In Conversation with James Fraser of CKL Developments
Welcome to our series of HCVA member interviews where we find out more about them and their businesses.
CKL Developments - HCVA Founding Partner
Battle, East Sussex
Specialists in Jaguar-powered sports and sports racing cars from the ‘50s and ‘60’s. From their state-of-the-art facilities in East Sussex, CKL use their unique skills and historical insights to offer world-class race support, restoration, maintenance & repair, sales and research services.
How did you join the business?
It’s actually quite a long story but I will do it as succinctly as I can.
I started out as a geologist and did an undergrad and then a PhD at Oxford. I was going to go into academia but got sick and tired of that so worked in the City and then in mining for many, many years - but I had always been interested in classic cars. One of my earliest memories is sitting in my Dad’s XK120 - I must have been about 2 or 3 - he had to sell it he was in the Army and got posted abroad and couldn’t really store it.
It was a really sad story because by the time he came back from Germany classic car prices had gone through the roof and he wasn’t able to buy one back so I always said I would get one. I think I’ve had an interest in classic cars since those very early days.
I left mining, gosh it must have been about 2016 and I was in the process of writing a book with Paul Skilleter on competition XK120’s and looking around for a different job. The mining industry wanted to take me to Guinea where Ebola was raging, I thought no thank you very much! So, I was looking around for other things, I'd spoken with JD Classics because they had probably the greatest concentration of competition XK120’s at the time and I did quite a lot of research for them finding photographs etc. - and the opportunity arose to be a consultant with them, helping research their cars and find other cars.
That was an interesting experience. I’m not going to go into all the details of what happened there when it all went wrong. I was there as a consultant for a number of years and I then stayed on and helped Woodham Mortimer to try get things back on an even keel. That was fine but I was commuting from Kent round to Essex every day and I was looking for something else that was closer to home. Coincidentally I came down here to see Chris, Chris Lucas about some of his cars - actually to look at one of the XK120’s they had here and conversation took off from there. They were looking for a new MD and I guess with my experience of leading business in the mining industry and my knowledge of XK120’s it seemed like a pretty good fit and that’s how I joined, must have been back in 2019.
What has been your proudest moment in work?
I’m still waiting for that to happen! It’s a really tough question to answer. I could answer it in my consulting days or other times.
Just finishing my PhD was a major achievement for me that was tough. My PhD was based at Oxford but the field area was North Pakistan - the mountains of the Karakoram. That was an achievement getting through it and writing it up!
I had some interesting times as a consultant, particularly as a young guy influencing some pretty senior people. I remember a chap from Burton Aluminium called me up, I was about 26 at the time, and he was very, very senior and they were going through a merger with BHP and he was asking me for a whole lot of information and asking my advice on things, that was a pretty exciting moment. I think at Rio (Rio Tinto Zinc) delivering the first stage of the turnaround, a really thorough diagnostic of what was going wrong in Namibia setting up the teams there and getting the guys ready to push forward to implementation was great. At JD’s, and this may not be one to highlight, a couple of really good cars sales, proper sales, selling proper cars to good people and getting good prices for them.
I think probably if I were to distil it down it is making change in an organisation and seeing people develop and getting the culture right. That is the thing I’m most pleased with. Getting the right people in the right roles and having the culture working. That is certainly true in what happened in the mining experience I had and it’s what we are trying to do here, and we’ve made real progress in that. I’m more pleased with things where the team is set up to succeed that with personal achievements.
What is the most valuable lesson your work has taught you?
Don’t get into cars!
The most valuable lesson I think is there is no substitute for experience, as times goes on that really has become more and more clear to me. The value that having a good team with complimentary skill sets and different perspectives is really, really important. It's very easy to think that your view of the world is the only one that’s right and having a good team around you so that you can get to a better answer is something that work has taught me.
What piece of advice about your work would you give your younger self?
I think there are two bits of advice I would give. One would be don’t give up your passions too easily, so don’t be seduced by the better pay or the safer route and to link with it would be - it's better to try and fail than not try. Don’t be afraid of trying something, the regrets of not trying are harder to live with than the regrets of trying and not succeeding.
What is your favourite car that you have owned - and why?
That’s not easy at all.
The favourite car I’ve owned, I have a passion for 2 cars in particular, XK120’s and a car called an OM (Officine Meccaniche) which is a pre-war Italian car.
So I’d probably say on balance the favourite car I’ve owned is my OM which is a 6 cylinder 1928 sports tourer. The reasons it’s my favourite car - it's unusual, its rare and it has an interesting history. This specific car raced in the 1928 & 1929 TT races at Brooklands, it was in the first Double Twelve, it was raced and developed a lot. It was raced by a chap called Dick Oates who was quite a well-known engineer of the pre-war era and it’s a very original car.
