• Brian Simmons

Car Sales - 1960s style. It was such fun

This post continues my account of the time spent as a car salesman ins Surrey between 64 and 68

This shot was about 6 years before I arrived there


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By about six months in, although still having plenty to learn, I was beginning to feel pretty much the smooth car salesman and life at the showroom took on a certain amount of routine around following leads, tying up sales, organising pre-delivery servicing and vehicle handovers. As I said, Jack and I had developed a friendship as well as a very good working relationship even if a fair amount of that revolved around me covering for him on bad days.


Fortunately, and despite the relatively poor economic conditions at the time the situation for Ewell Downs and our subsidiary dealers was quite positive, and aided by the enthusiastic take-up of hire purchase and credit-sale possibilities we were doing quite well thank you. So much so that Jack and I felt we could do with a hand on the sales front so we advertised for another salesman.


This was when I first met Michael Fahey although I already knew his father in a sense as he was the band leader at the Orchid Ballroom in Purley where we used to go dancing. Brian Fahey was a well-regarded conductor, composer and musical arranger through the 50’s and 70’s. He became principal conductor of the BBC Scottish radio Orchestra in 1972, and continued to work for the BBC after the orchestra was disbanded in 1981. He was also Shirley Bassey’s musical director for a time.


Tall, slim and sharp-witted, Michael proved a great addition to the team and together we had a good few laughs whilst still pushing up the sales. As you might imagine there are any number of stories about life on the Ewell by-pass where we worked and one in particular had to do with the second hand car stock. These were displayed on the grass verge in front of the showroom but because of the somewhat exposed location they had to be taken in at night and brought out again in the morning.


What no one had realised was that due to the continual starting from cold on choke a certain amount of unburnt petrol was mixing with the engine oil each time. That had consequences as I discovered one day.


One of the cars was a very nice little grey Volkswagen Beetle which took the eye of a certain Mrs. Howarth who asked for a test drive. “No problem madam” says I and within a few minutes I had the trade plates on and we set off with me driving up the Reigate Road which was our usual demo route.


We had probably gone about a quarter of a mile with me busy chatting away and extolling the virtues of the car when there was the most almighty bang from the rear engine compartment. As we came to an ignominious halt I looked in the mirror to see a huge cloud of blue smoke drifting away to reveal the steel sump off the engine and a large patch of oil on the road behind us.


Well how embarrassing was that? I was full of apologies of course but at that point actually had no idea what had happened apart from the fact that it seemed the engine had blown up. As I said we were fortunately not far from the garage but being pre-mobile phone days I had to walk my customer back to the garage and I can tell you it was not easy to maintain relaxed conversation in the circumstances.


Mrs. Howarth went off with my promises to get in touch shortly ringing in her ears whilst we had the car recovered to find that the engine itself was fine apart from the fact that the sump had blown clean off. As soon as Bill Burton heard the story he realised immediately what had happened, namely, that the afore-mentioned petrol that had gathered in the sump had vaporised as the engine warmed up, hit its flash point and exploded. In the event all that it needed was a new sump and an oil change for the little car to be running again as sweet as a nut.


“Well”. I thought “In for a penny in for a pound.” So I had the car polished till it sparkled and then drove it round to Mrs. Howarth’s home where I explained the reason for what had happened and then after another test drive managed to sell it to her after all.


I was so pleased with myself. “Fridges to Eskimos? I thought. “No problem – bring it on” Cocky little sod that I was.


It wasn’t altogether surprising that this trouble arose with the used cars because we had some real ‘stickers’. One was a 1962 Humber Hawk estate that we had taken in part exchange for a new Sceptre. It was a tidy motor but had done a bit more than the average annual mileage which is probably the reason it didn’t sell. I think we sang Happy Birthday to it once if not twice until after it had been there all that time it was no longer a high mileage car but pretty low for its three or four years which is what actually clinched the sale when it eventually did go.


Looking back on those times, life there was nothing if not eventful and hardly a week passed without some drama to fret over or incident to laugh at.


We sold an automatic Hillman Minx to a customer with only one leg. He’d lost the right one and in order to drive needed an automatic car with the accelerator on the left instead of the right. We had the adaptation done in the workshop and put huge notices both on and in the car “Caution – Left hand throttle”

Shouldn’t be a problem then. Not so!


We had a car cleaner at the garage called Eric. A willing lad, probably about 35 years of age who we might have described as “a sandwich short of a picnic.” So, not the brightest body but very good at what he did, which was car cleaning and delivery driving.


