Lance Evans and Robert Burt share a passion. Both men, the first a Pennsy native and the latter a Brit, fell in love while still in their teens. It is an affair that has lasted through school, marriage, child rearing, and the formation of successful businesses. The object of their affection is a car, the Aston Martin, and their days revolve around it. The pair can been seen working for and admiring their mistress from the new home of their automotive businesses in Hopewell.
The set-up is a bit complicated, and includes a Lotus dealership along with the classic car repair and restoration business, Steel Wings. Burt, who found the building, on the site of the former Art’s Garage, owns the Lotus dealership, one arm of his Princeton Sport and Specialist Cars family of auto dealerships, which includes Saab and Honda outlets on Route 206. Evans owns Steel Wings, a business that repairs and restores Aston Martins worth up to $6 million – at prices that can exceed $250,000. His work ranges from engine repairs up to complete restorations that prepare some of the cars for the road and others for races, or for shows, which, in the rarefied world of top end classic cars, are called concours d’elegance. Burt, who has been racing for nearly two decades, is intimately involved in the day-to-day affairs of the Aston Martin operation.
"How often does he come over here?" repeats Evans, a laconic man with an easy smile, who has been working on cars since he was 12. "Three times a day." The visits include a morning look-ahead to the day’s work, a noontime stroll down the street to the Hopewell Valley Bistro and Inn for lunch, where both men favor the homemade soup, and a cup of tea at the end of the day.
The men met, fittingly enough, at Lime Rock, the 1.53 mile Connecticut race track perhaps best known as the place where Paul Newman frequently races. It is also the site of the biggest East Coast Aston Martin event of the year. "There I met a gentleman with a large mustache," says Burt, in an accent identical to that of Hugh Grant, looking across a lunch table on the porch of the Hopewell Valley Bistro, at Evans. "But it was golden brown then, not gray," he adds as a gentle jab at his laid-back partner. So began a 20-year collaboration.
Burt, who emigrated from London to the Princeton area in 1970, met Evans shortly after he purchased an Aston Martin and drove it throughout Europe in a group ride that featured ample socializing at inns along the way. "It was a phenomenal event," he recalls. He was smitten. He brought the car home with him, sold it, bought another, and joined the local Aston Martin club.
When his new Aston Martin arrived from the midwest, "it was not working well," he says. "I sent it to Lance, and when I got it back it was amazing to drive. I was blown away!" He promptly called to convey his gratitude, but got Evans’ machine. "I left a message, but I can’t repeat my exact words," he says in a typically ebullient manner, "not for a general audience. The gist was that the job was the definition of excellence."
Brought together by a car, the two soon formed a loose business partnership. In 1986 they agreed that Burt would find and buy Aston Martins, and Evans would sell them. Through the years, Evans also prepared a number of Aston Martins for Burt to race. Trusting one another from the start, "we never had a contract," says Burt, "and we’ve been doing that for 18 years. We were always trying to formalize it, but never managed to do that until this building came along."
Burt learned that the building, at 49 East Broad Street, was for sale about one year ago. "In the late-1970s it was Hopewell Motor Imports," he says. "It sold Lotus and classic cars. From 1979 to 1980 it was Paradise Garage. In 1984 it was a Volvo dealership. From 1985 it had different owners – Schroeder’s Auto Parts, Jacob’s Garage, Art’s Garage." He thought that the building would be a perfect place to house Evans’ Aston Martin restoration business as well as his Lotus dealership, then based in Ivyland, Pennsylvania. "It was the way to connect the dots a bit," he says, "and there is a little more exposure in Hopewell."
He brought Evans to see the building. "I said ‘wow’!" is how Evans reports his reaction. The building was in disrepair, its fine bones hidden behind overgrown shrubs, but he saw the potential. The pair agreed that the building had a lot of history, charm, and character. It could become "an old English garage," was Burt’s assessment. The two men bought it together, and promptly turned their attention to convincing the Hopewell planning board that a garage was still a good use for the site. They went armed with with renderings by Lambertville builder Vince O’Brien. Burt, a man who is uncommonly generous in praising those with whom he works, calls O’Brien "a visionary," and with his help they made their case.
Leading a tour, Burt points out the polished hardware on the wide front door. "Original," he says of the handsome brass handles. Some new woodwork has been added, as has a stained glass panel over the side door, but the overall effect is indeed one of a comfortable building, with dark wood floors and cream-colored walls, that has aged beautifully in place. Floor-to-ceiling windows wrap the front and extend to the side, giving way to more glass in the doors of the repair bays. Intimate, with a small showroom, decorated with racing prints and perfectly arrayed copies of sailing and car magazines, the place has none of the feel of a typical dealership – or a garage.
