The following tribute was written by Martin's friend of 65 years,
Martin boarded in the 1950’s at Tonbridge School where his father had hopes that he might represent the school’s cricket team at Lords, until damage to his shoulder in a pillow fight destroyed that ambition. However, it was at school that Martin first developed his love of jazz, of which more later. Martin also claimed that it was life at school that gave him qualities that served him so well throughout his life – loyalty to those whom he viewed as friends (and there seemed to be quite a few of those), confidence in dealing with people in the wider world; integrity in business dealings and patriotism as indicated by the choice of Jerusalem to open this service. After leaving school Martin qualified in accountancy, being admitted in 1965 as an Associate Member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales, becoming a Fellow of the Institute FCA, 10 years later.
Martin trained for his accounting qualification with a small City firm, Jenks, Percival, Pigeon, where he was able to observe a wide range of companies – some well managed and some not. However, he quickly formed the opinion that the people who had most fun in life, were those who managed their own businesses – usually doing something that they enjoyed. What Martin enjoyed most at that time (and may I suggest, ever since) were cars. He worked briefly as an accountant for a local garage before setting up a small workshop of his own, specialising in Lotus. During his accounting training, Martin had been building Lotus kit cars in his spare time and had become quite a Lotus expert. In the 1960’s Martin had also met Bobby Bell, who was a fiercely competitive driver in a succession of exciting racing cars, including Lotus. A chance meeting in November 1969, between Martin and Bobby generated the idea of setting up a business together. Bobby knew of an empty garage in West Horsley that was available to rent and on 11th March 1970, Bell & Colvill opened its doors for the first time. Together they built a very successful business in specialist cars such as Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Saab and Subaru, but their particular specialty was Lotus. It is estimated that Bell & Colvill must have sold more Lotuses over the years than anyone else in the world and Martin’s and Bobby’s knowledge of Lotuses became legendary. I had a personal experience of this with a friend in Sevenoaks two weeks ago when I mentioned Bell & Colvill and he immediately replied that over the years, he had bought two Lotuses from them. In fighting terms, it was a company that punched well above its weight and in doing so, became widely known and respected. Martin and Bobby were two very different characters but Martin always said that what was important was that they shared the same values and in the 42 years in which they worked together, six days a week, they never had a cross word and the partnership became a huge success. Martin was absolutely devastated when Bobby passed away a few years ago – “Dear Bobby “as he called him. Martin always cared passionately about the wellbeing of Bell & Colvill and particularly about the wellbeing of the team who worked there. In 2012, Martin and Bobby sold the Bell & Colvill business and retired, but Martin was delighted to remain as a Non-Executive Director of the company that still bears his name.
However, it was in 1978, early in the Bell & Colvill existence, when Martin was sitting in the showroom and a lovely young lady walked in. There must have been something that clicked with Martin because reportedly he said to his salesman “I’ll look after this one”. The lovely young lady turned out to be Linda. The company for whom she worked had a company car scheme and the car she wanted was an Alfa Romeo. History does not record whether or not she negotiated a discount, but it does record that shortly thereafter, Linda became Martin’s guest for dinner at a local restaurant and in 1980 they married. This led to a wonderful partnership for almost 42 years. Linda joined Martin in virtually everything that he did and it was Linda beside his hospital bed, in his final hours.
Martin’s major enthusiasm was for motor racing. He had his first race at Silverstone in 1977 and ran an AC Cobra in his first championship in 1978, winning his class. Thereafter, Martin started to compete more extensively across the UK, Continental Europe and the USA, with a series of successes that enabled him to fulfil his ambition of becoming a Full Member of the British Racing Drivers Club, arguably the most exclusive club in motor racing. In turn when Martin joined the BRDC Board, they tapped into Martin’s accountancy and business expertise to help them through some particularly difficult financial issues, as a result of which Martin was deservedly awarded Life Membership. A tribute from the BRDC issued just a few weeks ago stated that “it is no exaggeration to say that Martin truly represented all that is best in BRDC membership.”
