Interview and photos by Greg Wing
Brian Donovan, owner, operator, team manager and lead engineer of Donovan Motorcar Service, regularly gives “Tech Sessions” in the handsome showroom of his full service shop in Lenox, Massachusetts. I caught up with him before a recent talk he gave to members of the Jaguar Association of New England.
The session for the day at hand was “Performance Improvements for the Jaguar XJS.” About 20 members of JANE arrived an hour after I did for a tour of the showroom, a large workshop and huge on-site storage facilities. Oh, and of course the donuts and coffee. After this, Brian gave a very detailed, informative talk using a customer’s gorgeous black Jaguar XJS V12 and Brian’s own personal silver XJS HE. This highly knowledgeable, instructive “Tech Session” walked the participants from the simplest and cheapest system upgrades for the XJS to the most complex. The goal was always to enhance the performance and the enjoyment of the car. Regular maintenance was also stressed. Brian easily answered the complex questions volleyed forth from the attendees, along with great stories and a bunch of laughs.
The following is an interview with Brian Donovan and Alex Kenyon, Marketing Manager:
GW – Donovan Motorcar Services (DMS) is a leading vintage car service provider. A vintage restoration shop lives and dies on its reputation and attention to detail. How do you connect to your clients’ desires?
BD – We are a full service business and service means dealing with the customer, taking care of their needs. We give them the confidence level that we are doing the proper job taking care of their cars. We spend a lot of time one-on-one with our customer. My mechanics deal directly one-on-one with the customer. Every project is different and we evaluate what they really want. We take the time to show them around the shop so they can see the kind of work we do. We work hard on our reputation and this is our 20th year in business. There are also a lot of events such as the “Tech Session” today.
GW – DMS does full race prep and track support. What kinds of racecars are you currently supporting?
BD – We have here, at the moment, a 1963 Corvette for one of our clients, an (early Shelby) AC Cobra with a significant racing history, an Austin-Healey and we’ve done a Lotus. Our showroom displays these vintage race cars. We’ve done a lot of work with Listers, Allards, production based cars, Triumphs and MGs. Our real specialty is, of course, the Jaguars and that is what we campaign ourselves.
BD – Well, the backbone of the shop is the service and the restoration. A lot of what we did was performance work for street cars and that piggybacked off the racing, similar to the way new manufacturers have racing programs to help develop their products. We use the racing to help develop what works better for performance street applications; and, of course, the thrill and the passion for racing. I’ve used the racing program as a marketing tool for business, which has put us on the map internationally vs. just being another restoration shop.
GW – This year in DMS Racing you won’t be behind the wheel, is that right?
BD – I haven’t done competitive driving in quite a while. Much as I love it, now it’s more of a focus on the priorities that I have. Having a team to manage, customers to take care of at the track, a business to run, we often have journalists there, sponsors, and VIP guests at events. To be a competitive driver you have to be completely focused on your driving. A number of years ago, while I was driving, I found that my head was still focused on the customers and other activities. It was just going to be a dangerous situation, so the sensible thing to do was to get out of the driver’s seat and take care of business.
GW – What has your vintage racing team learned in terms of your strengths and goals?
BD – The challenge that we have with our own vintage race team is we are running six cylinder Jaguars against all the American V8 big horsepower cars. The racing components that are available for Jaguars are very limited compared to the American V8. The upside is this allows us to be more innovative to utilize the engineering background that we have. We develop both the performance and reliability. These transfer over to the work we do in the shop everyday.
GW – My son, Marcel, is 13 and he saw your race cars at the Vintage event at Lime Rock last fall. He wants to know how long you have been racing?
BD – I started racing in 1984. That particular car I found in a barn when I got out of engineering school and I was working for GE. It started first as a street car and then in the mid-80’s I started to use it more for racing than the street. In the early 90’s it was primarily just a race car. So tell him that’s my favorite toy!
GW – What will 2010 be all about for DMS and why?
BD – We are currently in discussion with Jaguar about restarting up again and rekindling our sponsorship program working as part of their marketing effort with their new cars. We anticipate that we will have a program with them this year, but we are still in the discussion phase. Regardless, we will be running our own cars at the events that we consider beneficial to the marketing aspect of our business, such as Lime Rock, Watkins Glen and Elkhart Lake. We will also continue our program with our customers and their racing while searching for new vintage racing customers to expand that part of the business. Something new this year is we’ve put in a marketing department and we recently brought on-board Alex Kenyon (AK) from Lime Rock.
