Renaissance Classics: PH Meets

Location, location, location goes the property buying mantra. Well, it's a pretty darn good formula for siting a new showroom, too. Renaissance Classic Sports Cars is on the Portsmouth Road, just outside Ripley - a stone's throw from the A3, and virtually smack bang in the middle of the Surrey stockbroker belt. At first glance, the smart-looking building it occupies seems purpose-built for the business of selling fast, sought-after cars, but has in fact spent most of its life housing a Porsche 911 race team - David Ashburn's Trackspeed. 

Despite its polished appearance, two years ago Renaissance Classics didn't exist. Its founders, the father and son team of Keith and James Sohl, were still busy running the Sutton Tennis Academy at Rosehill Park. Going from one to the other has been a proverbial rollercoaster - not just for the speed at which it has occurred, but also because the end was not necessarily in sight at the beginning. Having sold the 17-court facility in late 2016, the pair did not set out to run a dealership; they initially planned on indulging a long-running passion for cars - and, as many of us would do in the circumstances, promptly bought 12 of them. 

So where to keep this high-end collection you've just acquired? Well, you'll be wanting a garage for that - ideally somewhere with space for a mechanic or two as well. Living locally, the Sohls knew Ashburn's premises well, but didn't know he'd been trying to sell it for two years without success. Two days and one deeply impressive tour later, they'd bought it - and come to a decision: "as soon as we'd shaken hands on the premises (we thought) we've got to do it seriously now, and actually from a family perspective it was that casino table moment; we're all in," recalls James. 

By February last year, they'd moved in. The learning curve since has been steep. The 12-car collection amassed on the strength of Keith's long-running affection for Italian supercars (which then became the basis for the firm's initial stock) taught Renaissance that the bulk of its offerings probably ought to come from somewhere that isn't Maranello. Fortunately, the waters run deep with the Sohls; the one constant in James's impressively convoluted car history is his 20-year ownership of a BMW 635 CSI - with a 'Project eBay' E30 track car on the side. 

On the basis of going with what you know - Sohl Junior is also a long-standing and very active member of the BMW Car Club - Renaissance resolved to focus on Bavaria's stellar back catalogue, with a liberal side helping of Germany's other beloved exporter. Porsche badged cars were actually in the ascendancy when we visited back in February, but the dealership has an additional ace up its sleeve: starting from January, it has been appointed the official AC Schnitzer dealer for the south east, meaning that it now offers the full range of engine, wheel, suspension, exhaust and aero kit upgrades from one of Europe's most celebrated tuners. 

While James concedes that the UK's aftermarket segment isn't nearly as fervent as some, the sheer breadth of Schnitzer's line up (the Aachen-based firm offers customisation options for Mini and JLR products, too) means that there should to be plenty for new customers to sink their teeth into. To help make them aware of the possibilities, Renaissance has recently taken delivery of an ACL2S - one of just 30 specially modified examples to commemorate Schnitzer's 30th anniversary. Acquiring the model is obviously all part and parcel of what the Sohls expect to be a close working relationship, but it also usefully fills out the pride of place that might otherwise have been given to a supercar. 

Certainly it's a standout prospect, and not just for the somewhat divisive 10-piece wide-body kit. Underneath it's an M240i, one tuned to produce 400hp and 442lb ft of torque from its turbocharged 3.0-litre straight-six, with fully adjustable suspension and quad tailpipe exhaust system (not to mention a bespoke interior) completing the effect. Whether it appeals or not, it seems likely to pique the interest of just about anyone who goes near it - and that's rather the point of having it in the showroom. 

Of course the same might be said of the property Renaissance inhabits. It isn't hard to see the potential that had the Sohls meeting the asking price within 48 hours of being shown around the place. While it might not have been originally built as a showroom, it was definitely built with showing off in mind, and consequently it lends itself perfectly to the business of selling and servicing cars. Tellingly, its new owners have had to do precious little to adapt it to their needs: the substantial garage to the rear was already at the standard you might expect from a successful and extremely well-funded race team, with the area to the front used for offices and display purposes. 

Renaissance knocked through the wall separating the two for the sake of ease, but in fact it lends the dealership just the right kind of ambience. As you might expect given its heritage, it is the calibre of the adjoining workshop facilities - already staffed by former Porsche and BMW technicians - that immediately conveys the kind of well-oiled professionalism that most specialist dealers take decades to nurture. Living up to this impression is clearly important to the Sohl family. 

"I'm reluctant to use the word 'specialist' because I think it's an overused word, and I don't think it's a word as a proprietor of a business you should use; it should be a word your customers use," explains James. "Once customers are saying that, then we're really motoring in terms of the business. It's my job and our job to put all the right ingredients together so customers are going to start saying that." Coming from a self-confessed enthusiast, that's encouraging to hear, likewise his commitment to integrity. "We want to be the best at what we do," James often says of the journey he and his father have embarked on. 

Their determination to do just that is evidenced by the addition of a 10-bay 'stable-block' garage to the rear, and the pristine stretch of newly laid tarmac in front of it. It's evident too in the recent hiring of Graham Beeson - most recently of Caterham Cars, but also with 15 years experience of selling and restoring classics - as General Manager. Investment is clearly not a problem, and nor is ambition. When asked about where he'd like the firm to be in 18 months, he says he prefers to now think years ahead: "in five years time, I would hope that the business is full, and we're selling 250 cars a year. We've probably put in another ramp, we've probably got five or six technicians, we've got three detailers and the business is heaving." Given the progress made from a standing start, Renaissance is well on its way.

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Comments (37) Join the discussion on the forum

  • R66STU 05 Apr 2018

    Good read and good luck to them. I for one am happy to pay a little more for a car knowing the dealership care, pride their products and delivers great service.. not to mention a lasting relationship with he customer/ client. Thumbs up 👍

  • birdcage 05 Apr 2018

    Looks good but having 'Petrol' in every descriptions seems a bit uneccessary and flowery, The Testarossa for example could not be mistaken for a diesel!


  • Lazadude 05 Apr 2018

    Pass this most days, would call it more Send then Ripley but still, keep meaning to have a nose around. Some nice metal on display outside.

  • Turbobanana 05 Apr 2018

    birdcage said:
    Looks good but having 'Petrol' in every descriptions seems a bit uneccessary and flowery, The Testarossa for example could not be mistaken for a diesel!

    Agree - it's obviously just PH's template which I guess is designed for numpties.

    Also, how has the black 911 in the photo got an "H" plate? They were 964s by then, surely? Retro-styled / import, perhaps?

  • shalmaneser 05 Apr 2018

    10K for a Automatic 3 litre e46 Coupe sounds pretty adventurous - even if it is a nice colour and low miles!

    Hope you get some wheel centre caps chucked in for that...

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