After its pre-delivery test run I’d left the car on the front for Eric to collect and clean which meant it had to be taken down the ramp and into the cleaning bay, and I imagine that by this time you are ahead of me. Right?


I passed him on my way back into the showroom saying “Don’t forget the different pedals Eric.” “No. That’s OK Brian”. He said jumping into the car.


Down the ramp he goes, applies the brakes, except he doesn’t but hits the throttle instead. This launches the car towards the back of the wash bay where it demolishes the stud partition wall of the toilet block and comes to rest against one of the stalls where Les the painter is sitting studying Playboy and doing whatever he was doing if you get my drift.


In the event the damage to the car was not that catastrophic so we had the necessary repairs done, changed the pedals back and eventually sold it as a used car.


There was another and almost much more serious event a few months later. We had a Hillman Super Minx demonstrator that we’d decided to sell so technically it was a second-hand car but was actually only a few months old and with almost no mileage.



One afternoon a guy came in, had a quick look over the car and started asking what our best price would be whilst producing several bundles of folding money; a ploy which is pretty much guaranteed to catch a salesman’s attention. It certainly did mine, so when he asked for a test drive I had him in the car like a shot and away up the Reigate Road towards Epsom Downs which as I mentioned previously was our usual demo route.


Normal practice was for me to drive initially in order to demonstrate a car’s features, equipment, performance and so on and then hand over to the customer for them to continue. This particular guy seemed extremely hesitant and not at all sure of what he was doing – more so than just unfamiliarity with the car. Anyway we got started and I directed him back towards the garage feeling distinctly insecure but unwilling to interfere too much for fear of putting him off me and the sale.


Arriving back at the roundabout outside the garage I said “Turn left here please and then take the second right into the garage.” which he did but unfortunately right into the path of an oncoming coal lorry.


I of course was in the passenger seat when the lorry hit us broadside on shoving us some distance down the road. Back then seat belts were not mandatory and I had not put mine on which turned out to be fortuitous. In the split second before the lorry hit us I instinctively leaned forward and away from the point of impact which I could not have done had I been wearing a seat belt and in doing so avoided very serious injury because the door pillar came in about eighteen inches.


We were actually very lucky because the lorry had managed to brake a bit or the damage would have been far worse or possibly even rolled us over. As it was we were both very shaken and when Jack came running out he dragged me out of the car first with me shouting “ Jack, the bloody idiot nearly killed me.”

The driver was less shaken than me so despite my protestations I was the one that finished up on a blue light run to hospital feeling a bit of a fraud sitting up in the back of the ambulance smoking a cigarette with the attendant.


Whilst I was away the police turned up and it transpired that our customer didn’t have a driving licence. So he was reported for driving without a licence or insurance and the officers came back a couple of days later and reported me for permitting him to do so. In the end I wasn’t prosecuted because Geoff Welton the MD had a word with someone about it seeming a bit unfair especially as the police had been very much less than effective in solving a burglary we’d had at the garage a couple of months previously.


However, despite the damage our wonderful body repair people did an excellent job and I sold the car a couple of months later. It was perfect although I didn’t actually volunteer the information about the accident damage.


Apart from the accident and another nasty moment when the throttle jammed open on a Mk10 Jaguar we did have a lot of fun including occasionally getting to drive some quite exciting machinery.


The garage was visited from time to time by other motor traders who used to buy our part exchange vehicles that for any reason we decided not to sell ourselves either because they were a bit scruffy or the mileages were a bit on the high side. I imagine that our high mileage cars were probably sold on in the trade, had the speedo’s clocked and eventually wound up on a site somewhere as ‘low mileage gems’.


One of these traders came in one day with an E-type Jaguar which he was more than happy to let me take for a test drive and on another day the same guy turned up with a bright yellow Iso Grifo. Never heard of it? Not surprising as it was quite a rare bit of Italian motoring exotica produced by the Iso Company who were better known for their little Isetta bubble cars.



The Iso however was something else. “Sex on wheels” really. It had the most beautiful lines and under the bonnet lurked a monstrous American V8 engine. I got to drive that too – although he did come with me on that little run. With up to 500 horsepower on tap they were apparently good for up to 170 mph so you can imagine how exiting that was for us to even be near it.


So life at the garage went on apace but there was much more to my life than just cars that mostly revolved around girls, parties, dancing and drinking.


