Love machines

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 48, Autumn 2016

Page 30

Robert White's collection of motor cars and machines is being offered at Bonhams. Jay Leno pays tribute to his friend and reveals a man for whom a beautifully made vehicle or watch was a lifelong delight

Robert White is a guy who is hard to capture in words. He wasn't really about words so much as things, especially working machines.
I first met him about ten years ago at the Rock Store, a world-famous motorcyclists' hang-out and former stagecoach stop in Malibu Canyon, along Mulholland Highway. Robert was visiting California and sidling around the Rock Store. We were introduced to each other as Brough enthusiasts.

The thing about Robert for me was that I always found him to be hysterically English: curt, clipped and restrained, he didn't suffer fools gladly. At the same time, I think he saw me as the most American person he had ever met: loud, obnoxious and with more money than brains. But I'm a great believer in opposites attracting, which is why we amused each other so much. Our mutual connection with these motorcycles, and our respect for these and other machines, carried us way past those superficial judgments into a genuine and long-lasting friendship.

I had first bought a Brough in the mid-1980s, paying $5,000 for it, which plenty of people thought was crazy money at a time when you could buy a good motorcycle in America for $2,500. In the USA, the motorcycle has always had a hoodlum reputation, with obvious rebellious connections and connotations such as with Hell's Angels and Marlon Brando in The Wild One. But the Brough was of an altogether different social order. It was the conveyance of gentlemen and officers, of engineers and connoisseurs. In 1920s England, the price of a Brough motorcycle – £150 – was the equivalent of the cost of a small house. The utterly sensational speed of 100mph it could reach was the equivalent of 200mph today. The connections with George Bernard Shaw and with T.E. Lawrence are, of course, irresistibly romantic.

But the aspect of Broughs that brought Robert and myself together in shared admiration was the quality of their creation and the refinement of their engineering. This was the motorcycle that George Brough wanted to ride himself and, of course, every single one of the 3,000 bikes the company produced in 30 years was personally certified by him. In a way, the development of the machines reflected George's physique: the motorcycles got more comfortable, with wider saddles, rather as George did as he grew older.

The more you knew Robert, however, the more you realized that his extraordinary enthusiasms embraced far more than just Broughs. They say that you should never be possessed by your possessions, but Robert got more pleasure out of his possessions than any man I have ever met. The evening ritual of winding his George Daniels' watch was an active delight to him as an opportunity to take pleasure in its mechanism. He also found pure happiness in the craftsmanship of his beautiful model steam train.

Possessions, for Robert, were never a means to show off; his enthusiasms had nothing to do with ostentatious display. I guess he thought that I would be like that when we first met, but I think he changed his mind when he saw my garage, where everything is maintained in working order. In fact, he liked my garage so much that he used it as a store when he came to America on buying trips. I would put him in a hotel and we'd go out riding together – and I would buy him some proper drinks instead of those pitiful mouthwashes that pass for cocktails in Britain.

When it came to dinner, Robert was always astonished at the size of the portions in America. "But it's so huge!", he would say. I liked to play up to that astonishment so, for example, I'd take him out in vehicles you can only find in the States – in particular my 'tank car', powered by a 37-liter Patton engine. Robert thought this was hilarious.

We spent time together in England before he died. He didn't feel sorry for himself or 'woe-is-me'. He faced up to his position with
a sense of realism and decided he wanted to give something back to the people in Poole who had helped him with his illness. And so
he and I agreed that I would buy his collection of Broughs for the benefit of Poole hospital and the cancer wing he wanted to create. I just said, "Name your price." He needed £3m towards the hospital project, so I gave £3m.

The collection, which includes the earliest known example of a Brough, is no doubt one of the greatest collections of Broughs in the world. He may have been a guy who is hard to capture in words, but his machines bring him to life for me.

Comedian and presenter Jay Leno was host of The Tonight Show on NBC.

Driving force

Robert White, creator of the leading photographic chain, died of cancer in 2015. He bequeathed his astonishing collection – of motorcyles, motor cars, watches and cameras – to be offered at Bonhams, with the proceeds of the sale going towards building new cancer facilities at Poole Hospital.

White had a glorious life. He opened a camera shop in Poole, his hometown, which grew into an international business. White's success enabled him to indulge a passion for collecting machines and objects that embodied the finest design and engineering. He loved to ride motorbikes and drive fast cars. He learned to fly, and bought a vintage Boeing biplane to travel round Britain.

The sale at Bonhams of 500 lots includes highlights such as a George Daniels 18ct gold wristwatch, a 1951 Vincent 998cc Series C Black Shadow, a 1930 Bentley 4½-liter Tourer and a Leica MP-294 'Leicavit'.

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