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The Next Generation - The Apex Interviews Ben Mather

At Private Collectors Club we are passionate that the knowledge, expertise and vibrancy of the automotive community is passed on to future generations. This week's interviewee for The Apex is Ben Mather, a well-known classic car dealer and a great example of how a younger generation is willing and able to pick up the gauntlet.  He launched a classic car auction company at 21 years old, which evolved into his classic car dealership, Mather Collectable Motorcars, which now stocks some of the most desirable classic cars such as Aston Martin DB5s and XK Jaguars. We hear about what started his passion, his advice to other young enthusiasts, the shifting tastes of classic car buyers and also get his tips on the art of driving a classic Range Rover at speed... without flipping!

Charles Clegg interviews Ben Mather for The Apex by Private Collectors Club. Recorded and Produced by Jeremy Hindle & Demir Ametov.  Transcribed by David Marcus. Edited by Charles Clegg.

Ben in the editor's old Maserati 300S Recreation by Church Green Engineering. Credit: Charles Clegg 

What were your first automotive memories and was there a particular car that started your passion?

I suppose I had a slightly unconventional start in terms of automotive adventures. My father was always very very passionate about cars so I naturally followed.  We'd go to many car events, some I still attend now.  He dragged me around the country and it was a slightly enforced thing.  Thankfully I did learn to love it pretty much immediately.  He was a great Porsche 911 fan so many weekends were spent hooning around the country in his Porsches and me screaming for him to go even faster.  It was a pretty fun way to spend a weekend.  

My own individual introduction into the car world came in in 2010 or so, having left school, education, everything, and just decided that that was pretty much the most fun way to spend my time, to be honest.  It was more of a social introduction, as you'll know Charlie because you and I met out at the Monaco Historic.  That was one of the first bigger car events that I attended all those years ago, nearly 10 years ago, and since then it's just gone from there. But yes, it was my dad's fault basically.

A slightly younger Richard Hammond and Ben. Credit: Ben Mather

Was there a particular classic car that you owned which really cemented that passion?

In terms of classic cars, yes. On my 17th birthday my father bought me a relatively new first car, which was very kind of him. Three days later, without him knowing, I whipped out and swapped it for an MGB GT, which caused probably the biggest family argument we've ever seen to this day, because it wasn't a particularly good deal. I wasn't so savvy with car deals back then sadly. But I think that sparked an obvious interest in the older more classic generation of motor cars, rather than the modern stuff.  

Ben's first taste of classic motoring in his MGB. Source: Ben Mather

In terms of outright interest, my father used to occasionally let me drive, on closed roads of course, his cars at a pretty young age. Any young whipper snapper being behind the wheel of any 911 is pretty much the best thing in the world. So yes, it all started from a pretty young age.

We first met nearly a decade ago, first at the Monaco Historic Grand Prix as you said, but I think we got on as we both used classic Range Rovers as our everyday car remarkably, specifically LSEs from the early 90s. Indeed we both have an unhealthy obsession with classic Range Rovers generally. What makes them so special and also tell us a bit about the art of driving a Range Rover Classic at speed, preferably without rolling?

I guess my personal intro into classic Range Rovers was when I was 17 or just 18 and went out and bought a classic Range Rover from some pretty dodgy dealership in Dudley, of all places, and they had it crammed into a car lot there.  It could have been a disaster, it just could have been a pile of rot, but it turned out to be a really cool car.  So that was the first classic Rangie I owned.

They are to all intents and purposes, they're pretty flawed, they're not the greatest thing in the world, but for some reason I just love them, there's nothing quite like them.  And then it went on from there, I bought the LSE as you rightly say, which you had pretty much a matching example.  We used to attempt to daily these things and I think we did a pretty damn good job actually for a classic Range Rover.  

Ben's current manual Range Rover classic. Credit: Mather Collectable Motorcars 

In terms of driving them quickly, it's an interesting art.  It's a different way of driving things but again I think you and I have mastered that one and there are not too many people that can drive a classic Range Rover much quicker I wouldn't think.  You barrel it along the straight, which takes a little while to get it up to speed, and then you've got to stay there, because they're not the quickest thing in the world.  So in terms of a corner, miles before the corner, wildly so, you need to transfer the weight to one side and then just hope for the best really. Thankfully it's never gone too wrong and I've never rolled it. So yes, I think we've got it down to a fine art.

