When 14 year-old Paul Regan moved into a new home in Kent with his family in 1990 he discovered a strange car rusting at the bottom of the garden – it turned out to be a Dutton kit car, a fully assembled Melos S1.
The car, complete with weeds growing through the bodywork, had to be dragged from the undergrowth by dad and lad to be fully appreciated. There began a three year restoration project aimed at getting the kit car fit for the road in time for Paul’s 17th birthday and becoming eligible to drive.
All the hard work paid off and, incredibly, 28 years down the line, and after not one, but two rebuilds, Paul is still the proud owner and he drives his beloved Dutton on almost a daily basis, to work, to the supermarket, for trips to the city and gentle cruises in the country.
Paul quickly grew to love his Dutton.
Dutton Cars, based in Worthing, Sussex, was the largest kit car manufacturer in the world during production between 1970 and 1989.
The company was founded by Tim Dutton-Woolley and was run from a small workshop in which the Dutton P1 was built.
In October 1971 the B-Type appeared with a more or less standard spec based on Triumph Herald components.
The B-Type eventually evolved into the Dutton Phaeton with later versions based on components from the hugely popular and ever reliable Ford Escort.
Ironically, you didn’t have to build the self build kit cars yourself. You could buy them ready assembled with an upgraded 1.6 litre Ford Crossflow engine if you preferred.
In 1979 Dutton launched the Dutton Sierra, an Escort-based estate car with off-road looks which became a best-seller. Production peaked at 22 cars a week before the model was withdrawn in 1989.
The Dutton Rico had been launched in 1982 using a two door Escort as donor car with a Dutton-developed glass fibre body over a steel tubular frame.
By 1989 a new model had been developed called the Dutton Maroc, a heavily modified Ford Fiesta with a convertible body. Initially it was available as a factory-finished car but prices became too high and from 1993 kit versions were made available.
Dutton pioneered amphibious vehicles
After leaving the kit car business Tim Dutton operated as a consultant but returned to the car making business in 1995 with the Dutton Mariner and Dutton Commander, amphibious cars based on the Ford Fiesta and Suzuki Samurai. The Dutton Surf, based on the Suzuki Jimny, was introduced in 2005.
Tim Dutton earned new notoriety with his amphibious cars and is the only person to have driven/piloted them across the English Channel twice.
Paul’s Dutton Melos S1 meanwhile was bought as a kit car in the early 1980s and was first registered in 1986. It was a major restoration job to get it roadworthy.
The proud owner recalled: “Duttons were affordable kits back in the day and were not always bolted together particularly well. Our S1 was no exception.
“The wiring was a particular joy to unravel – much of the loom was under the dash and I have many memories of laying in the footwell with feet in the air trying to make sense of it all.
“On one occasion my brother tied my shoelaces to the roll bar which turned the Dutton into a pretty effective straitjacket.”
Despite the huge amount of work involved, and his sibling’s practical jokes, the Dutton was ready for the road in good time for Paul’s birthday.
Dutton kit car earned surprise MoT pass
“The Dutton’s first trip in our custody was my dad picking me up one evening after a surprise MoT pass.
“It was a surprise for two reasons: I didn’t know it was happening and the second surprise was that it actually passed.
“But the first time I drove it was on a friend’s farm at the age of 15 – my father used to run me down there at the weekends to practice before my test.”
From those first days driving off-road on the farm in the Dutton kit car, Paul has enjoyed a lifetime of motoring.
And the car has undergone a second rebuild following the initial joint effort with his father.
“The second rebuild was done with a lovely chap called Pete Brown who is based in Norfolk. I booked some time off work and stayed in a local B&B to work on the car with him.
“His farmhouse and workshop used to be to Duttons what Hethel is to Lotus.
“I learned as much from that experience as I did from building the car first time around with dad.”
Over the years Paul has also benefited from the invaluable help and advice from the “amazing team” at Copthorne Classic Garage near Crawley in West Sussex.
The garage specialises in classic car maintenance and restoration. They are experienced across a range of marques from Morris to Mercedes – and their portfolio also reaches to the heady likes of Aston Martin, Bentley, Rolls-Royce and Jensen.
Paul’s Dutton has now clocked 25,000 miles
They haven’t been found wanting when it comes to the self build market either and they have provided constant support in the care and maintenance of Paul’s Dutton which has now done more than 25,000 miles of which around 20,000 were clocked with Paul in the hot seat.
