Memories : Henlys, Ashford, October 1980

Henlys 1980

It’s October 1980, and we’re looking at the used car forecourt of Henlys in Ashford, Kent – one of the most recognisable dealer groups to sell British Leyland’s finest. It’s days after the launch of the Austin Metro, and there’s a real sense of optimism inside the showroom, which is probably the first time the sales and servicing staff have felt this way since the Rover SD1 appeared on the scene in June 1976.

Quietly, in the background amid much sadness, MG at Abingdon produces its last car, and closes its doors for the last time. Commentators assume that this is going to be the end of MG, but BL Chairman Sir Michael Edwardes may have overseen the end of the factory, but he understands the value of MG. He’s already refused to sell the marque to a consortium led by Aston Martin’s Chairman, Alan Curtis, the previous autumn – an action we’re yet to appreciate at the time. In less than two years’ time, we’d see the Octagon return…

Britain is undergoing a seismic shift in its transformation from a manufacturing nation to a service-based economy. Recently-installed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is coming under increasing pressure from her backbenchers for the rising unemployment and economic hardship in the UK, but remains unrepentant. She gives her famous ‘the lady’s not for turning’ speech at the Conservative Party conference, and signals that the plan is tough, but the Government must stay the course. It proves to be a pivotal moment in the course of Thatcher’s Government – and how the 1980s would end up unfolding…

So, tell us about the cars

But less of that – politics are less interesting than cars. And in this image, you have a lovely selection of the cars that filled every forecourt in the land at the time. In October 1980, all retail sales were on the floor – both used and new – and one can imagine that this slightly forlorn-looking line-up might be a little hard to shift.

From right to left, we have a bargain-priced 1976 Austin Allegro series 2, a 1978 Chrysler Avenger Estate, a 1979 Triumph Dolomite HL, a 1976 Austin Maxi 1750 and a Mini Clubman Car of the Week wearing a natty nudge bar on its radiator grille. Without being unkind, this was one unfashionable line-up for the time – and probably encapsulated all of BL’s issues at the time: worthy products, but in no way desirable or aspirational. Most of the cars are more desirable – the Rover SD1 and Ford Granada Mk2 in the forecourt were management specials, while in the background, blurry, we can see a Ford Escort Mk2, a Datsun Sunny 120Y and a Ford Cortina.

We have a lot of people commenting on a long-running story about ex-employees of the dealer group, and it’s always good to hear from people who worked here. You can find more images of the site at Vitesse Steve’s blog – he was the first person to positively identify this image.

If you enjoyed this, or have a picture you’d like to share with AROnline, let us know in the comments or drop me a line via any of the links below.

Henleys Ashford

Keith Adams
Latest posts by Keith Adams (see all)


  1. 1980 was the year that I learnt to drive and I don’t have much experience of these particular cars, except the Dolomite, which is the car that BSM instructors were using. Obviously cars have moved on a great deal, but I remember the Dolomite as being a very easy car to drive.

    I currently, have a 1972 Leyland Innocenti classic Mini 1001, which is a very basic car, a bit of gocart, but a lot of fun.

  2. If it is ” British Leyland’s finest”, then surely it should be “Henly’s”. A plague on marketing men (and women).

  3. I remember Henlys in South Essex. They had dealers in Basildon, Leigh, Chalkwell and Southend before they closed their operations and were taken over by SMAC, then Lookers. The Chalkwell branch was so memorable to me as my grandparents lived there.

    • I grew up in Westcliff and lived there until my mid 20s. The Chalkwell Henlys is the one I remember most. I think my Dad bought a Maxi there around 1980, but I’m not 100% sure. The London Road from Benfleet through to Southend felt like the second hand car sales centre of the universe. I remember SMACs too. I used to deliver to their place over on the north side of Southend airport in the late 1980s. Thanks for the memory jog!

  4. Just based on frontal styling, the Avenger was the most modern looking of all the models on display…

    • @ maestrowoof, the Chrysler Avenger was a light restyle of a car that debuted in 1970 and was nearly as old as the Maxi and the Mini Clubman. The Avenger, like the Maxi, was another British car that only had minor changes during its 11 year life and by 1980 was outclassed by its rivals. Yet if you wanted a fairly reliable load carrier that in 1.6 form was quite powerful, an Avenger estate was a decent enough choice and unlike the Viva and Escort estates, came with four doors.

      • But it LOOKED more modern. Shocking that the Maxi, other than some plastic bumpers and wheel trims still looked basically the same, 12 years later.

        BL did a good job with the Ital in visually trying to update it

        • The Avenger update gave the car an Alpine based interior and new lights and front end, so was more substantial than the Maxi’s very minor updates in its 12 year life, but this was quite an old car by 1980. Also it had been supplanted by the Horizon and 1.3 litre versions of the Solara saloon, so had become superfluous and was axed in 1981.

  5. I vividly remember the Folkestone branch of Henlys, as back in the late 1980s it used to run adverts in the motoring sections of the Folkestone Herald and Dover Express which featured cartoon depictions of the dealership’s staff members 🙂

  6. Note the price of four star at £ 1/37 a gallon( no litres then). In today’s prices that works out at £ 5.48 a gallon, or £ 1/20 a litre, so more expensive in real terms back in 1980. Also the country had just been through an energy crisis, which had seen petrol prices soar, and inflation was running at 18 per cent, so not a happy time for motorists.

Add to the debate: leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.