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Paul Matty has downed tools.
The self-proclaimed “simple Brummie mechanic”, who over the past half a century has become the most loyal, knowledgeable and effective advocate for the Lotus marque outside its Hethel home, has decided to hang up his green-and-gold jacket and indulge his love for the marque in other ways.
His timing is immaculate.
Matty’s entry into the classic Lotus scene began a few years before Colin Chapman’s death at the end of 1982, and in the years that followed the company needed all the friends it could get.
Its progress was usually chaotic: Hethel endured repeated bouts of short-lived success and abject failure.
Embarrassing mistakes always followed bold initiatives, and it was hardly surprising: in the tough post-Chapman years the company was initially run by Mike Kimberley (a Chapman acolyte who later launched the Elise), but after his departure it was steered by a motley crew of chairmen, CEOs and managing directors whose priorities and abilities differed enormously.
The only Lotus constant was inconsistency.
Matty and a handful of like-minded Lotus specialists became the marque’s representatives in the real world, helping to maintain the value and desirability of cars whose fragility was well known.
Matty started sourcing or manufacturing parts his workshop told him were scarce.
He also founded the Paul Matty Sportscars Lotus Hillclimb series – now in its 31st year and still going strong – to help people display their cars, and drive them as hard as they would go.
In 2017 the situation in Hethel changed dramatically.
Lotus was acquired by Geely, the dynamic Chinese automotive group that among other interests runs Volvo and LEVC (maker of London’s electric taxis).
For the first time, Lotus had a long-term plan and the wherewithal to put it into practice.
Over the past five years the new owners have widened the brand’s horizons – completely overhauling the Hethel operation, opening a new design and technical centre in Coventry, launching an eye-popping 2000bhp all-electric flagship called the Evija, and most recently revealing an impressive mid-engined two-seater, the Emira, which gives Lotus its most realistic chance yet of stealing sales from Porsche.
Suddenly it’s a good time for Paul Matty, one of the marque’s longest-standing reputational fire-fighters, to take a break.
Matty can’t remember what made him like cars as a boy. His father never owned one, and died when Paul was just 13.
Still, by his early teens he was so keen that he set up a car-cleaning round to raise money to buy wheels of his own.
At first he owned two-wheelers, but when one day the throttle stuck open on his large and potent Dunstall Special he decided cars made more sense.
He left school at 16 and his sister’s mechanic boyfriend (later husband) got him a job as his apprentice at a large local dealership. From the beginning Matty loved the work, and was good at it.
When his mentor left he was given his own service bay – at 16½.
If unusual cars came in he would volunteer to take them on.
He went to night school for a while, but found it wasn’t much help: it was better to learn by doing.
“I passed my test at 17 and bought the service manager’s Austin A35,” he recalls.
“It was a real corker, with twin carbs, decent shocks and a front anti-roll bar.”
“But at that age you want a sports car, so I bought a Healey Sprite Mk1 and it was rubbish. Didn’t handle, didn’t go,” adds Paul.
News of young Matty’s workshop prowess soon spread: he was invited to join a bloke with a business that fitted Minis with one-piece glassfibre bonnets.
At first the demand was hot. “I could do two a day,” he says.
“I’ve always enjoyed 100mph spannering. Sometimes we did all-nighters and even that was magic.”
“But then the business started drying up because there were too many others doing it,” recalls Paul.
Matty’s next phase was possibly the most influential of his life.
He decided to join the nearby Ashmore Bros dealership, run by siblings Gerald and Chris Ashmore, but first there was a snag: he had to convince them that they needed him.
“I terrorised them,” Matty says. “The Ashmores ran the car garage – they did Astons, Jags, Lotuses, the lot.”
“They raced, too, right up to Grand Prix level,” adds Paul. “I just had to work there, so I phoned, wrote letters, and every time they opened the door they would find me standing there.”
“It took a fortnight, but eventually they took me on and it was a phenomenal experience,” recalls Matty.
“We did all the best cars and I learned a huge amount, very quickly.”
One memorable job was to build an extremely quick, lightweight Plus 2 that Gerald raced “all over the place”, which Matty has since added to his own collection.
Matty reckons Gerald also taught him what not to do in the car trade.
He never quite bought the best stock, Matty explains: “One time he sold a really nice Aston DB6 to a London dealer, taking an AC Cobra in exchange.
