An innocent pleasure in dismantling his toys as a child led Bob Fountain to create a multi-million pound business in his backyard, restoring some of the world's most luxurious cars.
An innocent pleasure in dismantling his toys as a child led Bob Fountain to create a multi-million pound business in his backyard, restoring some of the world's most luxurious cars. Then he went on to buy the pub next door. James Barton hears how he lives the life many men can merely dream of.
Bob Fountain is unconventional in almost every respect. He is a maverick and he likes it that way. Over 25 years he has managed to create a retreat set in 33 acres hidden among the rolling hills of County Durham.
"I grew up here," he points into the middle distance whilst puffing on a cigarette, "you can almost see Birtley, (near Gateshead) where I am from, beyond that hill."
On a gloriously sunny day, sitting on the patio looking down on his 300-year-old renovated cottage and enjoying the kind of silence only open countryside can bring, it is clear that Fountain is very happy with his lot.
And his love of life and his restless intelligence rapidly become apparent as he describes, in sentences peppered with raucous asides and robust language, how he has created a business famous around the world.
Fountain has built a 35,000sqft workshop employing 27 staff and a showroom - with 60 examples of the finest cars Aston Martin has to offer - only 200 yards away.
He recently invested £500,000 in upgrading his workshop and planted 10,000 trees over four acres to ensure the site blends in with its surroundings.
The business now sells about 50 cars a year, supplies parts worldwide and totally restores about five classic cars a year.
"It's a labour of love, an obsession really," he says. "When we first started renovating the cars it could take up to two years; we have now got it down to six months.
"We can build complete cars for people: it is a very big job, quite an art form and a real strength of the company. We do four or five a year and I would like to get that up to 10.
"There are a lot of skills involved: engineering, metalwork, painting, manufacturing, including glass and leather work - the list is almost endless."
It is the kind of work Fountain has always been interested in. When he was nine years old his mother bought him a broken Royal Enfield 250cc motorbike.
"I was the sort of kid who would dismantle and reassemble my toys," recalls Fountain, "so my mother thought it would be a good idea to get me working on something a little more advanced.
"That was definitely the start of the mechanical thing and I had a motorbike throughout my early teen years and got involved in off-roading until discovering cars at 17.
"I bought my first car off my brother-in-law and began rally driving which I continued until I was about 22, and then stopped when I discovered that I crashed too often."
At the same time Fountain trained as a photographer, in expectation of entering the family business. His older brother still runs the 58-year-old photographic company Mobile Photo Services (MPS) in Carliol Square in Newcastle.
Fountain says: "I started work there at 16 but my father had me in the darkroom developing pictures and I hated it, so I left and trained as a mechanic for two years, much to my father's disgust."
But Fountain had found his vocation. "I was a talented mechanic," he says proudly.
Soon the family rift was healed and he dutifully returned to become a partner in the family business.
However, it didn't last. Fountain, who had been living with one of his two sisters on a farm, discovered a derelict cottage near the village of Beamish and next to his favourite pub, The Black Horse.
"It had a huge rambling garden and I fell in love with the possibilities - so I bought it complete with two acres of land in 1982," he says.
Fountain was 27 and spent the next three years renovating the property, even buying 100 sheep and trying his hand at farming.
"I love this place. I suppose you could say I haven't travelled very far when you can almost see my home town from here.
"I was desperate to keep myself outdoors, in this beautiful landscape. Driving to work in the city depressed me, so I tried farming but didn't make any money at it."
It was at this point, in about 1985, that Fountain had his first encounter with the vehicles which were to change his life and which, through their unshakeable association with James Bond, have the power to turn women's heads and make grown men weak at the knees.
"A friend of mine drove up my drive in an Aston Martin DB5. I was hooked and we then spent two years renovating it in the sheep shed. At the same time I acquired two others and it grew from there.
"I left the family business for good and began buying, selling and restoring Aston Martins and supplying parts for them. Soon I had a couple of guys working for me and obviously Aston Martins have become valuable so the business became worth a few quid."
The casual flippancy belies Fountain's passion for his business and also the fact that he is a very shrewd operator.
"I have always appreciated the value of sales," he says, "without it we wouldn't grow or make money and it is thanks to my background and, in particular, my father, that I understood this from the very start.
"My father gave me a great grounding in the business world, an understanding of the importance of marketing and dealing with the customer. The retail experience helped me to be confident and those experiences have stood me in very good stead.
"I may not have thought I was learning at the time but working in a family business was the best schooling I could have had."
Fountain has made a career of renovating what interests him and he has spent years restoring his cottage and even upgrading the outhouse shed into another two-storey building next to the original cottage where he worked for a number of years building his business.
"It has not been easy and there were times when I had to call the bank to ask if they could cover for me and lend me an extra £40,000, times when I thought I could lose everything."
On his journey towards living the dream Fountain, now divorced, has even turned his attention to his beloved local pub.
"I used to come to The Black Horse pub as a teenager with my mates and I met my wife there and I found my home because of it," he smiles.
