Blog : Support your family dealer, before they’re gone!

Mike Humble

A sign of tough times: our local family Vauxhall Dealer has hit the wall despite a rock solid reputation.

Not a single day goes by when I don’t receive an email from yet another automotive recruitment specialist telling me about exciting or not-to-be-missed sales opportunities in the motor trade. After a few decent years selling cars, I bowed out of the new car trade in 2007, when times were very much different to how they really are now. Main Dealers always put on a brave face when times are tough and right now, trust me, times have never been more critical for the car dealer either new or used.

People often ask me why I don’t go back into the trade and the stock reply I give to anyone who asks me is that ‘wild horses wouldn’t drag me back into a Main Dealer showroom.’ I moved from car sales into PSV sales which initially was a good choice after re-locating to leafy Sussex but, once the recession took hold, everything ground to a halt almost overnight. It was heartbreaking to witness, as I really did find my niche in the bus and coach game making many good friendships and a few bob along the way.

My heart goes out to the many good men and women I know on the floor who face greater uncertainty on a day by day basis in the volume car trade. Oh, yes, I know a good few shysters too, but some thoroughly decent folk work in the trade who actually care about what they do and how they do it and the main reason for walking out of the truly epic Vauxhall Dealer I once worked with was mainly because the satisfaction simply wasn’t there any more.

However, a true insight into just how bad the game is right now came my way literally just the other week. Horsham is a small yet fairly affluent borough, possessing Audi, Citroen, Ford, Mazda, Peugeot, Vauxhall and Volkswagen Dealers  along with prestige metal such as Aston Martin, Bentley and Land Rover within the parish. But some truly alarming news came in the form of a text message recently informing me that queues of transporters were pulling out new cars from our Vauxhall Dealer, which had just gone bust.

Stevens Vauxhall was a family-owned concern who bought themselves out of the Evans Halshaw stranglehold back in 2000 – they made a very good name for themselves locally running two sites in Horsham and nearby Crawley taking on a Chevrolet franchise a few years back. It came without warning or rumour either, which was most strange to me as I know plenty of people in the right places to hear reliable jungle drums. Equally worrying was the fact I almost became their Van sales specialist a little while back.

Family-run dealers are, on the whole, brilliant, relying on their good name and customer service rather than pumping out high numbers while churning and burning sales staff. I knew of a chap who ran a Lada franchise some years back and, when Satra Motors pulled out of the UK, he went over to Kia with equal success – why? Well, because the consumer was buying a piece of him more than a piece of Korean consumer goods.

Unfortunately, the smaller Main Dealer has high overheads in volume brands such as GM or Ford and most are pressured into ordering high numbers from the makers which they are liable for after 90 days in stock, so their sales staff have to be bright and their pencils ultra sharp in order to survive. Is going to Massive Dealer Co PLC just to save £500 worth it when your local family outlet can supply you with a smile, good service and the ability to remember your name when you come back to trade in?

Some of the best run garages I have ever known are small to medium enterprises that have managed to make good money and enviable reputations simply by doing the right thing when it comes to looking after the customer – after all they are King. Sell your integrity and sell yourself first and then the orders just come rolling in. It’s very much like politics really in big dealer groups –  they operate with little or no long-term strategy as the Dealer Principals tend to have a shelf life in any one outlet of about as long as the latest girl band.

Just as you get a good solid Dealer Principal (yes, they do exist), they are poached to a flagging site to work their miracles elsewhere and the whole thing deflates like a party balloon. I have said it before, and I will say it again, now is the time to buy if you are in the market place but, for heavens sake, try to deal with your local guy if you can. Going to the big boys may save you a little bit but you will pay in other ways, either through dismal customer service, false promises and staff turnover on a weekly basis.

Internet sales are on the increase, but nowhere near as predicted, simply because people like to buy from people and it will be a very long time before everyone clicks for a car. Let’s face it, we like to haggle for a deal and yet we all complain about having to do so. However, by supporting your smaller dealer, you can have a good scrap for a  cheap new car and still leave as friends – but do so while you have chance, use ’em or loose ’em, it’s that plain!