AK – We want to show that we are, in fact, more than Jaguar and a shiny showroom. As people drive by they don’t really know what we do. They think we’re a gangster business or a just a rich guy that has a bunch of cars. Locally, we are trying to spread the word if you have an Audi and it’s out of warranty and you still love the car, we can certainly provide you the customer service.
GW – Every organization has a philosophy. In the culinary arts, you hear mottos like……”BAM! and Let’s kick it up a notch!” Or, GE’s “We bring good things to life.” What’s DMS’ philosophy and motto?
BD – The philosophy is our customer-based service. We are a full service business. We give the comfort and reliability level so owners are able to enjoy their car. Whether they own a collectible antique or a modern everyday car, our motto is service, reliability, quality and customer satisfaction.
BD – The biggest change, by far, on the racing side has been the professional competitiveness; the amount of money that’s being spent on being more competitive. It’s become an extreme where you have to be willing to spend and commit a huge amount of time, effort and dedication to the sport. It’s no longer an amateur weekend sport. It’s year round, full time for those who want to be the most competitive. In the vintage market, of course, the value of the market has fluctuated a bit with the economy. But the appreciation of the vintage cars certainly has gone up and that changes gradually as the age of the owners change. So, that now the most popular cars are the ‘60s muscle cars and the 60s-era sports cars.
GW – What do you think about the current focus on keeping vintage cars as original as possible; delaminating paint, cracked leather seats, original shocks, etc.?
BD – That’s a very timely question. I’m going to be giving a talk shortly at the Larz Anderson Museum in Brookline, MA on “Originality vs. Improvements.” To answer your question, my philosophy is if the car has a significant history to it, the more original you can keep that car the better the history is preserved versus a restoration. If the car is not a significantly historic car, I believe it’s better to keep the car in as nice a condition as possible. Maintain it – certainly for rust work, body work, paint work, and mechanical reliability. All of that needs to be well taken care of to make the car enjoyable. So, if the car has a presentable paint job on it, it’s original and it’s never been re-done, the interior is presentable and original, there is certainly a lot to be said for keeping that for as long as possible. I go through that with my own racing cars. With the #62 car I try to keep it “period” correct. The #61 is a more competitive car, but we have modified the car to make it more competitive.
GW – Last year I brought my old college day’s 10-speed bicycle in for a tune-up and new tires. The old leather racing seat on it got the bike mechanic really excited. I had no idea; I just remembered it was a pain in the ass to sit on. Everyone in the shop came over to see it. Do you have a story about a moment that everyone just had to see what a customer brought in?
BD – We were restoring a 1957 Jaguar XK140 Drophead coupe. We took the upholstery off the seat. It was the original factory upholstery. We found a number of packages of prophylactics which, if they were British from 1957, I’d have to assume they would leak! It’s a good story because everybody had to come take a look. It makes you wonder why the upholsterer would hide them in the seat.
GW – Let’s talk about your drivers. You have excellent drivers with Bob Hebert, Jack Busch & Art Hebert. What do they bring to Donovan Racing and why do you think they are an unbeatable blend?
BD – Bob Hebert has been a very close friend and a mentor of mine in the business. Bob has a great amount of experience with his own business. He is a very intelligent, mature individual. As a driver, from my experience, he is the most talented driver to work with from an engineering standpoint. The feedback he can give me for the car set-up, his experience and decision-making ability on the track, as well as his phenomenal car control skills are essential. He has been a key part of developing our program and the success that we’ve had. Another quote and I won’t tell you which one of us said it; we’ve been together more than most marriages (18 seasons).
Jack Busch has been with me now about 5 or 6 years. Jack is a very dedicated, hard working, skilled driver and has adapted to vintage racing very well having come from GT1. Art is Bob’s son and we use him when we race on the West Coast. He’s a fantastic driver with great track skills.
GW – Tell us about an unforgettable driver’s story from the track. What is not usually known or talked about that enthusiasts would be interested to find out about?
BD – When you have a safety incident, something unavoidable. With racing, certainly there’s the danger, we’ve been very fortunate. As the lead engineer, my responsibility is to have a safe car before they sit.
GW – Is there something that you were hoping that I would ask or something else that you’d like to share?
BD – Our best or worst kept secret is that we are a regular full service shop. We service British and many late model cars. Diversity is the key here. We work on so many things, even an oil change on a Volkswagen Golf.
Greg Wing is a freelance motorsports writer living in Clifton Park, New York. Wing created a website dedicated to the history of the innovative Deutsch-Bonnet Panhards race cars that ran at the infamous 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans.
For more information, visit Deutsch-Bonnet Panhards.