It is an interesting combination of Italian history because OM’s won the first Mille Miglia in 1927, so OM’s are very important in Italian motoring history, and in England there was an importer called L C Rawlence & Co who imported OM’s in rolling chassis form. They were brought over and then bodied by English coach builders. A lot of them were tuned specifically for racing and competition work in the UK by this chap Oates and the car I have was his car that he raced and used as a development car.
It’s a really, really interesting story, it’s nice. It was rebodied in 1930 when it stopped racing it still has that body with all the original leather fabric on it. A very original car with a great history and it’s a bit quirky. I still own it and it is currently being sensitively restored here.
What is your least favourite car that you have owned - and why?
Being a little bit contrary I could say the OM is also my least favourite car as getting parts for it is an absolute nightmare, I’ve had a few issues getting some little bits of work done. Its just availability of parts and people who can work on them but that’s probably being a bit mean.
My least favourite car is a Polo that I inherited from my in-laws. It was underpowered, quite small and had an alarming habit of just cutting out randomly on the road, so the engine would stop and the steering lock would come on whilst going along so you would have to have your hand on the ignition key to take of the steering lock and start it up again. So that would be my least favourite. I wouldn’t want VW to come after me - I think VW make good cars; I think this is an indication of the life this car had rather than an indictment against Polos in general!
What is a great example of a future classic in your opinion?
It's probably already a future classic but I do think the Peugeot 205 1.9 GTi. My Dad had one, I loved it it’s a great car. Some of the early BMW M series cars are good examples too. But the 205 1.9 is the one I’d like to have at some point.
What has been your favourite ever classic car experience?
Because my Dad got me into XK’s I think going up the hill with my Dad actually - and my Mum who is sadly not with us anymore. It was the XK70 at Shelsley Walsh, a beautiful weekend and I had the chance to take Dad up in an XK120 and I think I took my mum up in a really nice 150 3.8. Just the chance to take them up in those cars and show them around. I was helping JD’s at the time it was a really special experience to be able to share that day with my Mum and Dad. I would have been 43 at the time.
Why did you join the HCVA?
As a company we joined as there were a number of things that had been on my mind personally and professionally for quite a while and having conversations with people including my Dad, and it was really timely that I had a conversation with James Mitchell (Pendine) who I know well and obviously I know Henry (Pearman) - and just talking about things and issues and I became aware that the HCVA was being formed and was looking at some of the very same issues that I was concerned about.
Just a couple of things off the top of my head - I think the perception of the classic car industry and how we manage that perception in a world that is increasingly focused on electrification of cars and environmental concerns - and not just the perception but the misperception and myths that surround classic cars and how we can properly manage that communication process that was a major concern. The availability of skills if you look forward in about 10, 20, 30 years’ time are there going to be the people around with the skills to work on these cars? Fuel, the availability of fuel also.
Another thing I’ve talked to Henry about that isn’t a major focus of the HCVA at the moment, but I know Henry would agree needs to be addressed is how we keep young people interested in these cars and not just the cars of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. There is always a generational thing where people are interested in the cars that they had as a poster in their bedroom as a teenager. That’s fine but how are we going to keep the next generation of people interested in the cars of the late 50’s the 40’s? I was talking to a guy in Italy who was really concerned that a lot of the big collectors of the 50’s Ferraris are getting older now and were going to have these cars come onto the market and the people in their teens and 20’s now don’t really get cars from the 50’s.
Whereas people in their 50’s or 60’s remember Mike Hawthorn and Duncan Hamilton and would go I really must have an XK or a MK1 or if they have the money a D-Type. The later generations don’t have that connection with those earlier cars so getting people excited about them is really important.
Financial pressures on youngsters with things like student loans does make some of these cars unobtainable. Some cars from the 1950’s such as MG’s Triumphs are more obtainable. They are not going to want to drive round in a 50’s economy saloon as it's not that much fun unless they can strap a surfboard on it and drive down to Cornwall and be a little bit retro. I did that with my Triumph Herald when I was at university and it was kind of cool because it was different.
I think money is a factor in it but it’s getting people to see that cars of that age can be fun, yes they can be a little bit difficult, yes you’ve got to maintain them and look after them. You don’t just get in them and turn the key and off you go but having said that they are more rewarding for putting effort in. You get something out of it - but the values are an issue - it may be that we see as people lose interest in these cars, as people get old and die off or the market shrinks that the values start to come back to a point where they are obtainable.
You see it a little bit with some pre-war cars. I’ve got friends in their 40’s who are looking at racing or rallying Riley’s. Riley Specials - not original Brooklands or Sprites but 12/4 Specials. They are not cheap but they are not silly money. They might be £60k which is a lot of money for somebody in their 20’s 30’s but in your 40’s you can put your money into that, particularly if the car isn’t going to lose value which it shouldn’t. So I think for the pre-war cars there is a bit of a renaissance. I’ve been quite surprised that some of my friends have gone to the pre-war cars because they feel that they can get a lot more car for their money, they can race and they can rally them they can do an awful lot and it's quite cheap and really quite good fun. So, whether there is something that we can do about cars from the 50’s and 60’s, I'd like to think we could and maybe it's getting people racing MGB’s or rallying them or tours or something.