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On the home front I was still knocking about with Ken although I was no longer dependent on him for transport which was good. By the end of 1965 Theresa and I had run our course so naturally quite a lot of energy was expended in getting about in the right places and meeting girls with the principal ambition of getting laid although that expression was not in use back then or at least not in my experience.


On which subject, it has to be admitted I was still markedly unsuccessful compared to my mates if their boasts were to be believed although I suspect that quite a bit of it was wishful thinking. I still seemed to find the good girls who would only go ‘so far’ and who were really looking for a nice boy to take home to their Mums and hopefully get married which was certainly not my plan at that time.

The Orchid Ballroom at Purley Surrey. I remember leaning against that palm tree with my vodka and lime thinking how cool I looked.


I did meet a very attractive girl one night at the Orchid in Purley. Her name was Carol and she lived with her parents in Wimbledon. We’d been seeing each other for a few weeks and getting on so well that I actually was taken home to meet the parents. During the course of conversation with them a bit about my background came out as it does and they somehow concluded correctly that I was a Catholic.


Although they didn’t say anything directly at the time Carol told me later that her parents didn’t want her to see me anymore as they imagined that if we married I’d do the catholic thing and she’d end up with loads of kids. I couldn’t believe it and was really hurt as I was very fond of her and could actually have seen us together but it wasn’t to be.


One day while we were still going out together I went to meet her from where she worked at a travel agents in Putney. Being the poser that I was back then I stopped to comb my hair in a shop window, straightened the tie and then marched confidently up to the door of the agents, stuck my arm out to push the door open with a flourish only to discover that it opened outwards. My forward movement brought me rapidly into contact with the door where my nose hit the glass and I was left on the outside looking in at Carol and all her colleagues with my nose bleeding down my shirt and feeling a complete idiot.


This must have been a good day because it was when I discovered the border between being laughed at and looked after. I guess I must have looked quite shaken and there was certainly a lot of blood so rather than laughing at me, Carol and several of her friends came out and brought me inside the shop. They sat me down and fussed around like little mother hens or nurses, tidying me up, bringing me tea and generally being so very kind that the experience was almost worth the discomfort and embarrassment. I bet they did laugh about it afterwards though. I did in retrospect as I am now in the telling.


Apart from frequenting The Orchid, Locarno and Wimbledon Palais dance halls one of our other regular activities was party crashing. This was no way as bad as some of the horror stories one reads from time to time these days about parents coming home to find homes completely trashed to the tune of thousands of pounds. True to say, it was the same in principle but we were far better behaved and even after a few drinks were always much more respectful of property.


I think a major part of the reason it has had the occasional disastrous consequence in more recent years is the availability of mobile communication and social media which allows news of a party or rave to be distributed incredibly fast and also indiscriminately. As a result, what my Dad would have described as “any old Tom, Dick or Harry” can get the information and turn up in droves to wreak mayhem.


In our case the distribution process was by word of mouth at The Marquis of Granby pub in Epsom. We’d usually fetch up there about seven o’clock on a Saturday to pick up the information about where the house parties were that night. Our grapevine was pretty good so often one of our crowd would know the person hosting the party and so could usually arrange for us to be invited. If not we would just turn up and hope to talk our way in which we usually managed to do. I never knew of anyone back then that forcibly crashed a party. We just didn’t do that.


The parties didn’t usually go on too late and invited guests tended to drift off around midnight which we all thought was a bit early for a Saturday night. Quite often we would phone the King Alfred Bowling Centre in Brighton and book a couple of lanes for one or two in the morning and then the race would begin.


I acknowledge once again that this was extremely irresponsible and am ashamed of myself now but this was back then, not now. I usually managed to borrow something a bit interesting from the used car stock which for quite a few weeks was a lovely powder blue 3.4 Jaguar S-type or failing that I used our Sunbeam Rapier demonstrator. So with mates Reg and Charlie in their Lotus-Cortina and E-type and any other mates who fancied a fast run we would set off for Brighton with the express intention of seeing who could get there first. How we survived I’ll never know. Apart from the drink element which was so wrong the only saving grace was that in those days, by after midnight on a Saturday the roads were almost completely empty which at least minimised to some extent the danger to other people.


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Around this time I also met a guy called Richard Whittingham who became a life-long friend. Dick, as I always knew him, lived at Burgh Heath not far from Epsom Downs. His parents were really nice people and always made me welcome as did his stunningly beautiful sister Josephine who had done a bit of modelling although she didn’t pursue it as a career which was a pity as she could probably have done well. Dick also had an older brother John who was already married. I think they got on well enough at that time but they fell out in a big way later over some property and were sadly estranged forever thereafter.