Beyond the showroom is a parts department, from whence Aston Martin parts begin their journeys to customers throughout the United States and across the Atlantic. If a part cannot be found, Evans and his team crafts one. Beyond the rows of parts is the garage, where some Aston Martins, along with the occasional Jaguar, MG, and other refined, richly pedigreed sports cars, sit grandly, awaiting their trips home, while others, their bonnets open, are worked on, and at least one, the most valuable of all, is exposed, stripped to its bare skin, in preparation for a whole new life – after extensive restoration – as Burt’s own prize automobile.
At first glance, the most astonishing thing about the garage is its sterility. It appears to have reached a level of hygiene that many health care institutions could only envy, and that few homes ever achieve. There is not so much as a speck of dust on the freshly-painted gray concrete floors. There is not a tool out of place. Evans finds nothing unusual about this level of housekeeping. It’s a good atmosphere for the mechanics, he says. They never get dirty, and it boosts the pride they take in their work. Besides, he points out, "it’s awfully hard to play catch up in a garage." Better to wipe up any spot of grease right away.
The cars out front, in the showroom, are Lotuses – candy-colored, low slung speedsters that Evans refers to at one point as "Saturday cars." They appeal to buyers looking for a fun vehicle, probably to drive only on sunny week-ends, although Evans does recall that he saw one being fitted for snow tires last winter, an indication of more extended use. They sell for between $45,000 and $55,000, generally to people who own other cars for more routine transportation.
The Lotus dealership, solely-owned by Burt, although it is housed in a building owned by both partners, was a sort of a self-awarded consolation prize. "We wanted an Aston Martin dealership," says Burt. He and Evans pursued one for five years and at a number of junctures thought that it was close to a done deal. Just when they got close, time after time, management at the Ford-owned company changed, and the deal fell through.
"We thought we had it nailed in 1998," says Burt. "I was heartbroken when I knew it was over. I was unhappy for six months." The right to sell the cars, which cost between $170,000 and $280,000, finally went to someone else, to Ray Catena Motor Cars, an Edison-based dealership that also sells Mercedes, Jaguar, Lexus, and Porsche.
"It was the logical choice," says Burt, without the least hint of rancor. "But it was heartbreaking, I can tell you that." Adding the Lotus dealership to his substantial stable of dealerships was a consolation, and he speaks with some enthusiasm of the Lotus’ newest iteration, the curvy, futuristic Elise.
But he speaks with something like awe in the garage when he points out an Aston Martin familiar to any 007 fan. "It’s the James Bond car," he says. Not the actual vehicle that appeared in the films, but one just like it. Gray and sedate, it is not a head turner, like the Lotus, or at least it would not turn the head of one without a knowledge of, and a reverence for, classic automobiles. It appears to be larger than a Jaguar, but smaller than a Bentley, and sedate, very sedate. Suave, but understated, like Bond.
While Burt points the car out as something special, he demonstrates – with great animation – that it has flaws. "Look here," he says, going to one knee behind the car’s refined tail. "Look at the paint from this angle." There are ripples, he contends. "Look at my reflection," he says, striding to the front door. "Do you see how the paint ripples?" The car was not originally restored by Evans, and it shows, says Burt. It was, in fact, a cut-rate job. "This is what you get when you spend $175,000," he says, before turning his attention to the car’s twin. The other Bond car on the premises was restored by Evans, at a cost of some $250,000. Getting down on one knee again, Burt issues a challenge. "Find a ripple in this paint!" he says. There are none, as the vehicle’s seamless reflection on his perfectly pressed tan trousers and navy sportscoat demonstrates.
Burt then explains that Evans no longer paints vehicles in-house. It’s not necessary, he says, because there are others who can do an excellent job. Evans’ magic is in preparing a car for painting. "It’s all in the blocking," says Burt. If there is not the most exquisite attention to detail in this preparation, the result will not be a flawless automobile, an automobile that has a chance to take a first prize at an Aston Martin competition. While winning does not involve anything as crass as a cash prize, it is nonetheless pursued wholeheartedly by Aston Martin faithful, about 50 of whom turn out for Mid-Atlantic events, while as many as 150 attend the annual Lime Rock gathering.
