us a bill – the accounts department must have thought it was still a company-owned site. It took them six months to realise the mistake by which time we had been able to triple our working capital.
When an ashen-faced Burmah Oil manager came out to see us demanding his money, we of course said it was impossible, and struck a deal to pay it back in instalments. By the time we had paid it all we were starting to sell cars and the business was taking off – and we haven’t looked back since. But for Burmah Oil’s mistake, however, it might not have been like that…
My highlights since 1970? I am tremendously proud that we are the world’s longest continual Lotus dealership, and that we account for such a large share of Lotus UK sales. I have a big soft spot for the old Elan and Elan Sprint, but also love the new Exige V6 – absolutely the right sort of car for Lotus.
I am also proud that we have been able to represent so many true enthusiast’s cars in the past, such as AC, Jensen, Maserati and of course Alfa Romeo. In the 1970s we were one of the country’s biggest Alfa dealerships – in one year we did 500 new Alfas. The Alfasud was a brilliant little car. Subarus are enthusiast’s cars too and I am pleased to say we have now represented them for 18 years. We would still be selling Saabs as well if they were making them – that’s another enthusiast marque. And now a new chapter has opened for Bell & Colvill with Morgan, which complements Lotus perfectly. The cars are very different but both create the same passion among their followers.
I think the thing that has made the difference for Bell & Colvill over the years is that we are enthusiasts just like our customers. In the past we have been out there racing every weekend with them. We still love our cars, and love driving.