Needles, Haystacks & Classic Car Garages

Old cars and and garages are familiar bedfellows. Even if you're handy with spanners there always comes a time when you need the help of a specialist workshop.
I've learnt the hard way that you can't usually spot a bad garage until it's too late and there are more bad garages than good. Overwhelmingly so. I think I can say this with some authority having spent over £250,000 with garages between 2008 and 2011 keeping our fleet of high mileage classic cars mobile. The detail of that experience will have to wait until a chat with my lawyer and perhaps a book... Suffice to say, my disappointment with classic car garages is the reason why Great Escape now has its own in-house workshop. If we can we avoid external garages.
But that doesn't work for everyone. Garages are a necessary evil if you own a classic car so here is my guide to avoiding the pitfalls and finding a good one.

1. Research and Recommendation
This is usually how most classic car owners find a local repairer. It is the first and best step but it is only the first. What works for someone else may not be right for you. Someone else's idea of a fair price and good quality might not be yours. I know this from bitter experience. Garage owners are very good at being your friend - don't confuse a recommendation based on mateyness with one based on a good job.

2. Expertise and Specialism
Some garages specialise in a type of work or a type or model of car. This is of course extremely valuable as they should know the short cuts and clever fixes that will save you time and money and ensure a job done properly and well. If you choose a specialist decide whether the work is being done by the man who knows the cars - the specialist - or a minimum wage mechanic he relies on because the specialist is in the office running the business. This is a very common occurrence - you pay for the surgeon, you get dealt with by the nurse. Often the best specialists are the small outfits run by an owner operator who may not be flash or rich but actually does the work himself.

3. A fair price for the job
We work on cars, I know that a 1 day job can easily become a 2 or 3 day job as the extent of the problem reveals itself. But there is a difference between transparency and surprises. Too often I arranged for a garage to fix one of my cars, agreed a quote and ended up paying three times what I expected. My exclamations were met with a 'so what?' shrug. The garage argues the work was more involved than expected, the owner suggests the garage could have anticipated this or let them know. Very few garages communicate well - they need to explain progress, changes to costs and how they propose to deal with it. Some garages will work to a fixed price if you can be flexible on the completion time. I recommend you try that.

4. Evidence
Garages often play on your ignorance. If you don't know what they're talking about ask to be shown. Expect photos of corrosion or faulty parts. Ask for an explanation of the labour costs. Do not take what you are told at face value.

5. Understand their motivations
Garages are tough businesses to run and the only thing they sell is time. It is very easy to mislead because unless you've done the job in question yourself you will have no idea how long it should take. So check on forums and get comparative quotes. Try to get a fixed price. Be polite and open but do not get too friendly with the garage - this is a business relationship, not a gathering of old friends.

6. Get the car fully assessed before work starts
It is very common for a car to go in for certain work and come out with lots more. This is not necessarily a bad thing - a reputable garage will tell you if any other work needs done. Just be sure it needs to be done. Fluid leaks and corrosion may not need to be dealt with there and then. If in doubt get a second opinion.

7. Reward a job well done
If a garage treats you well and repairs your car at a good price stick with them. Nothing aids a mechanic more than knowing your car. If you chop and change garages the mechanic will find it difficult to diagnose problems because he won't be sure what other work or workarounds have been done. For the same reason try to ensure the same mechanic works on your car each time.

8. Can you fix it? Well, I'll give it a go
Cars are cars and generally they all work in much the same way. So a competent mechanic can in theory work on most old cars. And most will be happy to. In my experience a garage will generally not tell you that it isn't comfortable doing the work. They'll try because they want the money. Often this means they get it wrong - so you pay twice for the same job - or you pay through the nose because they spent ages fixing an unfamiliar problem. It is impossible to prevent this but you can minimise it by asking what experience they have of this car and this problem, how serious they think the problem is and how they intend to approach it. Also check forums and owners clubs to find out what kind of complexity is involved and what other owners have done in similar circumstances.

9. If you have to complain be fair
If you're not happy, be reasonable. There can be a multitude of explanations as to why repairs fail such as faulty parts or incorrect diagnosis (which is not a sign of ignorance in all cases). Let the garage explain or rectify it. A reasonable, calm discussion should get the result you want. If it doesn't consider the small claims track.

