The UK’s Most Expensive Number Plate page 2

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“With the money I’d borrowed I had put 10% deposits on £3 million worth of cars, saying to the dealers, ‘I’ll pay you in six months when I come into my inheritance. Of course, that was a complete lie, but because I had experience as an investigative reporter I had done my research and the market really was going up, so I plunged in.

“I bought out a big advert with twelve cars for sale. Suddenly, all these dealers phoned up saying, ‘You can’t advertise my car!’ They used a few expletives that I won’t repeat. So, I told them to check with their lawyers. I told them that they’d find that I owned the cars as long as I paid on time. I told them that they could sue me if I didn’t pay, but at that moment they no longer owned those cars [Laughs]. Some of them tried to send the deposits back but I refused. The ones who did check with lawyers found out that I was right. So, I sold all the cars and made half a million in profit in the six months before I had to pay for them.

“Funnily enough one of those dealers, Michael Fisher, who was a big Ferrari dealer for a long time, is one of my best friends now. Back then though, he was one of those guys who screamed and shouted. He ended up becoming a good friend because I ended up buying loads of cars from him.”

John’s company, Talacrest, rapidly built a reputation and between 1988 and 2000 became one of the world’s top classic Ferrari specialists. After more than a decade at the top of that game, John decided it was time to play a new one.

“Talacrest used to be the biggest in the world, but in 2000 I sold up because I was burnt out. I played polo instead, as you can probably see from the pictures [indicates photographs on the wall]. It’s funny: years ago I used to do stories and photos of Princess Diana for the papers but then I ended up playing polo with Prince Charles.”

At this point in the interview, John was interrupted by the phone. “Sorry,” he said after cutting the call short. “That was Chris Evans.

“I met Chris at an auction in London in 2007 – the first one I’d been to since 2000. He said, ‘I want to buy some cars.’ I told him, ‘Well, I’m not in the business anymore Chris. I’ll help you but I’m not cheap!’ [Laughs]. I told him that I would charge a 10% commission and he said okay. Anyway I put an amazing collection together for him and we became buddies. He’s still a great friend.

“In 2008 I broke my back. When Chris’s house wasn’t finished I told him to come and stay with me in my house. That was where I used to have all my horses but I had to give them away because the injury meant that I couldn’t play polo any more. Anyway, Chris and I got drunk, and you know what? Chris Evans bought my house off me when I was pissed, and I didn’t even want to sell it! He said, ‘There must be a price.’ I told him I didn’t want to sell, but he kept saying, ‘There must be a price.’ In the end I said “OK, there,’ and said a price. He just went ‘Done!’ [Laughs].

“Then next day, I said, ‘We were just drunk last night weren’t we? I didn’t sell the house to you?’ Chris said ‘What did you always tell me John? A deal’s a deal.’ So he bought my house. I liked that house… [Laughs]. But it was kind of big, you know, 15 acres.

“That car collection I put together for him? Well, I told him it was a five-year plan and I bought him a Ferrari 250 GTO. I sold it on his behalf for $25 million. The guys who bought it, a couple of years later sold it on for $42 million. $17 million in two years: not a bad return.”

Meeting Chris Evans set John on a new path – or, rather, put him back on a old one. Unable to play polo as he had done before his injury, John was ready to focus on something different. Chris’s request to assist with the acquisition of good cars steered John back into the habit.

“I restarted Talacrest in October 2007. The people who’d bought it from me – an American company – basically screwed it up: they’d started selling Cobras and crap. Anyway, I still owned the building, so I took it back. If it hadn’t been for bumping into Chris at that auction I probably wouldn’t be back in the car market, but once I started buying for him, a lot of old customers were like, ‘Oh can you get me this car?’, and before I knew it I was back in the game”.

Clearly, the love of cars, Ferraris in particular, is in John Collins’s blood. His enthusiasm for cherished registrations is similarly ardent – as might be expected in a man who would pay half a million pounds for one.

“I’ve also got HDT 1, VRP 1, 1 VRP, ENZ 40, ENZ 246 and then the three
I bought at the auction: 25 O, 250 L and 500 FER. They’re not all on cars; I have some on retention that are in the process of being put onto cars. With 25 O, nobody suspected me because I’m not known for buying number plates, you know, so it was a surprise.”

At the time of the DVLA auction at which John bought 25 O, the most prolific and widely believed rumour was that Chris Evans had purchased it. Although that wasn’t the case, it wasn’t long before John heard from him.

“Chris phoned me up and he went, ‘Do you know what somebody paid for that number?’ I said, ‘Yeah, it was a lot, wasn’t it?’. Chris told me that he liked the number but the bidding went a bit too crazy. When I told him I’d bought it, he said, ‘You [expletive deleted]!’ I hadn’t told a soul because I really wanted that number, you know?

“The car it’s on, 25 O, I’ve turned down nine million for it, and I know if I said £10 million the guy would buy it, but I don’t want to sell it. I can’t replace it.
Where am I going to get another? I did sell that car once and I bought it back. I gave the guy twice what he’d paid. The minute I sold it, I regretted it. That’s one of the regrets, [John points at a picture on the wall] up there with the California with VRP 1 on it, that is now worth 20 million bucks.

“I sold that to a friend who promised me, swore blind, that if he sold it he’d sell it back to me, but he didn’t. I’ve never spoken to him since because if I’d known what he was going to do I would never have sold it to him, you know? He kept it for a while and then sold it without even picking up the phone to call me. I was pretty angry. But what goes around comes around, and in 2008 he went bust. I thought, Yes! Thank you very much!”

Interview: Angela Banh
Story: Rick Cadger
Photography: Stan Thompson

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