STEVE HARLEY, the singer with chart-topping Seventies rock band Cockney Rebel, still feels “a bit miffed” four years after being fined £1,000 for speeding in his BMW 7-series on the M25.
“Neither my wife nor I saw any 40mph speed limit signs, so I got fined a grand because they means-test you these days,” says the 68-year-old, who was also given six points for driving at 70mph in a speed-controlled area. “If I was a student, I’d probably have been fined £50 — I don’t find that very democratic.”
Fortunately, his tale tugged at the heartstrings of Jeremy Clarkson, then presenting Top Gear, and the show encouraged viewers to download Harley’s hit song Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me), propelling the song back into the Top 40 and more than covering the cost of the fine. Harley even recorded an extra verse about the incident.
Breaking the speed limit would have been more of a challenge in his first motor: an underpowered Ford Escort 1100 Mk 1 automatic that went with his job as a reporter on Essex County Newspapers. “It had virtually no power at all but it got me around the villages of north Essex to cover stories,” says Harley, who has always driven automatics with his left leg, because the muscles in his right leg never recovered after he had polio as a toddler.
In 1972 Harley quit journalism for music and, after busking in the West End, formed Cockney Rebel. Their first single, 1973’s Sebastian, was a hit in Belgium and Holland, but it was Make Me Smile, which topped the UK charts in February 1975, that really put Harley and his band on the map.
He splashed out on the sort of car befitting a pop star: a 1961 cream and green Bentley S2. “That was a wonderful vehicle — I found myself doing 125mph on the A23 once as I raced to a date with my wife-to-be, Dorothy.”
In the late 1970s he moved to Los Angles to make a solo album. “Out there they’d often mistake it for what they call a Roller. Sometimes I’d go to a restaurant with my mate Rod [Stewart] and afterwards he’d joke, ‘Shall we take the Roller home?’”
“My 1961 Bentley S2 was a wonderful vehicle, but everyone in Los Angeles kept mistaking it for a ‘Roller'”
After bringing the Bentley back to England with him in 1980, Harley sold it for £1,300, although in hindsight he wonders if he should have kept it. “I’ve been told it could fetch £100,000 today.”
He then bought a VW Golf GTI, “which looked like a German tin box but was a flying machine.”
Harley married Dorothy in 1981 and bought a Peugeot seven-seat estate. “It seemed like a good idea at the time, with two young children [son Kerr, now 36, and daughter Greta, now 33] and their friends always visiting,” he says. “But it was forever being hoisted onto a tow truck. It wasn’t a looker, or very comfortable either.”
He went through three sensible Volvos after that. “They had really good handling but were all a bit dadsy for me. Hang on, I thought, aren’t I a rock star — what am I doing in a Volvo?”
That’s when his love affair with the BMW 7-series began. “I’ve had five, and still own a V12 long wheelbase,” he says. “It’s black, and has served as the wedding car, bedecked with white ribbon, for both my children’s weddings.”
However, last year, he treated himself to an Aston Martin DB9 V12 (with 20,000 miles on the clock). “Aesthetically, it is matchless, and mechanically, it is a dream.” The car has shown him the pleasures of mid-speed cruising, rather than “thrashing it”. So, fingers crossed, he won’t be given any more £1,000 fines.
“A cool 70mph on the motorways, with a clear run, suits me fine now,” he says. “The old saloons and Mazdas might think they’re big and tough as they hurtle past me at 85mph. But inside, you know what the monster is capable of. Nothing to prove.”
Steve Harley: my life in cars
- 1969 Ford Escort Mk 1
- 1975 1961 Bentley S2
- 1980 Volkswagen Golf GTI
- 1987 Volvo 240 GLT
- 1992 BMW 7 Series 740i
- 2018 Aston Martin DB9 (pictured)
- My dream car 1950s Mercedes-Benz 300SL