With its picture perfect cottages, historic market cross and bubbling brooks, it’s not surprising that Thornton-le-Dale has featured in so many calendars over the years, or picked up more awards for being England’s prettiest village than you could shake a stick at.
But while this picturesque gateway to the North York Moors is many things to many people, it’s fair to say it isn’t an obvious choice to base a business buying and selling classic cars. Even Derek Mathewson, who set up family firm Mathewsons, admits as much.
“If you were setting up in the motor trade I don’t think Thornton-le-Dale would be an obvious choice,” he says. And yet a former Austin Healey dealership in the village has become their HQ in recent years.
Derek actually first saw the garage shortly after moving to Yorkshire with his family in 1988. “I was driving past and noticed an Audi on the forecourt. I liked it so I stopped to see if we could do a deal.”
He got talking to the owner whose family had been on the site since about 1914. “It was a blacksmith’s during the First World War and was used for a detachment of troops, so it’s really steeped in history and it’s got a nice feel to it. I remember when I first walked in I thought ‘what a lovely place.’”
He told the owner he’d like to buy the site one day. “We laughed about it and then five or six years later it came on the market and we bought most of it. We had to buy it in bits and pieces and last year we bought the last part of it, and we now have the whole site, which is great.”
Thornton-le-Dale - home to the Mathewsoms’ motor museum operation - has become something of a mecca for classic car buyers. And it’s the vintage and classic vehicles side of the family business that is the focus of the UKTV series Bangers & Cash, shown on the Yesterday Channel earlier this year and which is returning for a second series due to popular demand.
The TV cameras follow three generations of Mathewsons - as well as Derek, there’s his sons David and Paul and grandson Jack, plus family friend and office manager, Sarah - as they discover and auction all manner of classic cars, vintage motorbikes and memorabilia. In one episode, they collected a rusty yet incredibly rare 1965 Austin Mini Cooper S from a garage, which ended up selling for £18,000 at auction.
For the Mathewsons, the story really starts in 1970 in Bedfordshire, rather than Yorkshire, born out of Derek’s fascination with vintage cars and motorbikes. “I remember buying an old Riley 468 a bit out of the blue and it lit a spark. I then went on and bought a BSA Bantam. They both appealed in terms of nostalgia and I thought I’d like to try and buy and sell some more, so it started by accident,” he says.
“When you begin in the motor trade you start off with old bangers and that’s what I did - Ford Anglias and Ford Cortina Mark 1s and Vauxhall Victors, things like that.”
By the early 1980s, Derek had grown the business which back then focused on commercial and modern vehicles as well as classic and vintage cars.
Towards the end of the decade, though, he had become disillusioned: “The classic movement seemed to have played itself out and I increasingly found myself driving all over the country looking at misdescribed rubbish and came to the conclusion that most of the good stuff had gone abroad to places like the US and Japan.”
He temporarily packed it in and it was only after the family moved to North Yorkshire that Derek slowly got back into classic cars again. Having been in the business for more than 40 years, he’s seen the whole industry change.
“It’s moved on two generations in 20 years. We’ve found that 1920s and 30s cars have had their day because the guys that like those old cars are dying out and the vehicles themselves have become too old to use, and I can’t see them coming back,” he says.
“We should be selling classic post-war cars from the 50s and 60s now, but with a few exceptions, like MGBs, it’s jumped that period and gone straight to anything with an oval badge - any fast Vauxhalls or Alfas.
“The average guy who rings up now asking about an old car wants a Ford Capri, and I laugh because it’s not an old car. But it is for a lot of people.” It taps into their childhood memories and a sense of nostalgia. “It’s what their father or uncle had and it’s what they aspired to when they were a teenager.”
Derek has amassed his own private collection of classic cars and motorbikes, but most of the vehicles bought in go to auction. They buy and sell around 2,000 classic cars a year and Derek is clearly proud to have started this family dynasty.
“I’m very lucky that both my sons were always interested in the family business. They both started in the workshop part time after school - David was changing clutches when he was seven or eight years old - and there’s nothing on a car they can’t do.”
And the long term future looks to be in safe hands with another grandson, 11-year-old Charlie, already helping out, too. “Charlie’s still at school but he loves popping in. He’s passionate about cars and he’s been here since he was four, he lives and breathes it.”
Derek himself still works seven days a week. “We have a passion for it. We have to earn money, but that’s secondary to doing the job because this is something we love doing.” This passion comes across in the TV programmes.
“I didn’t know what to make of it at first, but we’ve had some lovely comments. I was driving out of London a while back and I stopped for a break and a lorry came alongside us. A window came down and this bloke said, ‘I think the show’s fantastic, I love it, and I can’t wait to come up to Yorkshire’. The reaction of some people has just been amazing.”
The TV show has also been good for business. “The phone never stops ringing now and it’s brought some interesting people with some equally interesting old cars to our attention.”
And for Derek, the buzz isn’t so much about buying and selling vehicles, but unearthing rare gems. “We’re interested in things that have got a bit of age and history. We had a 1958 dumper truck that came in and I said it would cause a lot of interest and it did, we had loads of people wanting to buy it. So instead of fetching £500, which it probably should have done, it fetched £1500.
“I enjoy that sort of thing more than I do selling an E Type [Jaguar], because I’ve always believed in trying to offer unusual things that are a big talking point.”
So what would be his Holy Grail of classic cars? “We’ve got that in now and that’s an Aston Martin DB6 in barn find condition - it’s an amazing vehicle.
“When we were filming the first viewing of another iconic car - the Mini Cooper S - I walked up behind it and said on camera, ‘this is the find of the century’. And then blow me down the DB6 comes in, and this really is the find of the century.
“What will come in next? I don’t know… Perhaps another find of the century.”