Surviving 30 years in the parts specialist business these days is no mean feat, but to flourish in the way that Rimmer Bros has is a real achievement.
Here’s their story of how they did it – and how the company continues to support its wide array of British classic cars.
Thirty years and counting
In the beginning…
Two young men – Bill and Graham Rimmer – grew up on Tyneside, where their father was works manager at RHP Bearings, in County Durham. Apprenticed to TI Churchill Machine Tools in the 1970s, and already car-mad, each brother bought himself a Triumph sports car, both being used as daily drivers.
This was where they started on regular maintenance, and on rolling restorations, where necessity turned into a hobby and, of course, into a passion for cars of this sort. ‘Thank goodness’, they say, that the family home had a double garage, which gave us space to keep on re-building our cars’. That was a period where they learned all about the renovation of engines, transmissions, chassis items and bodywork – though there was still no thought of turning this hobby into as business.
The big move came in 1980 – and it was one which eventually encouraged the two brothers to start out on their own. Bill Rimmer Senior (their father) accepted a new post at another factory of RHP Bearings in Nottinghamshire, the whole family eventually moving to Digby House, in Brant Broughton, which was an old farm near Lincoln, and the brothers started a new life. This move would become significant in the near future, for Digby House had useful and spacious out-buildings, which would be useful when space was needed to accommodate their growing ambitions.
But not just yet. Bill and Graham moved south, to Lincolnshire, to join their father and mother, but in the autumn of the 1981, as the engineering industry in general continued to contract, they were offered a redundancy package, which encouraged them to strike out on their own. Father offered them space in the outbuildings, Bill and Graham took a deep breath, and decided to set up on their own, to specialise on the preservation, maintenance and sales of Triumphs.
Not that it was going to be easy. Available capital began to drain away, the two both admit that they spent four frustrating months ‘working for the Queen’ (which means signing on for unemployment benefit), and there must have been times when they could sing : Dream the impossible dream’.
Money was tight – it was always going to be tight for two young men aged 23 and 20 – and to help finance their business they each sold their personal cars – a Triumph TR6 and a TR7. Until the business got going, keeping at least one set of wheels on the road was not easy. For a time a Vauxhall Magnum 1800 Estate became their ‘company car’….
And, what to call the business ? Having dismissed the idea of founding a small limited company, the two settled on the most obvious title of all – Rimmer Bros. Officially, the business was born on 1 March 1982. Their first capital purchase was a duplicate Invoice book (bought from WHSmiths), which they retain, proudly, as a company artifact, to this day
Then as now, Bill and Graham were the new company. Some things never change…
As co-founder Graham Rimmer reminded us not long ago: ‘In those days we were the only employees, and we set out to do everything to do with Triumphs. We would buy cars, sell cars, service cars, renovate cars, find and sell spare parts – and we did it all ourselves. It was a natural extension to what we had been doing, for ourselves, at home, for years.’
It is a fact of life that many small start-up businesses fail within the first year or so, and for a time it certainly looked as if Rimmer Bros. would struggle to stay afloat. It was only the stubbornness of the two brothers, and their determination to tackle anything – anything – which would underpin their future, which kept them going. They had to!
Buying and selling cars was not a success – they think that one reason was that at this stage they were located in a country village with no showroom facilities – but all manner of other activities seemed to help. Bill recalls buying and selling a job lot of used lawn-mowers (‘It made us a bit of money’), and they both recall becoming Retained members of the Lincolnshire Fire Brigade, a part-time occupation which continued for three years.