"So when it came on the market I knew it would take someone who cared about it to do a good job renovating it and no one is better qualified than me to do that."
Fountain is now in the process of turning the venture into what he likes to call a gastro country pub, in partnership with the chef.
He says: "We are growing the food on land behind the pub and then serving it up. I am also talking to architects and applying for planning permission so I can totally renovate the two-storey building.
"I have been developing the pub for four years and Tony and I are looking to turn it into a gastro-pub with all vegetables and herbs served on the plate grown on the garden behind."
The pub already grows 19 different varieties of apples, five varieties of potatoes and 20 types of herbs.
He says: "I am aiming to develop the best kitchen garden in the North-East and I have got plans to launch a micro-brewery. The object is to have the pub completely self-sufficient within the next year. Me and the chef have spent four years renovating it - we love it!"
But his work with the pub does not distract him from his beloved motor business. The website already attracts more hits than any other Aston Martin website outside the official site and more than half the firm's customers come from overseas, from as far afield as the US, Hong Kong, South Africa, Australia and Argentina.
"I am sure Aston Martin would prefer that we didn't exist because we act as competition to some of their services, but we are helping to preserve the Aston Martin marque around the world by promoting more awareness," he says.
The popularity of the website has led Fountain to plan an e-commerce site where customers can buy new and used Aston parts. He is also looking at an online gift and merchandise shop.
And, unsurprisingly, Fountain derives almost as much pleasure from driving vintage Astons as he does from renovating them.
Later this month he is planning to drive one of his most prized cars, a fully restored 1934 Aston Martin Lagonda, in the Peking to Paris Endurance Race. The race is the only transcontinental competition which covers the greatest distance between two capital cities and involves a 10-day stretch crossing Mongolia without any available fuel or water.
His eyes twinkle as he says: "We rebuilt the car in six months to be eligible for this race and completing it in time has proved what we are capable of. We have already shipped the car over to China in expectation of the start of the race on May 27.
"The first race happened in 1907; the second took place in 1997 and now I am taking part in this year's. I love the cars but have never taken part in something like this before. I have got no idea what to expect."
But it is unlikely that he would like it any other way.
What car do you drive?
I'm lucky because I have a choice of three fantastic cars. I have a Land Rover Series 1, a BMW 7 series and a 1936 two-litre Aston Martin, the latter of which I drive the most, especially in good weather.
What is your favourite restaurant?
Apart from my own pub, the Black Horse, I love restaurants but I think my favourite is Gaddi's at The Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. It's almost an institution in Hong Kong and has a great reputation for producing good quality French haute cuisine.
Have you ever broken the law?
Yes, I'm afraid so - with speeding fines! Laws are made to be broken - especially when you're driving an Aston Martin.
What's your favourite book?
That would probably be a cookery book. Cooking is another great passion in life for me and I'm always experimenting with different ingredients in the kitchen.
What would be your ideal job besides your current one?
This is my ideal job. There's no point wasting your time on something you don't love doing.
What's the best piece of advice you have been given?
Just get on and do it.
What's the worst piece of advice you've been given?
Don't do it! You have to be brave and just go for it in life - don't listen to anyone who tells you differently.
What's your poison?
Where to start? Wine, real ale and smoking!
What newspaper do you read?
I don't really read one, I never find the time.
How much was your first pay packet?
It was £6, and I worked hard for it.
What's your ringtone on your mobile phone?
I have a clip of me playing my guitar - a tune I made up that makes me laugh.
How do you keep fit?
I usually go mountain biking. I'm really lucky to live in the countryside so there's plenty of space to get out and about. I'd hate to live in the city.
Do you cook at home?
Yes, all the time. I'm passionate about good food - so much so that I bought my own pub!
What would you put in Room 101?
People who think they know everything, I really can't stand that.
What was your first car?
A little Hillman Imp.
What is the car you remember from your childhood?
My dad's black Austin Morris van.
Who is your dream passenger?
I wouldn't turn down Cameron Diaz if she wanted a lift.
Favourite driving soundtrack?
John Mayer - but I have a wide taste in music.
1954: Born in Birtley, County Durham
1965-1970: Attended St Joseph's School, Birtley.
1970: Joined family firm, Mobile Photo Services (now called MPS) and studied a City and Guilds in Photography.
1985: Started renovating first Aston Martin - a DB5 in a disused sheep shed.
1989: Work starts on building his first workshop in Beamish.
1996: Workshop is extended over a period of years to include engine, machine, trim, paint, body, metal and building rooms plus parts and storage.
1999: Showroom is extended to display 60 classic models for sale.
2005: Work starts on the new paint and body workshop.
2002: Bought The Black Horse pub, located near to the Aston Martin workshop.
2007: Launched new paint and body workshop - a 10,000 sq ft state-of-the-art facility.
May 2007: Bob is gearing up for his next adventure which will be the Peking to Paris endurance race in his lovingly-restored 1934 Aston Martin Lagonda, commemorating the 1907 race, won by Prince Borghese.