Our JONATHAN SMITH pays a visit to a magical private collection of classic cars, believed to be the largest of its kind in Europe.
To most onlookers it is Britain’s most expensive car park. However, to its modest owner, Rodger Dudding, the £150million-plus collection is a ‘bit of eclectic fun. If I like it and can afford it, I buy it,’ he says.
Housed across two giant warehouses are 425 treasured classic cars ranging from a tiny three-wheel Messerschmitt to a Rolls-Royce that belonged to the late Sir George Martin of Beatles fame. There are also more than 60 old motorcycles.
Nearby there’s Princess Diana’s Audi Cabriolet, several Bugatti Veyron and the only right-hand-drive, long-wheelbase Wedge Lagonda in existence.
There are, in fact, a further 24 normal wheelbase Lagondas dotted around the premises and least one 1960s Rapide. ‘the Wedge is one of my favourite cars,’ says Dudding, now 80 years young and as enthusiastic as ever. ‘You can drive for hours at 140mph in it and still get out fresh.’
Make no mistake, though, while he’s happy to exercise a somewhat random and eccentric whim in buying cars, nearly all of them must pay their way.
He bought most of the Lagonda for under £75k, but now the going price for a good example is closer £150k.
All the cars work…and are expected to do just that. Many are hired on a daily basis by prop companies, TV production teams and film units, and advertising agencies which help their upkeep.
Darling Buds Of May, Peaky Blinders and Mr Selfridge are just a few of the productions where vehicles belonging to Dudding have found favour.
While the collection isn’t open to the public for obvious security reasons, arranged visits by the motor industry or car clubs are possible.
The warehouses, known as Studio 434/1 and Studio 434/2, are conveniently situated just a few miles from the M25 at Potters Bar, London. The first one, once a tram shed, was bought after Dudding’s late wife complained about their drive being so jammed up with his cars that she could never manage to drive her own out.
It was later followed by a second purpose-built site just a mile away with five floors including a 22,500 sq ft events area – that’s about the area of ten five-bedroom houses – on the top floor which is used for fashion shoots and presentations.
Two conference centres, a huge lift which can transport the cars as well as people, and catering facilities complete the picture.
As well as his own disparate collection, the sites are home to hundreds of wealthy owners’ favourite playthings – McLarens, Ferraris, Lambos and Bentleys galore plus dozens of Rolls, old and new.
And if you have a wedding coming up, Dudding is your man. He will lend out anything from a Maserati to a Ford Anglia complete with chauffeur to get the bride to the church on time.
The Anglia only cost a ‘few thousand quid’ to buy used, but it recouped the money quickly with a charge of about £600-a-day every time it wheels roll, says Dudding.
In fact, business and cars are the former engineer’s lifeblood. He made his early money by inventing and marketing the supermarket ticketing system where you collect a docket bearing a number from the cheese or deli counter, then wait your turn in a queue.
From there, he went into buying and renting lock-up garages. He currently owns around 14,000 in the South-East and Midlands, plus a property development business run by his son.
As if to underscore his philosophy to business and life, many of his cars have a little plastic frog sitting on their bonnets. Asked what the significance of the frog was, he replies: ‘The frog keeps one jump ahead – just like I try to.’
So, is there any vehicle, among the 425 cars and 60 or so motorcycles that Dudding would never part with?
Without a moment’s hesitation, he points out the 1950s split-screen Morris Minor with about 50,000 miles on the clock and says: ‘If you gave me £5million I wouldn’t sell you that – it was my father’s last car.’