The immediate dopamine rush when discovering a previously unknown car brand bearing one’s first name is heady stuff indeed. Certainly for me. While a fairly lengthy list of automobile brands sport the last name of their founders, only one brand, Mercedes, took on a person’s first name in advance of making it famous. Or so I thought, until at a recent car show I pulled up next to a charming, if rudimentary, blue European sports car branded with the name Burton, my first name. And in this case it would be all about me. The surprise coupled with my healthy sense of self fired my curiosity. My total ignorance of the Burton brand would soon be addressed with my introduction to European car importer Simon Knott.
Meet Simon Knott and the Burton.
What’s a Burton?
With a slight autumnal chill in the evening air and a brilliant blinding sun hanging low in the sky, I slowly squinted my way into a spot on the field of a local car show. With my dazzled eye sight returning to normal, I turned to the car on my left. It strongly resembled a cross breeding of a Lotus Seven (Patrick McGoohan drove one in “The Prisoner”) and the 1950s British built Singer roadster. This MGTD-sized open sports car projected a charm and vigor that would seem to fit nicely as a runabout in a Florida, California or other sun drenched temperate community. Adorning the nose and the high cutaway door sills, elegant chromed script copy within an oval emblem spelled out “Burton.” I couldn’t help wondering, “Why choose that name?”
At the car’s left hand driver’s side a genial man with a fine British accent spoke to a group eager for details about the Burton. A smooth blend of salesman, tour guide and professor, he spoke in a most engaging and casual manner. Before the curious group of admirers he held forth detailing the virtues of the Burton. Clearly, this little blue sports car was the first Burton any in this gathering had ever seen. I would soon learn that the Englishman explaining its merits was Simon Knott whose company, Round Peg International, had imported it to America from the Netherlands.
As the crowd dissipated, I had the opportunity to ask Simon, “What’s a Burton?” and, for me, even more pressing, “Why choose that name?”
I learned that, by now in his 60th year, Simon’s life had included an eclectic mix of professions and accomplishments that culminated in his founding Round Peg International in 2019. Over its young life Round Peg would prosper by specializing in the import to America from Europe of very clean original Minis, Land Rovers, a few stray Citroën Deux Chevauxs (2CVs) and the solitary Dutch built Burton standing before us. Why choose that name? That question, like a buzzing mosquito in a darkened bedroom could not be swatted away. I returned to exploring Simon’s path to Burton advocacy.
Initially trained as an aircraft engineer, Simon spent ten years in the Royal Air Force servicing jet fighters and helicopters. By the late aughts, life had swept him to the U.S. and Mercedes-Benz of North America. Then, after ten years of serving the three-pointed star 2018 found him waving goodbye as Mercedes packed up and headed to Atlanta. Wanting no part of their southern strategy, Simon set about in a search of a new pursuit. Serendipitously, a whim morphed into a plan.
Unemployed and at a bit of loose ends, Simon, skilled at things mechanical and technical, bought a 1991 long wheelbase Land Rover 110. He says, “Frankly, I found the idea of getting my hands dirty quite appealing.” Putting his technical skill set to work he rebuilt it and put it on eBay. He says, “It sold in an hour.” Quick to grasp an opportunity, Simon recognized that a clear course of action had revealed itself. His future would be as a broker of pre-owned European cars. As he had spent much of his life driving and appreciating original 20th century Minis and Land Rovers he founded Round Peg with the express intent of focusing on pre-2000 Mini’s and Land Rovers. In short order Deux Chevauxs and the closely related Burton (more about that later) would expand Round Peg’s offerings. By October 2019 Simon had completed the rigor of acquiring his New Jersey dealer’s license. Game on for Round Peg. With approximately £150,000 to spend, Simon set off to Europe on a buying spree. It would prove to be one of many to come. Cutting to the chase, I asked THE question about the Dutch manufacturer, “Why choose that name?” Simon with his charming British accent and brevity said, “No idea whatsoever.” Disappointed, I pressed on.
When asked what inspired the naming of his company, Simon said, “For an individual, finding and buying a quality pre-2000 Mini, Land Rover or something unusual like a Burton, it can be a challenging task fraught with problems, missteps and frustration. It poses the classic square peg in the round hole situation. My business model strives to shave the troublesome corners off the square peg to make for a smooth round peg in a round hole buying experience.” He summed it all up saying, “The Round Peg experience for a client means a simplified buying experience.”