Those were the days when they must have had boundless energy, for full-time work at their own business could be interrupted at a moment’s notice by a ‘shout’ to attend an emergency, whether it was daytime or night. To help in this activity they both acquired HGV driving licenses. One emergency, close to their original expertise was they once had to attend a fire involving a Triumph 2000 which had been subject to a V8 engine conversion : ‘A total loss, I’m afraid…’
Somehow, though, Rimmer Brothers stayed afloat for the first year, and gradually began to take on more regular work. Bill recalls that the first year’s financial turnover was tiny but : ‘Somehow we seemed to make a bit of a profit – or at least that’s what our accountant told us…’
‘Not that everyone always understood us, or our enterprise,’ Bill says. ‘We had a modest overdraft, but we always seemed to be testing our bank manager’s nerve, as he kept on saying: ” Surely you’re not buying even more stock?”…’
Then, in 1983, came the real breakthrough which, in its own way, helped turn Rimmer Bros. into the substantial parts and expertise supplier that it now is. Bill and Graham realised that a number of Triumph dealer franchises were beginning to convert to Austin-Rover outlets. As a consequence they were left with a stock of Triumph parts, service tools, and expertise, which was a diminishing asset.
Using names and addresses found in a Triumph dealer booklet (‘We found it in a car we were renovating…’), more than 100 such dealerships were approached via a mail-shot, Rimmer Bros were able to acquire much Triumph stock, and bring it all back to Brant Broughton, where available storage space soon began to fill up. The founders recall that the problem was not only that of finding the money to pay for the new stock, but of transporting it back to Lincolnshire: ‘Which explains why you might have found one or other of us driving a horsebox borrowed from a friendly neighbour at this time. Sometimes this brought, how shall we say, a new flavour to the business too, though they also had to put up with jokes about moving Shergar round the country too.
This seemed to bring a positive change to the company’s progress, for as the business became better known, the demand for Triumph parts and rebuilding expertise seemed to be buoyant. Having contacted many of the long-established Triumph dealerships, a very positive response developed, and Rimmers had to take on extra staff to deal with all the activity – and continually to look for places to store all the stock.
It was at this time that the first Rimmer Bros. Parts adverts were placed in the enthusiasts’ press – the first of all in Exchange & Mart – word got around regarding their enthusiasm, and their obvious expertise, and before long the ‘phone was ringing off the hook. Once the original nail-biting months of 1982 had been forgotten, the accent was now on providing excellent, speedy and efficient Mail Order and customer service, which is a feature the company has always preserved, and developed.
Now, within three years of starting their modest little enterprise, Bill and Graham had witnessed a massive increase in activity – and this has never slackened off since then. Even so, the expansion now seemed to be unstoppable, though there was a snag which had to be overcome.
Before long the availability of new-old stock from Triumph dealerships which were changing allegiance to Austin-Rover had peaked, and supplies of some fast-moving items began to run low. Fortunately, word of Rimmer Bros’ enterprise had now spread throughout the enthusiast fraternity. By luck, more than by making a determined trawl around the components concerns, a range of specialist component suppliers made contact, and agreed to start producing and supplying many items. Even though the Triumph models, and some of the components they used, were no longer current – those components could be as small as a rubber O-Ring, or as large as a body pressing – it was gratifying to find that much of the original tooling still existed, and that new supplies could once again be provided. Because many Triumphs were still in current use as ‘daily drivers’, the demand for such parts was very high.
Now it was time to go even more professional, so Rimmer Bros. attended its first national Classic Car Show – at the NEC in November 1984 – and have never missed such an appearance since then. This established a tradition, for Rimmer Bros. was now to be ever-present at the most important shows, especially as major projects such as TR7 body kits, and TR7 – to TR8 conversions became important.
This, too, was the time when the very first Rimmer Bros. Parts price lists were made available. The first of these modest publications – for the Stag – covered just two type-written sheets, which had been produced in her own time by Bill Rimmer Senior’s secretary ! Time and inflation has marched on, of course, but it is still fascinating to see that a new Front Bumper cost just £45.00, and that a new Front Wing cost just £65.
Although pressure of work meant that the buying and selling of complete Triumph cars had now ended, there was a thriving and expanding trade in the reconditioning of major mechanical components. In that modest List, too, Rimmers also made it clear that for such items they provided a substantial 12 months/12,000 mile warranty – and that export enquiries were welcome.