“I drove it to school and university – and it’s been everywhere with me ever since.
“Most of the mileage is in the first few years and the last decade because the car spent a bit of time in storage during and after university.
“But then I realised there’s no point having it if I can’t fit it into my life, so I moved it up to London and started using it whenever I could,” he explained.
Describing the drive as “better than you would think”, the 42-year-old said: “There’s still a bag of nails character to it as you’ll never get all the rattles out of the thing, but having spent a few pounds on suspension and brakes it handles pretty well.
“It’s genuinely as happy on route to Tesco as it is on a track day.
“The engine is a rebuilt 1600 Ford GT crossflow from a dead Mk1 Capri and is lively enough to surprise some modern stuff, at least until you find a motorway.
“The key with it for me was finding the right balance – a 170bhp Zetec in an old Dutton will be too much for it dynamically, at least without some structural work.
“With a well-tuned crossflow it’s fast enough to be fun but never beyond its capability. Or mine.”
And Paul’s favourite five things about the Dutton?
- The noise. The exhaust is a straight pipe with a straight-through silencer. That and the Weber/K&N make it hard not to jab at the throttle between gear changes, especially as it goes everywhere with the roof off.
- The gear knob. Sounds silly, but it’s a number eight pool ball from a (now long-since closed) pub in London we visited many times with friends when I first met my wife. I subsequently had it drilled and fitted to the car.
- The dashboard. It’s a one-off built by the first owner. We made a replica of it for my brother’s car (also a Melos) but otherwise it’s the only one – and, like the interior (which I retrimmed myself), it’s a good example of what makes these cars fun: you get to design and execute your own ideas in construction. For better, or for worse.
- It’s built to be used. And it gets used. This isn’t a car for shows, it gets driven and patched up when needed. It has genuinely been the most consistently reliable car I’ve had for years (which probably says more about my other classics, to be honest).
- That it’s a little unloved. People mock Duttons because they were cheap in the day and awkward to look at. I like that it’s a bit odd, that it wasn’t a car I chose but it’s one that’s stayed with me for so long. So many have ended up destroyed but these cars deserve a little place in history at least – not everyone could afford to build Caterham or Cobra kits in the ’70s and ’80s and Tim Dutton did his bit to make sports car ownership more accessible I reckon.
Some friends thing the Dutton should be traded in
Paul admits one or two of his friends have been a little bemused by his lifelong obsession with the Dutton. Some even suggested he should advertise the Dutton for sale.
He said: “Some of them are a bit puzzled. One of my friends asked me why I don’t sell it and buy a Caterham.
“I see his point – there are way better cars dynamically and aesthetically, but none that I have such a history with or nut-and-bolt understanding of. It’s irreplaceable, most friends and family understand that and love it for what it is.”
Paul knows a thing or two about cars and especially classic cars having spent many years working in the automotive media – much of it at the BBC and Top Gear – but also with other car and classic car magazines.
He now helps run a technology company that builds digital products for publishers and broadcasters but he is never too far away from an oily rag and a classic car of one description or another.
The S1’s garage mates are a 1978 Daimler Sovereign Series 2, which takes care of longer trips out of London to see family in Dorset and Kent, and he is also restoring a 1969 Morris 1000 with 1275 running gear and he has bought a second Dutton, a Phaeton, to prepare for sprints and hillclimbs.
For good measure he also owns a couple of classic motorcycles, vintage bicycles and, at a rather slower pace, a collection of very desirable watches.
Dutton Melos S1 kit car has survived test of time
But it’s the Dutton Melos S1 that has survived the real tests of time and remains his most valued possession. “We paid a few hundred quid for it. It has been rebuilt twice but is likely still only worth £2,500 or so – and it’s one of the better examples in existence.
“But this misses the point: I’ve owned the car for over half my life and there’s no price I can put on that.
“I didn’t find the car, it found me, and I now love it. Every time I drive it there’s almost three decades of nostalgia along for the ride.”
All of Paul’s cars are insured by Adrian Flux, whom he came across in a kit car magazine many years ago. Flux has specialist policies for kit cars and classic cars.
“Adrian Flux gave me a great deal with great cover at a great price, so why change?” Paul enthused.