Collect to invest: The delights of getting hitched

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Like love and marriage, horses and carriages go together. Hardly anybody buys them who does not already own a horse. Which is why, unlike the classic and vintage car market, which boomed and bust in the early 1990s, horse-drawn carriages are rising in value by a steady 10 per cent a year. John Windsor goes for a ride.

To stretch a point, owning a big dog or a goat would qualify you as a bona fide purchaser of the Victorian miniature hooded carriage that is coming up at Thimbleby and Shorland's auction of 106 carriages in Reading on Wednesday (10am).

You could even get between the shafts yourself to give the kids a spin. A former museum exhibit, the carriage has elegant ironwork and a delicately crafted body and will probably fetch pounds 1,200-pounds 1,800 (including a very modest buyers' premium of 6 per cent). It will hold its value.

If you must speculate, buy the best and maintain it. The film maker who in 1982 paid pounds 12,000 in Reading for the only named Royal Mail coach - the fast and famous "Quicksilver" of the London-Devonport run - and locked it away for his children could get pounds 60,000-pounds 80,000 for it today.

Britain is the world's hub of carriage-making and Thimbleby and Shorland's saleroom is the hub of the carriage market. The four big sales a year are a clearing house for carriages from as far afield as the United States and Australia. John Mauger (pronounced Major), the No 1 expert on horse- drawn carriages, embarked on his career in 1961 when, as an assistant at Thimbleby and Shorland, he sold 300 lots of carriages and tackle that had once belonged to British Lion Films. They made astonishing prices and he never looked back.

Now living in Suffolk, he is still the firm's consultant, as he is for Christie's, museums, and the aristocracy. He has masterminded auctions in Bologna and Illinois.

He has never owned a horse or carriage. He has always been too busy for that, unlike his ancestors, Louis XIV, who was his great great great great great great great grandfather and Emma, only monarch to be twice Queen of England, having been married to both Ethelred the Unready and King Canute.

Horses take to driving quite naturally, he says. For pounds 150 or so, you could buy a two-wheel, two-seat exercise cart and drive a pony round country lanes.

This is the way many an out-of-condition parent discovers driving. The children have gone to boarding school and dear old Smokey is forlorn in the paddock, in need of exercise. Selling him would break hearts. But father would be like a sack of spuds in the saddle. The answer is to buy a cart.

Alternatively, go up-market and invest in a turn-of-the-century ralli car (named after Ralli, the Greek shipping family). Some are two-wheeled, some have four wheels and seat four, two rear-facing over a let-down tailboard. About pounds 450 will buy a usable one. A modern one might cost pounds 2,500-pounds 3,500 but old ones built to the same high standard are cheaper at pounds 1,000-pounds 1,200. For a minimum of pounds 1,500 you could buy one capable of winning prizes for turn-out in the show ring.

There is strengthening demand for original individual driving vehicles. A ralli car in the sale by a well-known maker, Anne Cowburn of Manchester, will probably fetch pounds 1,000-pounds 2,000 although in need of restoration. Famous makers' names add value, says Mr Mauger, but so does fine workmanship, highly visible on horse-drawn carriages, however anonymous.

Think twice before buying a governess cart, nicknamed tubs because they are enclosed to stop children falling out. They are holding their value and look homely, but the whip (driver) sits sideways, there is no footboard for leverage when reining in, and the result is often a crick in the back.

The only vehicles that lost value during the recession were hire vehicles such as open landaus used for weddings. But now more people can afford a bit of swank, landaus that might have fetched pounds 12,000-pounds 14,000 before dropping to pounds 6,000-pounds 7,000 during the recession are now on their way back up.

They are worth buying, but the novice enthusiast, or company wanting one for entertaining clients, will need the services of a job-master. They are key figures in the horse-drawn market, dating back to the commercial horse and vehicle men who hired equipage and drivers to middle-class Victorian families in the cities. There are still plenty of them about, according to Mr Mauger. Part of the charm of buying into the horsey world is the abundance of horsey characters. It is immensely sociable.

Sarah Needham, 26, a carriage driver who joined Thimbleby and Shorland three years ago, tells of the thrill of clattering down Ascot High Street on top of a park drag on the way to the races. "As you go down the high street wearing your Ascot hat, everybody looks at you. It's like floating on air."

And there's the added satisfaction of knowing that the carriage you are sitting on is going up in value. Over the years, old favourites circulate through auction. A park drag, a light private coach whose four-in-hand might have been driven to the races by its gentleman-owner, sold for a record pounds 15,500 in 1974, pounds 50,400 in 1990 and is probably worth more than pounds 70,000 today.

Mr Mauger led me to his garage, where he keeps two vehicles that he does drive - a 1937 Rolls Royce 20/25 and a 1949 Alvis TA14. "Always buy the best," he said.

Thimbleby and Shorland, 31 Great Knollys Street, Reading, Berkshire RG1 7HU (0118-950 8611).

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