Accordingly, it now seemed right to start producing a complete range of price lists (Stag, TR6, TR7 and Spitfire being the first) – something which, at the time, no rival had even attempted. But this was only the beginning, for in modern times the obvious (and very professional production) of more than twenty fully-detailed catalogues – for Triumph, Land-Rover/Range Rover. MG-Rover Group, and Rover – are now in the range.
The first big move
By 1985 the company had expanded so much at Digby House that storage space for the comprehensive stock was rapidly filling up. Further rented accommodation had to be acquired in Grantham, but the time seemed to have come when a complete move was essential.
After a major search around Lincoln, Grantham and Newark (Rimmer Bros. did not to move so far as to lose its now expanding workforce), an excellent site at an old Co-op egg-packing station was acquired at Branston, just three miles south-east of Lincoln itself, and the business was smoothly moved from one site to the other in 1986. At the time the availability of 14,000sq ft of warehousing, offices and other facilities seemed to look after Rimmers’ foreseeable future – but that was an under-estimate. Now, too, there was a small retail counter for the first time, to which more and more customers travelled to buy their parts.
Amazingly, within five years, not only would Rimmers’ business expand a further five fold, but it would once again have run out of space. The company was still running its ever-expanding business without the benefit of a stock-control computer – but it had one of the most enthusiastic and efficient staffs that could be desired. Its secret weapon – one which Rimmers was not about to broadcast in case he might be poached to another concern – was the arrival of ex-British Leyland Dealer Parts Manager, John Randall, who knew his way around the British Leyland, Triumph and components supply system, like no-one else.
Only five years after it had been founded by two young men – Bill and Graham Rimmer, who not only worked on the cars, sourced the components, packed up the stock which was sold, dispatched it, and scoured the country looking for new supplies – this had matured into a stable business where the customers could visit, call, and telex for attention at a moment’s notice. Not only did they get this, but they also tapped into expertise which was already quite unmatched in the rest of the ‘heritage’ motor industry. Unsurprisingly, the company achieved British Motor Heritage Approval in 1987, which confirmed its standing in the heritage/classic car field.
Now was the time, too, for computerisation to be applied, for the company’s stocks now ran into thousands of different items, of all shapes and sizes. This was no small, nor easy, task, for it took a full 12 months, to transfer every parts record, which became fully operational in 1989.
This was also the time when the now-famous Rimmer Bros. range of catalogues was expanded, initially with the launch of a 40-page full-colour TR7 publication. This, Rimmers claim, was a ‘first’ for the heritage industry. Not only was almost every part of the car listed, by part number and location in the car, but there were many line drawings showing where each component lived in the car. This was all done with the approval of what had now become the Austin-Rover Group, and it was not long before Rimmer Bros joined, and became a major player in, the British Motor Heritage organisation which looked after every out-of-production car in that group’s range.
Gratifying it might be, but it was certainly not time for the brothers to sit back, relax and enjoy the growing maturity of their new enterprise . It was certainly not a time for them to to spend days and weeks just enjoying life, and driving Triumphs, for that would have seen them losing touch with clientele which was asking for more, much more, from their enterprise.
Any money which a spendthrift might have considered spare was ploughed back into the business – which was just as well, for after 1988 business once again re-doubled. Purely by chance, Graham’s family life (the ‘family’ now including a baby, and a Pyrenean mountain dog!) led to the purchase of a 1986 Range Rover, and a growing interest of the amazing range of four-wheel-drive machines which are now so enthusiastically supported by Rimmer Bros.
Adverts placed in 1990 confirmed that the company now employed 25 full-time staff (all of whom were clearly enthusiastic about the brand and the business), and the point was made that the business now embraced more than 12,000 different parts lines. It was just as well that computerisation was now well advanced, the same-day dispatch of many orders was being achieved, and a whole range of re-manufactured components was now available. If a part, or a sub-assembly, could not be supplied from what the industry calls new-old stock, Rimmers often made arrangements for new supplies to be made by the same specialists who had provided Triumph (later British Leyland) since the cars were still in quantity production.