The Lime Rock event features a tour, a drive along a beautiful, fun-to-drive route that culminates in a magnificent lunch at a mansion. This is followed by a concours d’elegance at which one and all admire the cars, and then a race. The race, explains Evans, involves time trials. "The cars can go up to 130 to 135 miles an hour," he says. No safety equipment beyond a helmet is required, although gloves and driving suits are encouraged. Participants, the cars’ owners, tend to drive "way too fast," he says. But no one has ever been injured at the Lime Rock event, which began in 1971. While there have been no physical injuries, it is a good bet that a number of psyches have been damaged.
"Coming in third is one thing," says Burt of the judging that is at the heart of all Aston Martin events, "but coming in first is something else. There is a feeling that goes along with first place." Evans’ restorations have won a number of prizes at Aston Martin and classic car events, including Pebble Beach, by far the most prestigious. In 2004 a car he restored, a 1961 DB4 GT Aston Martin Zagato, won second in its class at the event, which is open only to those who have been invited. The rare car, one of only 19 ever made, sold for $7,000 when it was new. After its restoration it is worth $6 million, says Evans. Its owner, one David Sydorick of Beverly Hills, owns many classic cars of this caliber, and some that are even more grand. Restoring cars like these in a way that will result in a chance at a best-in-class award entails making sure that they are historically accurate down to its tiniest bolt. The work can take 5,000 to 7,000 hours.
Such a restoration is underway in a room behind the main garage. Burt leads the way and shows off a naked Aston Martin, stripped to its perfect, gun metal bones.
"It’s a 1951," says Burt, "the first Aston Martin ever shipped to North America." It is his car, and Evans is restoring it for him. He plans to take it to LeMans, the storied French track, next year, where he will race it. Every engine part and instrument has been removed. The upholstery is gone. There is nothing but a shell. Evans is rebuilding it "from the ground up," says Burt. Work is going slowly. The car, found in Canada by a friend, needed substantial work just to get to its current state of undress. "The body wasn’t quite right," says Burt. "Lance has spent one year on it."
And what color will it be when it is ready to roll? "I hadn’t thought about that," says Burt, "but we’ll probably paint it Aston racing green."
As he talks about his newest Aston Martin, Burt displays the ardor of one caught up in first love. His manner is much the same as he walks among the classic cars in the garage, and even as he shows off the extensive, neatly-cataloged folders of parts on their pristine shelves in the space between the peacock-like Lotuses and the dignified Aston Martins. His passion for fine cars has not dimmed since the time when he was a boy and his father took him to see races at tracks near their home in London, including the Crystal Palace park.
Burt’s father was a publishing executive and his mother stayed at home with him and his brother and sister. "We were a classic post-World War II family," he says. After attending prep school, the American equivalent of public schools, in his younger years, he had his public school experience, the American equivalent of private school, on a British naval ship. "But I chose not to go into the Navy," he says. "I got involved in autos." He did so by serving a two-year apprenticeship at the Land Rover car company. At about that time his father was offered a post in the United States. The new position involved spending time in both New York City and Philadelphia, and so he and his parents split the difference and moved to the Princeton area, leaving his siblings behind to finish their education in England.
Burt enrolled at Rider after coming to the United States, and graduated in 1974 with a degree in economics. Armed with the degree, he promptly began to look for a location in which to open a car repair shop. With the help of his best friend, whom he has long since bought out, and a $7,500 capital infusion from his father, given in exchange for a 75 percent stake, long since repaid along with a handsome profit, he opened Sports and Specialist Cars on Arctic Parkway in Trenton.
Burt serviced Jaguars, BMWs, Alfa Romeos and other spirited vehicles. Self-taught with an intuitive understanding of all things automotive, he learned as he went along. In 1979 he became an Alfa Romeo dealer on Olden Avenue in Trenton. The following year he landed a Saab franchise.
In 1982 the building burned to the ground. "It was a transformer failure," he says. "We lost everything." His father, drawing upon memories of the World War II bombings in London, and the work that went into restoring businesses in that city, "was amazing in implementing a post-fire business strategy," he says. He worked from a trailer for nine months, and then rebuilt, back on Arctic Parkway. He was there for five years before moving the Saab dealership to its present location on Route 206 in 1991. He has since bought Honda and Mazda dealerships, also on Route 206. He is married to Holland Burt, a writer whose by-line has appeared in Vogue, Harpers Bazaar, Elle, and a number of other magazines. They have an 11-year-old daughter and 8-year-old twin boys. He also has a 25-year-old son from a former marriage, who lives in Manhattan.
