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The mark of a true enthusiast is somebody who collects what they fancy rather than worrying too much about what is fashionable or what other people think they should have.
Judged on that basis, they don’t come more enthusiastic than Anthony Kearsley, a semi-retired but somehow busier than ever former Jack Barclay salesman with a penchant for the work of British Leyland.
Kearsley, just turned 56, could very nearly have his pick of whatever exotica you’d care to name: he is keen to point out that he is not just a BL anorak and scratches the luxury itch with a superb set of 1970s and ’80s Rolls-Royces and Bentleys.
So he evidently loves his Shadows, his Spirits and his Phantoms, yet his affection for the Metro, Rover SD1 and Vanden Plas Allegro runs as deep.
The BMC, BL and Austin Rover theme extends to a smattering of Montegos, Range Rovers and solitary examples of the MGB and Triumph Stag, the latter pair oddities in a collection that focuses on saloons.
Each has a story: the black MG roadster came with the Oyster Gold Allegro Vanden Plas (more on that later) from such a known ‘good home’ that it seemed churlish not to have it.
Ditto the red, manual overdrive, leather-trimmed Stag that was part of a deal against a Ferrari for a lot less than the £30k its previous owner had lavished on it.
Kearsley has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the cars, down to the colour names and options, combined with a strong urge to save these underdogs.
As a young man, his first job was selling the newly launched Maestro at a BL dealership in his native Cumbria. “I loved the job,” he admits. “It was in the blood because my uncle was a big BMC dealer in Bolton.”
Kearsley’s father always had nice machinery, including the first Range Rover in the Lake District, and his mother was a passionate Lancia enthusiast – she even had a Stratos for a while. His grandmother – a powerboat racer into her 80s, a friend of both record-breaking Campbells and PA to Harold Macmillan – was probably an equal influence.
“Dad was more into horses,” Kearsley says.“He was a founder member of the British Carriage Driving Society and squandered the family fortune competing against Prince Philip and various luminaries of the day.”
After returning to the UK to buy a Honda franchise, he subsequently went to Dutton Forshaw to sell Rolls-Royces and Bentleys in Preston before moving to Jack Barclay in 1995. He has even supplied three cars to the Queen.
I counted a solid 40 vehicles at two different locations, but Kearsley speaks of 10 more that are under the knife or otherwise indisposed.
They range from one of the later Rover 100 Metros at the younger end, back to mid-’70s examples of the Rover P6 and Vanden Plas 1300.
A non-runner is a rarity at Kearsley Towers, because he is not some hopeless case with a rusting ‘field of dreams’ complex. Those not on the button (or responsive to the attentions of a jump-pack) are being rebuilt, no expense spared.
Vanden Plas is the other strong thread through the collection; 10 of the 13 Metros are VdPs and about half of the Rover SD1s are so badged.
Six Metros snuggle in a corner, packed tightly door mirror to door mirror.
“That Champagne Metro VdP automatic is totally restored,” says Kearsley. “It was found in a derelict house in Bolton that was about to be demolished.
“My cousin is an estate agent and he rang to tell me that there was a Metro that was due to be squashed that had only done 14,000 miles with one elderly lady owner. My Rolls guy repainted it as a favour. Nobody has seen another.”
The attrition rate of Vanden Plas Metros is huge, as Kearsley points out: “They came with an automatic or a four-speed manual, and all the autos were scrapped for their engines by the Mini boys – they had the MG unit, don’t forget.”
Next to the Champagne auto is the only Aran Beige manual VdP Metro known to exist, beside a 7000-miler in a rare shade of Blackberry, and yet another, in red, with 22,000 miles.
Such cars have almost disappeared from our roads, but the bright-yellow Metro Scout prototype was a motor show proposal for a ‘lifestyle’ Metro in the mould of the Matra Rancho.
Today we’d call it a ‘crossover’ although, at first glance, I took it to be a mobility vehicle built to take a wheelchair in the back.
“It’s historically quite important,” adds Kearsley. “BL almost went bust developing it, but the Freelander launch killed it off.” It is fully mobile but a rather creaky showpiece.
Even wackier is his 1981 Frazer Tickford Metro. Pre-dating the MG Metro, 25 were built as fully loaded, leather-trimmed and bodykitted super-luxury compacts.
With Porsche-designed alloy wheels, an Alcantara headlining and a completely different dash, the Frazer Metro was the brainchild of Aston Martin boss Victor Gauntlett, who had the first example built for his mother.
This one was commissioned by acclaimed automotive photographer Rick McBride, who originally bought it as a standard 1.3S. The Tickford/Aston Martin conversion, which included a tuned but not turbocharged engine, set him back £15,000 when the car it was based on cost five grand.
An eccentric character, the globetrotting McBride was a Korean War veteran who ran an advertising agency in Los Angeles, owned one of the first E-types in California and had the De Tomaso franchise for Beverly Hills. Legend has it he actually named the Pantera.
He displayed the car at the LA Auto Show in 1981 as part of a plan to launch the Metro in North America, but didn’t sell a single example.