The next big move
Today’s visitors to Rimmer Bros. at Bracebridge Heath (just two miles south of Lincoln city centre) find a substantial industrial complex to which the company moved in April 1991, and will no doubt be interested to see just how busy, and how full of stock, the warehousing actually is. In fact the need for a further move from Branston, after only five years, took even the ambitious brothers by surprise, so on that occasion they took a very deep breath, looked around the entire area, before deciding that once again it was necessary to re-locate the business.
That search eventually led to the purchase of a structure which had latterly been a car auction site, but which had originally been set up as an assembly plant for De Havilland fighter aircraft in World War One, and had carried out much valuable repair work on battle-scarred Avro Lancaster bombers during World War Two. Appropriately enough, it was – and still is – almost within sight of one of Britain’s biggest airfield bases, RAF Waddington. By their current standards, the brothers thought that what they originally called Triumph House would always be amply large enough for their needs, for this new building complex offered 40,000 sq.ft. of warehousing on a four acre site with – at last – ample office space for the still-growing workforce to operate.
With a full computerised operation, and a 12-telephone mail ordering system installed, it was difficult to recall that it was only nine years since the business had started up, in small buildings at the farmhouse where the family lived. Much refurbishment and re-equipment preceded the big move, during which it was good to see that the building could now be modified to provide storage on three levels, using a newly-purchase mezzanine floor covering much of the floor space.
This, in fact, was essential to Rimmers’ vision of its immediate future, for even at that stage it was catering for the Stag, TR6, TR7 and TR8, Spitfire Mk IV and 1500, GT6 and Dolomite car ranges. The official and grand opening of the new complex was made in June 1991, with British Motor Heritage director David Bishop doing the ceremonial honours, and helping to cut a huge and appropriately logo’d cake. Mail order and personal counter collection services were of course available, and the export business continued to expand. By this time Rimmers were looking to Europe, North America and beyond, making their first visit to the Essen show (in Germany) for the first time in 1992.
The next major development followed in 1993, when the company diversified from Triumph for the very first time. Hearing that the Rover Group was ready to hive off its support for the Rover SD1, which had been such a success for British Leyland between 1976 and 1986, the company made an offer for the stock, succeeded in its bid – and needed to send a fleet of thirty-five massive 40-foot articulated trucks to the Rover-Triumph complex at Canley, Coventry to pick up all the parts.
At a stroke this filled up much of the available space at Bracebridge Heath – and eased the fears of all SD1 owners for the foreseeable future. Most of this massive original purchase was of SD1 body panels, though many other components were also acquired. It was Rimmer Bros.’ first venture into supporting a marque which was not a Triumph.
Storing, identifying, labelling and adding this massive acquisition brought its own problems, but those were rapidly eradicated, and integrated into the existing Triumph business. Even so, in the mid and late 1990s, the business expanded further, pressure on space intensified (where had we all heard that phrase before now?), and Rimmers consolidated its place in Britain’s heritage motor car supplies sector. There was time, just a little time, to enjoy and promote the business – not only by arranging for a Triumph TR8 to built up from scratch on the company stand at the National Classic Motor Show at the NEC, but to support Tony Pond’s magnificent driving of an ex-works TR7 V8 in high-profile events such as the Coys Festival weekend of racing at Silverstone.
And yet – Guess What? – at the end of the 1990s the company once again found itself running out of storage space, so a project was set in train to maximise the storage space by extending the mezzanine floor, and to expand the front-of-house offices, retail counter, and showroom. Determined to enjoy themselves a little, and to let the customers know how passionate they were about the product, Rimmer Bros. arranged for the showroom to be enlarged, special exhibits, and a handful of carefully restored cars were put on show, together with informative wall panels and charts showing how every one of the products covered was so important to the company.