Just a month older than me, Dick was quite tall, dark and good-looking with a confidence ahead of his years that I always envied and I hardly ever remember him being ill-tempered. He was always up for a laugh and more often than not the ring leader of some of the silly daft things we got up to.


However, shortly before I met him he’d had the terrible experience of seeing his girl-friend Ann die from cancer. I can’t remember all the details now but it had certainly knocked him back and it was a long time before he was able to tell me about it in any detail. Actually, losing Ann was just the first traumatic event of his life and although we couldn’t have known it then, his life was going to be anything but boring. He has over the years had so many set-backs and still he seems to come through. I should spend a bit more time on him later.


Dick’s company car was far from exotic; a little grey mini-van in which he carried around all of his samples including zips, buttons, pins, elastic, lining materials and threads etc. He worked as a sales rep. for a company called William Gee based in the East End that I was delighted to see when I checked on line are not only still in business but in exactly the same place. Nice that some things are constant.


One type of thread that Gee’s supplied was a very fine nylon that was virtually invisible and it was this that we employed for a fairly silly but highly amusing prank one evening at The Locarno. Given the low level of lighting the situation was ideal for our plan. Whilst Dick kept hold of the reel of thread I took an end and went wandering off through the crowd, round and round, back and forth as we watched the antics of people totally perplexed at this invisible (in the dark) but incredibly strong thread that was getting caught around their legs, and bodies as though some ‘super spider’ had them ensnared. On another occasion we draped swathes of the same stuff from the balcony onto the heads of the dancers beneath and watching them trying to disentangle it from their hair and bodies was like witnessing the birth of some new and outlandish dance moves. Stupid I know but very funny.


Quite often after an evening at The Locarno we’d go for a curry at a restaurant nearby and in addition to our main order we used to get a dish of hot curry sauce to spice it up a bit if necessary although it did have to be used sparingly. One evening we were in there when a group of four chaps came in and sat at the next table to us. One of them was a real show-off. You know the sort – all mouth, and what he didn’t know about curry wasn’t worth knowing.


Dick said “Watch this.” Then he passed our dish of hot sauce over to the guy saying “Want some gravy mate?” “Oh Yea. Cheers” he says and starts sloshing the stuff all over his food.


Well you’d have the give the guy credit for sticking it out. It was soon obvious as he started to tuck into the meal that he was in trouble, at least judging by the reddening of his face and the amount of water he kept drinking and the fact that he was having a lot less to say than previously. Poor guy, but he clearly didn’t want to lose face. It was so hard not to laugh out loud but I should think he learnt a lesson.


Not long after we met, Dick decided to move to London as most of his clients were in that area and travelling up and down from Burgh Heath added a couple of hours to his day. He found a nice little bed-sit in quite a handsome Georgian town house in Frognal Lane, Hampstead where I used to visit time from time to time. We liked the Hampstead atmosphere with the trendy bars and pavement cafes which were starting to appear back then. So much more sophisticated than Epsom or so we thought. Dick also used to let me use the flat sometimes if I needed somewhere to take the current girlfriend for a little private time.


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So life around the back end of 1965 was good for me. I was having a great (if sometimes irresponsible) time socially, scoring occasionally in the girlfriend stakes and really enjoying my work at the garage.


The only negative issue was that Jack and I were still drinking too much during the week and the after work sessions at The Locomotive had become far too firmly established. The worst of this for me personally was that I then had to go home instead of heading off up to town to visit Terri and as a result Mum and Dad became more aware that I had a bit of a problem. Well, I say this was bad but on reflection it was probably the start of my recovery because both parents spoke to me about my drinking and in Mum’s case her greatest concern was that I would ruin my life as she had seen at least two of her own brothers do.






For Jack and I this scenario rather became the norm

– photo kindly provided by Jack’s daughter Jill.






On top of all this, Jack had got into a relationship with a woman we’d met in the pub and started to disappear with her some afternoons, often not coming back to the office at all that day.

Well at least it stopped me calling in at the pub on the way home but it was terribly difficult having to fob off Jack’s wife Monica if she called to speak to him and even worse if she called in at the garage to see him which was not unknown. I was fond of Monica and he treated her very badly and me too now that I look back on it by putting me in that position.


