Tom Hartley: meet the supercar salesman to the stars

Tom Hartley has spent 45 years selling the dream to petrolheads. We met the man who counts Rod Stewart among his celebrity customers

The car world is full of colourful characters, but few have a story quite as remarkable as Tom Hartley’s. Born in Glasgow, Hartley is now at the helm of a £250million empire that counts the likes of Rod Stewart, Rory McIlroy and Jamiroquai among its loyal customers.

Over the years, he’s bought and sold cars while stuck in traffic jams, in a hotel sauna, and even purchased a Rolls- Royce while its owner was filling up at a petrol station.

One of his more memorable deals was tracking a Ferrari Enzo driver for more than 30 miles, flashing his lights until the motorist was forced to stop at a set of traffic lights.

Tom said:  “I think the driver thought I was going to mug him, but when I explained who I was, we talked, and he agreed to sell his car to me.”

Tom has shunned the rather predictable city-centre showroom, opting instead for a 40-acre estate in the Derbyshire countryside which at any one time houses £80m worth of classic, luxury and supercars. He’s even created the ultimate ‘floating showroom’ on the lake next to his showroom, with a £200,000 bridge hidden under the water allowing him to park cars as if they’re floating.

But Tom is keen to point out there is no easy route to success in business. He said: “There is no magic, just hard work and some luck. And everyone needs a bit of luck. My business bible is no compromise, leave no stone unturned until you deliver what you promised. The reality is you get out what you put in; I’ve worked a minimum of 12 hours every day, and many 18-hour days, including Christmas Day, for the past 45 years.”

Hartley dropped out of school at 11 unable to read or write, but the youngster knew precisely what he wanted to be when he was older. In the intimidating car auction halls of Glasgow, his new classmates were cynical and hard-bitten used-car salesmen who at first treated the schoolboy with disbelieving contempt; but very quickly Tom gained their grudging respect.

Tom says selling was in his blood, coming from a family of Romany travellers who sold rugs, doormats and other household goods from horse-drawn wagons and caravans. He made his first deal at the age of ten, selling a carpet for £20 to a couple at his parents’ cash-and-carry. Tom said: “It felt great, a real adrenalin rush, and I still get that rush when I sell a supercar today, it never leaves you. It’s the best feeling in the world.”

Naturally, selling cars before you’re old enough to drive presents one obvious problem: the lack of a driving licence. Not one to be deterred, Tom persuaded friends and family to drive him to meet customers, although the ambitious Hartley got quickly frustrated. As a 14-year-old, he recalls catching the train to Aberdeen to buy a Rolls-Royce before driving it back to Glasgow. Remarkably, he managed to avoid the police, and by asking a friend to drive the last few miles to his house, he kept the affair a secret from his parents, too.

Buoyed by the Rolls-Royce sale, Hartley bought his first Ferrari, a Dino, for £8,000, making a clear £500 profit the very next day. It was another Dino that marked a rather more ignominious first for the young entrepreneur: it was the first car he crashed. The car was a write-off and, sadly for Tom’s bank balance, it wasn’t fully insured. One of the biggest deals he did as a teenager was in 1978, when he bought six new Rolls-Royces as a package for £168,000. Tom recalls the purchase well: “They should have been exported to Australia but the deal was cancelled. I snapped them up at £28,000 each and sold them all, making £10,000 on each car – a £60,000 profit. It was a very good day’s business.” He made his first million aged just 17, due largely to spotting a lucrative gap in the market by buying cars directly in Germany at big discounts, before selling them to UK customers, bypassing main dealers in the process.

But new Type Approval Import regulations, which meant only official franchised dealers could import and register cars in the UK, pretty much killed Tom’s business off. “I basically went from hero to zero overnight because I had spotted a gap in the market, but I became too successful and was brought down by the establishment,” he said.

He encountered a second major setback after undergoing major eye surgery but, within six months, was getting back on his feet. Still only aged 18, Tom was living in a caravan and working on the road in whichever car he was selling. Since then, he’s built an empire that has become one of the most successful independent car businesses in the world, valued at more than £250million.

Tom has no intention of taking a back seat in the firm, which is now a family affair that he runs together with son, Carl. His other son, Tom junior, who like Carl served a long apprenticeship, now has a successful car business of his own. And proving that selling cars is well and truly ingrained in the Hartley DNA, even Tom’s grandson, Christian, is already spending time in the showroom with his grandfather.

Tom Hartley has written his life story, called ‘The Dealmaker’, which charts his life during 45 years at the top. The book can be ordered, from 8 May, from Amazon books, all good bookshops, or from Veloce Publishing.

Rags To Riches

After dropping out of school aged 11, Tom learned how to sell cars in auction houses. He later started doing deals on prestige cars, like Rolls-Royces, and importing high-end models, such as Mercedes, from Europe.

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