Christopher Renwick – Architect of Today’s Classic-Car Industry

With the many billions of dollars’ worth of classic and collectible cars traded every year, it’s hard to imagine that the old-car industry is still only a few decades old. One of its pioneers is a quiet, thoughtful man from England who befriended me when I was just hired by a large auction house as their new in-house catalog writer in February 2008. As a lifelong car enthusiast and now able to align my formal education in History with my job, it was a natural choice to join the company, but I soon realized I was a nameless, faceless cog in a fast-growing company with plenty of staff turnover and a frantically growing auction calendar. At least it was not just another job, but my vocation, as I soon discovered, thankfully.

The company had just built a huge new museum/storage building when I was hired, and it didn’t take me long to venture across the parking lot to take a look inside. To my astonishment, there were dozens of the most rare and valuable sports, racing, and classic cars – all in one place. Most of them I had never seen before in person. While there, I saw an older gentleman searching for a book in a vast library through a large glass window. Little did I know I would one day befriend this man, whom I came to refer to as “Saint Christopher.”

While the egos and attitudes inevitably present at any company or office can challenge the most hardened veteran of the 1990s/2000s work world, I found the social matrix at my new employer to be closer to a viper pit. The guys in the restoration shop were far more accepting and friendlier than many of the auction staff, happily allowing me to hang out on breaks and lunchtime with them in their area. For his part, Christopher took the time to show me the latest cars he was hunting for the company and its many clients, or he would tell me about his latest idea for a new book he was planning to publish.

As our friendship grew, I learned a great deal about the collector-car and auction business from Chris. In fact, I believe he’s forgotten more about it than most people will ever know. Per the terms of my employment agreement with my department head, I soon began working on personal time to start consigning cars to the company’s auctions, something that came quite easily, given my prior banking and business-to-business direct sales experience. However, I soon encountered obstructions from management and clearly, no opportunities for job or income advancement. Both Chris’ and my time at this company eventually ended in mid-2012, and Chris contacted me almost immediately to discuss business opportunities. He freely shared contacts with me and referred me where he felt I could add value, especially in the area of vintage aircraft and warbirds.

Chris also told me about his early years working with classic cars, including adventures worthy of movies, or at the very least, several books. As was customary in upper-class English society, Chris attended boarding school and then from 1957 to 1961, he was formally trained as a professional chef and destined to run restaurants and hotels in keeping with his family’s business. However, at age 25 in 1966, following five years in the catering business and working in management at one of his father’s hotels, Renwick emigrated to the United States and eventually relocated to San Francisco. Finding himself unemployable as a chef, running low on funds and “…not interested in starting over again peeling potatoes,” Renwick found employment as a mechanic for a garage specializing in British sports cars, mainly Jaguar E-Types and Mini Coopers.

In one of the many fascinating twists and turns in Christopher’s lifetime, it was around this time in the latter 1960s when he received an invitation to attend the premiere screening of Bullitt from his friend and fellow Englishman Peter Yates, the movie’s director. As related to me by Chris, Yates told him he included something special in the movie that Chris would like. Later, at the screening, Chris soon found out what Yates meant during his call, with one of the movie’s “bad guys” having been named “Renwick,” pronounced “Rennick.” Chris also related that he had driven Yates around downtown San Francisco and the surrounding area in his Mini to scout the route for the iconic Mustang-vs-Charger car-chase scenes featured in Bullitt.

Since he had already been racing Jaguars in historic events in England and had a few excursions into Mini 1000 events and amateur rallies in a variety of cars, Chris was quite capable of advising friends and other young would-be competition drivers on how to set up their cars for racing at the local tracks near San Francisco, including Sears Point and Laguna Seca. From these simple but exciting beginnings, Renwick soon became the principal source of used racing cars worthy of being exported from the USA back to Europe. Mainly among them were Aston Martin DB3s, sports racing Ferraris, Jaguar C- and D-Types, Maserati 300s, and Tipo 60/61 “Birdcages.” In those days, (the late 1960s), these legendary racecars were rarely, if ever, priced over $5,000.

Quickly, Renwick became fascinated by the values of the finest classic and sports racing car values and their investment potential. One of his early clients by the early 1970s was John Calley, then-CEO of Warner Bros. and later CEO of Sony Corp. At the time, Calley was a collector of cars of the emerging ‘supercar’ genre, which soon experienced a significant drop in value. Seeking a change of his automotive investment direction, Calley asked Renwick to advise him of which important cars he would recommend as investment vehicles, versus acquiring them for their driving and ownership pleasure. Chris devoted considerable attention to the matter, eventually focusing his approach to the investment potential of automobiles along the parameters of Rarity, Performance, Styling, Drivability, and Provenance to formulate his groundbreaking algorithm for the investment potential offered by the few truly “Great Cars” that he believed would generate sizable returns on investment over the long term.

