When You Really Want a Sports Car, Only a Red One Will Do
Among its many fine points, Batesville also has the distinction of being the home of a unique company in the national car rental business, John Pollock’s Sports Car Rentals. He has a stable of six, mainly classic English, red convertible sports cars for rent for cruising along the mountain parkways and down our macadam roads. One day, $110. Two days, $210. With that come wind in your hair, nimble handling close to the road and the cougar-throated sound of dual carburetors.
When he was a teen in California in the ‘60s, Pollock took his surf board to the beach lashed to the windscreen of his MGA. When he grew up he gave up surfing but could not give up the car.
He has all his 22 cars garaged in the Batesville vicinity. Not all of them run. Some are for the business and some are projects that will eventually be for sale.
“I run the business to support my car habit,” he said. “My passion is restoring cars slowly. I’ve had three vocations and this is my last.” He’s been at this one 20 years.
After graduating from U.Va. in environmental science—he also got an MBA at Darden—he spent a few years working for the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority. Then he started a hydroelectric business that managed 500 turbines at dams in the Piedmont and the Valley. He supplied power to VEPCO, which eventually bought him out.
“When I was a kid I loved to disassemble and reassemble stuff. That’s restoration. I do it myself.
“I have six cars to restore. My New Year’s resolution is always not to buy another car, but I can’t live up to it. Collector cars is a $1 billion business now. It’s not that expensive to get into.” A good-condition, rust-free MGB can be found on Ebay for about $10,000, he said. “The problem is keeping them garaged—and getting your wife’s permission.” He admitted he is in the market for a 1980-83 Fiat Spider.
In the rental fleet are a 1978 Alfa Romeo, a 1959 MGA, a 1973 MGB, a 1960 TR3, a 1972 Triumph Spitfire, and a 1963 Buick Skylark, which has the advantage of having a rear seat.
“I’m really fond of the MGA,” said Pollock. “I had one in college. I know it inside and out. Right now I also like the Austin Mini.” He belongs to the Shenandoah Valley English Car Club.
“All these cars run great. They are a ball,” he promised.
“What makes this business is the type of car. Nobody else in the country rents these. The problem is the liability insurance. People are afraid and they don’t want to get into it.”
Usually all the cars are rented over the weekends. Customers get 200 free miles with a full tank of gas. They bring it back topped off. Each car’s glove box contains a laminated map of the most fun and scenic drives in the region. Pollock marks his favorites on it. “I tell them the places to see and where to eat.” Typically customers make a tour of local wineries or breweries.
The business shuts down from late November until mid-April, when convertibles are out-of-season. “When it’s too hot I won’t rent either,” he said, “because the English cars, with small radiators, won’t cool.
“When I rent a car I spend about 20 minutes going over it. I try to convince the customers that they are renting my personal car. So far I’ve had luck. I turn down some people and won’t rent to them. I won’t rent for somebody to drive it to Virginia Beach. It’s almost like being in the hot air balloon business.”
The typical renter is retired. “Three-quarters of my calls are from women: ‘My husband used to have this car.’ Most come from D.C. or Richmond or Tidewater. I’m also getting a lot more wedding business. The Skylark is popular for those because it seats four. Everybody wants the car to be red,” he said.
“If they break down, I come rescue them. I get that once or twice a year. Most times I can fix them where they are. These cars were built with the idea that the owner was going to be maintaining it. Now they assume an idiot will be driving and won’t do anything to take care of the car.
“People pay when they bring the car back. We do cash or check only and I have never been stiffed by anybody I’ve trusted.” He has lots of repeat customers. “People come back and say, ‘Best ride ever.’”
“It’s growing by itself. I don’t advertise. It’s just my webpage and word-of-mouth.” The company has been on MSNBC and written up in Men’s Health and Forbes magazines.
Pollock works on cars over the winter and in the warm months he likes to garden.
Last year he donated a kidney to a friend, Derek Koolman, formerly the Methodist minister in Batesville, who has since moved to a church in Norfolk.
“I’ve had 65 years of perfect health,” said Pollock. “I thought, what the heck, this is something I can do. Derek has a mission. It’s important for him to live.”
That takes the restoration impulse, the desire to keep things running right, to a new level.