It was at this time – 2000 – that the company realised that the original (now known as ‘Classic’) Range Rover had reached its 30th birthday (it had been launched in 1970). It had already gone through so many iterations that parts for earlier types were becoming scarce. Since this imposing four-wheel-drive estate car was based around the famous light-alloy V8 engine, with which the company was already familiar, and active in preserving, it was an ideal candidate to be added to their ever-expanding coverage of Rover-Triumph products.
Indeed it was, but supporting a large car sometimes meant large-sized parts – and a new headache in accommodating them all at Bracebridge Heath. Nothing daunted, that project went ahead, has matured, soon added the other, even more classic Land Rover models, to the range, which meant that Rimmer Bros. eventually became an authorised supplier of Land Rover parts and expertise for all types of Range Rover and other Land Rover products. By this time, Bracebridge Heath enclosed no less than 75,000 sq.ft. of storage space on three floors.
It is worth recalling that the V8 engine was an important catalyst to this logical and sure-footed expansion, for that engine was used in Triumph sports cars, the evergreen Rover SD1 range, and in various Land Rover and Range Rover models. As Rimmer Bros, once proudly noted in their catalogue covering Land Rover Defenders: ‘This was a natural move, as a vast number of Range Rovers are powered by the Rover V8 engine – a subject in which we specialise…’
Naturally it took time for the still maturing company to digest this new enterprise, but with a stable workforce, an ever-enthusiastic attitude to the parts and restoration business, and two founding brothers who still could not quite believe how the company had grown from that run by two oily-fingered men in a farm building just twenty years earlier, there was no lack of resolve, and a continual attempt to make excellent customer service even more successful in the future. Was it any wonder that Graham and Bill, then as in later years, could be seen enthusiastically commuting to and from the office in the type of Range Rovers that they admired so much?
The MG-Rover project
The year 2005 proved to be very important to Rimmer Bros.
First of all, Rimmer Bros. was proud to become an Authorised Land Rover Parts Distributor, which meant that they would have direct access to Land Rover parts for all models, and would also be able to offer their renowned and highly-regarded customer service facilities to modern Land Rover owners too.
The next step, which followed later in the same year, was that the company became involved, for the first time, in the MG-Rover business too. In previous years BMW, they saw, had owned the Rover Group for six years, then hived it off to what became known as the Phoenix consortium, while Land Rover was sold off to Ford. Early in the new century, much of the existing MG-Rover parts business was then hived off from Unipart, and allocated to XPart (a subsidiary of the Caterpillar corporation), which would handle its distribution…
Subsequently, XPart purchased the entire MG-Rover stock of parts from the Phoenix consortium, and the two Rimmer brothers saw yet another opportunity, which was to begin selling MG-Rover parts. This seemed to be, and was, a natural progression for the business, for Rimmer Bros. was already associated with the support through selling parts with other models, and other brands closely related to MG-Rover.
Events, though, were about to make a dramatic turn. MG-Rover ceased trading abruptly in March, and there was absolutely no warning. Suddenly the production of all MG-Rover products closed down. MG-Rover owners, it seems, immediately began to panic.
The public conception was that all access to parts was lost, but the reality was that mountains of parts were still available. As with its on-going operation in supplying parts for Rover, Land Rover, Range Rover and Triumph products, Rimmers wanted to develop this new side of their ever-expanding business.
In August 2005, the company then bought the Parts operation of Wrights of Lincoln, an MG-Rover dealership local to the business, which was closing its doors as it had no cars to sell.
My first problem, Bill Rimmer says, ‘was to get this new stock into safe storage here in Lincolnshire…’
A large variety of bodywork, engine, transmission, chassis and electrical items was involved, which brought with them several problems (or, shall we say, opportunities?), the most pressing being to find adequate storage space. Because Bracebridge Heath was already fully developed, internally, and was showing all the signs of bursting at the seams, in 2007 an off-site warehousing complex was purchased, which quickly started to fill up with MG-Rover stock. It is hardly surprising that after only four years this was almost full.
