Britain’s most controversial car dealer: Tom Hartley on selling supercars

Two days ago, a text arrived from Tom Hartley’s personal assistant, Hannah, asking what filling I’d like in my sandwiches. Attention to detail: that’s Hartley. It has been a while.

Eighteen years back, I took Hartley, probably the world’s most famous peddler of supercars, to the Geneva motor show. If your memory is better than mine, you might recall the resulting feature. Hartley brought his son Carl, who was 13 then and is now a full partner in the business. But more about the family later.

We’re at Hartley’s establishment in Overseal, near Swadlincote, Derbyshire, for a couple of reasons. First, Hartley wants to show off his recently completed new showroom. Second, he wants to talk about his new autobiography, The Dealmaker.

Establishment isn’t the official description; Hartley refers to the place as The Hartley Estate. Quite a place it is, too. Visits are strictly by appointment only, and if you did think about turning up at two in the morning to help yourself to the McLaren P1 that’s currently in the front of the showroom (alongside a huge selection of other exotica), you will have to crack a formidable security system.

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“What about electric supercars?” I ask. “Not for me,” is the emphatic reply. “That’s as far as I’ll go,” he says, pointing at the hybrid P1. “Not pure EV, because the engine is the soul.”

Carl’s brother, Tom Junior, worked with the old man until 2014, when he left to start his own eponymous business, which tends to specialise in classic cars. Top-end ones, of course. There are a few old-timers knocking around Hartley Senior’s premises, too: a Lamborghini Jalpa hiding in a corner, plus a Ferrari Daytona and a flat-floor Jaguar E-Type on the top level. Both are immaculate, but the Daytona is just sensational in dark blue. It’s my pick of the stock.

A rather more affordable Ferrari is a mint-condition 458 Spider. “These are interesting,” notes Hartley, “because they’re worth more than the 488, as people prefer the naturally aspirated engine.”

This is what makes him so interesting: his deep knowledge and, because his business isn’t a franchise, his willingness to speak his mind. Witness his views on McLaren. He’s not shy about Ferrari, either.

“They’ve started taking the piss out of customers,” he rails, “with cars like the 488 Pista, which it charges a fortune for but which isn’t really that different [from the regular 488 GTB].

“Also the way that you have to buy several ‘ordinary’ models like the 812 Superfast and Portofino to get yourself on the list for the more exclusive stuff. Eventually, they’ll come unstuck doing this.”

Hartley tends to own all his stock; there are no big loans with the bank. Everything you see has been hard-earned and paid for. This is going to put Hartley in a better position post-pandemic than many of his rivals.

“I’ve been through several recessions,” he notes, “so I know what to expect. I know I’m going to lose a seven-figure sum on this stock, but I’m well placed to deal with it.”

I don’t doubt it. Hartley’s combination of self-belief, experience and sound business acumen should get him through even this steadily tumultuous economic storm.