In Conversation with Michael O’Sullivan of Moss Automotive
Welcome to our series of HCVA member interviews where we find out more about them and their businesses.
Moss Automotive - HCVA Founding Partner
St Albans, Hertfordshire
Moss Automotive was established to create the perfect discreet and secure environment to store cars within 30 minutes of Central London.
We understand that you had an interesting career before Moss?
I started a business in the ready-mixed concrete industry with two others in 2001. We carefully built it up and it grew quickly. In the end, we owned 16 trucks and two concrete plants. We sold that company in 2008, and by July 2009 were up and running again with a with a new venture that was bought out in August 2018.
How did you start the Moss Automotive business?
I had premises in Barnet, Hertfordshire – an old Goodyear/Dunlop truck tyre garage – and it had been vacant for a while. The site was co-owned with a friend, and we started storing cars there: our own, plus others from people we knew. In the meantime, I had purchased and renovated our current buildings. In April 2019 I moved the cars from Barnet to here, and that’s how this business started. I had a big empty warehouse that needed filling, so I started marketing the facilities at Moss.
How successful has it been? You started with twenty cars - how many do you have in storage now?
There are nearly 200 here at the moment.
How are do you find your customers?
It’s a combination of word-of-mouth referral and that fact that we are trusted. The right sort of marketing is good in the long term, but simply placing an advert in the trade press does not get the phone ringing. It’s a combination of the two: brand awareness via advertising and solid relationships with existing clients, who then spread the word.
You support a number of motoring events?
We support the London Concours and the Concours of Elegance. Both are run by the same company, Thorough Events, who do an excellent job. These are world-class occasions. The London one is held at the Honourable Artillery Company in the City and it’s a great opportunity for my clients, either working in London, or close to the capital, to have a great day out an almost ‘secret’ location. The site covers nearly five acres and is hidden away near Finsbury Square, only a short walk from the tube or main train stations.
It’s special to see the display of cars on that lawn on a nice day.
During the first two years, I took a stand, exhibited three cars and invited some clients to enjoy a day out in the City. I have no doubt that that helped me establish Moss in London and the South East. It’s hard to gauge exactly how many customers I acquired, but it certainly was a plus and showed we were a serious business.
The Concours of Elegance is held at Hampton Court Palace and I have entered one of my own cars there. It’s ‘Britain’s Pebble Beach’ and great for networking while walking round the fabulous cars on display.
Can you tell us a bit about your collection?
I’ve had a lot of cars over the years but have now settled on the ones I really like for the long term. My everyday car – if you can call it that – is an Alpina BMW. I have had a couple of those. I’ve also got a Toyota GR Yaris and it’s great, so much so that it’s been my track-day car on two outings to Belgium recently, Spa-Francorchamps and Zolder. It was very wet at Spa, so it was the ideal machine to drive there. I’d recommend it to anyone; you can zip around the city, while it also offers plenty of enjoyment on the right road.
Another car in my collection is a 1990 Porsche 911 (964) C2. I have had a few Porsches over the years – probably the most numerous marque I have owned – and this is the one that I’ve had for the longest. The car has done long trips, tours, all kinds of things, but I decided to rebuild it, and as a result have not seen it for a year. It’s been taken back to bare metal, and I decided to change the colour to Oak Green Metallic.
There was nothing really wrong with the car; it had only done 30,000 miles, it did not need a restoration, but I just wanted to make it the perfect 911 – it is my favourite. It would have been cheaper to buy a new one. The idea is to make an ‘ultimate 964’, with a 380bhp engine, bigger Brembo brakes and a drastically lightened body. The rear wiper, sunroof, air-conditioning and power steering are all going, and I’m fitting adjustable suspension.
Other cars I have owned include some from Alfa Romeo, Audi, Ferrari, Fiat and Mercedes, and even a Vignale Gamine, the small special-bodied Fiat 500 roadster built in the late 1960s. I’m always chopping and changing. I even had a Rolls-Royce for around two years but only drove it half a dozen times. It was a gorgeous old car, somebody who loved Rolls-Royces had bought two of the same model, brand new and it was perfectly maintained, but it was almost too good to drive. The Rolls was great, but just wasn’t right for me – too much of a statement going anywhere in it.
What is your favourite car that you have owned - and why?
The 964, mainly because it’s the look of the model; the last of the 911s with the classic silhouette shape. It’s very comfortable inside – there’s a lot of room in it for someone who’s quite tall – yet it’s a very small machine. Cars are getting bigger and bigger, but the 964 is a compact vehicle that’s great to drive on modern roads, while also being so practical and well-behaved in traffic. You can go to Bicester Heritage in it, take the kids to school, do track-days or long-distance touring all without attention. People just look at it and think it's an old Porsche.
I strongly believe this car (when I’ve finished it…) will be the best all-rounder you can drive.
What is your least favourite car that you have owned - and why?
Probably that Vignale Gamine. They are nice little cars, but for me do not have enough power to drive in 4th gear on a flat road. That was probably the worst car I’ve ever owned. It came into my possession eight or nine years ago, in pieces for restoration, which is what I did. There was a casino owner in Queensway in London, and he persuaded Vignale to build at least 500 of them. They were quite popular in the day, unusual, cute cars and I thought my wife might like to drive ours. It was never really one for me.
What has been your favourite ever classic car experience?
I had a Ferrari 330 GTC. That was a nice car which I once drove to Bordeaux where we stayed and hired a small local racetrack. Five of us took our own cars out on the circuit and we also rented their ‘track hack’. We toured around for three further days and then Sebastian, my guy here, collected the cars so we didn’t have to do the long drive back. That was a great experience.
