Singer Bryan Ferry, who performed Saturday night at Casino Rama, is known for his suave style and impeccable taste — be it in his clothes, art or cars — as much as for his legendary music as a solo artist and with Roxy Music.
Though the debonair rocker is considered the epitome of the English gentleman rock star, as a young art student in northern England he loved all things American.
Like his first car — a 1957 Studebaker Champion, which he purchased in 1968.
He says it immediately caught his eye.
“Americana — that was what we were into and somehow I came across this quite rare car. It was very, very cheap because no one could afford to run such a car in Newcastle where I lived. I did actually have to push it more than I drove it. But it looked so cool.”
“It wasn’t one of those American sort of Cadillac-things with huge fins and that kind of stuff; it was very discreet and it had a kind of sharklike design that was (a) very, very underplayed design and very beautiful.”
He chuckles as he recalls paying close to a hundred pounds — the whole of his student grant at the time — on the exotic vehicle.
“I thought it looked great. It was like me buying a beautiful house or something — it was quite a commitment and I guess I loved having it and it made me feel very happy. I loved beautiful things and if I was going to have a car I’d rather have one that looked amazing — I wasn’t worried about how fast I went or anything.”
The Studebaker was a glamorous choice considering Ferry grew up in the “gritty North,” as he describes England’s industrial heartland.
Ferry says his parents were poor and sacrificed “an awful lot” to provide him and his sisters with a university education.
His father who tended horses as plowman on a farm — and later, during the depression looked after pit ponies in the mines — never owned a car. Ferry says he doesn’t ever recall seeing him even use a telephone.
Despite his working class roots of which he is proud, Ferry says as a creative person at university he felt somewhat outside of England’s stratified class system.
“I was very determined that I would make my own life and create my own thing and I certainly didn’t want to feel any limitations about where and how I’d been born.”
The late fifties and sixties were a time of change and upheaval in England. The vibrancy of America was viewed as a breath of fresh air by many young Britons, especially those interested in jazz and R&B.
Ferry, in what he describes as a Forrest Gump-like defining moment, won front row tickets to the seminal Bill Haley and His Comets concert in 1957. (They were the first major U.S. rock and roll band to tour the world.)
Only 11 years old, he says he was amazed at how exciting it was.
“It was the first time people (were) kind of almost rioting — you know jumping on the seats — the police behind the curtain so it didn’t get out of hand. It was just a change, a huge change . . . looking back it was a real landmark moment.”
Ferry characterizes the concert as nothing short of the emancipation of youth and a freeing up of ideas.
But real freedom — the emancipation from having to wait at a bus stop in the rain for hours — came later when he learned to drive.
Ferry says he got behind the wheel for the first time while on a summer tour of Italy and France with friends Stephen Buckley, a noted artist, and Jeremy Catto, who would become the famed Oxford don and medieval history professor.
“(Catto) taught me to drive and he taught me to swim on the same four-week trip, so I came back a bigger and better man,” he laughs.
The following year he bought the two-toned grey, beige and off white, two-door Champion.
The dashing Slave To Love singer acknowledges the car had the desired effect on the opposite sex.
“I do remember picking up a girl in it once — actually a complete stranger,” he recalls. “In Newcastle. I said, ‘Do you want a lift?’ And she jumped straight into it.”
Ferry says though the car was impractical there were occasional road trips to the nearby seaside and with its wide bench seat; the car offered a unique ride.
“It was very different from English cars. It had this amazing suspension and it had a kind of stick shift which was on the steering wheel. It was all, very, very cool.”
He says he’s drawn on the experience in his own music; in songs like Oh Yeah, which he calls “a Studebaker song, really.” He referenced “Where my Studebaker takes me” in his first hit, Virginia Plain.
The singer, who is famed for music that evokes a romantic melancholy and longing, says he only had the car for a year because he couldn’t afford repairs or find replacement parts. Though luckily, he notes, the car looked great simply parked outside his student apartment on his wide, leafy street.
Today, Ferry continues his interest in automobiles. He is a roving ambassador for Audi, and clearly appreciates the design and performance of his “amazing” A8.
Not interested in “flash” cars as he calls high-octane sports cars — and he’s owned everything under the sun. His favourites include the Morris Traveller (several), a Morris Minor convertible (“really pretty”), and a Bentley Continental GT in a rare green colour.
“I used to fling that one around, drive it very fast,” he admits, “(In) the days before speed cameras — and so I used to drive to my house in the country really fast at about four it the morning when the roads are empty. It was really beautiful.”
Despite his cool, 007-ish persona, he says he found the Aston Martin “a little bit too macho for me.”
And perhaps more incongruous, Ferry owns a 1990 black-on-black Corvette; he notes it was the last year the tail lights were round rather than oval. (Turns out a friend from his university days, Tom Falconer, is a world-renowned expert on Corvettes.)
Ferry says some of the best cars he’s had were small but he still loves driving his Land Rover Defender (long wheelbase), which he uses in the countryside. “You just need to be careful as you rattle around the corner,” he added.
He says one car he’d like to have — “If you were to give me a car now” — would be an old Corniche. “I think they suddenly started looking very cool again, those cars.”
Now 66 years old and the father of four grown sons, Ferry is on a roll.
Continuing to record and perform (tour reviews are laudatory) his voice is timeless.
As is his taste in cars.