After an unfortunate meeting with an unforgiving curb on Day 1, the Barn Find Hunter’s second day in the U.K. begins with an uneventful Uber ride for the support team and an amazing feel-good story that erases the sting of the previous day’s mishap.
First stop is the Watford home of Cliff Ryan, a racing friend of Tom Cotter’s who has graciously allowed Tom to drive his 1989 Jaguar XJR-S while he is in Great Britain. Cliff travels to the U.S. on occasion to race his classic Mustang—often against Tom’s 1964 Corvette—at Connecticut’s Lime Rock Park.
“When you race against someone at 150 mph,” Tom says, “you get to know them pretty well without meeting them—as long as they don’t do anything wonky.” Then he takes a humorous jab at his old friend.
“Let me show you a photo of my Corvette leading Cliff’s Mustang.”
“Obviously,” Cliff says, “it’s a very rare photo.”
Our host explains that his XJR-S is an upgraded XJS produced by JaguarSport—a joint venture between Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR) and Jaguar—to commemorate Jaguar’s 1988 victory at Le Mans. We soon wander off to Cliff’s garage, which houses a racing version of the same Jag, as well as a V-8-powered 1976 Triumph Stag that he bought in ’83.
“My wife (Melanie) and I toured France in it on our first holiday together,” Cliff says. “It’s not going anywhere—ever.”
Cliff’s son Sam, one of the Ryans’ three adult children, interjects. “This will be my car (one day),” Sam says with a laugh. That may be true, but we’re here to talk about the car that Sam already owns, as well as the very special story behind it.
We’ll get back to that …
This episode of Barn Find Hunter also includes a stop at the Jaguar specialty shop owned by Gary Davis, a racing friend of Cliff’s. Of course, Jags are the backbone of Gary’s business, but his automotive versatility is on full display as we tour his property. First up is a 1962 MGB roadster that Gary says is “one of the oldest MGBs still racing.” The car’s current owner has raced the MG in Belgium’s Spa Six Hours “at least six times.” Gary adds that “as a mark of respect” for the late Rod Longston, who raced MGBs for 50 years and this one in particular for 30, “his name is still on the side of the car.”
Gary says he performs “mostly race prep, but restoration too,” and there are plenty of projects to choose from. There’s an E-Type here, a Jag MK9 there. Also among the dozens of cars scattered about are a 1957 Studebaker Golden Hawk, 1981 Ford Cortina Mk5, and 1972 Ford Escort Mexico Mark I, which Cliff’s oldest son Daniel crashed in a race last autumn.
Then we come upon a royal find—and we do mean Royal—a 1991 Jaguar Sovereign V-12 (AKA Series 3) that was driven regularly by Queen Elizabeth in the early ’90s. The Jag, powered by a 5.3-liter engine, carries the insignia of R.A.K. & Sons, holder of a Royal Warrant as supplying dealer to the monarchy.
Cliff bought it more than 20 years ago, but it’s been off the road since 2004.
“It’ll take a little work to bring it back,” he tells me. “It came here for some body work, and I didn’t plan on letting it sit this long. But life happens. Other things get in the way.”
Do they ever. Which brings us back to Sam Ryan, proud owner of a 1957 Austin A35 that he has owned since 2007.
“Dad had a race car, which was an Austin A35, and … I was driving it around the driveway, and I just fell in love with it,” Sam says. Cliff surprised his son with an A35 of his own a short time later. “It didn’t look like this,” Sam says. “We brought it home, and unfortunately … I fell ill with a brain tumor—cancerous.” While in the hospital, Sam was put in contact with Rays of Sunshine, a charitable organization that grants wishes to children fighting cancer.
He could have met a celebrity or gone away on holiday, but at the top of Sam’s list was having his A35 restored. He says he doesn’t even remember his alternative choices. With the help of an anonymous benefactor, Sam’s wish was granted.
Asked whether his son is a chip off the old block, Cliff says, “Absolutely, in every way. He restores old furniture. He just likes old things.”
Sam adds, “It’s all about antiques and restoring them and sort of keeping the heritage.”
When Sam told Rays of Sunshine that he wanted to restore the Austin, the charity was willing to go all out. He says they asked if he was interested in sending the Austin to the American television show Pimp my Ride, “where they put speakers in the car and they put all this bling paint work on it and stripes down the side and God knows what. I said, ‘No, I don’t want that. (I want it) just exactly how it was originally.’ And they said, ‘Are you sure you don’t want speakers in the back or something like that? I said, ‘No, I don’t even want seatbelts. It didn’t come with seatbelts.’”
Cliff says his son has always had an appreciation for history. “We bought [the Austin] for him to restore, and he and a friend were restoring it in the garage when he was taken ill.”
Sam was 15 when his cancer was diagnosed, and with a tangerine-sized tumor in the motor sensory area of his brain, the outlook looked grim. “Every bad box was ticked,” Cliff remembers. “We were told there was nothing they could do outside of experimental surgery. The doctors (at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children) discussed it and asked if we could come down. A dozen of them were sitting there, and they said, ‘We’ve had a look and we want to try.’”
The surgeons were frank that the surgery could leave Sam paralyzed on one side of his body, but Sam was undaunted. “They took me into the room where they give you bad news, and they told me the risks,” he says. “I said, ‘I’m 15. You just gave me a positive path. I could come through this and be perfectly fine. So let’s do it.’”
When Sam awoke, “I could feel my fingers and toes. I was over the moon.”
Chemotherapy followed, and Sam went into remission. Eighteen months later, however, he had a setback. He suffered a seizure, lost his eyesight, and had to be revived twice—once in the ambulance and again at the hospital. After being stabilized, he underwent two more years of treatment. That was five years ago.
“Thank God I’m still the same person,” Sam says. “I have trouble with my short-term memory, but I have a good life.”
Every time Sam drives his Austin A35, he’s reminded of the power of hope and perseverance. And these days, he isn’t the only one who enjoys the little car.
“Everybody looks at it, and the kids will say, ‘Daddy, Daddy, what’s that? Look at that!’ as we’re driving past, and it just makes me smile.”
Sam and his Austin are spreading even more smiles than he knows—we can vouch for that.