James Knight has had a super-charged career. But, as Andrew English discovers, the journey has been more by accident than by design
Just when you think that James Knight, Bonhams Group Director of Motoring, is going to be a bit of a tough egg, he disarms you by telling the story of his most memorable sale. It turns out this wasn't some million-dollar rarity fought over by plutocrats,
but a battered Lea-Francis that sold for £27,500 in 1993. "It was an elderly lady in Binfield, near Bracknell," he recalls. "Her husband had died and left a car, which he'd told her would be her pension."
The caravan park home of the lady wasn't promising, nor was the rusty and battered wreck that emerged from a lock up. "But it turned out to be one of four Works Hypers. We thought it would make about £15,000 and she came along to the sale."
In the end, the car did better and, just as importantly, was bought by racing driver Willie Green, whose father was a Lea-Francis driver. "So there was a lovely circular feel to this story – and it made this lady some money.
"They say you can get too involved and too emotionally attached," says Knight, who heads Bonhams' highly successful motoring department, which is Number One in the UK and Europe. "And I did have a lump in my throat that day."
It's that disarmingly open manner that quickly puts you at ease with Knight. He gives a deep, self-deprecating laugh as he explains how he got involved in the auction business. "It was purely by accident," he says.
Of course it wasn't. Brighton-born and the son of an antique silver and jewellery specialist, Knight was, at the age of 18, gently (and surely) nudged by his father over a round of golf. "He said, 'If you want to do it the right way, write to the London auction houses and learn the trade'. So I wrote, more to keep him quiet than anything else."
Knight eventually gained an interview with the legendary Bill Brooks at Christie's South Kensington. Knight came over well enough to be offered a furniture porter's position at the huge Hudson's Depository in Victoria but, with the nonchalance of youth, Knight told Brooks that he would get back to him. "When I got home, I breezed in and told Mum and Dad," laughs Knight. "Dad suggested I get on the telephone first thing and accept the offer..."
There followed a year of moving and stacking ("I learned to create terrifying 15ft-high towers of furniture"), before Knight moved into the saleroom, where porters were allowed to bid for clients.
"It was 1982 and I earned £3,000 a year and a first-year annual bonus of £5.70," he says. "Tips supplemented my income, so when subsequently I was asked in 1984 if I'd like to move to the motoring department working with Robert Brooks, (now the Chairman of Bonhams), I pointed out that without the tips I'd be taking a pay cut to move." But move he did and Knight can claim to be the longest-serving colleague of Robert's – 29 years and counting.
In 1989, Brooks was planning to leave Christie's and set up on his own, however, and Knight recalls the difficult decision to accompany his boss in the new venture. "I was 25 years old and still relatively wet behind the ears," he says.
"It wasn't an easy decision." And while the new firm had a year of trading high on the hog, a collapse of the classic market was just around the corner. "That wasn't nice, either," says Knight, "but I certainly learned what costs and cash flow were."
After tackling such obstacles, one might have thought that Knight would be world weary, but he retains an endearing delight in the auction business and a touching concern for his clients' sensibilities.
I ask about the most expensive cars he's ever sold. "Not expensive," he says, "that implies someone paid too much. I prefer to say 'valuable'."
So there's a 1904 Rolls-Royce, made in the year of the company's formation and the only surviving London-to-Brighton eligible model – "£3.6m including buyer's premium". There was the Earl Howe Bugatti Type 57S Atalante – "That was the Rétromobile sale in 2009, it realised €3.4 million including buyer's premium." And the Jaguar E2A prototype, which linked the D-type racer and the E-type road car – "A magnificent failure at the time, due to lack of development, but unique and impossible to value, it sold for $4.96 million, I think".
With the classic car market building like a pressure cooker at present, Knight's experience gives him a priceless perspective. "We've been in a strong market since 2008, which may seem rather surprising," he says, "and while collectors have been holding their breath for five years, values are still going in the right direction. People say, 'I could have the money in the bank doing nothing, or buy something I've always wanted.' "
So what are the good buys right now? I throw in a few models. Audi Quattro 20-valve? Knight nods. Mini Specials such as the Ogle, Marcos, or Unipower? He shakes his head. And his favourite slow burner? "Ferrari Daytona," he says. He's also planning a punt on a Mark II Jaguar himself. You read it here first.
As to the growth in the market, Knight remains unconvinced about the Far East, pointing out that most buying is underpinned by traditional European and American markets. "It's going to take time to build a market in China," he says. For the moment Knight is strengthening and consolidating in Europe and (with the recent recruitment of Jakob Greisen to the San Francisco office) in America.
So what does Bonhams bring to the auction business? "We're well respected, of course," says Knight, "with a good name and the integrity, professionalism and enthusiasm required. And we don't do hoopla and razzmatazz," he adds. "We're a bit more measured than that."
Andrew English writes about motoring for The Daily Telegraph.