Keith Adams and Mike Humble
…and this one’s a bit special
It’s the smell that hits you first when you walk through the front doors of Derek Ketteringham’s place in North London. And it’s an odour I never thought I’d smell again – the unmistakable combination of rubber, engine oil, car brochures and the slightly down at heel interior decor – that signifies you’re in a fading car showroom. But not just any showroom – this is a step back to 1981. For an eleven year old kid like I was at the time, it bore the association with new cars, excitement, and the illicit pleasure that accompanies sitting in a car you’re not going to buy. But promise yourself that one day you will. Hell, even the decor is Austin-Morris.
Enter the showroom and those memories flood back even more potently. But the year has changed, now. It’s 1991, and I’m taken back to the time I’d trawl the showrooms, idly looking at 1980s British iron, up for sale and hopefully looking for its second owner. Would I be that owner? A shake of the head and a return to reality – and it’s 30 years hence. But my surroundings are an eery freeze frame, that hardened BL enthusiasts will know all about: Derek J Ketteringham’s Rover Centre. And literally, I am in heaven.
But it’s a confused timewarp Mike Humble and I are experiencing as we enter the place. The cars shout 1990s bargain central – don’t believe me, how about a 1986 Metro City X, Vauxhall Carlton estate or Rover 3500 Vanden Plas – but the sight and smell is one of pure 1970s nostalgia. Have a look at the wall racks – they’re crammed full of brochures for the Triumph Stag, Rover SD1 and other BL products. As for the walls themselves – you’ll love the posters for the Rover SD1 and Triumph Dolomite. Already I’m pining for a lost era.
Just like going back into your old school decades after leaving it, the aroma in air takes you back to an era of when we still had a sprawling British Motor Industry. The proprietor – Derek Ketteringham, started trading in used motor cars back in 1954 and just 10 years later opened this site in Neasden, taking on a Standard-Triumph franchise.
‘I used to visit Canley,’ he remembers with a crystal clarity that belies 60 years in the motor trade. ‘The demarcation was impossible to believe, and there was an incredible number of people building the cars. But the main issues were the stoppages – because of the strikes, I just couldn’t get the cars to sell to people. One of my customers came from Belgium to buy a Spitfire – and after placing the order, and accepting the fact that if he wasn’t to wait for months for the colour he wanted, he’d get what we could get from the factory. As he was on holiday, we made a special trip to the factory, and crossed a picket line to get the car. But we got it to him. Late.’
Sitting in his office, remembering the past really animates Derek, and he’s soon talking freely about what must seem like an alien era to his younger customers. But then so would his office, which is crudely made from wood, perched at the back of the main building and stacked full of the most amazing artefacts amassed over the years. Triumph passport to service folders sit alongside Maestro handbooks and Rover 800 electric window switch packs – and his filing system, which comprises of box files and mouldering invoices smells like an old library.
‘We upset the local Triumph agents who were up against us. We bought new stock in the quiet periods, and stored the cars locally. When they couldn’t supply their customers, they’d get on the ‘phone to me asking to buy my cars to sell on. This is business, and I said no…’ He smiles at the memory – but not at the servicing situation.
‘We ended up doing so much ourselves – the local main agent would tell me it would take a week to change a clutch for a Triumph Herald! But again, there was so much demarcation. There would be a fitter to remove the carpet, another to take off the access panels, another to disconnect the electrics on overdrive cars, and another to change the clutch! My solution was to bring these jobs in house, and get my mechanics doing all the work. In the end, I even trained the cleaner to change clutches,’ he goes on.
Following the creation of British Leyland Motor Corporation in 1968, Derek J Ketteringham Motors Ltd became a retail dealer for BL cars eventually progressing into an agent for Austin-Morris and Rover-Triumph. By the aid of innovative marketing and advertising, Derek would often sell over 200 new units a year – no mean feat for what was just a retail dealer and even more impressive considering there were also another eight dealers including the once mighty Henlys all within a ten mile radius.
He recalls the launch of the Rover 3500 SD1. ‘David Wickens of British Car Auctions made it his mission to have a car for sale in one of his auction houses on launch day. And he approached me to sell my SD1. Every dealer had just one to sell, and mine was a Turmeric Yellow manual model – useless to me, as London buyers wanted automatics. So I agreed for him to sell my car. And at that July 1976 auction, the car went for over £1000 more than its £4750 launch price. Of course BL was mad as hell with me for doing it – but my argument was that it was great publicity for them. I mean, they could have said “you’re getting great value with a Rover 3500 at the price we’re selling it at”.’
That missed golden PR opportunity was indicative of the crisis the company was undergoing in the depth of the 1970s. As the years went by, the market became tougher, and in the end, after finding that he was having to pay more to buy his BL cars in at trade than the local main agent was retailing them, Derek dropped his BL retail dealership, and became an independent trader in the mid-1980s. It was the end of a 20-plus year association with the company.
But as the Rover Service Centre, Derek far from cut his ties with the Birmingham company. And today, over 20 years later, his stock is predominantly made up of Rovers.
We ask him outright: ‘do you still feel a loyalty to the company, and is that why you still have so many Rovers?’
His answer is startling, and is capable of bringing a lump to the throat. ‘No, I don’t. But I do think you’re doing a duty to Britain to buy its products.’ In this day and age, that patriotism’s almost unheard of, and pretty much floors Mike and me. He goes on, ‘I think it’s tragic that so many young people are unemployed today, and yet there’s so much work to do.’
Certainly food for thought, as we return to the showroom for a further look around. The expansive façade gives way to a compact but wide showroom which manages to seem bigger than it is by the extensive use of ceiling height mirrors – a once very common practice in the motor trade before the days of rubber plants, plush sofas and filter coffee.
The rear of the premises include a small service bay area which still sports its Leycare signs and BL special tools peg board, truly amazing stuff indeed. Sadly the Maxis, Marinas and Dolomites round the back have been replaced with more modern metal, but everywhere you look and go, everything is still in its place as if it was 30 years ago. But it’s no museum, and all of the cars – some of which would appear to be sporting price tags from the 1990s – are very much for sale. Derek is thinking of winding up the business, and is sanguine about the future, knowing that the premises will very likely be pulled down in favour of an apartments.
But Mike and I think differently. Derek may say he’s not that attached to his business and the cars within, but we know deep down, he cares very much. When we leave, somehow we’re both overwhelmed with emotion – call it a reaction to a potent reminder of our own youth, or perhaps a gnawing feeling that we’re soon to lose what must be one of the last remaining live links with our once sprawling manufacturing empire. Were there tears? What do you think?
N.B., All the cars are for sale, and if you’re interested, do get in touch and we’ll put you on to Derek. And that includes the Jaguar E-type.