Petrol-heads of the North

In the heart of the UK’s Yorkshire, there’s a drivers’ club packed with some of the world’s best motoring art and automobilia.

Funny story… I’ve known Jonathan Turner through his fuel company and his car collecting for about 20 years. And I was aware that he had a big place in the North of England, where like-minded car people tend to gather.

But when I arranged to call in on the Vintage Heuer watch company at the grand-sounding Bowcliffe Hall, did I put two and two together that this was JT’s place? Not at all! The penny dropped only when driving into the immaculate stately-home grounds and spotting the ‘This Way, That Way’ signpost and smattering of classic cars, and confirmed once inside by the wealth of motoring art.

I soon discovered that Jonathan was out for the day, and it wasn’t long before the expected “Lillywhite, you plonker” text came through. But what a venue to visit – and what an obvious article for Magneto; the first time Bowcliffe Hall has been shown off in a car magazine. Some features do come more easily than others…

The Hall serves as the HQ for Jonathan’s business, but it’s also a conference centre, a wedding venue, offices for other businesses including Bonhams and Vintage Heuer, and – most importantly for us – the location of the Bowcliffe Hall Drivers’ Club. The club is by invitation only, with a set amount of members, but it’s also open to visits from car clubs, rallies and any other groups that will appreciate the mix of English fun and eccentricity mixed with high-class surroundings and automobilia.

Built in the early 1800s, Bowcliffe Hall was bought in 1917 by pioneer aviator Robert Blackburn, who went on to become a major force in aircraft manufacture (think of the Blackburn Buccaneer, later the Hawker Siddeley Buccaneer). “During the war, the great and the good – Winston Churchill and all sorts – came here to see Blackburn because he was a significant maker by then,” explains Jonathan Turner when I finally catch up with him.

Following Blackburn’s death in 1955, Bowcliffe Hall was bought by fuel company Hargreaves which, three decades later, was bought by the Turner family firm, the Bayford Group.

“Yes, in 1955 it changed from a private home to the head office of a global business,” confirms Jonathan, “and in 1988 we bought the business, and the property became our head office. And then in 2004, I did what is called a family management buyout – which is why I’ve had the freedom to be a little bit crazy, and grow and develop Bowcliffe Hall in the way that we have. It was madness, but it’s been great fun.”

Much of the madness Jonathan refers to is centred around the Blackburn Wing, a spectacular architectural treehouse creation built away from the house in the shape of a wing. It’s one of several venues on the estate used for weddings, conferences and meetings.

“About ten years ago, when I was thinking about restoring Bowcliffe, I also thought – as all boys do – that I’d quite like a treehouse. So I started off on this journey of planning a treehouse with an aviation theme. I thought about where these early pilots would have gone for a beer, a glass of wine or whatever… So I said: ‘Right I’ll build a pilots’ mess.’

“Then I thought: wait a minute, I’m not a pilot; my whole thing is old cars and racing and rallying. It’s in my DNA. But there’s a crossover between early aviation and early motoring, and Blackburn drove an old Alvis, so I thought I’ll be a little bit vain and create a drivers’ club.”

This is perfect territory for Turner; at a race, a rally, a concours or just a gathering of car people, you know he’ll be at the centre of the action. Now his office, in Blackburn’s old bathroom, overlooks a generous terrace that itself looks out into the house grounds with an Austin Seven van parked outside, a film-prop plane placed randomly on the lawn and the striking Blackburn Wing in the distance.

Inside are the ground-floor rooms that make up the drivers’ club, accessed via long corridors lined with motoring art – not all of it serious but much of it very important. There’s F Gordon Crosby, Bryan de Grineau, Russell Brockbank, Géo Ham and Alan Fearnley, as well as original early Shell posters and much more.

The leather-sofa-and-dark-panelling decor is very ‘Dawn of Motoring’ in era, with room for 85 guests or 35 seated for food. There’s more art and automobilia everywhere you look, much of it collected by Jonathan long before the birth of the club. There’s a huge Jaguar Leaper

above one door, spotted in a Kings Road junk shop years ago, and necessitating a hole to be knocked in the wall to mount it. And there’s a ladder propped up in one corner, randomly, which turns out to be from a Lancaster bomber.

All this is supplemented by custom-made pieces. “The corner light fittings are exact replicas of a Bentley radiator,” says Jonathan. Each has a different number, reflecting the winning Le Mans cars. The cover for the air-conditioning is a replica of a Rolls-Royce radiator topped by a Spirit of Ecstasy model.

“All the main light fittings as you go down the restaurant are British – Austin-Healey, MG, Jaguar… everything is a reflection of historic motoring. The chairs resemble Vintage Bentley seats, each with a brass plaque engraved with a Vintage Bentley-related name. Nobby Clarke for example, the chief mechanic, and Dorothy Paget, who funded the race team.”

As if you hadn’t guessed by now, the theme is UK motoring; the only non-British car featured is a Mercedes-Benz… being overtaken by a Bentley! Even the wooden floor was painstakingly crafted in the pattern of the Union Jack.

“So basically it’s been a labour of love,” says Jonathan. “And then you go: ‘Well, that’s lovely JT, brilliant. Now what are you going to do with it?’” The answer? Bowcliffe Hall Drivers’ Club is now a private members’ club, with an undisclosed number of members, staging its own events – most recently a celebration of 60 Years of the E-type – and with clubs, tours and rallies encouraged to visit.

I ask if I can join, to which the answer is: “I’ll talk to the selection committee – next time I look in the mirror.” Poor fellow, it seems he’s not found a mirror yet…

More information on