Finding a good garage is, unfortunately, a minefield. I lost so much money and became so exasperated that I set up my own workshop. That, initially, just brought the problem in-house as I struggled to find a mechanic who honestly would say what he could and couldn't do and who wanted to do the job well. Three mechanics later we have exactly the right person. We still use external garages to fix cars in Devon and Yorkshire but they are ones we know, trust and like.

We only repair our own cars but that may change next year. To find out more about our fleet visit or call 01527 893733.

Watch out Beetle's about

Some cars you already know are great. E Type, Jensen Interceptor, late 60s 911s. Some you discover are great. In this second category I nominate the humble People's Car, the VW Beetle.
I should declare an interest here. My parents loved Beetles, so much so that they had a string of them; until I was 10 I thought all front engined cars were weird. Perhaps they are.
However, unlike many car enthusiasts this early experience didn't make me hanker after a Beetle later in life. Were I to covet my dad's motors my drive would also have a Renault 20. Fiat Strada and a lot of Volvos. It hasn't.
My only subsequent experience of Beetles was in Baja California when I hired a Mexican built model to tour around. I was quite impressed but it felt a long way from the mid 60s Beetles my parents owned.
All that changed quite recently. As luck would have it we now have two VW Beetles on our hire fleet, a flat screen hard top in the Cotswolds and a Karmann convertible in Devon. I've driven the blue hard top several times and enjoyed its mix of solidity, no-nonsense simplicity and perky budget-911 handling. It's a lot of fun.
Today I drove the Karmann and absolutely loved it. It needed a spin to charge up the battery so I took advantage of the sun, dropped the roof (very easy) and headed off into the Devon lanes around our site near Exeter.
The Beetle is often overlooked as a classic because it is so reliable and familiar. Don't make the same mistake. As a drop top it is almost perfect for a weekend away. It is spacious, very easy to drive and also great fun - it really is a mini 911. It will hang on around roundabouts until you grow dizzy. The convertible roof is easily one of the best I've seen on a classic - wind tight, water proof and simple to operate.
Although our Beetles are both 69 models there are a lot of differences. The flat screen car is purer to the original design and perhaps looks better. The convertible loses a little in looks but gains a lot in refinement. It has more sound deadening, a proper dashboard and a bigger boot.
The Beetle leaves you with one word lingering in your head - engineering. It was a cheap car built in huge volumes but it was made extremely well. The doors clunk, the seats support, the switchgear clicks. It is a real antidote to the slung-together feel of contemporary British cars.
Surrounded as I am by classic cars I don't often drive a new one and think 'I could use this for a weekend away' but the Karmann Beetle genuinely does that. Solid but fun to drive, practical and a drop top too. Hard to fault really.
Find out more about the four seater 921 in hardtop or convertible style to hire from our Cotswolds or Devon sites by visiting or call 01527 893733. Mention this article, claim 10% off.

Up and Out

Some cars are bigger than others but all cars are now bigger than their classic counterparts. And it's easy to see why - people have got bigger, much bigger.
This simple fact was borne out to me recently when I collected an Austin A35 saloon for some film work. In its heyday in the 1950s this humble four door once propelled Britain's middle classes to and from work as well as seaside and countryside at the weekend. A family of four would have thought nothing of piling in and heading off for the day to Skegness or Brighton.
Despite much improved roads you wouldn't do it now. The car is tiny. I should clarify - it is tiny by comparison. The modern equivalent of the A35 is probably an Astra. The Vauxhall's footprint is huge compared to the Austin. The story seems to be the same across all car sectors. A few weeks ago I loaded a customer's Peugeot 308 SW onto a trailer and was shocked to discover it barely fitted. Which means it is actually longer than a Jensen Interceptor. No, honestly. Or compare first and last Jaguar XJs - the big 60s saloon is now dwarfed by its modern day descendant.
So how and why did this happen? Modern cars, of course, have to accommodate bulbous crumple zones, airbags and side beams. So they are heavier and bloated compared to classic cars. But that doesn't explain why they are so much bigger inside. Or why old cars are such a squeeze for modern man (and woman).
You may be able to see where this is going but you would be wrong. I am not implying that we're all fatter, although that may be a factor. Instead we seem to be much bigger, in all directions, than 50s man. Maybe chain smoking Woodbines stunted his growth. The family car driver must have been narrower and shorter, such is the limited space in Minors and A35s and the sports car driver must have been considerably shorter than 6ft 2 in order to get his head comfortably under the roof of a Triumph Stag or Jaguar E Type.
While this poses a few issues for companies like Great Escape that hire out classic cars, it does beg a question that social historians in years to come will doubtless ponder. What came first, the bigger people or the bigger cars? I for one, feel we need to know.
For more information on our range of cars to suit all body shapes call 01527 893733 or visit


