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Ringing the Changes

I currently drive a nice Range Rover, it has all the toys, bells and whistles but if I'm perfectly honest I don't bother with many of them at all. However, I wasn't always like this; When I was but a callow youth, cars, or more accurately 'supercars' played a big part in my life. I knew every model on sight, and I could reel off the 0-60 speeds on the vast majority of cars driven by footballers or celebrities. Sad but true.

If I was an 'enthusiast' - my mate Dave's knowledge knocked me into a cocked hat. Whilst I drooled over Porsches and Ferraris and dabbed myself with Ralph Lauren aftershave, Dave had a monthly subscription to Practical Classics and always smelled of engine degreaser. My very first car was a Ford Escort with big wheels and go-faster stripes down each side and the insurance was ridiculous - but I thought I was the 'Canine's Credentials'

Dave, on the other hand took a road less travelled. Whilst our little group of friends tore around in hot-hatches with tinted windows, Dave tootled along on in a brown rusty MG Midget. In fact the bodywork was in such bad condition it was hard to tell where the paint finished and the rust began. On the plus side, he had joined the MG Owners Club and as a result his 'classic car' insurance was less than £50. We all joked that you could hear Dave's car coming before we could see him. Although not in a good way.

Whilst I went off to university, Dave enrolled at the local college to take a course in car mechanics, and to his credit he passed with flying colours. I returned home three years later to learn that Dave was coming to the end of his apprenticeship at a local garage and had a nice sideline buying cars from the local auction, tarting them up and selling them on. My own car at that time was a MK1 VW Golf and it had developed a worrying noise from the engine, so I naturally rang Dave for advice. He told me to bring it around to his Dad's house on Friday night, drop the keys through the letterbox and he would have a look at it. He rang me the following morning to say it was all sorted and I agreed to collect it. When I arrived he had his head under another old MG and told me that my car had been a simple enough fix and all I owed him was a couple of pints. We spent half an hour catching up when he offered to show me his workshop. Not wishing to offend him and grateful for his efforts, I readily agreed.

He took me down to the bottom of the garden to another double garage built of breeze blocks with a huge roller-shutter door. As we stepped inside I saw yet another two MGs, the first appeared to be ready for the scrapyard and I suspect it was only the rust worms holding hands that prevented it from falling apart. The other was in pristine condition albeit missing its number plate. I laughed and joked that clearly he was dealing with both ends of the market. Whilst I have always been incredibly secretive when dealing with my own 'adventures' Dave was more candid than he really should have been.

Whilst at college he had continued his love of collectors/classic cars. He had restored a few and sold them on for a decent profit, however, producing a roadworthy and good-looking example took a huge amount of work.Dave would often buy 'donor cars' to provide a supply of spare parts to restore another car, swapping the bits over was time consuming, dirty and even working every spare hour after work meant at best, he could only complete one restoration a month.

One of his college classmates 'Perry' was also a fellow classic car enthusiast, and had suggested an 'alternative business strategy' This involved Dave scouring the local classifieds (this was pre-internet!) for a scrappy but collectable car that he could buy cheaply, but when 'restored' would sell easily and for a good profit. He would quite happily knock on doors and ask people how much they wanted for the scrap car under the hedge that was slowly being consumed by ivy. He usually paid very little for them but always ensured that he got the keys and V5 (Log Book) with them as this is where the true value of the vehicle lay.

Once this was safely stored in his garage, Perry would find a good car of the same make/model. He would steal this car and drive it to Dave's garage. Dave and his Perry were both members of local motoring and owners clubs and knew from chatting to their proud owners at regional car shows and meeting where they where parked or stored. Cars of this age have locks than can be defeated using either very worn keys or even just a screwdriver, so breaking into them was a doddle. Steering locks can be snapped with a sharp jerk of the wheel and most owners didn't bother with any aftermarket devices such as alarms etc. as it reduced their 'originality' Restoring classic cars is big business and (believe it or not) you can legitimately buy new blank chassis plates onto which you can stamp any VIN (Chassis or Vehicle Identification Number) number you want!

Their first job was to strip the stolen car of its registration plates, chassis plate and any windscreen stickers that would help to confirm it's true identity. These would be burned or crushed so as to leave no evidence connecting them to the theft. These same components would be taken off the scrappy donor car and transferred to the stolen car. Door locks would be swapped over and a number of newly acquired reproduction stickers added to the windscreen, bumpers and body to further assist in morphing one car into another. They considered grinding off the engine number, however, this would look suspicious and many classic cars have replacement engines so if the engine number on the car didn't match the one shown on the log book it could easily be explained away. If necessary Dave would spray paint the car to match the colour shown on the log book and take it to a 'friendly' garage to obtain a fresh MOT. The entire process was completed in a weekend and it was far from rocket science. He would then sell the donor car for scrap, minus the log book or parts they had removed.

Perry would then park the newly 'restored' car on a busy road with a home made sign on the window advertising the car at a very competitive price. He was always careful not to park illegally or in such a way as to upset residents as either could attract unwanted attention. Very few cars took more than a couple of days to sell, and keys and the log book were exchanged for cash.

I ran into Dave about a month ago in a petrol station; he was driving a top of the range Bentley with a private number plate. Rather disingenuously I asked him 'How's business?' He said that classic cars remain his bread and butter, however, he has moved on from MGs to rarer and more expensive marques. He added that whilst he could steal my Range Rover easier and quicker than he could pay for petrol and strongly suggested that I should place my keys in a secure 'Faraday Cage' where the signal they emit cannot be intercepted or copied. He moaned that modern cars carry so many hidden additional identifying numbers that the work required to find and eradicate them all makes it all just too difficult. This was also the reason why Perry was now serving 4 years for 'ringing' half a dozen BMW 4x4s. Apparently anything remotely modern that Dave gets his hands on goes straight into a refrigerated and insulated container and straight off to the docks.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am no paragon of virtue so I would not dream of sitting in judgement of Dave or Perry. I also find it hard to have very much sympathy for the classic car community who happily buy 'reproduction' chassis (VIN) plates and letter/number die sets from the Internet that allow them to create a convincing copy of the original chassis plate in a few minutes. Can you imagine the uproar if you could buy blank bank cards with all the necessary logos and holograms and an embossing set allowing you to clone someone else's card? I'm not sure there is a huge amount of difference!

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