'If I Were a Millionaire, I’d Buy Vintage Cars Just to Look at Them'

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Imagine a day not that long ago, on an exclusive, 600-acre, 16th-century countryside estate near a small village in the English county of Devon. Winding peastone-gravel roads lead past pendunculate and Spanish oak and walls with rose arches, pines and parterres, rhododendrons and flowering shrubs to Halsdon Manor, the main house. There are a variety of outbuildings, including a stud barn for Arabian horses.



Charlie Watts


© IllUSTRATION BY MARIA CONTRERAS
Charlie Watts

This story originally appeared in Volume 15 of Road & Track.

Then imagine stately Charlie Watts, the taciturn drummer for the Rolling Stones—a band that, over its six-decade touring life, has played to millions of fans and, on the ’75 tour, brought a giant inflatable p**** nicknamed Tired Grand­father out onto the stage—emerging from the front door of the manor house wearing a bespoke suit stitched by H. Huntsman & Sons, as well as custom, hand-cobbled George Cleverley shoes.

It is just after lunch. An estate worker in charge of Charlie’s car collection has opened the carriage-house doors, fired up all 12 cylinders of the 1937 Lagonda Rapide convertible (one of 25 built), driven it along the gravel track to the manor door, and parked it there, engine running.

The Lagonda is a masterwork of W.O. Bentley, whose company had gone bust a few years earlier. His work at Lagonda produced a striking drophead that is both elegant and aggressive (one of them won the 1935 Le Mans). It is somehow a perfect match for the drummer.

Watts, snow-white hair swept back, steps into the running car and settles into the driver’s seat.

And there he sits, upright as if at a drum kit, though the stadium stage and blues rock couldn’t be further from his mind. He is listening to another kind of music altogether: The purr of the 4.5-liter V-12 plays like jazz in his ears, and an intoxicating vibration from the 60-degree separated cylinder banks passes through the seat up into the four-spoke steering wheel to his palms.

Watts had suits made to match each of his cars. He smooths his lapel and watches the Arabians circle the nearby training paddock. Some time passes, maybe an hour. Then Watts steps out of the car and walks back inside. The estate man drives the car back to the carriage house. The show is over. There is no encore. Watts got what he wanted and what he needed.

As a drummer, Watts was known for his effortlessness and his economy—he never played too much, seeming to revel in the poetry of restraint. Watts’s playing, like Watts himself, called little attention to itself. The only reason the jazz drummer joined the Stones in ’63, according to Keith Richards (who revered Watts), was for the money. Richards wrote, “We cut down on our rations, we wanted him so bad, man.”

Watts’s relationship with cars was so economical he never actually drove one. He was seemingly born an old man, a jazz aficionado, and a car enthusiast. “I don’t particularly want to drive,” he told a school newspaper when he was a student at the Harrow School of Art in 1960. “But if I were a millionaire, I’d buy vintage cars just to look at them because they’re beautiful.”

Funny how that worked out. Watts had a net worth of around $250 million when he died in 2021 and had collected, it’s assumed, dozens of cars worthy of his epicurean tastes, including a yellow Lamborghini Miura and, rumor has it, a Bugatti Type 57 Atlantic. His will, released in probate court after his death, contains an entire sheet itemizing his cars and to whom he bequeathed them; it’s the only redacted page.

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