How to complain

Eventually every company gets something wrong. Companies are run by people and people screw up. It's a regrettable but unavoidable fact of life.
We are no different at Great Escape. To claim otherwise would be ridiculous. If you accept things will go wrong no matter how hard you try to prevent them then it leads you to three conclusions. Firstly, you do everything you can to minimise the risk of mistakes. This is all about good staff and systems and a desire throughout the business to get it right first time.
Secondly when it goes wrong learn from it. Improve your systems, educate your staff.
Thirdly, and most importantly, when it all hits the fan what customers remember is how you dealt with it. The business needs systems but also needs to be flexible and responsive - a training manual can't cover every eventuality. Listen to complaints and respond on a case by case basis. From the early days of Great Escape it has always been important to me to go the extra mile to sort a problem. Literally. I could fill this blog for several weeks with stories of what we've done to sort out stranded customers but it's part of the job. Because old cars break down we have invested huge amounts in maintenance and set up our own workshop. But breakdowns are an unavoidable part of our business - we can only minimise the frequency.
So when a customer recently arrived to collect a car everything was in place to avoid a problem or rectify it if needed. This customer had booked the car to collect at 4pm and then, by email, requested an earlier collection. Although this was agreed the diary was not updated. Clearly if that error was typical or common I wouldn't have a business.
So he arrived and the car was not available. Clearly while this was a simple mistake it represented a huge problem to him. As the car was due back within 90 minutes we were willing to deliver it free of charge to him in Bristol and collect it. We would normally also offer free time in a car later in the year as compensation. Had we done this it is generally accepted that the problem would have been solved.
The issue, however, was the customer's attitude. I hold my hands up to our error and do not defend it in any way. I genuinely feel terrible that we got it wrong. But our error does not give anyone the right to shout, swear and personally abuse a member of my staff.
I was notified of the problem as it happened and spoke to the customer. When I realised how my team had been treated I refused assistance and compensation. Perhaps you subscribe to the view that the customer is always right. Normally I do. But nobody should be rewarded for rudeness and abuse.
I still regret that we got it wrong and weren't able to fix it. But the lesson here is - if you want to complain do it calmly, politely and reasonably. You will get what you want that way. Accept that things go wrong, the world isn't perfect and people make mistakes. It will make your response when they do fairer and more reasonable. And in turn you will treated fairly and reasonably.
I hope that we never get it wrong again. It is a rare occurrence but I know it's waiting for me again in the future because nobody is perfect. All we can do is try to be - and sort it out when it happens to the absolute best of our ability. As a customer hopefully that is the best assurance you can expect from any company. In turn all we ask for is politeness and courtesy.
To find out more about what we do visit or call 01527 893733.