I think the big issue is that unless you’re from a classic car family you don’t even know that classic cars are fun to own - unlike a modern car you’re not going to see huge depreciation the minute you drive it out of the garage. It may not be a brilliant investment in terms of capital growth but you know but there are very few cars you can buy that if you look after it, it will be worth the same in 10 years’ time or may have even gone up a bit.
I think people see at JDs that we used to have a lot of Instagrammers come into showrooms and take pictures of cars, and they’d all flock round the modern supercar because that’s what they see. That’s what gets into the magazines that they read or not even magazines so much now - the social media channels and YouTube is swamped with modern supercars and cool modern cars. Maybe some cars from the 2000’s the 90’s and a few from thee 80’s but there is very little active promotion of cars from the 50’s & 60’s that would appeal to young people.
You get the odd article of a Duncan Hamilton XK120 for example but it’s not done in a way that will appeal to young people and doesn’t have a young person driving it, it will have an older person driving it that appeals to someone on their 50’s or 60’s. So I think if we get the interest in those cars then I think people would look to get involved. If their budget allows them to get something really special - great. But if not, they will look for other alternatives. Insurance is an issue, it would be nice if we could get people in their mid-twenties driving a 50’s classic.
Why should HCVA members use your services?
I was looking over the values of the HCVA again on the web site and this was one of the reasons we signed up to be a Founding Partner is the match between HCVA values and what CKL stands for. It is almost a 100% overlap. You’ve got respect for authenticity and provenance, CKL is known for being the 'go to' people for very sensitive restorations and inspections of Jaguars in particular from the 50’s and 60’s. So with Chris’s knowledge and my limited knowledge on XK’s I think we are very well placed to help people with either proving authenticity or respecting that if they want work done on a car.
We really do value the stories that cars have and how they’ve evolved and try to preserve original materials wherever possible. So, I hope people who sign up to the HCVA that those values would resonate with them, and we would be a natural place for them to come to if they needed work in that respect.
Excellence from craftsmanship, we mentioned earlier on there is no substitute for experience, the guys here are massively experienced. Part of the problem is we really need the next generation to come through and be apprenticed by these guys. The guys in the workshop, the engine shop, our transmission shop, John in the panel shop are just magicians with what they do. I wouldn’t want to just single John out because the other guys a very skilled in what they do as well but turning a crumpled D-type bonnet back into a proper bonnet without replacing, or hardly replacing, any material at all is magic really. What he does with an English wheel, kneeling and tapping and hammering out is phenomenal to see. I would hope again that that is something that the HCVA really values, and that people see that in us.
Transparency is really important - again without going into all the details there are some unfortunate things that have gone on in the industry and we really want to be transparent, nobody always gets everything right, but we want to be transparent about the way we work, and honesty is important. It’s easy to stand and throw stones at others but I think as an industry we all need to work together to be more transparent. I’ve had personally some difficult experiences with other places trying to get things done and it’s frustrating for everybody, it’s frustrating for me as the customer it’s no doubt frustrating for the people doing the work and whether that is lack of communication or lack of planning upfront no matter what the reason it’s just a bit messy.
We take it very, very seriously that whole point of transparency, integrity and trying to professionalise the way we do things. One thing I’d say business and work is hard. It's painful and classic cars are supposed to be fun, so we want that experience for customers to be fun or if not fun at least as smooth and painless as possible because they’ve all got jobs they are dealing with issues of their own in their professional lives. Their classic car is meant to be a hobby so we want to try and facilitate that. I think the 'kite mark' that HCVA has talked about is really welcome. I’m not pointing fingers at anybody in the industry - we have all got things that we can learn and improve on - but I think having this standard that we all have to sign up to is really, really helpful and I hope that people would see that in us.
What did you wish we’d asked you?
I think I’ve probably answered it in that last question - what CKL has to offer that makes us different from others. I think I’ve answered that. I don’t think there is anything else.
One thought - thinking about trends in the classic car market going forward, we are seeing that lots of people want to do things with their cars and Brexit is an impediment to that in moving cars around. A lot of our customers are keen not only to race, lots of people do want to do that and not just the Mille Miglia but things like the Mille Miglia - the Coppa delle Alpi, the Nuvolari - there is more and more interest in that and I really applaud that if the cars are out being used and being seen.
Then people look at them and go 'that’s brilliant' - they don’t look at it as a polluting vehicle, they look at it as a beautiful thing that is driving round the countryside and people having fun. Particularly if you’ve got the right sort of attitude to cars which most of the people around these events do - people are very welcoming, you’ve got the car, you’ll show the car to somebody who comes over to have a look at it and it becomes a very positive thing so I think that’s a really positive movement in the industry. If the HCVA and us can help remove some of these road blocks that have come about because of Brexit and may come about because of ultra-low emissions that will be great because the more that these cars are used the better.