We take a look at the modern day activities of a former BMC>MGR outlet. Mike Humble visits a former long-standing retail dealer, Robinson’s of Kimbolton to view one of the most impressive demonstrations of adapting to change, responding to needs and serving the community you’ll most likely see.
To many, Kimbolton, located in a very quiet corner of Cambridgeshire, will be another one of those quaintly-named places nobody has ever been to, or through. In fact, unless you’re visiting a friend, relative or heading for St. Neots via the scenic route, there really is little cause for you to go there. Rewind a few years and Kimbolton was a busy little hamlet, with lots of passing traffic threading its way along the old A45 towards Cambridge, to the east and Northamptonshire to the west – it’s by far the biggest village on this stretch of road, which is now the B645.
Like so many bigger villages up and down our fair isle, Kimbolton sported its very own garage and new car dealership. Stan Robinson opened a small repair shop on the present site in 1927. Although he originally started his working career as a cycle mechanic, he undertook work on motor cars as they slowly became more fashionable and commonplace. By the mid-1930s, business was booming and he developed the site, soon becoming known locally for his garage, taxi and coach operations. The latter, along with the garage, still plays a big part in the day-to-day company operations.
The current proprietor, Charles Robinson, has been a friend of mine since the back end of the 1990s, and it was Colin Robinson, his father, who mainly built up the involvement with BMC shortly after leaving the Army. As they entered into the Swinging Sixties, the premises included a showroom, a fully-fitted service bay and workshop, petrol forecourt and facilities to repair and service the expanding coach fleet on site. Robinson’s was rapidly becoming a solid part of the community – and this continues to this day and well into the future.
SV Robinson premises before expansion circa 1940.
By the late 1970s, Charles Robinson had left school to join the family concern, and BMC was now British Leyland. Robinson’s showroom was now a retail Austin Morris franchise and, despite the presence of other local dealers such as Marshalls, Souls of Olney and Townsend Garages of Rushden in nearby Northamptonshire, business continued to be brisk and busy. The quality of BL cars was generally rather poor, but smaller family-based dealers offered an unrivalled level of attention to detail and customer care – a factor that parent company BMW possibly failed to appreciate in the early years of its Rover Group ownership.
Austin Morris became Austin Rover, and that matured into Rover – and some changes were made, not only in village life, but to the business also. The A45 was bypassed a few miles to the north of the village and the former East-West trunk road through the centre was downgraded to the B645. This made the village a much nicer and relaxed place to be, but less passing traffic only served to speed up the slow decline of new car sales, and the business was becoming more reliant on the workshop and coaching activities.
Half-way through the 1990s, the game was up for many of the smaller retail Rover dealers, Robinson’s included. BMW-owned Rover wanted control, and to go upmarket. Many of the smaller dealers, which excelled in customer satisfaction, had their franchises culled. It was also difficult to compete for business with so many main dealers being so close, not to mention a contraction of Rover’s market share in general. Robinson’s Rover franchise was terminated in 1994, but the company continued to look after the brand in the service bays for many years to follow in the form of previous customers’ cars.
Robinson’s in the 1980s: 213 or Fiat Panda anyone?
Colin Robinson sadly passed away in 2008, and Charles picked up the reins. After a few years of flirtation with general used cars, operating as a Daewoo specialist, and then with four-wheel drive vehicles, Charles came to the conclusion that unless a massive investment was made in a newer and bigger showroom and regular stock, they were only scratching a living in so far as car sales were concerned. The fuel forecourt was actually losing the company money, and the only parts of the business bringing in a decent return on the books were the garage and coaching operations. Some changes needed to be made and one of the first to be made was to stop buying and selling used cars.
The ethos of the business has always been the community, and this was certainly obvious as we talked outside the premises of the Robinson’s branch of Budgens. The old showroom and aftersales counter has now been redeveloped into a very smart supermarket – something that Kimbolton had badly needed for so many years. The original façade has been cleverly adapted to blend in with the new but, behind the period frontage, everything is state of the art and new. It’s a green operation too with LED lighting, and brand new super-efficient refrigeration units.
The idea came along as a result of Charles noting that there was no proper supermarket in the village, despite a growing population. The village had been crying out for one for many years, and the nearest store was at least a 20-minute drive in any direction. There was, in fact, a tiny convenience store operated from the petrol forecourt but, owing to size constraints, only the most basic of essentials could be stocked. So after halting plans to relocate the whole business up the road to new premises, plans were put in place to open its own scaled-down supermarket.
In the 1990s: taken from the steeple of the nearby parish church is this image of Robinson’s
not long before the Rover Group franchise cull that robbed the network of some truly brilliant
smaller family run dealers.
Charles told me: ‘we looked at a few partners as far as convenience stores go, all of them household names but only Budgens really fitted my own ideas of image and quality. Not only that but it’s logistically perfect, too, as their regional distribution centre is based in Wellingborough so my deliveries are rarely more than thirty minutes away.’ The branch even has its own in-house bakery and the general ambience simply oozes the impression of fresh produce and good value. It certainly differs from the Robinson’s I remember from years ago.
Behind the pretty period façade some bang up to date technology has been utilised as Charles explains: ‘we only have a limited electricity supply coming into the site so all the fridges, freezers, ovens and lighting are highly efficient and computer controlled.’ He then proudly shows me an application on his smartphone that keeps him informed of energy consumption and efficiency 24/7. The local population has really bought into Budgens, too, and during my visit, the store was buzzing with activity. Charles openly admits to being pleasantly surprised at just how popular the store has become.
The garage business still operates from the same site although in a smaller capacity than before in order to free up extra floor space for the supermarket conversion. Offering MoT and general repair facilities, Charles smiled when mentioning that a number of locally supplied Rover products still trundle in regularly for servicing, MoT or repair. Considerable investment has also been spent on the coaching operation that also operates from a small yard behind the premises with a new flagship vehicle recently being added to a fleet which deals with private hire, tours and local school transportation.
‘We considered relocating to a nearby industrial estate but it would have been a costly and time consuming exercise… The company has always been at the heart of the local community and that’s where its set to stay.’
Mr Robinson’s community spirit is more than obvious, as a customer parks outside the shop and says ‘hello’. He knows the lady on first name terms, and her little boy, too. I mention about this spirit, and he states that for some time he had considered buying a plot of land on a nearby industrial site and re-locating the whole operation there, prior to the Budgens project. He adds: ‘the company has always been at the heart of the village and that’s where it’s set to stay.’ I know Charles very well, and he’s a modest businessman, but you can tell he is fiercely proud of the direction he’s steered the business.
From Allegros to all-purpose floor cleaner, or Marinas to marinated chicken breasts, Robinson’s of Kimbolton continues to serve the locality as it has done for almost 90 years – just in a slightly different form.
Editor’s Note – Thanks to Charles and the team for their time and hospitality.