Yes, it's all about keeping momentum and getting the weight transfer right. A lot of fun actually.  And how did you end up turning a passion for cars into a career?

I'd like to have a really fancy impressive answer to this but to be honest it was a bit of a whirlwind and I wasn't really sure how it happened.  The factual journey was that Bonhams took me on as a work experience boy for a year and threw me in at the deep end, with one of my first tasks being to drive the Birkin Bentley onto a 8x8 plinth at the Goodwood Festival of Speed sale.  I had no real idea what it was worth and there's little old me perching it onto this three foot high wooden platform and later is sold for a lot of money.

So that was great because although intimidating it really threw you in at the deep end, and at an end of the market which I never really thought I might see, without a family link to cars really or anything like that.  So Bonhams for a year, then the London lifestyle that that would have brought maybe if I had got a full time job with them, I just wasn't really ready for it. So for some mad reason, I was more brave than I am now back then, I just decided to go it alone.  Carrying out auctions at a local hotel in Cotswolds, and it just built from there. But like I say, I'd love to have some impressive answer but it was a bit of a muddle, I just somehow made it work.

Often the way. We are both arguably at the younger end of the classic car world spectrum, you more so than me sadly. Do you think being comparatively young compared to most classic car dealers and indeed owners has been a help or a hindrance?

I think definitely a mix of both.  It is what you do with it, you either use it or it can be a real hindrance.  Yes, there are times when I've got a viewing booked, chap arrives, and the first thing he'll say to me when they walk into my showroom is, “oh I'm so sorry, is your father here?”  And that's always a bit of a blow. But you've just got to turn it around, because of course we are not the norm, so you can't expect people to just expect this to be me on my own.  

But I think in the way that it was a help is you've got a USP.  I think it's a more interesting story, so I just tried to make the most of it really.  There were magazines taking interest in the fact I was a 21 year old doing this. So you've just got to make it what you will.  

You're always going to come against criticism, I suppose, or maybe scepticism rather than criticism, from the older generations, but the longer you go on, the more you prove yourself.  So no, I'm through that I think now, nearly 30, I think people are over the fact as I'm no longer a youth.

What's your advice to someone maybe still at school or University, or in their 20s with a passion for classic cars and considering moving into the world professionally?

I would suggest try and keep it simple, as strange as that might sound.  Long story short, I had no real set or forged path into the car world, although my father was a car fan, but many many people are.  But yes, hopefully not sounding patronising in any way, but if I can do it then really most people can within reason.  

Credit: Laura Kukuk

I never followed a set path, I don't really believe that there is one in this industry.  Don't be frightened to do things in your own way.  Again I didn't really follow anyone's advice that closely, which may have been interesting at times, but I've just done things in my own way and thankfully it's worked for me.  And again I've never had financial backing, it's not my father's business which he has shoehorned me into.

It is very possible for people to do what I've done and I would hate for people to be intimidated out of it.  You come to a place like this or many of the dealerships that we know and it's full of crazy wild kit, and to a lot of people including myself before I was in the industry, I thought I'd love to do that, but how would you do it, how would I ever get there?  But as cliché as it might sound, it is achievable, so I just wouldn't be frightened by the kit that we're dealing with, it's all very doable.

You've sold some fantastic cars including some of my own. Indeed my mother's Porsche 911 from 1975 was one of the first cars you sold in your actual dealership. Has there been a car that really stood out for you and why?

That's a really hard question because I am lucky enough to deal with some pretty monstrous kit, so that is difficult. Just a quick fire stand out thing, I suppose Dodge Coronet Super Bee springs to mind because, well, it just wanted you dead. Every time you got in it, you just feared for your life but in a really very exciting way.  It was a 700hp ‘70s American hotrod. That was pretty cool around the lanes of the Cotswolds.  

This maroon Aston Martin DB5 that I've currently got here looking at me, that's to be honest one of the most special cars I think I've ever had. So original, so charming.  

‘Buster’, Richard Hammond's old Land Rover, that was a pretty mega bit of kit. I did love that thing. So there have been many, but I guess they're three stand out cars that immediately spring to mind, but I am sure there are many more.