Instead he airfreighted the beloved hatchback between his homes in LA and Kent for years. “It has done more miles in the air than on the road,” says Kearsley, who has turned down a £35,000 offer for the sub-10,000-mile oddity.
If anything, Kearsley loves his Rover SD1s even more than his Metros. I lost count at eight but I think there are more, the stars of the show being a beautifully preserved ex-diplomatic EFI Vanden Plas in black and an equally superb Vitesse.
Kearsley thinks highly of the help and camaraderie offered by the Rover SD1 Club. To illustrate this point, the fleet includes a rare maroon series1 Vanden Plas that members rescued before splitting the cost and effort of the restoration across six people. “I waded in at the end with a full leather retrim,” he says.
Another of the Rovers is lower than the others, has a full Webasto roof and is badged ‘4600’.
“The story behind that car,” explains Kearsley, “is that BL did a batch of four 4.6-litre V8 engines for the Paris-Dakar Rally. Whatever happened in the rally I don’t know, but one engine came back in a crate and they fitted it to this as a demonstrator and sold it through Sturgess, the dealer in Leicester. I’ve only driven it once as yet but it is phenomenal.”
Capturing these big Rovers with rare extras is a major motivation, such as the no-cost-option ‘hairline’ velvet trim in the usually full-leather VdP.
There’s a one-owner, left-handed white V8 manual (also in velvet) supplied new in Holland: “I’ve never seen another in that spec, the first owner must have really wanted that car.” So did Kearsley: “I took a chance and bought it unseen from the BL dealership in Holland that supplied it new. It needs paint but it’ll be a show car.”
The deep-maroon 2600 series 1, with Caviar trim, was supplied new in France. “Being left-hand drive, the gearchange feels totally different,” says Kearsley. “The six-cylinder 2600 was designed to do well in Europe and this one did its job, they loved it. It suits left-hand drive so well and the engine is sweet and torquey.”
There’s been a cull of Maestros and Montegos lately, but the rare 2-litre auto Countryman estate isn’t going anywhere. “Most of them were diesels,” he points out, “but there are none left in this spec.”
The little blue 1300 Vanden Plas on a late ‘M’ registration harks back to the beginning of Kearsley’s motoring ‘illness’. As a young man in the early ’80s, he found his first one languishing near his family home in the Lake District and devoted effort into getting it back on the road.
“I took it to a local car show and a dealer snapped it up for £3000,” recalls Kearsley. “He told me he would buy any others I could dig out for him. I only found out later that he was selling them to Japan for £10,000 apiece!”
He has three Allegro-based Vanden Plas 1500s on the fleet at the moment, including the 1974 launch car.
The 1500VdP in Apple Jack with Chamois leather is the only one known in that colour combination, rescued out of the Stondon Motor Museum clear-out sale by Brightwells a couple of years ago.
The pale-gold VdP 1500 was bought from aformer employee of Leyland Special Tuning, who fitted twin SU carbs and generally made the E-series engine breathe more freely. I can see why this little car, with its fat leather seats and glossy veneers, gets more road miles with Kearsley than most of his others put together.
It has real torque, and can storm inclines with gusto in third and top, while pulling away from T-junctions and roundabouts with an alacrity that surprises the drivers of modern hatches who assume anything that looks like an Allegro must have a bifocal windscreen and an octogenarian driver.
The press berated these cars for a baulky gearchange, but this five-speeder verges on the slick. Without being an Alfasud it steers, stops and rides more capably than seems reasonable.
“Leyland made £1000 on every one they sold,” says Kearsley. “They didn’t even have to advertise them, they just sold themselves and kept Abingdon going. I’ve been to The Dorchester in this and I’ve had some extremely wealthy people say to me, quite seriously: ‘This is great. Is it a new model? Where can we buy one?’”
Attempts to check his buying habit have been half-hearted and Kearsley doesn’t enjoy selling things unless it is to make room for new toys.
A 29,000-mile Wolseley Six automatic that is sound but “not quite as described” – it will need “a full hit” – is the latest acquisition.
By rights there should be an Austin 3 Litre in evidence, but traumatic early memories of a brutal prep-school headmaster who drove a Carlton Grey example (when he wasn’t beating seven shades out of his pupils) preclude Kearsley from acquiring a ‘Super Landcrab’, if only to avoid a PTSD attack.
To keep the Wolseley Six company he has just bought a Wolseley 1300 in Wales, and has his eye on a Hornet.
The ‘wedge’ Princess seemed like another (rare) hole in the Kearsley Memorial Collection until I spotted an immaculate Ambassador, thought to be the last 2-litre HLS in captivity.
I almost came over a bit despondent when I was told that the light-green hatch, immortalised in the John Shuttleworth song, was a non-runner. I’ve never driven one, and perhaps now I never will.
It’s tragic, but I’m happy to live the BL dream through a devotee such as Anthony Kearsley. The legend is safe in his hands.
Images: John Bradshaw