Also, the Le Mans Classic. I love going to that, having been several times with different cars. We’ve camped there a lot and we’ve stayed in a little house in the town. It’s a lovely experience, just simple fun and always a great weekend.
Plus going to Austria and Germany and driving in the Alps in the Porsche. I think those three are on a par.
What is a great example of a future classic in your opinion?
Back when I was just leaving school, Saab 900s, E30 BMWs, Mk II Golfs were the cars we were aspiring to, but they were too expensive. They were the sort of cars that businesspeople ran yet were still quite sporty and cool cars that were all probably driven fairly hard. So they are difficult to get hold of in good condition today.
If you get one, buy a really good Golf GTi Mk II, or an E30 BMW or XJS Jaguar – they are the cars that you can pick up for not crazy money, but there are not so many around now. I like that era. The Saab 900 really stood out – that was a lovely shape.
Why did you join the HCVA?
Anyone who likes old cars and wants to continue to use them should be a member of the HCVA.
I am all for the HCVA and the people who are behind it. Their reasoning and their concerns are completely relevant. One of my neighbours, Paul Griffin, first introduced me to the Association and at the time there was the opportunity to become a Founding Partner. You had to invest, and it’s quite a commitment, but I thought if you are in a business where you are encouraging people to use old cars, all the people like me – restorers, specialists, trimmers painters; the supporting businesses – who are going to benefit from people running classic cars in the future have a duty to back it.
Why should HCVA members use your services?
When I put this place together, I spent a lot of money to make sure it was done completely right. I’ve looked at a lot of storage facilities over the years – when I’ve been moving house, doing building work, extending garages – and whenever I put cars into storage I’ve seen the good, the bad and the really bad. With our facility here, I think I’ve taken everything into account and left nothing to chance.
I would encourage anyone before committing to come and take a look. Normally, most people visit and that’s enough: they agree and go for it. We have the standard things such as dehumidifiers, air cleaning equipment and security, but then also car lifts – the Swedish-built Stringo machines for moving vehicles around.
We now have a second Stringo; a low-lift one for cars with little ground clearance. The company was developing a Stringo for four-wheel-drive cars called DuoMovers. We had some prototypes to try out, and as a result we got them to reduce the size and make a few other modifications.
We have also made some bespoke ramps from composite material that means we can put cars directly onto the lifts from the Stringo, which is great for keeping the air clean with less fumes.
To move a classic car with a Stringo, you don’t have to switch the cars on and switch it off again, which is bad for ones with multiple carburettors. There’s lots of things that we’ve done in the last two years to refine the process.
I went to much trouble with regard to insurance cover and I spoke to many different brokers about different insurance policies. I narrowed it down to one, and took up references in the trade with people I felt to be reputable.
Every car that comes into storage is insured for its full value and that’s not optional. A lot of people don’t want to pay for insurance because they think they already have it insured, and that they’ve told their insurer that the car is in storage. But I think it is irresponsible to operate on that basis.
The cover that we have offers the ultimate peace of mind.
The other thing is it’s a personal service. Customers have my mobile number and can get a straight answer anytime of the day. It’s the same for the team that works with me: we ensure that they answer the phone and do what thaysay they’re going to do. It’s drilled into them.
Discretion is, of course, high on the agenda, so we are always discreet about our customers and keep their personal situations private. We never use their cars to promote our business.
What has been your proudest moment in work?
I still keep in touch with a lot of people in my last business. We never had a high turnover of staff, so a lot of my old colleagues are still there. They’ve made a career out of it, they’ve got a good employer and they’ve managed to buy houses.
The fact that a big conglomerate bought our businesses means we were doing something well. They still operate them as a standalone concerns and have opened another outlet under the same brand. That is, I think, something to be proud of. People appreciate good service and a job done properly, and I feel proud of what my team and I have achieved, particularly when clients go out of their way to thank us.
What is the most valuable lesson your work has taught you?
Be straightforward. Do everything to the absolute best of your ability and treat your customers well. If you make a mistake, own up to it and fix it.
What piece of advice about your work would you give your younger self?
Be organised. You need a password for everything; you can’t just call people up and get what you want. You have to go through call centres or correspond via email, so you need to have all the information to hand and everything correct. If you don’t, it’s just frustrating and time-consuming, so you have to be on top of things.
For example, if people are taking cars out for servicing and MOTs at two o’clock, don’t start thinking about at five to two. Get it ready the night before. I find people aren’t as good at maintaining appointments or time keeping these days, so as much as you try and stagger things, they can all land on you at once. Being prepared and organised certainly helps.
What did you wish we’d asked you?
I thought you might say something about electric cars!
I have driven a few and I wouldn’t be excited about owning one. They don’t excite me. This is why I think that there is a future in old cars, and I was talking to somebody yesterday about resto mods like the Porsche I’m building. When I was younger, new cars and technology excited me and it was all an improvement. It’s got to a point now where that’s enough.
Improvements that make cars safer and more efficient are fair enough, but they seem to be becoming more and more bland. They are just bigger and more bloated and not very characterful for me: Teslas and the big hybrid things like that that fly along at high speed and make no sound. There are no dials, it’s all screens and, personally, I want to get away from screens!
There is a lot of talk about electric cars, and I think one of the HCVA aims is to promote alternative fuels. That is a good thing for anyone who isn’t interested in extension leads, chargers and plugs.
A lot of good has come out of technology, but people like old mechanical things that make a noise and work. Many people think petrol cars are doomed, but I think the opposite – there is a future in collecting cars, and places to store them.