Brake time

15th September 2000 at 01:00
Eschewing the classics for that Eighties icon, the Ford Escort, history teacher Nick Jeynes has built up an impressive collection of motors. Steven Hastings on one man's life-long obsession.

Remember the 1980s? Remember Wham!, Maggie Thatcher and power-dressing? If so, then you probably also have fond memories of the go-faster stripes on the side of that other Eighties icon - the ubiquitous Ford Escort. For history teacher Nick Jeynes, that past is still very much alive. He spends his time collecting and restoring cars of all ages, but it's this Eighties classic that he really loves.

Five of the eight cars outside his Worcestershire home are Ford Escorts. There's an RS Turbo, a Cosworth, two XR2 Mk1s and an XR3i Cabriolet for the summer. He also owns a 2.8 litre Ford Capri. Then there's the souped-up Mini he takes racing, and the camper van he uses to transport it to race meetings.

"If I get bored of one car then I just buy another," he says. "I've got through 38 cars in the past 16 years. There's always something I have my eye on."

Nick attributes his car fixation to childhood memories of his dashing godfather returning home from RAF duties to take him for a spin in the latest sports car. Over the years, a passing interest has become a consuming obsession. "Once you get a taste for cars it's like a disease," he says.

As one might expect of a history teacher, Nick has little time for modern cars, though the reasons for this are purely practical. "The problem with cars from the early Nineties onwards is that they are controlled by electronic sensors. It's hard to do repairs yourself. Cars from the Eighties are like the ones I grew up with, and they're easy to maintain."

Nick's mechanical expertise is largely self-taught, much of it acquired when he restored an old MGB from scratch - the condition of his vehicles is a matter of great pride. "People suggest I'm environmentally unfriendly, owning so many older cars. But the fact is, these machines are all tuned to perfection. They're not old bangers belching exhaust fumes and guzzling petrol. Not one of my cars has ever failed an MOT."

Not that Nick is keen on bragging about his mechanical prowess. "If you let on you know about cars, word gets round and suddenly there's a queue down the street," he says. "It's easy to become an unpaid mechanic for the neighbourhood."

And so maintenance takes place in Nick's pristine garage: a three-berth, centrally heated, fully carpeted workshop. The white-washed walls come with labelled shelving, hand-painted automotive logos and the obligatory topless model calendar. "As soon as my wife and I moved in, we built a decent garage. After all, I'm often here until midnight. Then we paved over the front garden to provide hard-standing for up to six vehicles."

Previously, Nick lived in a flat - problematic for a man with eight cars. "There was one parking space per resident. Fortunately there were lots of elderly people who didn't drive. I'd spend time making friends and doing them favours, then I'd ask them for their parking space."

Nick has been married to Nicola for 11 years, but she is no long-suffering car widow. In fact, she readily admits that she too has caught the disease. And, as a technology teacher, she knows a bit about spark plugs and fuel injection. "I don't know what I'd do without her," says Nick. "She's the only one who can get at the nuts and bolts on the Mini. My fingers are too chunky."

Nicola also acts as a pit-stop mechanic at race meetings, changing tyres and topping up the oil.But does she resent the amount of time Nick devotes to his mechanical mistresses? "Not at all. We have some serious fun with the cars. It's brilliant to go off touring the continent in a nice, sporty open-top. I just sometimes wish he spent as much money on me as he does on them."

Ah, yes. The expense. Nick is unwilling to estimate the amount of money his hobby has swallowed up. But he does admit that it's the sort of sum that could have "bought a second home or put four kids through private school".

He manages to keep down the cost of insurance by limiting the permitted mileage on each vehicle, and by buying policies in bulk. The cars all need taxing, and keeping on top of the paperwork can be a struggle. Even life insurance proves complicated when you list motor racing among your hobbies.

And while it may not be Formula One, Mini-racing is still a hair-raising, high-octane sport. His car has been modified beyond recognition, and, according to Nick, it's quicker off the mark than the Porsche 911 he once owned. "It's a simple formula for speed," he explains. "The chassis is light, the engine is huge."

During race meetings he competes against other car enthusiasts, sometimes in front of thousands of spectators at big circuits like Donington and Silverstone. The crowds arrive expecting high-speed thrills and they're rarely disappointed. Three years ago, Nick "totalled" his Mini after a steering rod snapped on a chicane and he lost control. "Probably my shoddy welding. I was fine, but the car had to be more or less rebuilt. It's only just back to its best."

So what compels a man to risk life and limb every weekend instead of mowing the lawn or putting up shelves? "I love the competitive side to it. You're matching both your car and your driving skills against other vehicles of a similar level. It often comes down to a few hundredths of a second. And you see familiar faces who over the years become friends."

Nick is able to offset some of his racing expenses by selling many of his other cars at a profit. Loving care and restoration ensures classic models increase in value. "I'm a purist," he explains. "I keep the cars exactly as they would have been when they were built. Most XR2s have since been fitted with boy-racer hi-fi systems, but not mine. It's just got its original crackly radio, which predates FM. That kind of detail can transform an old car into a collector's item."

Nick is always happy to use the cars to raise money for charity. Last year his wife and brother helped him drive from John O'Groats to Land's End and back. The 37-hour round trip - allowing for a 15-minute break to sample the delights of Land's End - was made in a 2.8 litre Ford Capri. "We took a full tool-kit with us, but we never needed it. The car didn't miss a beat."

His fleet of cars fascinates his pupils, giving him instant credibility. Some models prove more interesting than others; the all-time favourite was a Caterham. "It's the nearest you can get to a racing car on the road," he says. He likes it when pupils show an interest and is always happy to give impromptu lessons on the history of the internal combustion engine. He's also thinking of changing direction in his teaching and moving from history to retrain in technology, exploiting his mechanical expertise to the full.

The summer holidays provided opportunities for some "serious driving". But he says he's considering a change. "Perhaps my obsession with cars has gone too far. I'm thinking of trying something new - learning to ride a motorbike."

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