Not many people would let you bring your takeaway coffee into the cream interior of a new Rolls-Royce Ghost, particularly when you have already stained your white shirt with it, but Simon Kidston is one of them. The English-born Swiss national, educated in Italy and Switzerland, is the archetypal gentleman. He holds open the car door for me and then presses a button on the walnut dashboard to produce a cup holder.
In true James Bond-style, he gets his revenge a little later when he straps me into a bucket seat in a McLaren F1 (“the world’s greatest road car”), and then momentarily stops my heart as he accelerates towards Lake Geneva. This is the same model that the actor Rowan Atkinson crashed recently, he tells me casually, after the g-force has rearranged my face. Kidston regularly takes the car for a spin on German Autobahns at speeds of 220mph. Thank God for Swiss speed limits.
Kidston, 44, is not your average second-hand car salesman. Cousin of the famous British designer Cath Kidston and supplier of vintage cars to the very rich, the average price of the vehicles he sells is around €1m. Kidston’s favourite word is “heritage”, a term he uses frequently when discussing the Lamborghinis, Aston Martins and Bugattis that have passed through his hands. As he takes me around his six-bedroom house in Cologny (known as the Beverly Hills of Geneva), he shows me photographs of his grandfather, father and uncle, dashing British naval officers and Bentley Boys, a group of wealthy British motorists who raced those classic sports cars. It’s clear his personal “heritage” is steeped in fast living and fast machines.
Unpretentiously furnished, the house is filled with silver framed family snaps, and aerial shots of his early childhood home, Southover House in Dorset, an estate of around 1,000 acres and a Boy’s Own-style playground of Gipsy Moth biplanes and racing cars. It is immediately apparent why he has ended up as one of a small handful of people in the world who know enough to be a judge and master of ceremonies at the Concours d’Elegance events at the Villa d’Este hotel in Italy and at Pebble Beach in California, annual showcases of the world’s most beautiful cars.
While his beginnings could never be called humble, his early working life in the former inspection pit of the vintage car showrooms of Coys of Kensington was. The family moved to Italy in 1976 when he was aged eight, at a time when high taxes didn’t suit his father’s aristocratic lifestyle. They lived on an 800-acre farm near Siena in Tuscany. At 18, having finished school, Kidston found the job through his cousin Geordie, who walked past the Coys showroom one day.
Within months, Kidston had helped put together the first foreign auction for the company in Germany and, because he spoke fluent French and Italian, soon took over from his boss, at the age of 23. Not long after meeting his wife Rosie at the racetrack in Silverstone, he was headhunted by rival car auctioneers Brooks to set up a European business in Geneva.
Even in 1996, rents in Geneva were double that of neighbouring France, so the newly-weds took a three-bedroom property in France and commuted to Geneva. Driving from Geneva to Nernier one day, they saw a house for sale, and bought it in 1999 when the couple were expecting their first child Cassius. They spent SFr200,000 (£138,000) restoring the house, which was built in the early 1900s.
When a vacant piece of land next door came up for sale, with 20 sheep on it, they bought it in 2001 for SFr600 per sq m. “It’s almost quadrupled since then, but the other side of the road, where the houses are pied dans l’eau in Lake Geneva, is probably above SFr4,000 per sq m now,” he says. The six-bedroom house they built on the land is very Swiss in layout, with the two children’s bedrooms downstairs, along with two guest rooms and their nanny’s room, and the compulsory Swiss housing feature: a nuclear bunker – though theirs is filled with wine.
Upstairs in the light sitting room, with views over the lake, the rooms are separated by Indonesian carved door frames made of bleached wood. Unsurprisingly, Kidston’s private garage seems to take up most of the plot of land at the back, although, unusually for Geneva, they have a small swimming pool with a dining area next to it.
As he pours himself a glass of Chablis and smooths down his blue cashmere jacket, Kidston expands on his very first auction in Geneva in 1997. He managed to track down a rare 1971 Lamborghini Miura SVJ, originally built for one of the biggest classic car collectors of his time, the Shah of Iran. “The Shah of Iran had around 3,000 cars for himself and his entourage but this Lamborghini was definitely the star of the lot.” To secure the 10 cars, which had turned up in a warehouse in Dubai, Kidston had to drive across the sand dunes where the seller signed the deal to fly the cars back in a 747. With only four of these Lamborghinis in the world, Kidston prayed for a keen bidder. The buyer came in by telephone from the US, and the car sold for $497,500, five times the estimate, to the Hollywood actor Nicolas Cage. The year that followed was his busiest, as the auction house Brooks took over Bonhams and Phillips in the UK, and grew from 15 people to 800. Soon after, he was made president of Bonhams Europe.
However, after a few years, missing the petrol fumes of the high value classic car market, Kidston took three staff from his office to set up on his own, specialising in finding and selling “exceptional motor cars” from the late 1920s to early 1970s. His clients tend to be enthusiasts: Ralph Lauren, Ferrari collector Jean-Pierre Slavic or designer Marc Newson. “I like to deal with the person who respects the car, not someone who sees it as a boiled sweet trophy, a shiny bon bon, and who may not keep it the way it came out of the factory,” he says. Many clients are also looking for a sound investment. “Even since 2007, the rarest classic cars have increased in value by 25 per cent,”he says.
Kidston’s wife appears and explains why there are so many photographs of pheasant shooting: she was born into a Scottish family and they have a cottage in Perthshire that they visit regularly. What about entertainment in Geneva, I ask. “We like to waterski on the lake and the kids love wakeboarding.” And when winter comes? “We rent an apartment in Verbier and ski every weekend. It’s a super-healthy lifestyle out here,” she says. Healthy, as long as your heart can take the blood-curdling speeds at which Kidston might zip them to their destination.
“This model (pictured above) of my uncle Commander Glen Kidston’s aeroplane is my favourite thing because he was my hero. It is a replica of a state-of-the-art 1930 Lockheed Vega, built for him in Burbank, California – only five of which are now left in the world. Uncle Glen was a dashing character, who lived fast and made the most of life. In 1930, he won the Le Mans race with a Bentley racing car, and soon after he established the record of flying between the UK and South Africa in this Lockheed Vega in only 6½ days. It was April 1931 and he died a month later, aged 31, flying over the Drakensberg mountains in turbulence, when the wing sheared off the smaller plane he rented.
“Another favourite thing is this dusty magnum of 1928 Haut-Brion, a great Bordeaux vintage I’m told, although I have no idea what it tastes like. I keep it for sentimental value because it was the last bottle left in my late father’s cellar, and it reminds me of the musty smell of the wine vaults under Southover House where as a child I’d never seen a bottle so old.”