U.S. Car Concessionaires in Great Britain
Selling highly individualistic U.S. cars in Great Britain is a fairly small operation for the four makes concerned. Yet the demand seems to be increasing and one wanders how much this has had to do with the introduction of more acceptable and sporting machines such as the Mustang and Camaro. Figures obtained from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders' Statistics Office show that in 1965 284 U.S.-made cars were imported into Britain, with a value of £367,072. The following year the number increased to 368 (£484,666) and last year the number was 480 (£632,982). The sales figures given to us by the various concessionaires did not seem to bear these out but we are inclined to accept those of the S.M.M.T. A survey of the four companies concerned, Lincoln Cars, Rambler Cars, Lendrum and Hartman and Warwick Wright, follows :—
American Motor Corporation—Rambler Cars
By far the smallest of the American "Big Four" automobile manufacturers is the American Motor Corporation. In fact, on the U.S. market Volkswagen manages to out-sell their products, although some recent changes in top management, which now officially encourages motor racing, and a really aggressive "knocking copy" advertising campaign in the States may see their fortunes changing. The picture in Britain is slightly different, for Rambler Cars, the British concessionaires, claim to have imported 40% of the U.S. cars last year.
Rambler Caps, which are based by the Chiswick fly-over in West London, have been in this country since 1924; the Chiswick plant used to assemble Hudsons. In 1954 Hudson and Nash joined forces to form American Motors and recently the name Rambler was reintroduced with the birth of the so-called compact car, while the trading names of Hudson and Nash were both dropped. Rambler Cars started selling seriously in this country in 1963 when import restrictions were lifted, and they have always sold a sedate type of motor car. In 1968, however, the emphasis is on the more sporting Javelin.
The sales policy in Britain is to bring its a restricted line to simplify dealer stockings. The smallest compact is available only to order, while the Javelin is only available from stock with the biggest engine. In the States there are nine engine options but in Britain Rambler concentrate on the six-cylinder 3.8-litre and 4.8 and 5.6-litre V8s. Prices in this country range from £2,100 to £2,600.
Rambler Cars have a fairly wide cross-section of buyers, including those to the military and diplomats. Among the owners of Ramblers are those two eminent Back Britainers, Sir Max Aitkin and Derek Marks of the Daily Express—very ironic! The Chiswick depot is the parts centre for the whole of Europe and the Middle East, and Rambler Cars reckon they earn $1 million a year in re-exporting, a total that far exceeds the value of cars sold. These spares are all computer-controlled and Rambler say they can have spares to any town in Britain within 48 hours and to a big town in 24 hours. They also use Heathrow Airport a great deal, especially since the M4 was built on their doorstep. The stock of spares in the main goes back for five years although they also carry certain Hudson, Nash and Austin Metropolitan parts.
General Motors—Lendrum and Hartman
All of the gigantic General Motors' cars are handled in this country by one company. Lendrum and Hartman, a member of the Lex Group of companies. The various G.M. makes have gradually been brought under their control, finishing with Lendrum and Hartman moving into bright new offices in Flood Street, just off the King's Road, Chelsea, two years ago.
The company was established 40 years ago in premises in Albemarle Street, dealing in Buicks and Cadillacs. The leading light in those days was Capt. Hartman, a dominant figure under whose influence these cars were sold mainly to the established rich and aristocracy, including one to a ruling monarch. Today, said Lendrum and Hartman's acting General Manager Victor Shaw, the cars are sold in the main to theatrical people, pop groups and diplomats. During their early years all servicing was carried out at Old Oak Lane, Willesden, where a certain amount of assembly work was done before the war.
Within the last 10 years a number of mergers have taken place, Lendrum & Hartman first taking over the Chevrolet marque from B. & C. Concessionaires. After Capt. Hartman's death Mrs. Hartman continued to run the business until it was acquired by the Lex Group. Lex already held the Oldsmobile franchise, leaving only one make outstanding. Three years ago a merger was arranged between Lendrum and Hartman and Kaye Don's U.S. Concessionaires and Pontiac came within the Lex combine. All of this took place from Albemarle Street, but to bring the whole show under one roof a move was arranged to Flood Street. Old Oak Lane, the service depot, is now silent and the spares and service is done from Kensington Place, Campden Hill Road, London N.W.8.
General Motors offer a choice of some 100 models in five car marks (Cadillac, Buick, Chevrolet, Pontiac and Oldsmobile) in the U.S. but Lendrum and Hartman restrict their stocks to just 12 models. They are quite prepared to order something special if a customer requires it. Because there are some Chevrolet and Pontiac models still available with right-hand steering, these are the ones that sell best in this country. The showrooms in Flood Street also display German Opels, a make that Mr. Shaw expects will sell very well in this country. General Motors recently established a Vehicle Division in Kingsbury, London N.W.9, which will be able to provide closer liaison and better technical resources for all G.M. dealers in this country.
For general servicing for anyone living out of easy reach of Kensington Place, Lendrum and Hartman recommend owners to take their cars to Vauxhall main dealers; however, for bigger repairs a G.M. main dealer is recommended. The concessionaires have mechanics who have been trained in Antwerp, the main spares depot for Europe.
