MERCEDES TRAVIS BREWER v STANLEY MANN
In this case, Mrs Brewer, an American attorney who had qualified as an English solicitor, took a 1930 Speed Six Bentley on hire purchase for a cash price of £425,000, £390,000 of which was provided by Fortis Leasing. The car was supplied by Stanley Mann Racing, the leading international dealer in this type of car. Mr Mann was represented by Wilmots Litigation.
A dispute arose because Mrs Brewer said that the dealer, Stanley Mann, had told her that the car had an original Speed Six engine. She maintained that it did not, and that there were other areas of the car which were not original. It was therefore not permissible to call the car a Speed Six.
Following a valuation by a well-known auction house (which all the parties later accepted was wrong) Mrs Brewer rejected the car and sued for the return of her deposit price and all the financing charges amounting to around £95,000, giving no credit for the 15 months of happy motoring she had enjoyed.
Mr Mann’s case was that he had only ever described the engine as up to Speed Six specification and that, although the engine was not an original Speed Six engine, the car was nevertheless a Speed Six since the chassis (only part of which was original) was a Speed Six chassis on which was stamped the original number. Other parts with the chassis number stamped on it were also incorporated into the car. Mrs Brewer agreed that she had been told that the car was fitted with a replica body and other parts from other cars.
The case was originally heard by a High Court Judge who found against Mr Mann. The case was taken to the Court of Appeal on no fewer than 26 Grounds of Appeal amongst which were allegations that the Judge had shown apparent bias against Mr Mann.
In a landmark ruling of nearly 200 pages the Court of Appeal reversed the Judge’s findings, found that he had indeed been biased, and overturned the Judgment.
The following is a brief summary of the points of importance to the classic car business;
A description of the car as “a 1930 Bentley Speed Six” without more does not imply that it is an original Speed Six or that it has any type of history, let alone a continuous history.
If a Buyer requires originality and a continuous history he has to negotiate for it and pay for it.
The identity of a car is to be determined by reference to the custom in the classic car trade. It may be derived from a part of the chassis with the original chassis number attached to it.
The description of a car as a particular type or model may be an expression of opinion rather than a statement of fact, and this is more likely the older the car and the less original it is. The importance of this is that if the opinion is reasonable it is most unlikely that any claim can be made against the dealer or private individual who gave the description.
The engine of a car is not necessarily relevant to its description. A Speed Six Bentley may remain a Speed Six Bentley even if it does not have a Speed Six engine.
The price paid for a car is highly relevant to how much originality and history a buyer can expect; The Court of Appeal said:
Proof of provenance or of history has to be negotiated for. It does not come for free and is not inherent in an article’s description.
If a Buyer wants to negotiate for knowledge about “its performance during its active racing lifetime” (if any) then he must stipulate for it.
The principles stated by the Court of Appeal are very helpful to the classic car trade and confirm that the chassis and chassis number are helpful in determining the identity and the description of a car. Nonetheless the individual facts of any case will always determine what the result of the claim is likely to be and this whole area of law is a minefield for the unwary. As the Court of Appeal said "context is everything"