In the process of developing his “Great Cars” list for Calley, Renwick rejected the many outstanding pre-WW II cars, on the grounds of their more rudimentary mechanical systems and overall driving experience. In contrast, Renwick focused his attention on outstanding postwar cars and first concluded that the best buy in the market of the late-1960s/early-1970s was the Ferrari 250 GTO, of which just 38 examples were manufactured. His initial budget was $6,000 per car and at the time, the value range of these cars was only an approximately $2,500 to $6,000 in U.S. dollar terms. Renwick and Calley managed to purchase six examples. Given their value in 2018 terms of some $50-$60 million per car for prime examples ($48.4 for one at RM Sotheby’s 2018 Monterey auction and a reported $70 million for another via private sale in 2018), massive returns were theoretically achieved if the cars were held to 2018. However, Renwick and Calley set a modest, and as it turned out, easily-attained 100 percent price-growth target for the market-value increase on the six GTOs they purchased, selling the cars about four years later for roughly double their initial purchase prices.

After the early successes with the Ferrari 250 GTO, Renwick became obsessed by carefully-chosen older cars and their potential for superior investment returns. To obtain measurable data in support of his hypothesis, Renwick commissioned Messrs. Kennedy, Hudd, and Torrey in 1972 to analyze all classified advertisements published in the UK’s widely circulated Motor Sport magazine from 1960 to 1972 to chart the rise in value of significant cars during that timeframe. It is believed that Renwick’s methodical study is the first ever conducted to measure and quantify the rise in market values of significant older cars.

As written in the June 1973 edition of Motor Sport,

“Underlining the astronomical price rise of high-class pre-war cars, Kennedy, Hudd and Torrey tell us they have completed a survey of the market in vintage automobiles which was commissioned by Christopher Renwick. They used Motor Sport small advertisements in doing this because, they say, we are “the principal vehicle of general market information about pre-war, vintage and high-performance automobiles,” and because “an independent survey by Jicnars estimates its readership in 1972 at 1.5-million.” Continuing, Motor Sport stated, “This makes us feel good inside and is why “over the period examined all the major dealers in London and the provinces consistently took out display advertisements…The results of this survey should make dealers and speculators in such cars feel equally good.”

Christopher Renwick quite possibly initiated the first methodical study of price trends in the emerging classic-car market during the early 1970s. From the Rumblings column in the June 1973 edition of venerable U.K. magazine, Motor Sport.

Continuing during the early 1970s, Renwick collaborated with Charlie Howard, the owner of Coys of Kensington, at the time the largest classic-car dealer in the UK. Their business relationship quickly flourished, and Howard and Renwick went on to open the Coys classic-car sales showroom, which continues in operation today. Howard subsequently sold his interest in the operation for personal reasons and then Renwick was asked by the Hon. Patrick Lindsey, then-chairman of Christies the international auction house, to find suitable cars in America for consignment into their European auctions. If one looks at the London and Geneva auctions in the early 1970s, all the significant cars were Renwick purchases for Lindsey, and all were sold successfully.

Shifting his interest from 1950s sports-racing cars to the most important prewar classic cars, Renwick embarked on trips to India purchasing great cars from the fabulously wealthy families of the Maharajas, who during the 1920s and 1930s ranked firmly among the most prolific buyers of important cars. After buying 85 cars from India, an export ban was imposed by that nation’s government, putting an end to that endeavor. One very notable example of these ex-Maharaja cars is 32 PP, a 1919 Rolls-Royce 40/50 HP Silver Ghost Tourer, which Renwick had purchased from India and subsequently advertised for sale in the pages of the May 1970 edition of Motor Sport magazine.

Only temporarily frustrated by the Indian government’s heavy-handed export ban, Renwick continued undaunted, turning his attention to other good sources of great cars, firstly Thailand. With an introduction from Patrick Lindsey to Prince Bira, the noted racing driver of the 1930s-1950s, Renwick managed to buy a 1909 Rolls-Royce 40/50-HP Silver Ghost from Bira’s grandfather (the brother of the then-King of Thailand). Next, in Romania, Renwick purchased a Mercedes-Benz Type 154 Grand Prix racer for collector Terry Cohen, which Renwick subsequently repurchased for Symbolic Motor Company of La Jolla, California and sold by them to Miles Collier in the early 2000s.