Earlier, I mentioned Martin’s love of jazz, developed initially while at Tonbridge School. Some of the records that Martin bought at that time, still remain in his collection. He was particularly interested in the American musicians who came to the UK in the 1960’s and he went to see many of them perform live around the London area. In the early 1970’s he made his first visit to New Orleans, to visit the main jazz festivals. My wife and I were there in October 1970 and we empathise with Martin’s fondness for the city. It was an arty, vibrant place when we were there, with the sounds of music emanating from the bars and cafes in the centre and young artists displaying their works on the railings in Jackson Square. We actually bought a couple of paintings there from a young Canadian artist and 50 years later, Google tells us he is quite famous. New Orleans seems to be a place where new careers were born – some of which went on to greater success, while others never made it. In later years, New Orleans became a favourite place for both Martin and Linda to visit; making 16 trips there between 2002 and 2019 – the majority timed in April to coincide with the annual French Quarter Festival which was a real favourite. They celebrated Martin’s 70th birthday there in 2010 and regretfully needed to cancel their plans to celebrate his 80th birthday there in 2020, because of Covid. Over the years, Martin has indulged his love of jazz, by building a large collection of CD’s and vinyl records including many 78’s, sometimes buying whole collections from all around the UK. This collection is now housed in a small industrial unit not far from the Bell & Colvill premises and may be one of the biggest and finest such collections in the country. Latterly, this has become a mecca for fellow jazz enthusiasts who came to listen to good music; enjoy each other’s company and sometimes find a few things to add to their own collections. Martin also enjoyed live music and together with Linda, they went to many different concerts and jazz festivals over the years in the UK and abroad - the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, Ronnie Scott’s and the Pizza Express Jazz Club were particular favourites. Martin also promoted many concerts himself; for example, at local hotels and golf clubs and regularly organised jazz events for the Guildford International Music Festival. For a while, he even had his own recording labels, namely J&M records and MACjazz Productions.
As noted previously, Martin’s potential sporting career was blighted by that early shoulder injury at school but his father’s friendship with the great Colin Cowdrey, led to him proposing Martin for membership of the MCC and he and his father enjoyed some very happy days at Lords among the other members. Martin took up golf at a late stage and in the games that I had with him, showed that he had a real aptitude – hitting the ball a million miles off both the tee and the fairway, without any apparent effort. However, it is a game that requires time and Martin’s devotion to Bell & Colvill in the early days, didn’t allow him that time.
Martin looked back on his days at Tonbridge School with great affection and in particular his years in the house, Ferox Hall, where he boarded, where he was joined later by his younger brother Robert. Also in that house was Chris Cotton as well as myself and in the mid 2000’s, Martin, Chris and I came together in the Ferox Hall Foundation, raising money from our fellow Old Ferocians to fund the fees of talented boys whose parents themselves could not afford those fees. Martin became very committed to this cause – a commitment that he maintained right until the end. In this context, Martin in his later years, accepted an invitation to become a member of the Skinners Company – one of London’s great traditional livery companies and when appointed as a Liveryman, volunteered to take on two apprentices himself. The Skinners Company supports around eight educational establishments in southern England. There may only be a few boys who have heard the name Martin Colvill, but there will be quite a few who unknowingly have or will have benefitted from Martin’s charitable generosity.
So, who was Martin Colvill? He was a man who never claimed much academic success from his schooldays but equally, he was someone who in the world of City finance in London, would have been defined as very commercially aware and this was proven through his success with Bell & Colvill. He was understated and on a first meeting could come across as slightly remote. However, scratch the surface ever so slightly, and you found a man who was passionate about performance cars; passionate about the people alongside him with Bell & Colvill; passionate about jazz and the development of new young artists; passionate about educational opportunities for those from disadvantaged families; kind, generous, loyal and absolutely devoted to his wife Linda. He was a big man who was both a gentleman and also a gentle man and the world is a poorer place for his passing.