The Haynes Publishing Group sells motoring books, mainly the type that enable DIY mechanics to tackle just about every job on everything from an Austin A35 to a Jag. Such is its success that Haynes now accounts for about half the workshop manuals sold in the United States.
The company's chairman, John Haynes, is justifiably ebullient. Was last year's profit the best since he set up J H Haynes and Co Ltd in summer 1960? The emphatic answer - 'Yes, yes, yes]' - includes an element of relief, because the business has weathered a recessionary storm that threatened to sink it.
'My reaction, when times were getting tough, was to put my foot down, to accelerate, with the intention of putting out as much as we could to get in as much as we could,' he says. 'That strategy didn't work. The workshop manuals were still selling well, but it became clear that we were producing far too many of the general motoring books about such subjects as racing. We eventually put the brakes on, hard, and cut back the new general titles from about 12 to three or four a month, which is what we're publishing now.
'We ran up a debt of pounds 5.2m to finance our over-production while the unsold books were piling up in warehouses. The crisis came in 1991, when our pre-tax profit was only pounds 25,000. We were employing 300 people here. Today's figure of about 240 employees includes 45 in the States.'
Losing the business would have been an immense blow, because its origins go back to when John Haynes was a 16-year-old at a Kent boarding school in 1954. He used a small legacy to lavish pounds 15 on a pre-war Austin Seven and, like many of that period's car-mad youngsters, turned the humble saloon into a stark, two-seater sports car. The school was broadminded enough to let him drive round the playing fields. 'I was delighted when my housemaster's wife requested a ride,' he chuckles, 'but horrified when something went wrong and oil squirted all over her lovely floral dress. She was very sporting about it.'
Something inspired the schoolboy to put his knowledge to good use by writing and illustrating a 48-page booklet about building a 'special' based on the Austin Seven. He stencilled and hand-stitched 250 copies, advertised them in Motor Sport - the price was the equivalent of 25p - and sold the lot. He produced more copies and set up a partnership with his younger brother, David, before starting National Service in the RAF. Modern Enterprise Distributors, as it was called, recorded a profit of almost pounds 850 in its first full year: good money at a time when, speaking from experience, a junior reporter on a local newspaper earned about pounds 12 a week.
Pilot Officer Haynes was based in Germany when he decided to make publishing his career. Books on building 'specials' were produced there, for reasons of cost and efficiency, then crammed into his MGA sports car and driven to England each time he went home on leave.
He decided to renew his commission, but combined being in the RAF with writing and publishing more car books, and running, at arm's length, a new venture called the Sporting Motorists' Bookshop. He also built and raced a Lotus Seven before writing it off at Goodwood in 1963.
A posting to Aden threatened to disrupt the business, but it was where Mr Haynes hit on the idea that was to make him rich. He offered to help a friend restore an Austin-Healey Sprite that needed serious attention. Why not strip the car right down to the last nut and bolt, then produce a workshop manual by recording every stage of the rebuild in words and pictures? The main investments were a duty-free Pentax camera and a lot of time. Aden is extremely hot, so one of the most daunting aspects of the job was carrying the engine up four flights of stairs to a makeshift workbench in his spare bedroom.
'The same basic principles have been applied to every manual we've done since then,' says Mr Haynes. 'Each book represents a car we've taken apart and put together again. The process takes six to eight weeks, and a new manual requires an investment of between pounds 75,000 and pounds 100,000. We cover most of the manufacturers. Exceptions include Rolls-Royce, although I'm sure a Silver Shadow manual would sell well, probably to Mini owners]'
Twenty per cent of his time is now devoted to the ever-expanding Haynes Motor Museum, which attracts about 75,000 visitors a year. What is already one of Britain's biggest car collections started when Mr Haynes paid pounds 500 for a 1930 Morris Oxford whose first owner had kept it for 40 years. Lamborghini, Ferrari, Maserati, Aston Martin, Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Alfa, Jensen, Jaguar, Mercedes and AC Cobra share the limelight with such rare American monsters as the Auburn Speedster, Jordan Playboy, Stearns Knight, Ford Fairlane Skyliner and Lincoln Zephyr V12.
A huge smile breaks through the Haynes beard when we stop by a big, red, V12-engined car built in Indiana back in 1917. The badge reveals it to be a Haynes. 'To be honest, I didn't know there was such a thing until I spotted this one in an auctioneer's catalogue about six years ago. Its history is fascinating, because it was raced in Singapore and then survived more than 30 years in a warehouse in Java. It goes fantastically well, but is a devil to stop, because there are no front brakes]'
'I've been extraordinarily lucky,' says the man whose day-to-day cars include a Jaguar XJS and a Bentley Turbo R. 'Publishing motoring books has been very good to me. That's why I regard the museum, which is an educational trust, as an appropriate way to give something back.'