In 1978, Renwick purchased Dalton Watson Ltd., the leading publishing house devoted to serious automotive subjects. With already over 30 books in print, all authoritative works on significant cars, Renwick added more than 20 further titles including the first definitive classic-car value guide, in 1987 through 1989. The latter edition included all known classic-car auction results up to that year. In 1989, Renwick sold Dalton Watson and after ownership by David Styles, it passed to Glyn and Jean Morris in 2003. From 1995 to 2005, Renwick was Contributing Editor and Co-Publisher, Renwick and Starkey Publishing Ltd., where he co-authored or published five titles on significant racing cars from 1998 through 2005.

As the classic-car industry expanded and matured from the 1970s through the present, Renwick collaborated with many of the top classic-car auction and sales organizations including Symbolic Motor Company, Coys (London, UK), Bonhams, and from 2005 to 2012, RM Auctions, where Renwick would serve primarily as a buyer of many of the company’s top auction offerings and architect of private-treaty sales from 2005 to 2012. During 2012, Renwick transitioned to a period of semi-retirement while continuing to counsel select private clients on how best to build their own private collections using his guidance.

Throughout his career, Renwick steadfastly adhered to his “Great Cars” selection criteria, quietly and diligently establishing himself as the pre-eminent expert in the classic-car market. Through six decades to date, Renwick is responsible for the sale of many of the greatest collector cars in existence, sometimes handling the same car several times through the years. Among them are the Alfa Romeo 8C 2900, Bentley 4 1/2 Litre, Ferrari 250 GTO and 250 Testa Rossa, Hispano-Suiza J-12, Jaguar C- and D-Type and XKSS, Maserati 300S and “Birdcage” sports racers, Mercedes-Benz 540K, and other cars in this rarefied league. While Chris has indeed been profiled by major media outlets including Forbes, he shuns the spotlight and prefers to work quietly in the background, making him quite likely the best-experienced and most-knowledgeable classic-car specialist you’ve likely never heard of. I am proud to call him my friend, but I am sure he would scoff at such sentimentality as “rubbish” in his inimitable way.

Here is a selection of Christopher’s ads from the early 1970s from the pages of Motor Sport magazine. Imagine what the cars in those ads are worth today! Clearly, Christopher is a man of uncommon foresight!

Most recently, I received the sad news that Chris had passed away at home in April 2019. We just spoke a week or so prior to his passing. He sounded unusually cheerful and we had a wonderful conversation, discussing ideas for future business, plus an extremely kind invitation for my entire family to visit him.

As mutual friends spoke with me, Albrecht Guggisberg from Switzerland shared with me two perfectly appropriate photographs of Christoper in his element, near Albrecht’s Swiss racing-bodied Alfa Romeo 8C 2900. To Chris, the 8C was the finest sports car of all time. This is how many of us would love to remember the man.

6 Comments

  1. David Neyens, thank you for the this beautiful article. This is Robin Renwick, Chris’ son. Can you please contact me. Regards.

    • Hi Robin, thank you for reaching out. I hope you and Chris are well. All the best, David

  2. hi david
    I like your article very much and it reflects parts of the personality of chris – whom I spent a lot of time with thinking over his (sometimes not so) crazy ideas about cars. the one remark on this article and chris is, that you totally omit the fact, that his partners in time – caroll spagg and john warth – who were equally involved in the succes of bringing fine classic cars back from the states to europe! these two were also (not always though) able to stop when he flying high on an idea *smiles*.

    • Hi Albrecht,

      Thank you for your comments. Chris was definitely a true original, especially when it came to formulating great ideas. I am happy he made many of them come to fruition. I first met Chris in 2008 and unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to meet Carol or John. A mutual friend told me to try and reach out to Carol. Would you know how I can reach her and/or John? Could you kindly contact me via personal email message at davidneyens1@gmail.com ? I am also trying to reach Chris’ friends to provide news of arrangements as Robin is able to make them, per his request.

  3. David

    Thank you for printing this important remembrance of a brilliant, insightful, and clearly one of the most knowledgeable visionaries and purveyor of truly important automobiles.
    An amusing soul.

    • Hi Martin,

      Thank you for your comment. He truly was everything you said. A true original. We were planning a visit to Spain. The last time we spoke a few weeks ago, he asked if we could come to see him. What a missed opportunity. Got me thinking. I really appreciate that you read the article. All the best to you and I hope we will meet again.

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