Incredibly it’s 60 years since VW opened its first UK franchise, initially operating out of offices in London’s Regent Street back in 1953. Since then of course Volkswagen agents have sprung up in virtually every major town but how the Wolfsburg firm got to this point sure makes interesting reading…
The first quirky air-cooled Beetles to be seen prior to ’53 were driven by ex-servicemen returning from postings in Germany. You can almost picture them – still wearing their military tunics, a roll-up perched on their lips as they nonchalantly fielded questions from bewildered sidevalve Ford Pop owners.
Volkswagen Motors Ltd was set up by Stephen O’Flaherty, owner of the Irish franchise, who became sole UK importer. As demand for cars outstripped supply, more and more dealers climbed on board, the first being Sheffield’s J Guilder & Co and Colborne Garages in Ripley, Surrey. Sadly, the Gilder Group now sell Hondas but amazingly Colbornes, who still have a number of VW dealers in Surrey, actually own the one of the first Beetles to be imported, which is currently on display at the REME Museum of Technology near Reading. More intriguingly still, when we phoned Colbornes, we were told of a rumour that the son of the original owner, Colborne-Baber, actually came up with the name ‘Beetle’. Whether that’s true or not is anyone’s guess but it’s a great story!
The first order of 200 cars arrived by ship at Harwich in batches of 20, along with a crate of spare parts to keep them going for a while. There was still a large amount of prejudice against German products in the early days and on arrival at the docks, incredibly around 75% were damaged by vandalism.
Volkswagen Motors relocated to a disused railway shed in Plaistow, London – conveniently located to receive vehicles now coming into Docklands. Despite being described by the British Motor Industry Commission as “bizarre, noisy, too flimsy – a toy not to be taken seriously” 945 Beetles were sold in 1953, rising to 3,260 the following year. By 1959 over 9,000 Beetles were being sold annually.
By 1971, VW had opened up their northern operation, bringing cars in via Grimsby and a year later a subsidiary company called Dovercourt would operate five additional dealerships. VW (GB) started importing the Audi brand in 1973.
In 1978 the firm centralised its operations and moved to Blakelands, Milton Keynes and in 1980 Volkswagen (GB) was renamed to VAG UK. The Audi distribution side of things went its separate way in 1994 and Sheerness was chosen as the new distribution centre in 1995 at the same time that SEAT and Skoda imports were taken on by Volkswagen UK.
Bringing the story up to date, today new vehicles are bought in via the river Tyne, the site of a 50-acre distribution centre which supplies 160,000 VWs annually to a network of 225 dealers. And guess what, one in five new cars sold in the UK come from the Volkswagen Group UK.
Now, who was it that said the Beetle shouldn’t be taken seriously?