Kearns has had more than 30 years in the fast car business, first achieving prominence in the HR Owen South Kensington Ferrari dealership (at which, back in the noughties, he handed over Autocar’s fondly remembered F430 long-termer). He subsequently rose to boardroom level and assumed responsibility for Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini and Rolls-Royce sales across the group – until a new owner brought fresh ideas and new faces. After that, he orchestrated a big-scale dealer launch in Bristol and toyed for a while with opening his own Ferrari dealership before being headhunted to give Bell S&C a new lease of life.
Bell takes its name from engineer and entrepreneur Peter Bell, who back in the 1960s used his £5000 redundancy money from a printing job to establish himself in the automotive parts business. He first launched the stick-on rear window demister (remember those?), then came up with a better design for a stable, leakproof petrol can, first in metal and later in the plastic that made his fortune. He did so well that he was able to sell the business to a bigger parts player and start Bell Sport & Classic, which traded first in MGs and Healeys but then moved more upmarket. Nowadays, as the website succinctly puts it, “we sell the cars we’d love to own”.
Kearns is slightly surprised at how much he’s enjoying running a non-franchise car business. Agility is one major advantage over the majors, he says. “The staff of the big gin palaces have very little time to improve their ambience or spend much time with customers,” he says. “Process is the enemy. It gets in the way at every turn because there’s way too much of it. We just don’t have that problem.”
Bell’s compactness doesn’t prevent it from completing complex work to an extremely high standard, though. Kearns nowadays presides over a business that can faithfully maintain or repair any of the cars it sells, and it frequently completes big-note restorations to standards he believes match or exceed those of Ferrari’s Classiche dealers.
Kearns proudly shows detailed pictorial records of its best work (“we’re sticklers for authenticity; when you restore a car, you’re responsible for recapturing its original personality”). Its small but talented artisan staff, led by the experienced Attilio Romano, especially welcome projects like the big Lambo that require “talent, patience and desire”. A secret 1960s Ferrari project, biggest of the lot so far, will soon be revealed. Meanwhile, the craftspeople themselves are every bit as well known to customers as the front-office staff.