Hooked on Classics! at the Deer Park Hotel
- Credit: Archant
Stephen Poat is the curator of the Deer Park’s classic car collection. From the outside it would appear to be the best job in the world! Steve Jennings spoke to him.
By his own admission, Stephen Poat, is a very fortunate man. Not only does he get to call the wonderful surroundings of the Deer Park Country Hotel his workplace every day, but he gets to do a job that fuels his passion as he is the curator of the hotels classic car collection.
Stephen manages the restoration and upkeep of ten fabulous cars, which form the personal collection of Deer Park owner Nigel Wray. Among them there’s the 1930 Chevrolet Universal Phaeton, which Stephen used to own, that has been used in Agatha Christie’s Poirot. And there’s the immaculate looking 1959 Alvis TD 21 DHC, one of only four to have left the factory in Primrose Yellow. And Porsche, Mercedes, Rolls Royce and Jaguar are also represented in this collection. And they are all stunningly restored. And every one of them has a wonderful tale to tell.
The love of classic cars started for Stephen at the tender age of three, when he had a ride in a silver Ferrari Dino: “I remember the look of it, the smell of it and, most importantly, the sound of it”, he recalls. “It hit a nerve.”
And, at a relatively young age, Stephen would start his own classic vehicle collection: “My father was buying an Austin 7”, he recalls. “And the guy he was buying from had a Chevy in his barn. It was very shabby but I just fell in love with it. I was 11 years old. I told him that one day I would own it but was told it would never come up for sale.
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“Then, when I was 20 in the late ’80s, I got a call saying the car was available and did I want it? So I walked into my bank – as you do – left with the money and purchased the car.”
Owning such a prestige vehicle opened up new contacts for Stephen. And with that experiences of driving and maintaining other classics too, including a Rolls Royce Phantom 2.
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And it proved invaluable to him as it was definitely a case of right place and right time that helped land Stephen the opportunity to work in conjunction with the Deer Park in the first place: “I was here as a guest for my stepson’s wedding”, he recalls. “I saw one of the staff trying to start the 1937 Packard v12 – and not doing a particularly good job of it as there is a knack - so I stepped in to help and started the car.
“And then I noticed the Rolls and was talking to the director and he told me they had problems starting this car. Apparently four local garages had tried and failed. So I got that started too.
“Afterwards I was asked to leave my number at reception and soon after was called to say the owner, Nigel Wray, was coming down and could I take him out in his car. So I did. And on the way back he told me he was looking for someone to run his collection and asked if I would be interested.”
Despite the love of cars, this job offer was still a big decision for Stephen as he was approaching a land mark birthday and in well-paid employment at the time. But the lure proved too strong and the offer was accepted. And when one certain car was suddenly available for sale, Stephen was keen to add it to the collection; the car he previously owned, the Chevrolet Universal Phaeton, built in Michigan 1930. Mr Wray agreed and it now sits proudly with the others.
The Deer Park collection was started a few years before and was subject to an amount of bon chance as it was after the intervention of a major motoring TV personality: “The Jaguar XK 150 had sat outside the hotel for about 18 to 20 years”, Steve recalls. “BBC’s Top Gear were filming in Dunkeswell and some of the crew were staying here when James May spotted the Jag and pulled our MD, Mark Godfrey, to one side and asked him why he was allowing these British heritage cars to rot.
“So the decision was made to put that, and the other cars, into restoration. The Jag had no paint on it, the interior was in a horrible state, no glass – it was awful.
“So we started the restoration with the original engine and an enormous attention to detail. We restored it in double quick time and knew we had a special car. But we didn’t know how special.
“Then one day a visitor to the hotel – quite an elderly chap – saw the vehicle and froze. He told us he couldn’t believe what he was stood in front of and he told us the history and that this was Jaguar’s press release car for this model way back in 1958.
“I did some research and looked at Motorsport magazine from October 1958 and, sure enough, there was our car. And it was also the car used at the Geneva Motor Show that year.”
This year the Deer Park’s Jaguar XK150 will be on show at XK70, the Jaguar Festival, at Shelsley Walsh from June 9, where it will be very much the show’s guest of honour. And the car will be reunited with the original driver who accompanied it to Switzerland way back in 1958, Norman Dewis. It is a car that Jaguar Heritage would like to buy back, and they have attempted to, but it is not for sale!
The thing that grabs you when you are in the presence of these amazing vehicles is the attention to detail. Second best is never allowed; the leather for the upholstery has to match that of the original design. Even the stitching has to be the same as the original, the wood, the paintwork – absolutely everything.
The cars are all elegantly displayed in a showroom at the hotel, which was built in 2016 with some other fabulous memorabilia. Also in the collection they have a “Mr & Mrs Rolls Royce” – one being a 1926 Rolls Royce Phantom – and two of Nigel Wray’s previous vehicles – a 1976 Mercedes 450 SL and 1985 Porsche Carrera 3.2 Cabriolet. And they are all marvellous company.
The collection was formed so people can use them and enjoy them. And the collection is not just for visitors of the hotel, as they can be booked for special occasions and for wedding car hire. And then there’s the highly rated Cream Teas & Classics.
So does Stephen believe he has the best job in the world? “I reckon so”, he says. “It’s so multi-faceted as you get to work with people from all walks of life. Some people remember the cars from when they were younger.
“But what’s funny is when people ask me if their young children can sit in our cars”, he says smiling. “And I tell them to be careful because, once they are in, this may prompt an incurable disease that can’t be reversed. A love affair that cannot be undone. Just like it did with me when I was three.”
To see the full range of the Deer Park’s Classic and Vintage Car Collection, and to enquire about availability for use at special occasions and for wedding car hire, contact the team on 01404 41266, email email@example.com or visit www.deerparkcountryhotel.co.uk/classic-car-hire/ to download the brochure.