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Guy Lachlan, owner of Classic Oils.
By Bira

A huge opportunity in the vintage and classic car community

📷Photography provided by Marcus Charter

A hobby became a career for Guy Lachlan after he bought a couple of businesses despite having no retail experience. Having successfully spun one off, he is now working on what he sees as a huge opportunity in the vintage and classic car community for Classic Oils and its sub-brands.

What does Classic Oils do?

We are a retailer – and now wholesaler – of lubricants, coolants and fuel additives for vintage, veteran and classic vehicles. We introduced our own brand about two years ago, and we act as a distributor across the UK and Ireland for Penrite oils from Australia. We own a related business called Tetraboost, which produces fuel additives, and another called Ethanil, which sells kits of my own invention to remove ethanol from modern petrol. We are based at Bicester Heritage, a former 1920s RAF base in Oxfordshire that was restored by a consortium of car aficionados as a centre of excellence for the specialist motoring and racing sectors. There are about 35 companies here.

It sounds like a very small niche…

It is. But niches provide one way for traditional retail to thrive! Overall, the classic car market is booming, and worth about £5.5bn annually in the UK. Veteran cars are from before 1905. Vintage cars date from before 1931 and Classic cars are anything collectable after that. We also cover motorcycles, steam vehicles and earlier diesel engines. People who own old vehicles spend a lot of money on them, and specialist oils are part of that growing industry.

How are your oils different?

Mainly in their viscosity. Modern car oils are very thin, so are not suitable for old engines. The chemistry of older oils is also different to allow for poorer filtration and earlier engine designs that incorporated poorly-lubricated rubbing surfaces.

What was your training for this?

My father had old cars and I was into them from an early age. In my early 20s I built my own car and started restoring cars. My first career was as an engineer in the world of private aviation. I ended up as CEO of the UK trade body for commercial private aviation companies. One day in 2009 I popped into Jones & Cocks, a hardware store on an industrial site in Aylesbury to buy some nuts and bolts. Chatting to the owner, I learned he wanted to sell, so my wife Claire and I bought it. It had been around for about 110 years – sensibly, it had relocated from the high street in the 1990s – and had a good business in supplying gas for BBQs, central heating, welding and so on. Given my motoring background, I introduced an LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas) filling station, which became important to the business. In 2010 I bought Classic Oils. It had been set up in 2002 but the owner was looking to emigrate.

How did you take to retailing?

For a while, I tried to run the business while continuing at the trade association, but as bira members know, retailing is a full-time job. From 2010 we added Classic Oils to Jones & Cocks’ offer, which helped to offset the extreme seasonality of heating gas. In 2011 I added a transactional website. In 2015 we opened Classic Oils at Bicester Heritage and then added our own-label products. In 2017 we sold Jones & Cocks to Flogas to concentrate on lubricants.

What’s the future plan?

Our sales are split pretty equally between our shop, our website and our wholesale activity. I run the business with Claire, a manager and one other colleague who looks after the warehouse. Early in 2018 we linked up with Fuzz Townshend, who is well known in our circles as the mechanic from National Geographic’s Car SOS TV show and we rebranded to incorporate his name and image in our logo. Going forward, we see brand ownership and wholesale as being as important to us as pure retail. Potentially, there are thousands of customers for us, any individual and garage that works on old cars. We’re starting a franchise model next year too.

You’re very involved in bira, sitting on its legal & parliamentary affairs committee…

Jones & Cocks was a bira member when I bought it and I could see the advantages of staying in. Having run a trade organisation before, I know how important they are. Like motoring, getting involved is in my blood!

Fuzz Townshend’s Classic Oils, Bicester Heritage, Bicester, Oxon OX27 8AL / / /


Personally speaking

Hobbies: Motor racing, bread making.
Cars you own: 1914 Fafnir racer, 1930 Singer, 1956 Berkeley, 1983 Austin Maestro.
Fave music: Anything!
Fave film: Apollo 13.
Fave food: Sunday roast with the family.
Fave drink: Coffee. I drink far too much of it.
Fave gadget: My infra-red thermometer. Thousand uses in the house and in the workshop.
Best holiday: Morocco in 2015.
Business or life hero: I’m a Bill Grimsey fan, but anyone in retail is a hero in my eyes!
Best advice received: From a boss when I worked in America, “Be right, but don’t be DEAD right.”
Life motto: Always improve.

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