The best convertibles were British

As the swinging 60s slipped into the striking 70s the British motor industry was in a state of chaos. The recently merged British Leyland had too many old products and too many demands on its limited resources.
Yet in one corner of the British motor industry all was rather good. Or so it seemed. Ironically for a country with limited resources of sun Britain was the world leader in convertible sports car production. Our cars went all over the world - generally to sunnier places - and were universally loved. From bargain drop tops like the Triumph Spitfire to iconic supercars like the v12 E Type, British sports cars pretty much had the whole market sown up. In 1970 Britain had the Spitfire, MGB, Midget, Stag, E Type and TR6, all excellent cars and still - mostly - very popular.
So whaddappened?
Motoring historians have poured over that question for years. The answer seems to be not much. Not much happened because the newly merged BL couldn't decide where to start. With so many factories and so many staff BL seemed to choose, eventually, a path of mass market volume. Expensive to produce - but profitable - sports cars didn't seem to fit the desire for volume to keep factories running and staff employed, a critical factor given that Government was bankrolling the whole venture.
So BL opted to stretch the existing models on into their dotage. In 1970 most of the cars listed above were in the autumn of their years having been launched in the early 60s. The uncertainty over the future of their parent companies had stalled plans for replacements. Which, given what some of those replacements looked like, is probably just as well.
BL eventually pulled together some sort of sports car strategy and launched the TR7 and XJ-S onto an ungrateful world. Both were initially launched as hard tops thanks to fears about planned US safety legislation. Both comprehensively missed the mark left by their predecessors by a country mile.
The MGB, Spitfire and Midget soldiered on until the early 80s by which time they were shadows of their former selves, lumbering under-powered relics that seemed to personify everything they stood against at their launches.
A few years later of course Mazda launched the MX5 and everyone realised how much they loved sports cars. Belatedly MG responded with the F and it seemed that once again Britain was at the forefront of open top sports car motoring. The arrival of the XK8 even suggested we might stake our claim to America again. Although Jaguar is resurgent it hasn't quite worked out that way.
Our roads are now filled with open top Mercedes, Mazdas, Audis, VW and on it goes. Sports cars are the profitable must-have element of any manufacturer's range. What if is an ultimately pointless discussion but, regardless, what if BL had realised just what it had when it had it?
Given the threat to open top cars in the US, the need for volume to support factories and political aspirations and the cost of gearing up for a low volume sports car perhaps BL had no other choice than to throw its position in the sports car market to the dogs. But it could have done better than the early XJ-S and TR7. The XJ-S is a very good and very handsome car but it didn't replace the E Type - it was a grand tourer to the E Type's cheap sports car pretensions. Buyers expected another E Type and were confused.
The TR7 was just dismal. Time has not improved what is essentially a car built around the lowest common denominator. The TR7 had an impossible task to fulfil in
terms of replacing the Spitfire, Midget, MGB and TR6 but it didn't even come close. Ironically for a company committed to the principle of badge-engineering, a concept that sold the same thing, but different, to different markets, with the TR7 BL tried to sell the same thing, but the same, to different markets of MG and Triumph enthusiasts.
The tragedy of BL's slippery slide out of the sports car market is not that it happened by accident. It happened by design. BL's strategy in this market - one cheap and one expensive sports car - was flawed because neither product could cover the wide range of cars they replaced and at launch neither was what the market wanted. Britain and the USA had moved on.
The final insult is that the only brand that has survived from BL is the one that's all about sports cars - MG.
You can sample every convertible car from the zenith of British open top motoring at or call 01527 893733.

Choosing the right classic car

Classic cars. One man's idea of perfection is another man's nightmare. At Great Escape we often get asked about what are the best classic cars to buy. The answer is different for everyone, but there are some useful tips that will help stop you being one of those people who buys in haste and repents at leisure. Which is very, very easy to do with classic cars.
If you're one of the many people dabbling in classic car buying for the first time who's not too bothered what you buy as long as it's old and classic, here is a list of things to consider.

1. Choose your style

Whether you want a coupe, convertible, saloon or estate will depend on what interests you and how you plan to use it. Family cars like Morris Minors and Ford Cortinas are great for weekend trips - but will your kids want to come? A convertible is perfect for sunny weather but will you tire of never being able to put the roof down in an English summer? Classic cars are as much about the head as the heart - what may seem perfect at first glance may not be ideal in practice.

2. Shortlist cars & get to know them

Make a list of the cars that interest you and research them. Go to owners' club meetings, join the forums. Find out what it is actually like to live with the cars. For instance, Triumph Stags are great cars and very popular but they have an odd driving position (for some) and the roof operation is not simple. Can you live with that?
Of course you can hire many of the most popular classic cars from companies like Great Escape. This is not just a plug but genuinely sensible advice - a day or weekend in a classic car will quickly tell you if you can live with it. And most hirers will also provide helpful advice.

3. Consider how you will use the car

What do you want the car for? Sunday scenic drives or trans-continental touring? Some cars are brilliant over short distances, others excel over the long distance. This is the case for example with Austin Healeys and Mercedes SLs. The Austin is cramped, heavy to drive and bumpy - good fun for the day, less so fot a long trip. Conversely the SL reveals its strengths more slowly - it is relaxed and serene and ideally suited for long distances.