Mike Humble


  1. In West Cumbria we still have many family dealers, Edgar and Sons( where I have bought my last two cars and who won awards when they sold Rovers), B and H Motors( SEAT dealer of the year for two years running), N M Walkingshaw and Stan Palmer, all of whom offer excelent service and know you by name. On the other hand we have the evil empire of Arnold Clark, whose reputation is rock bottom.

  2. The problem that I find in my line of business is that people may want to buy from you, but they want you to match whatever the multinational operation is offering as well. The assumption is that whatever they are offering is the “genuine price” and anyone charging over that rate is simply profiteering….

  3. Mike is absolutely right about the smaller dealers giving the best service. All the market research we had in good old BL days said exactly that. Sadly, all the pressures were in the direction of pruning off the small dealerships, and of course, the bigger the dealer groups got, the more clout they had with manufacturers.
    Ironic thing is that so many importers were able to pick up the best small dealers cast off by BL, Ford and Vauxhall when launching into the UK market.

  4. You just have to look at Skoda, nearly all are in the hands of the groups now. VW killed off the small, family run dealerships, with high franchise fees, and demanding slick showrooms. The last around here was in the village of Woolpit, and the old garage lies derelict, and it’s replacement in Bury St Edmonds is a glass fronted monster, and they are part of the Vindis group. DM Keith run virtually all Yorkshire, and customer care has gone down hill, and almost all the showrooms are now modern, horrid places, that look like shopping centre fronts.

  5. Mind you, we do have Bristo’s locally, that have just celebrated their centenery. They are a tri-franchise dealer, with Renault, Dacia and Skoda, their premises are very modern, with the high ceiling etc, and the tiny showroom has barely enough floor space to swing a cat, and their used lot & van sales area is about 200 yds up the road. I actually used their parts dept recently, as the local motor factor didn’t have a flippin oil filter for my car, but Bristo’s did.

  6. I think smaller local dealers are going the sameway as the local shop. Frozen out by larger retail chains. I would imagine it is getting increasingly difficult for small, family run concerns, who could only ever expect to sell a small number of cars each year to meet the covenants required by the major manufacturers. Thats where the economies of scale asociated by the larger chains come in.

  7. “Family run dealers are on the whole, brilliant, relying on their good name and customer service rather than pumping out high numbers while churning and burning sales staff. I knew of a chap who ran a Lada franchise some years back, and when Satra motors pulled out of the UK, he went over to Kia with equal success – why? because the consumer was buying a piece of him more than a piece of Korean consumer goods.”

    Would love to deal with a place similar to that which you describe above. I’m afraid though that such businesses are becoming harder & harder to find – anywhere in life!!

  8. Yes I preferred dealing with small family type dealers. In South Shields we had a branch of Adams & Gibbon (Vauxhall) but in the 80s they were taken over by Bristol Street then closed and demolished /rebuilt to become a row of houses. The nearest Vauxhall dealer is now a BSM supersite in Sunderland.

    Other small family garages have gone the same way. The advantage of a small dealer is that you would get to know them and their mechanics and establish a rapport/understanding when your car was getting serviced, subsequently you would be encouraged to keep your business with them.

  9. sadly when dealing with the Motor Trade, just like Governments, the customer gets what they deserve. Over the years and thankfully not now! I have worked for family run dealerships, and although not too often, we would loose deals to the larger dealer groups when customers would get a deal that was perhaps £50 better (and 60 miles away.

    Far too many customers these days are willing to “shop the world” to save just a few quid on a deal and then whinge like hell, when the local dealership goes out of business and they then have to drive that 60 miles to get a service or warranty work done by the Garage that did the deal for £50 less…..

    As I said, customers get the deal they deserve.

    This is a process that is endemic across the retail sector. How many local Butchers, bakers & Candlestick makers have disappeared from your local High Street because they couldn’t compete with loss leading offers from the Nationals at the out-of-town shopping complex.

    if you don’t use them they will ALL disappear!

    as the advert says “When they’re gone, they’re gone!”

    You have been warned – USE THEM or LOOSE THEM!

  10. I bought my previous Rover from a family dealer 20 miles away, and my current 75 from a larger multi-franchise local chain over 50 miles away. The 75 has been serviced though by a local MG specialist who have now become a new MG dealer.