To maintain a steady inventory, Simon employs a network of knowledgeable “Bird dogs” around Europe that keep a sharp eye out for quality cars to show Simon on one of his buying trips.
Opening the door to one of Round Peg’s two warehouses revealed three very clean Minis and the Burton. The three Minis a blue 1980, a green 1993 and a red 1996 all show exceptionally well with excellent mechanicals. However, in their midst resided the blue roadster I had seen at the car show. I quickly learned that while sporting a Dutch body it boasted a French heart.
As has been noted, Round Peg imports 20th century Citroen Deux Chevauxs and there the story begins. On one of Simon’s many buying trips he joined a Citroen specialist with whom he had worked for over 30 years. At one of the destinations he found a wealth of 2CVs and among them the blue Burton. Poised to head home to America with many cars but little cash, he closed the deal on the Burton with all the money he had left. With the Burton what exactly did He buy.
The brainchild of two Deux Chevaux loving Dutch brothers, Dimitri and Iwan Gӧbel, the Burton came to life in 1998 as a kit. Inspired by dreams of Jaguars, Bugattis, Delahayes and Morgans the brothers Gӧbel hand shaped a prototype sports car body that would mate seamlessly to the stock 2CV chassis. Citroen’s 2CV employed a traditional body on frame construction making replacement of the original body easy. By 2000 the brothers had Burton kits for sale. My buzzing mosquito, Why choose that name?
In the case of Simon’s Burton, despite the body coming with a 2011 Burton kit batch number, the fact that its chassis and mechanicals come straight out of a 1987 2CV meant it being titled as a 1987 model. As a 1987 model it met the 25-year waiver and could be imported into the U.S.
Deux Chevaux translates to, literally, two horses. It reflected the cars status when the Citroën 2CV was first introduced in 1948. Its horsepower rating for tax purposes was two horsepower. (It actually delivered 9 horsepower). Powered by a durable air-cooled 2-cylinder flat-twin engine, over its 42-year production life its output climbed slowly but steadily to a peak of 33 horsepower. A realistic top speed for most 2CVs fell in the 55 MPH range. Its transmission reflected a design that many would describe as curious. A gear shift described by some as an umbrella handle sticking out of the dashboard did, to its credit, provide four forward speeds though accessed through a rather non-traditional but easy to master shift pattern. Indeed much of the 2CV design featured unique solutions, possibly none more so than its suspension. Described in a road test by Britain’s Classic World TV that stated, ”The suspension in layman’s terms offers a big coil spring in a can tucked inside the rocker panels on each side of the car. They connect the front and rear wheels on both sides with the net result being a car that rides fantastically well over rough roads.” This system actually can adjust the wheelbase and caster automatically depending of the load, to deliver improved handling. In the road test the driver offered his opinion saying, “There is no car that contains so little and offers so much.” It actually seemed a living tribute to Lotus designer Colin Chapman’s oft quoted mantra of “simplify and add lightness.” Not without reason, the test drive described the 2CV chassis as the working class Lotus. Heady praise indeed.
In essence the Gӧbel brothers grasped the efficiency, potential and economy of the 2CV and translated it into a sports car experience but, why choose that name. I had to find out.
Burton Cars remains in business today both providing body kits and as a source for all things Deux Chevaux. I reached out to their home office. Their only contact came in the form of an email. My query, “Why choose that name? Nothing, crickets. I learned that Burton had been bought by French company 2CV Mehari Club Cassis of France. I called. A lovely English speaking French woman answered. She explained that this was no longer the company’s number. Au revoir.
Undeterred, well maybe a little deterred, I found the name of a North American Burton distributor, Mr. DeWitt. My pulse quickened when a man with Dutch flavored English answered the phone. “Why chose that name?”, I asked. “I cannot tell you,” he responded. “It is too complicated. Call Iwan Gӧbel.” He gave me a phone number. Aware of my logging international calls like an eastern European scam line. I dared not think about my phone bill.
However, I was not going to stop now. With my newfound mastery of dialing internationally, I dialed. Iwan Gӧbel answered. Hearing my voice he seamlessly switched to Dutch flavored English. I prepared for a long explanation. “Why choose that name,” I asked. Without equivocation and in less than two minutes, Iwan Gӧbel cheerily explained, “For months we were looking for the right name. We had a list of over 400. In the end we decided on Burton.” “Why?” I asked. He answered saying, “Because it was a name you pronounced the same in English, French or Dutch and it imparted the feeling of an English product.”
I have now joined Mercedes Jellinek as having a car brand bearing my first name.