Mr. Shaw said Lendrum and Hartman carried £80,000 worth of spare parts, although making the decision on how much to stock was a big one. Other spares are dispatched from either Antwerp or the U.S., body spares, because of their bulk, being the main concern for worry. However, Lendrum & Hartman know from experience which are the parts that are most likely to be needed.
Mr. Shaw is normally Export Sales Manager and Graham Bennett, who was on a course in the U.S. at the time of our visit, is the official General Manager.
Ford Motor Company—Lincoln Cars
Since their recent change of premises, Lincoln Cars are once more fully up to strength and are nicely settled down. Like all of the U.S. car concessionaires in this country, they are not a big organisation, employing some 30 people. The head of the operation is Robert Scruton, director and the manager, who has been with the Ford Motor Company for 37 years and was formerly with Ford-Malaya.
Lincoln Cars, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Ford Motor Company, was formed in 1936. It handles all of the group's imported products, including those from Australia and Germany. The sales and service, etc., used to be done from Brentford, Middlesex, but this operation is now performed in two divisions. Management, vehicle sales and service administration is handled by 10 people working on the fifth floor of the Ford showrooms in London's Regent Street, while the spare parts and servicing depot is carried out from the old Ford Advanced Vehicles premises on the Slough Trading Estate. At the Slough parts centre, which employs some 20 people, the stock is valued in excess of £100,000. Mr. Scruton was quick to emphasise that Lincoln Cars "lean over backwards" to supply spare parts. If a certain item is not available in this country it is airfreighted from either the U.S. or their main European depot at Antwerp within 24 hours.
Since January 1st this year American Fords have been available only with left-hand steering. This obviously does not help a salesman trying to sell in this country, and Lincoln Cars have an arrangement with J.W. Automotive Engineering, also based in Slough, to convert the cars to right-hand steerers.
But who buys products from Lincoln Cars? Mr. Sermon's answer was predictable. Prices range from around £2,000 right up to the top end of the scale, the Lincoln Continental at £6,000, so it is obviously not the Smiths and Jones of England. The market to U.S. forces in this country is bigger than any for Lincoln Cars, and a vast percentage of orders are paid for in dollars. Other owners are members of the aristocracy, with whom the Canadian Galaxie was very popular, motor racing and a good deal of theatrical personalities. London is the centre of the foreign diplomatic corps in Great Britain, and as new diplomats arrive in this country they are actively solicited by Lincoln Cars.
The Mustang, as in its home country, is the best seller in Britain. Indeed, said Mr. Scruton, it is Ford's most successful car launched since the Second World War, selling close to a half a million units in its first year of production. Consequently Lincoln Cars carry a wider range of new Mustangs than other models but there are so many derivatives that many cars are simply ordered to customers' specifications. Ford products are the Falcon, Fairlaine, Galaxie, Mustang and Thunderbird and the Lincoln-Mercury products are the Comet, Cougar, Mercury and Lincoln Continental.
Mr. Scruton said that Ford had learnt an awful lot in racing. He gave this a bit more thought and then added: "The Ford success in racing has reflected over the whole range of our products. You don't go racing for the publicity. There is no finer way of finding out about your product."
Chrysler Motors —Warwick Wright
The products of Chrysler Motors are now handled by Warwick Wright, a wholly owned subsidiary of Rootes. This is a comparatively recent development, for from the mid-twenties Dodge Brothers of Kew had brought in Chrysler products. Between the wars these cars were very popular and before higher import duties forced up prices they were in the medium-price bracket. Dodge continued with the Chrysler franchise but were mainly concerned with trucks and in 1966 Warwick Wright took over the concession and also began importing Australian-built Chrysler Valiants.
The success of the Valiant—Warwick Wright say they sold about 300 that first year—inspired Rootes to adopt this for wider distribution. This is how Warwick Wright have continued, selling the North American-sourced Plymouths, Chryslers and Dodges, with the emphasis for simplicity on Plymouths. The main models brought in by the company are the Barracuda and Fury, which the company say they will continue to import in right-hand steering form. Like all their rival importers, however, they will bring in any other model that a customer particularly wants.
Bob Wimbush, Warwick Wright's Manager, described trying to sell cars to diplomats as highly competitive. "If I arrange to make a $30 profit someone will undercut me," he said. He found servicemen are not profitable either and thinks that his cars go one year to advertising people, another year to farmers and another to antique dealers. He simply did not know what the professions of the buyers were. Most Americans living in Britain, he thought, wanted a "cute little English car."
Warwick Wright are based in the Rootes buildings in Barlby Road in London's Ladbroke Grove area. Here they have thousands of pounds worth of spares; the amount has obviously grown since they took over the £48,000 of stuff from Dodge. These new parts arrive in England from three places, Newark, N.J., Adelaide and Antwerp. Keeping some of the older parts is still a problem, but Mr. Wimbush said that in many cases these parts do not change. While a body style may change annually, the American designers are almost loath to change the design of actual mechanical parts such as steering and brakes.
The staff of Warwick Wright have spent their whole careers selling British cars in the States. "It is remarkable the amount of knowledge you gain in handling imports," said Mr. Wimbush, who returned to Britain five years ago after a spell of 17 years in the U.S. The garages that sell most of Chrysler Motors' cars are the specialists, Mr. Wimbush believes; a big domestic retailer is seldom as successful trying to sell imported cars.—R. F.