    But I don’t understand is how we keep getting told that cars sales are increasing month on month, year on year? Who is buying all these cars? Can anyone explain?

  11. I remember when a small franchisee back in 1998 bought a joblot of 50 vans, registered them & sold em at over £2500 less than list. Every other franchisee started to put pressure on the manufacturer to get rid of this ‘cheeky upstart’, and within 2 years, they lost the franchise. Shame, as they had a reputation for great service. I honestly felt that one offer cost them dearly in the long term.

  12. The smaller dealer still exists in Cumbria, but they are becoming rarer. Arnold Clark has a near monopoly on Ford now and they seem to be expanding all the time.
    However, buyers seem more attracted by the cheaper cars and so called deals at the franchises and then moan when Arnold Shark rips them off over an MOT or doesn’t repair a car properly. Thankfully Edgar and Sons, B and H Motors and Stan Palmer are still around and treat their customers fairly, but it’s a case of how long.

  13. More and more people lease cars and that tends to be via online brokers, and they all buy from the big chains, which is why car sales are increasing but small dealers are closing.

    I personally either lease or go online and find a price no dealer will match, then sit back and wait for the call to say when and where do you want the new car delivered.

    I have bought 3 cars from local small dealers and can say the service and after sales were so bad I would never go to them again, which is why I much prefer to deal with a broker online and by email.

    Our local vauxhall dealer is appaling, I had a company insignia until a few weeks ago and its finally due for replcament after 2 horrible years, it had a coolant leak for over a year, after the 4th report of it they finally put some die in the tank, and I found the leak within a week, it had juddering brakes, they say couldn’t find a fault, so I had to then take a technician out and demonstrate it, he then send yeah that’s warped discs we have to order them in, the best one was it went in for a service and whilst they had it I asked them to check the coolant problem, went back 4 hours later they said couldn’t find a leak cars in the carpark, went to my car, found it embedded 2 inches into a vectra, the guy that parked it had reversed into an old part vectra and left it like it, after complaining I got in to drive off and it said change oil, so I asked did you actually service it?, guy goes off for 10 minutes, comes back head down, and said sorry it wasn’t on the job sheet.

    And people wonder why dealers close, not all local samll dealers are good.

  14. While I am in agreement with the principal of supporting family-owned garages, I have to say that ‘family owned’ is not always better.

    Here in the westcountry most of the dealers in a major city, particularly for the premium makes, are owned by a Cornwall-based family garage group. Unfortunately, the experience of my family and partner in dealing with a number of these dealers in the past (BMW, Land Rover and Volvo) has not been a happy one. Sales staff are either impatient and not grateful for a serious enquiry relating to buying a new vehicle, or the parts department is evasive and miserable. Ultimately you go away feeling like you are just one of dozens of customers they deal with on a daily basis and treat as if they have come off a conveyor belt. They ultimately don’t want your business.

    Thankfully I am personally not in the market for a new car or else I would have to travel further afield to gain that good old fashioned personal service I like. Then again, the former MG Rover Group dealer in East Devon (now selling MGs) is family owned and does still offer that friendly, personal service.

  15. Another issue, as probably the same as in the USA, is that the carmakers want to have many fewer dealers or principals, especially in large urban and suburban markets. The 2008 crash and bankruptcy of GM and Chrysler was used by them, as well as by Ford, to cull out over 1500 smaller, family run dealers Nationwide. Many dropped had capital problems, not able to move to highway locations near other brand dealers, just not selling enought cars, had weak business management or realizing you don’t have the need for as many dealers with a decling makret share due to the rise of the Japanese based brandes. Then you also had the death of several brands in the USA including Saturn, Hummer, Pontaic, (Olds years ago), Mercury so you lost many dealers right there.

  16. Yeah always felt the smaller guys (local butcher, car seller, baker etc) more amenable and human than the faceless large groups/supermarkets. Vauxhall across Cambs, Beds and Midlands were always consistent though….consistently bad. Know of a couple of good guys who have disappeared due to THE big tax bill or bank calling in its debts.