4. Be practical

Lamborghinis and Ferraris are wonderful cars. For people with deep pockets and patience. When you choose a car check the cost and availability of parts and ease of maintenance. There is a reason why MGBs are so popular and the same reason why Jensen-Healeys are less so. The Healey may be arguably the better car but it is more complicated, more expensive as a result to repair and parts availability is much less, well, available. Popular cars like MGs, Jaguars, Morris and Triumphs are very well served with quality parts. Other makes are more variable. This often overlooked fact can be the difference between loving and loathing your classic - your Triumph may break down just as much as your Healey but when it does you can fix it easily and quickly. You may end up compromising on the car you really want to buy one you can actually live with.

5. Know how to fix it or know someone who does

If you're not handy with a set of spanners you need someone who is. Before you buy a classic find one or two local garages that you can trust to work on it. Forums and owners' clubs can help here. It is critical to find a garage that is honest and knowledgeable - otherwise you'll pay twice to repair someone's bodged repair. I know from bitter experience how hard it is to find a decent garage, even when using so-called specialists. Most garages are happy to take your money - less willing to tell you they're not sure how to fix the problem.

6. Know what you're looking at

If you've researched your shortlist you'll have a good idea of what to look for when checking cars for sale. Very few cars for sale are as good as the vendor says they are or thinks they are. The capacity for bodging in the classic car world is almost limitless. If you don't know cars take someone who does. They will spot rot, paint problems, welding issues, mechanical bodges and so on. Do not be put off by this - everything can be repaired provided the purchase price is right. For example, few classic cars are free of filler - don't expect otherwise but pay accordingly for what you see. Do not rely on a full MOT as proof of a car's quality - check the advisories and, if possible, speak to the garage who did the MOT. The test gives plenty of room for discretion and a pass in one garage may not be a pass elsewhere. Before you arrange to see any car ask the seller a set of clear questions by phone or email that will help you decide if it's the one for you.

7. Check the history

If you know what typically goes wrong with the car you want check the history to see if it has been addressed. For example, nobody buys a MGF that hasn't had the head gasket sorted or a Triumph Stag that hasn't had an engine rebuild or head gasket upgrade. If possible talk to previous owners. Talk to the garage that did the work. Ask the current owner direct questions - why are they selling? Does the answer sound valid?

8. What condition car do you want?

Be clear when you start looking what you can afford and what condition of car you want. If you want concours, expect to pay for it. If you want a useable classic be realistic about what it will cost. Often people make the mistake of expecting a concours car for average money - it will never happen. Be fair on the seller and yourself - sellers aren't stupid, they usually price to sell.

9. Don't be romanced by low mileage

A minuscule mileage is the Holy Grail for many. This is a red herring. While it is nice to own a low mileage car it means nothing and should not command a premium. Buy a car purely on condition. A low mileage car may have sat around for ages in a garage which is bad news for components and electrics. A well used or, more importantly, regularly used car will have received more regular maintenance and probably more replacement parts. Any reliability problems on a well used car will already have been sorted - provided there is a thick history file to demonstrate this. When we buy cars for the Great Escape fleet we look for regular use. But even then we find it takes a year to make a car reliable because of the demands we put on them and the standards we set ourselves.

10. Enjoy it

Researching the right car and finding it is part of the fun. Don't shortcut the process by heading out and looking at cars. Take time to learn about the car you want. It will be more fun and save you time and money.

11. Buy it

If you have always wanted a classic car, get on and buy it. Too many buyers seem to get stuck at the research stage. Whatever you've heard, a well-bought classic car is more fun than anything it costs to keep it going, which with care should be not a lot. Even if you rarely use it the days when you do will be amongst the most memorable.

To 'try before you buy' call Great Escape on 01527 893733 or visit We have a fleet of 60 classics cars for hire.