Yes, I remember going up the hill by Broadway in the Dodge Coronet Super Bee and I was pretty convinced we were going to die at that point, sideways, anyway, let's not go into details about that.  You mentioned about the Aston Martin DB5 which, when I saw it last week, I completely fell in love with it, the fact that it's so patinated and original. Do you think that a lot of collectors’ obsession with perfection in classic cars can end up damaging the charm and character of a car through over-restoration?

A simple answer, I think, is yes.  I think on the flip side of that, it is all down to personal taste, so I would never criticise such folk for wanting perfection in their cars or whatever it might be. But for me personally, yes I do think it's a shame when character and soul and feel is removed from a car, and I think the quickest way of doing that is ripping it apart and restoring it, if not necessary.  

Of course, some cars are too far gone, they need to be redone. But for instance, this car that I have here is a 1964 standard non-Vantage DB5, and it's never really been restored.  It's had a lot of mechanical work and a bit of paint over the years but things like interior, chassis, it's completely original. To me, there would be no greater shame than going along the lines of reupholstering it, which I have had requests on, ‘can you get me a quote to reupholster it’. To be honest, I shouldn't say this, but I just haven't replied to the e-mails because I won't sell it to them.  It's such a special car.  

Anybody can go and restore a car now. Throw £200,000 at a DB5 and it will be better than new. Anybody can do that if they've got money, but this is just more special than that somehow.  So yes, I do think there's an art to having some style about it, keeping a car along the lines of what it should be.  It's an old car, it should have some soul.

I definitely agree on that. Over the past few years you've been one of the key proponents of automotive videography when selling a car.  Indeed you helped Petroleum & Co, the automotive cinematography company, when they first set up. Do you think video is a far superior medium to photos for capturing the spirit of a car?

I definitely do. Yes, I do.  The premise behind Petroleum & Co, which was set up quite a while ago now, was George and I sat and discussed the fact that video has always been a bit elusive. It's either very expensive or very hard to come by or you don't quite know how to do it. You've got to do it well because it's a very difficult thing to master, more so than people think.  

But if you get it right, I think it's absolutely superior to photographs, which are great, and we can all take lovely pictures and that is great, but a video is so much more emotive, particularly with cars of this nature. You want to hear them, see them moving, see them in action.  Seeing a DB5 or an XK whipping down a Cotswold country lane is going to be far more exciting and emotive than seeing a static photograph. So yes, I do think it's a very powerful tool and just a nice way of doing it.

Again I agree with that. You've done some great videos of some of my cars in the past with George at Petroleum & Co.

Yes, we've done some great projects. George has just flown with it and the videos he produces are pretty magical. I was literally the driver, I was just sat having to do the same scene many times over, I really played no part in it, but yes, they're pretty mega.

I have to say when you took my old Maserati, having had a three year restoration and ended up doing a doughnut in the farmyard for the film, my heart was in my mouth, but there we go.

Over the last however many years we've known each other, we've attended some great motoring events, from the Monaco Historic Grand Prix, the legendary VSCC Pomeroy Trophy, to of course the Goodwood Revival and the Festival of Speed.  We've also been fortunate to have co-driven on a number of the superb Belles Bespoke Rallies in Tuscany and Mallorca these last few years. Indeed there's no shortage of great stories and adventures, though I think admittedly a large portion are probably not to be published.  Most events have been curtailed due to COVID this year, but if you could only attend one event next year, which one would it be and why?

That is difficult. I think the Goodwood Revival.  For me, it just never gets old.  It's obviously very crowded, it's an extremely popular event, but I still maintain there's no greater car event.  The style in which it's carried out, the attention to detail, the cars which attend, the people that are there.  I've been attending that for 10 years or more actually, and it just never loses its shine. So yes, on balance I think the Goodwood Revival, as slightly obvious as that answer might be, I think that has to be my answer.

With Julian Majzub's Bugatti Type 35B at Goodwood Revival. Credit: Stefan Marjoram Photography

It's often said that taste in cars are different between generations which is then reflected in the demand and indeed prices for different categories of collectable cars. Do you think tastes of the people actively buying classics at the moment, for instance the collectors walking through your showroom door, are changing, and do you think generations such as our own, millennials, and indeed younger ones, I think they're called Generation Z, are going to be interested in tinkering with an old car or indeed owning them?