  17. I bought a new Citroen DS3 in July this year. I wanted to buy from the family run dealer in Duxford who had serviced my previous Citroen and provided an excellent level of service. Unfortunately, they just could not do the deal that the main dealer in Cambridge offered me. I did give them the opportunity to match as I was reluctant to deal with Marshalls due to a prior poor experience with their service department. The difference was that Marshalls offered me nearly £1,000 more on the trade in and that allowed me to get into the spec I wanted. It does all come down to money and if Duxford could have matched the price, believe me I would have bought from them.

  18. My Volvo V60 came from Paul rigby in Birmingham -a family owned dealer. they took over from Stratstone who sold me my previous V60 and the attitude and service of the new dealer are a world better than the old. What’s more, Paul Rigby are moving to a new purpose built showroom next year.

    It can be done!

  19. @ 10 John Armitage – you are right – “Use them or loose them”. I also try to spend some of my money in the likes of local family owned Jewellers etc. On one occasion I was able to buy a new watch from them even cheaper than on the web which pleasantly surprised me!

    That goes for Tyre Dealers too, I’ve used the same sole trader for 30 years and he is always the cheapest for new Tyres and puncture repairs. So I keep the business in my town.

  20. My current drive was bought at one of these car supermarket places, but one of the better one’s. You have to find the sales people if you want to talk turkey.

    But the car has been services by my local dealer all of it’s life. There cost have always been fair when compare to the main dealers, plus it only 300 yards from where I live & I always have a car from them when it goes in for any work to be done.

    Same goes for Tyre dealers, I used the same one now for the best part of 20 years for the various cars that I’ve owned.

  21. @Yorkiebusdriver That glass-fronted monster: Skoda in Bury St Edmunds – that used to belong to Ames who were an MG Rover dealership! After MGR went down I think they started selling Nissan, then moved everything over to nearby Thetford and Marshalls Ford took the site over. Now, obviously it’s Vindis Skoda. I still remember falling in love with TF’s on Ames forecourt. Aah… Talking family-run dealerships, Kerridges in Needham Market are in my experience absolutely fantastic.

  22. The trouble is, how long will Kerridge’s last? They aren’t shifting much new metal at all, and they aren’t exactly on the ‘beaten track’ to attract passing trade, especially as there is not a lot in Needham to be honest. Not that many people drive Nobles or TVRs round here either. Haven’t they become a Bini specialist too?

  23. My local Ford agent is the quintessential rural family dealership – a tiny two-car showroom built into a Shell garage. You are right they are a dying breed, I was researching company cars for my partner a year ago and they couldn’t have been hopeful, even if said car was never going to be bought from them (it was sourced from the dreaded Mr. Clark…), when I went into a VW garage on the same mission which was part of a big dealer group, I got the same old slick-backed hair wideboys with aftershave you can smell at 100 feet. Needless to say I was summarily dismissed and left to my own devices as soon as it was clear that there was no immediate sale forthcoming.

  24. My last two experiences:
    1. I bought a new Honda Civic Estate from a franchised dealer in south London. Within 300 miles and six weeks I complained of excessive road noise. The dealer ignored it. I wrote to Honda direct, te MD sent mea lot of pieces of paper with a lot of words on them telling me nothing. The dealer and Honda has never shown the slightest interest in the matter and completely ignores me.
    2. Following my dissatisfaction with Honda, the next vehicle was bought through an internet broker to save money, (I wasn’t prepared to be stitch up again). When it came to the first year service my local Skoda dealer in Kent quoted about £180 at time of booking for little more than an oil change, when I collected the car they stuffed me for £250!!!!
    The trade has itself to blame for whatever it suffers.

  25. I for several years had run Rover cars, R8 214, HHR 416 and latterly a 45. I always had such excellent service from my local main dealer, F. J. Chalke of Mere Wilts. On the sad demise of Rover they transferred to a Kia franchise. When the time came to change my car I thought long and hard about buying a Kia as it did not have the image that Rover had, but I did not want to lose such a good dealer. I did buy a Cee’d, my wife followed by changing her Rover 100 for a Picanto. I would like to end by saying that I have nothing but praise for Chalke’s or Kia.

  26. @16 Ah yes I know that Ford dealer. I also remember it in the 80s and 90s when it was (a large) family run business. It was terrible to deal with then as well!