Despite all of the above we still stopped off at The Locomotive most nights where we had become very much part of the ‘fathers and sons’ club. As I later discovered Jack knew that our drinking partners thought I was his son and he never chose to inform them otherwise. “Brian my boy.” he’d say “You’re the son I would love to have had.”

Whisky talking, but touching none the less.


Well, the fathers and sons thing came to a head for me when I discovered that there was to be a “fathers and sons” night out and we’d been included in a booking made at The Red Coach restaurant at Banstead.


What I hadn’t realised was that The Locomotive ‘fathers and sons’ were just a small part of a much larger network of business men comprising fathers and sons that worked together. I wasn’t very keen to go but when I discovered Jack had paid for me I felt I had little choice.


The Red Coach was a very good restaurant where we were served pre-dinner drinks that seemed to work very rapidly to get everyone in the mood. An excellent dinner followed with loads more to drink but there was more to come. A floor show had been arranged. “Oh how posh” I thought. Well, how naïve can you be?


Tables and chairs were pushed back to clear the ‘floor’. Copious jugs and bottles of beer came around and it dawned on me that basically I was at a stag party which I had heard about but never experienced.


Of course it was a strip show with first one girl then two and eventually three strutting their stuff and casting off their costumes like it was going out of fashion. “Well, that wasn’t too bad” I thought. “Pretty sexy too.”


Then the action began to ramp up a bit when the girls started on each other in a series of exhibitions that amounted to pretty much full-on lesbian sex. I was shocked. I’d seen the blue film show in Hong Kong when I was on the ship but this was live and right ‘in your face’. Literally if you were in the front row and were unlucky or lucky enough depending on your view, to be dragged in to “help out” as they put it.

By this time I was a long way past aroused. Terrified would be closer to the truth but somehow I managed to get to the back and keep a low enough profile to avoid being called out. I noticed that Jack too had gone quiet and was not quite as up front with our friends as when we were in the pub. If I’m honest I was shocked at the behaviour of these ‘respectable’ business men as they hooted and cheered at every move.


If I thought that was it I was wrong again. The last show was a very artistic strip tease which I thought was actually quite beautifully erotic and very well done. But it was then thoroughly spoilt once the dancer was completely naked and she started doing unspeakable things with beer bottles before handing them back to the guys she had borrowed them from. I am not a prude but that was just a step too far for me and was the point at which I decided that enough was enough and that I would bring my drinking sessions with Jack to an end. I didn’t make a big thing of it but gradually started to ease myself out of the routine stop-offs.


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Whilst I was in the mood for good resolutions and bearing in mind Mum and Dad’s expressed concerns, I got to thinking about other things to do in my spare time that didn’t only revolve around drinking and hit on the idea of joining the Specials. Despite the fact that I’d left the Met there were many aspects of the job I did enjoy and also felt it would be a way to put back a little something into society that I had thus far spent a lot of time taking from.


So with very little training due to my previous time in the Met I was taken on by Surrey and sworn in as a Special Constable and found myself patrolling my own home area which was a very different thing to working the anonymous streets of Lambeth. Fortunately I never did have to prosecute or arrest anyone I knew but I enjoyed going out on my beats and occasional tours in the local area car.

I made a bit of a name for myself one day when I came upon a building on fire. It was an old barn in Woodfield Lane, Ashtead and was semi-derelict but the timbers were dry as tinder and coated on the outside with tar for weatherproofing.


The smell of smoke was what I first noticed as I wandered by so went to investigate and found a small fire getting under way in a corner at the back of the building. Bearing in mind there were no personal radios in those days I ran to a nearby house and knocked up the occupant to call the fire brigade and then went back outside to where I had noticed a hose pipe lying on the ground behind the barn and started spraying the flames which by this time were licking up the inner walls and starting to get a good hold.


It was probably a bit stupid to actually enter the building but I thought that if I could just keep it damped down a bit until the fire service arrived the building might just be saved. And that was exactly what happened. It was probably about twelve or fifteen minutes before the fire engine arrived from Leatherhead by which time I was about all in although I’d also had some help from the neighbour. With their powerful hoses they soon extinguished the flames and as well as thanking me they gave me a good ticking off (despite my uniform) for putting myself at risk for the sake of an old building.


...oooOOOooo...


In the next post I fall in love, my mother finally succumbs to cancer, I get married and leave the motor trade to rejoin the police service, but is Surrey this time.


T

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