Power To The People

Not everyone gets to drive a supercar for the daily commute. And while BMW, Mercedes and Audi have now reached out to the common man with their mass-market small family cars, 'twas not always thus.
Back in the 1960s Everyman Man had to make do with walking, a bike or a Morris Minor. Minors got Britain motoring. They were cheap, capacious and quick. Well, quicker than walking. Over in Germany our old foes had similar ideas, albeit assisted by a kick start from the British Army. The Volkswagen Beetle, literally The People's Car, got post-was Weimar motoring in much the same way. It was cheap, capacious and etc etc.
The Morris and Beetle were and are great cars. They opened up the car market to people who had never owned cars. They were simply engineered so they could be competitively priced and because they were simple they were reliable. Today's car makers revel in catering for every possible market niche within a niche. Back in the 60s Morris and VW gave buyers few choices. In fact, only Morris offered any body style choices and there were no engine options and precious few spec levels.
These two cars were many families' first experiencing of motoring and as such they hold a special place in the memories of couples who married and children who grew up in the 1960s. So as part of our Britain vs Germany series of packages we've created the People Power Weekend. This unique package lets you put Morris Minor convertible or Morris Minor Traveller against VW Beetle from our Cotswolds site. Experience 24 hrs in each over a weekend. It's perfect for a relaxing, slow-paced break in the Cotswolds or as a 'try before you buy' comparison.
The People Power weekend is just £299 and includes 24 hrs use of each car, insurance for 2 drivers, unlimited mileage and free car changeover mid-hire at a local B&B. Add luxury accommodation for just £120 per night.
To find out more call 01527 893733 or visit

The Blues Brothers

Germany vs Britain, Britain vs Germany, it's an age old dance that continues to entertain both camps through the centuries.
We think of Germans of course as an industrious, dedicated nation of engineers. They think of us as, well, not that. Drinking and a certain less-committed approach to getting things right possibly. Nowhere is the sense of two nations separated by a common monarchy better summed up than in our cars.
Britain gave us the Moggy Minor, a people's car that outshone the VW Beetle in every respect except solidity. But the Beetle sold anywhere and everywhere. Germany cranked things up several gears with the VW Golf. Britain responded with, er, the Allegro. An aberration? Er, no. VW parries forth with Golf Mk2. Britain fields the Maestro.
In fact, take virtually any car sector and Germany ran rings around us. Except, I suggest, sports cars. Here, in an arena where passion and style count as much as engineering ability, Britain has historically done really rather well against Germany. Now you can discover how well.
Our new Germany vs Britain Part 2 package (we already have a 911 vs E Type package) pits the Mercedes SL convertible against the Jaguar XJS v12 convertible. The Part 2 package is admittedly a more relaxed affair than the 911 vs E Type deal, but none the worse for it.
The Mercedes SL R107, one of the newer additions to our fleet, is everything you expect from a Teutonic cruiser. Stylish in a restrained, fuss-free way, solid and robust in a way few cars have been since and with a splash of glamour that makes it as at home on the set of Dallas as cruising along the Core D'Azure. The SL is relaxed, comfortable and effortless, but with the power to lift its skirts and charge as the need arises. The SL's enduring appeal is demonstrated by the fact that an old SL on private plates can mix it easily alongside modern upmarket convertibles in the valet drop off at Claridges.
The Jaguar XJS is an entirely different proposition. Jaguar's one-time ugly duckling is rapidly maturing into a quite handsome classic, particularly in convertible form. Our blue Cotswolds XJS was one of the first three classic cars on our fleet 7 years ago and its popularity has grown each year. Whereas the SL is solid and sure, the Jaguar is more British in its approach. It outshines the SL in terms of ride, driver engagement and pure v12 thrills, and perhaps from some angles it is more attractive too. But like many
British cars before it, the XJS is let down by the detail. The interior is not exactly well constructed and apart from the wood veneers the quality is pretty ropey. It creaks and shakes where the SL rides on in supreme silence. Yet somehow these shortcomings are the making of the XJS - it has character. It rides better than any other GT of its era and, surprise of surprises, it handles well too. And ultimately, you always have that silky smooth v12 at your command, even if it is alerted to action via a slow-witted 3 speed gearbox.
So, there you have it. Characterful but flawed Brit or cool Teutonic delivery? Having driven and really enjoyed both I honestly can't choose between them. And our customers are equally divided.
Which is what our Germany vs Britain Part 2 is all about. Spend a weekend road testing both cars from our Cotswolds site and enjoy a relaxing, cruise-orientated break in two of Europe's best convertibles. Just £349 for 48 hrs including insurance, unlimited mileage, driving routes and free vehicle changeover at your local b&b. Add b&b to the package for just £120 per night.
To find out more call 01527 893733 or visit