  27. The problem is that the great unwashed want to buy cars in the same way they buy laptops and washing machines. That is buy from somewhere that’s well known (Currys/Comet/Arnoldae Clarkescu/Hellvans Failshaw) for as cheap as possible, but with the extended warranty etc. slapped on so they feel “safe”, as they have as much knowledge about the inner workings of their car/laptop/washing machine as a tea leaf knows the history of the east india company.

    Personally I’ve never bought a new car, but have bought two cars s/h from small independent dealer and had decent service from both. I even bought my washing machine from a local independent shop, but that was because they had an unit that could compete on price with the big boys.

  28. @34 That’s the way it should be, a wide choice and you go with the best price, they should all have the same warranty, and how many people could even think about fixing a modern car, the entire engine is under covers, everything works on sensors and computers, and if it does go wrong you need a dealers diagnostic computer to tell you what sensors are at fault and even then they get it wrong sometimes, the time of the diy mechanic are long gone, yes you can do brakes, and oil but much deeper than that its just not worth the effort.

    I think the whole loyal to a dealer goes back to times when buying a car was a special event, when you were lucky to have 1 car and very lucky to buy a new car, now days cars have become consumable goods, I buy or lease a car for 2 or 3 years then I get a new one, I want it to be reliable and cost me the least amount of money as possible to run in the time I have it, the dealer is nothing more than a place I have to go to when its absolutely necessary, and I always go to the closest dealer, if they are a small or large outfit I’m not bothered as long as they get me a courtesy car and fix the fault, sadly small and large do really seen to fix faults first time nowadays, perhaps because the cars are becoming too complex even for them with all the right tools.

  29. Mind you one family run business in Cumbria that does have a terrible reputation is Dobies, who fancy themselves as a really big player and have fancy looking glass showrooms. They are the main dealers for Vauxhall in the county and like most Vauxhall dealers, treat the customer badly, invent work and don’t carry out repairs correctly. It’s interesting that they have had Nissan and Mitsubishi franchises stripped from them as they mustn’t have been good enough if the Vauxhall side of the business is anything to go by.

  30. @34 – Some of the nicest people I know, know absolutely nothing about cars. I would hesitate to refer to them as the “Great unwashed” just because they dont have the same interests I have.

  31. While there are still some family dealers left in Cumbria, there is a long casualty list over the last 20 years: Davidsons( Proton and Lada, retired, franchise not replaced), Tinnion Brothers( Lada, retired), Long and Small( Skoda, turnover probably too low, moved into used car sales), Derek Conway( Vauxhall, bought up by Dobies), Mungo Graham( Rover, turnover too low, moved into used car sales), Studholme and Dickson( Rover and Hyundai, became too ambitious and went bankrupt), County Garage( Ford,bought out by GK and Arnold Clark), Malcolm Wilson( SAAB, concentrates on rallying now).

  32. @6 Totally agree there, a friend of mine paid for the service package on her Chevrolet thingummybob and rang up to book it only to be told shes got to drive all the way to Shoreham and back to get it done, 42 mile round trip to get the oil changed and the CD player fixed!

  33. Was gutted to see that “St Ives motor Co”, on the corner overlookig the bay, has gone – or hopefully at least relocated to somewhere big and glassy – that’s been there at least all of my life and was something I remembered seeeing on hols every year.

  34. It a shame when good local dealers go bust but unfortunately on the only occasions I’ve used local small main dealers the service has been dreadful. A Suzuki Swift I bought new in 2006 had a persistant engine management fault (it kept going into limp mode with the spanner light on) which the garage failed to diagnose or fix, they implied it was me not being used to a diesel! I had to sell it to the trade as the garage offered a ridiculous price to buy it back. I had bought two new cars from them for my dad, so no goodwill to the customer there. I won’t name them but I live near Alton, Hants.
    So I went Nissan and in 2010 bought a new Micra. When the interior door handle failed to work in the frost at one month old the dealer was very reluctant to take it in; eventually they did and said they’d replaced the lock. Next frost, it stuck again, the dealer had gone bust so I took it to another garage that said it had not been done. So I’m afraid there are still dealers living in the 70s that deserve to go down.

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