The good news was that Rimmers also took six highly-experienced staff members from Wrights, who brought in more than 100 years of combined experience in BL/Rover parts operations. This meant that when Rimmers launched this new side to their business, they ‘hit the ground running ‘. In the next two years demand, and sales, for all the company’s products rose fast, to record heights – and there was still a lot more to come.
Now with a full-time staff of 60, Rimmers immediately found themselves learning about – and servicing – the new technologies which this new venture brought on. It was yet another reason why the company expanded its range of catalogues – the total now being more than twenty, and still rising.
In the meantime, in 2006 one of the company’s most ambitious projects came to fruition, when the company learned that stock from the Indian company once set up to assemble Rover SD1s (a project, involving much Completely Knocked Down kit delivery from the UK, which foundered in 1987) was available for sale.
Making his one and only trip to India, Bill Rimmer was astounded to discover the sheer variety of what was available, for he found over six hundred unused and carefully preserved car kits in store in Chennai. Those kits were still packed in the original shipping crates, with delivery notes still attached as they had left Rover, in the UK, in 1986, and had stood untouched for twenty years.
Having seen what was available, Bill hoped that he could make haste to close a deal. for, as he recalls : ‘I thought that this would secure the long-term parts supply for the Rover SD1 for a long, long, time…’
Haste, though, is a word interpreted in a different way in India, and it took months to finalise a deal. but finally the stock was re-imported (over 20 40ft containers were mainly involved), and integrated with existing Rimmers stock, such that the company’s SD1 catalogue soon proudly noted that: ‘We now have thousands of previously unavailable parts in stock ….’ – which, of course, also applies to all the ranges covered by the Rimmers business.
Even this did not bring the ever-evolving story of Rimmer Brothers up to date, where the addition of all the new product lines helped the business to double in size, once again, in five years – with no sign of this topping out. Co-founder Graham Rimmer is convinced that the development of the company’s latest website – which went live in 2009, right now – is mainly responsible, as is our customers’ obvious determination to keep their cars on the road, in good condition.
And what are the plans for Rimmers’ immediate future ? Well – you’ve guessed it, it will be the provision of more storage space. During 2012 a new warehouse is to be completed on the existing site at Bracebridge Heath, which will double the existing storage facilities. New business opportunities will be investigated. The business may be vastly bigger than was ever envisaged in 1982, yet there still seems to be so much to do. Although they continue to be enthusiastic supporters of all things Triumph, Bill and Graham are still convinced that there is scope for much more business connected with Rover, Land Rover and MG-Rover models, especially as latter day models such as the MGF, the MG ZT-T, and the ever-green Land Rover Defender and Discovery models are concerned.
30 Years and counting…
Well before Rimmer Bros. reached its 30th Anniversary on 1 March 2012, Bill, Graham, and their colleagues were all looking forward to its future. Bill and Graham Rimmer are still in overall control, are involved in every aspect of the operation, and sometimes admit that they are still surprised to appreciate just how much bigger the business is than they could ever have envisaged all that time ago.
What was purely a Triumph-orientated operation in the 1980s has expanded mightily in recent years, such that the entire MG-Rover, Land-Rover/Range Rover, Rover and Triumph brands are now covered, not only with the supply of parts, but with individual enthusiasm, and the sheer amount of knowledge and expertise which has built up, and is now enjoyed by the hard-working staff of 60
In all that time, customer satisfaction has always been a top priority in the operation of the business. Graham and Bill acknowledge that none of it would have been possible without the support of a loyal staff who have played a very big part in this ever-evolving story. ‘Without them’, Bill says, ‘we would not be where we are today.’
But, will it always be Rimmer Brothers ? Between them, Bill and Graham have four children – all girls – who may yet get closely involved in the company in the future. Might it even become Rimmer Sisters?
So… 30 Years and More, and Counting…
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.