Like Burt, Evans had cars on his mind as he went through school. He attended schools in Abington, Pennsylvania, where his mother was a reading specialist and his father a mechanical engineer. "I worked from the time I was 12 for a fellow who repaired sports cars," he says. "He was on my way home from school." He attended community college with no real vocational goals in mind before being drafted in the Vietnam war era. He served his time, but at no time entertained a notion of making the service a career. His father had met the president of Aston Martin Lagonda Inc., the U.S. arm of the car company, at a luncheon, and was able to help him get a job at its King of Prussia distribution center.
The facility shipped cars all over North America, but not before they were fitted out to the specifics of the DOT and the EPA. "Now they make ‘world’ cars," says Evans, but two decades ago cars coming from Europe did not meet American safety and emissions standards. It was Evans’ job to get them up to standard. He also did a lot of "street repairs."
When Aston Martin moved to New York City, it left behind customers in need of repairs, and Evans filled the breach, repairing cars "from all over the country and from out of the country" at a shop he started in Abington, and then moved to Oreland, and then Ivyland, before setting up shop in Hopewell with Burt.
Evans recalls that he passed his first days as a business owner by bouncing a tennis ball over and over and over. Then the customers started coming, and he has not had a single tennis-ball-bouncing moment in the ensuing 25 years. At one time he took all the work that came his way, and employed 16 mechanics. Backlogs then were as long as two-and-a-half-years. He soon found that that was too long. The cars’ owners did not need their Aston Martins to get back and forth to work, and were willing to wait a reasonable time, but got restless as the calendar kept flipping. Now he has only four or five mechanics on staff, and accepts a number of cars that keeps his backlog to three-and-a-half to four months.
Finding mechanics is a challenge, and retaining them is a greater challenge. Technicians will not do. Trained on computers to diagnose the ills of the modern automobile, they do not have the skills needed to work on classic cars. Burt tends to recruit people from other trades, including welding, and trains them. "And then they leave," he says. "I’ve trained three lawyers; one of them is a judge now." It is a good bet that the trio of lawyers will not be returning, but it is common for other mechanics to come back after a spell of working someplace else.
While Burt, an avid sailor as well as car racer, appears easily able to outlast the Energizer Bunny, keeping going and going, adding more businesses, more cars, more activities to every day, Evans is ready to slow down a bit. Married to Diane Evans, director of nursing at a skilled facility for geriatrics, he is busy with his two daughters, ages 15 and 16, whose extracurricular activities include flying lessons, and, at age 57, is thinking about retirement. He has no timetable, but has brought in a partner, Jon Clerk, to ensure continuity – and to allow for the possibility of a little downtime in the interim. "I brought him up from Florida in 2000," he says of Clerk. "I worked with his dad at Aston Martin Inc. He had a business in South Florida with his dad." In time, Clerk will probably take over Evans’ business.
But not yet. As Burt takes off to look in on his Route 206 dealerships, Evans talks about the cars now in residence in his new Hopewell garage. Not your average local garage, Steel Wings’ clients usually end up in its bays only after a long journey. "The blue V8 came from California," says Evans. "It didn’t run well. It had just had everything done, but it was a bad job." He doesn’t know a whole lot about its owner, but in the background of one of the photos that preceded the car’s arrival he saw "kids playing croquet in a polo paddock."
"The teal blue came from Western Canada," he says. "It had a bad engine, a rebuilt engine." It too had been worked on at another garage, most likely one not intimately familiar with Aston Martins, before making the trek across the continent and down to central New Jersey for expert attention.
The classic Jaguar across the aisle has a convoluted story. "A customer had an Aston Martin he couldn’t sell," recounts Evans. "Rob (Burt) had a Porsche and traded him. Then an Englishman bought the Aston Martin and traded the 1968 XKE (Jaguar) for it, and we just sold it to a Princeton guy."
On to a simpler scenario, he points to an Aston Martin "just in from Ohio." Newly purchased, its owner sent it on because, says Evans, "it needs some sorting out."
Evans says that he and Burt rarely meet their customers, but they share a bond. It is a good bet that none of them questions the reasonableness, let alone the sweetness, of lavishing tender care – along with hundreds of thousands of dollars – on objects that most of their fellows take for granted as necessary accessories to a working, child rearing, errand-running life. Some of the cars over which they labor are indeed sculpture on wheels, others, to the untrained eye, look more pedestrian. Love it turns out, once again, can be blind. But clear-sighted or not, Burt and Evans’ passion for classic cars is constant – and all-consuming.
Steel Wings, 49 East Broad Street, Hopewell 08525. Lance Evans. 609-466-5305; fax, 609-466-5346. www.steelwings.com
For another car story see www.princetoninfo.com/200506/50622s01.html