“The AC was parked outside, so Gerald tossed me the keys so I could shift it.
“When I turned the wheel, one side of the car went down and the other went up. The chassis was completely twisted, like a banana.”
Matty reckons he might still be working happily at Ashmores if the business had survived, but one day Lotus issued an edict to dealers that they needed better showrooms.
Instead of getting specialists in, Gerald decided to do the job himself. A year later it was still only half done, so Lotus withdrew the franchise.
“There was no money after that,” says Matty.
The first business to bear the name Paul Matty Sportscars opened about five years later in 1976 – after Matty’s workshop skills had taken him into several more ventures and his insistence on doing things right had taken him out again.
The first PMS base was “a metal Nissen hut” in Blackheath, offered for £25 a week by an old friend.
From the beginning, the business thrived.
By that time Matty had bought his first Lotus, an Elan S2 (HBO 100D), and his second, an Elan Plus 2 (61 FAB) – which he still owns.
He had also met his wife, June, who has played a leading role in the business ever since, as well as becoming an expert Lotus hillclimb competitor in her own right.
“Paul has never been one to push himself forward,” says June, “but we had to put his name on the firm because even after five years so many customers remembered him from Ashmores and wanted to get in touch.”
The parts business built slowly out of necessity, explains Paul: “We didn’t have the money to carry stock, so when I’d go out to buy a part we needed, I’d buy two instead of one.
“We kept spares stuff in a big wardrobe, but I knew we were going to have to get more professional.”
There were several other moves: initially to a new industrial estate in Netherton – “We couldn’t afford power at first, so I paid the bloke next door to run an extension lead into our place” – and then to a former Ford dealership in Cradley Heath, where a particularly threatening landlord strong-armed Matty into taking the showroom as well as the workshops he really wanted.
That was when he started selling cars.
It was also, claims Matty, where he received the single best piece of industry advice he ever had – from an old, experienced friend in the trade.
“I started thinking about taking out some kind of stocking finance for the cars,” he says.
“My friend sat me down in his office and told me that even if it took me 10 years to finance the cars in the showroom, we should never, ever take stocking finance. And we never have.”
The next move was to the famous showroom and workshop at Lickey End, a former Talbot dealership just above junction two of the M42 motorway.
Matty remembers the price was £67,500 – it seemed very big money at the time – but the deal was done in a week, and it became home to PMS for the following 37 years.
At Lickey End, the business grew freely. Car sales expanded as buyers tuned into Matty’s practical market know-how, and his reputation for trading in prime stock.
Demand for mechanical work expanded, too, especially as people prepared for new racing seasons.
“One of our big successes was a three-month warranty that covered everything. I never put it in writing – I was never asked to – but people just knew we were good for it,” explains Paul.
“If something goes wrong with a car inside three months, you’re honour-bound to make it right, aren’t you?”
Spares turned into a vast, global enterprise – but also posed a mighty headache when Paul and June made the decision to quit the business late last year.
Who would have the ambition and expertise to operate that part of the empire properly?
Several prospects came and went, and then Clive Chapman’s Classic Team Lotus stepped into the frame, agreeing to take over everything and move it to new premises in Hethel.
To Paul Matty, it felt almost like the culmination of a life’s work.
The showroom and workshop have moved to modern premises in nearby Stourport-on-Severn where Tim Garrington, a 35-year PMS veteran, is now the guv’nor.
Paul has been closely involved with help and advice because his desire to see success for the reconstituted business is as great as ever.
He may even be found there from time to time in the future, doing a bit of his “100mph spannering” when the mood takes him.
He and June will develop and expand the Lotus hillclimb series, continuing to compete as hard as ever in their Lotus single-seaters.
For all the success, Matty has never stopped being what his many friends term “a genuine bloke”. He looks back on the past 46 years with pride, but bats away praise.
“Any success I’ve had has come with huge help from friends, family and a fantastic group of loyal employees,” he says. “I’d never have managed without them.”
Does he have a guiding philosophy? Here’s where the “Brummie mechanic” thing surfaces again: Matty is simply surprised to be asked.
“The only way to move forward is to work hard,” he says, finally. “And I’ve always liked what people say about luck being when opportunity meets preparation. Will that do?”
Images: Max Edleston/Paul Matty Archive
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