Koni shock absorbers in England
Whenever anyone has a suspension or handling problem on a car they will eventually receive advice from an enthusiast to “fit a set of Konis.” Certainly the Koni shock-absorber has achieved a fantastic world-wide reputation and to find out why, we visited the U.K. Concessionaires, J. W. E. Banks and Sons Ltd., at their premises at Crowland in the Fen district between Peterborough and Spalding.
Bill Banks has been a well-known competitor in International rallies for many years, his speciality being the Monte Carlo and Tulip rallies. He used a Bristol for most of these events, (and in fact still uses a Bristol 404 which has the Registration Number KON 1) and discovered that shock absorbers were always giving him trouble. He tried various different makes and they seldom lasted very long but one day in 1954 he was browsing round the Motor Show when he spotted a sectional model of a Dutch shock absorber called the Koni. Its design interested him and the standard of workmanship appeared to be better than most while its method of adjustment was unique at that time when few shock-absorbers were adjustable at all.
A set of Konis was acquired and fitted to the inevitable Bristol and in the Tulip Rally Bill Banks finished second overall, in front of Dutch driver Maurice Gatsonides’ Standard Ten. There was a special prize for the highest finisher with Koni shock-absorbers and it was awarded to Gatsonides as nobody imagined that anyone other than a Dutchman would use Konis. When Banks pointed out that he was using Konis a special prize was rustled up but more important it led to an introduction to Konis and a visit to the factory at Oud- Beijerland not far from Rotterdam. This led to Konis offering Banks the job of importing Konis into the United Kingdom. What they didn’t tell him at the time was that the two previous importers had failed miserably, the first one selling none at all and the second one exactly 36 shock-absorbers! However he gave them £1,000 and told them to send over a selection of suitable shock-absorbers. This they did and soon it began to look as if the Company would follow the way of the previous importers, for business was very slow. In fact, from casual inspection it might have been thought that Bill Banks’ establishment was the worst possible place from which to sell engineering equipment, for he was, and still is, a farmer, and the shock-absorbers were retailed from the farm. However, with increasing mechanisation on the farm several workshops were taken over for overhauling farm machinery, a blacksmiths shop established and Vauxhall-Bedford and Perkins diesel engine dealerships taken on. This enabled the Company to expand and soon the supply of shock-absorbers swelled from a trickle into a steady flood. Popular cars at that time for the fitting of Konis were the XK120, and in fact all Jaguars, Standard 8 and 10, Morris Minor, Ford Zephyr, Fiat, D.K.W., Volkswagen, Hillman Minx, Ford 100E, M.G. Magnette, Borgward Isabella, Rover 75 and naturally, after that rally success, the Bristol.
As was to be expected Koni were strongest on Continental cars because they were the cars more readily available to them. However, Bill Banks co-operated with them on British cars and if a British car was not available to the factory in Holland he would obtain one and take it over to be fitted or have measurements taken and with the knowledge of the weight of the car the Koni engineers could quickly arrange a suitable shock-absorber. Now that British cars are more plentiful on the Continent Koni seldom have difficulty in getting hold of one soon after the announcement date and Bill Banks is not often called upon to supply data on a new model. One recent exception is the Hillman Imp which is not to be sold on the Continent until all the bugs are ironed out so he got hold of one and made all the necessary measurements and Koni soon had a suitable shock-absorber listed.
Some cars offer difficulties in the fitting of Konis. Most cars already fitted with telescopic shock-absorbers can be easily fitted with Konis, but those with lever type shock-absorbers are much more difficult to adapt, and in some cases quite impossible. Where necessary, special mounting brackets are made up so that the Konis can be fitted and for all shock absorbers sold in this country the brackets are made up in the blacksmiths Shop at Crowland. Certain cars with lever-type dampers just do not have enough room for the fitting of telescopic dampers and in these cases Konis are not offered. It is usually the front end where they cannot be fitted but Konis are often sold for one end of the car only.
The B.M.C. range is difficult to fit with Konis and they cannot be fitted to the front end of the A4o, A6o, A99, Austin Healey Sprite and M.G. Midget, and to the rear end of the 2-seater Healey 3000 model. They also cannot be fitted to the front of the Ford Anglia, Classic, Capri and Cortina, also the Peugeot 404, the M.G. B and the rear of the Lotus Elite. Apart from these the majority of cars can be. supplied with Konis on all wheels.
The most popular model at present as far as Konis in England are concerned is the Austin Mini range with the Jaguar range not being far behind numerically, with the Jaguar 3.4 and 3.8 taking almost 50% of business at Crowland. Other popular makes include Sunbeam Rapier, Volvo, Saab, Triumph Herald and Vitesse, Rover 3-litre, Jaguar E-type and Mk. 10. The E-type and Mk. 10 have four shock-absorbers at the rear so this is an expensive change but a surprisingly large number of people change over to Konis on these models. The manufacturers estimate that the make which use more Koni shock-absorbers than any other as replacements is the Mercedes range, but this covers a large number of commercial vehicles as well.
The obvious question to ask is “If Koni dampers are so good why aren’t they on my car already?”. The answer can be boiled down to sheer economics, for the Koni is not cheap. The average cost for Koni shock-absorbers is around £4 10s. each which is, of course, more expensive than most other competitive makes. Many manufacturers would like to use Konis but they consider the price is too high. If you buy a Porsche or a Ferrari you will almost certainly be riding on Konis for these are the only two makes which use them as initial equipment. Even Porsche rebelled at paying the price and changed to another make some time ago but eventually they returned to Koni because they were so trouble-free. They are standard equipment on a number of commercial vehicles and several manufacturers, like VW, Daimler and D.A.F., list them as optional equipment in their catalogues.
Despite this apparent lack of success, Koni will not reduce their quality in order to reduce the price, nor will they allow other shock-absorber manufacturers to make them under licence by mass-production methods. Several British manufacturers have approached them through Bill Banks but they are quite adamant on the subject, preferring to build them in small quantities by hand. Bill Banks has also pleaded with them to make a lever-type shock-absorber because this would increase business tremendously in Britain, but the Koni engineers consider this to be an inferior type of damper and they will not design one.
The successes of Koni in competition are, of course, legion. All Ferrari and Porsche competition cars use them, the majority of successful Cooper Minis fit them, Eric Carlsson uses them on his Saab, the Ford Falcons on the Monte Carlo rally used them, and many other successful competition cars are fitted with Konis. Bill Banks used to take a service van to races and rallies but so little call was made on it for repairs or adjustments that the service was discontinued. Banks’ have a testing machine supplied from Konis which enables them to set up shock-absorbers to the particular requirements of a driver, but its main purpose is for the testing of old shock-absorbers for wear. Each Koni is guaranteed for 19,000 miles or one year, whichever is the shorter, but they find that few ever come back to them and in fact many people write to them to say that their car was worn out before the shock-absorbers. They know of one set of Konis which has done 200,000 miles on four different cars without any attention.
From a very shaky start Bill Banks has now sold over 60,000 Koni shock-absorbers in Great Britain and this year he expects to sell 15,000. The Company prides itself on its by-return service, so that orders are despatched within two days of receipt. In order to be able to do this large stocks are kept at Crowland and the factory sends over bi-weekly shipments by boat from Rotterdam to Boston. Certainly it would appear that Koni have an enthusiastic and efficient Concessionaire for the U.K. and judging from the letters from satisfied customers which we have seen, the sales of Koni shock-absorbers will go on increasing.—M. L. T.