There is certainly a shift. I think things are naturally moving on a little. It's difficult to provide a theory for it because it's so sporadic.  This week, for example, I've sold a classic Range Rover that's needed a load of work,  I've sold an XK150 S Jaguar and I've sold a modern 911 Turbo.  So that shows that it's pretty difficult to put any pattern to it, but on the whole, I think if you have to come up with a theory, I think things just move on.  

My father's generation, for example, when he was 17 or 18, he would have lusted after the 70s cars and early 80s cars, which he could never have afforded then, can now, so that's what he looks for.  I think obviously things like E-Types, Healeys, the very obvious classics, will always have a following because you just think of that when you think of a classic car, it's just the first thing that your brain jumps to.

But in terms of collectors buying what they want personally, I think it's all moving on.  ‘80s fast Ford scene is mad, even ‘90s fast Fords. I set my record last year and sold a low mileage Ford Escort Cosworth in about 8 minutes of it going online. That to me was a surprise because I've never delved into that market too deeply, having DB5s, XKs, all the rest of it around me. So I was surprised at how buoyant that all is.  

I think it's all moving on, and in terms of our generation or the younger, fiddling with a Blower Bentley or a pre-war Alfa in years to come, I pray that they do, but I don't know.  I think there will always be some that will, but I think it might waiver a little, if I'm totally honest, which I think is a shame.

Beans, Ben's French Bulldog. Credit: Ben Mather

And last question before the quick fire round, who calls the shots at Mather Collectable Cars, you or Beans, your French Bulldog?

Well, I would definitely have to say the dog, 100%.  I'm just merely along for the ride.

To end with, some quick fire questions - favourite car ever driven?

Blower Bentley.

Worst car ever driven?

I would like to say that every car I've ever driven at Mather Collectible Cars is wonderful, but I guess on balance, in terms of how I judged it on disappointment levels, a bit of a controversial one, Maserati GranTurismo 4.2 – bought it with huge expectations and it was so disappointing.  The brake failure didn't help coming into a roundabout at 70 mph but it was a very disappointing car, so I'd probably say that.

We've got a few mutual friends who might be quite upset by that choice, but there you go.

Sorry about that.

Classic car or modern car, can you come up with a particular one which you think is currently undervalued?

I believe that the 2000’s generation of Aston Martin GT cars, the DB9s, DBSs even, I really do believe those are very undervalued, particularly DB9s.  I've always thought so, in that they are a fabulous bit of kit.  Beautiful, dynamically absolutely joyous.  They're a brilliant vehicle and you can pick one up for 30 grand, which I think is criminal. So yes, I'd probably say that generation of GT car, particularly Aston, I think they're undervalued.

Yes, having had one as you know for four years as my everyday car, I couldn't agree more and I certainly regret ever selling that. Out of the cars in your showroom at the moment, which one would you jump into this afternoon for a spirited blast around the Cotswolds?

DB5.

Yes, easy choice.

It is just one of the most glorious cars I've ever been in or around or near or anything, it's just lovely.

Yes and then last question - money no object, three car garage?

Okay, Maserati 300S, absolutely. I was lucky enough to be thrown around country lanes in a very original genuine car a couple of years ago and it has never left me.  And then we had the 300S toolroom recreation here for a time and that was just a joyous machine, so that would be in there.  

Maserati 300S Recreation previously sold by Ben. Credit: Alex Lawrence / The Whitewall

My classic Range Rover has to be in there, it's just the best car in the world.  Everyone needs one. Although this is very obvious, slightly juvenile and probably not that interesting, in terms of what it achieved and what it did when it came out, Bugatti Veyron. I've just always held it in very high regard, just in terms of what it did. So I would love to own one of those one day, but I probably wouldn't tell everyone, because it's a bit obvious, but I've just told everyone. [laughs]

I would love to get behind the wheel of one of those.  Ben - thank you so much, some great answers, insights, really interesting. I look forward to seeing you, well actually mainly Beans, your French bulldog, soon. Thank you so much again.

To view Ben's current stock at Mather Collectable Motorcars, visit www.mathercollectables.com.


The Apex Team

The Apex Team

The Apex Editorial Team @ Private Collectors Club: Charles Clegg - Interviewer, Hector Kociak - Editor, Jeremy Hindle & Demir Ametov - Production, David Marcus - Transcription