60 Years of VW in UK

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…

Fittingly, one of the first Beetles imported to the UK, currently belongs to one of the very first VW franchises. It's on loan to the REME museum in Aborfield.
Fittingly, one of the first Beetles imported to the UK, currently belongs to one of the very first VW franchises. It’s on loan to the REME museum in Aborfield.

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.

Volkswagen joined the Queen in her 60th celebration this year.
Volkswagen joined the Queen in her 60th celebration this year.

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?

Ian

 

 

9 responses to: 60 Years of VW in UK


  1. My grand father apparently purchased one of those 1953 VW beetles 2nd hand in Edinburgh ( exact year unknown) It had the Fife C.C registration number of LSP 500…issued in 1953

    My grandfather was a Presbyterian minister and he paid for his “new” car with funds given to him by his congregation on retiring.
    One reason he bought it was because he was moving to rural Aberdeenshire where winters could be severe…being air cooled the radiator wouldn’t need draining ( apparently no anti freeze in the early 1950’s )

    My uncle also a Presbyterian minister inherited and used this VW in Glasgow there is quite a funny story as to how he eventually sold it ….early 1960 ‘s Let me know if you want to hear this story.
    Kind regards

    Quentin Henderson. > buzzzwords@gmail.com<

    wouldn't

  2. My grand father apparently purchased one of those 1953 VW beetles 2nd hand in Edinburgh ( exact year unknown) It had the Fife C.C registration number of LSP 500…issued in 1953

    My grandfather was a Presbyterian minister and he paid for his “new” car with funds given to him by his congregation on retiring.
    One reason he bought it was because he was moving to rural Aberdeenshire where winters could be severe…being air cooled the radiator wouldn’t need draining ( apparently no anti freeze in the early 1950’s )

    My uncle also a Presbyterian minister inherited and used this VW in Glasgow there is quite a funny story as to how he eventually sold it ….early 1960 ‘s Let me know if you want to hear this story.
    Kind regards

    Quentin Henderson. > buzzzwords@gmail.com<

    wouldn't

  3. This is the story I heard as a child…my uncle having inherited LSP 500 drove it for several years into the early 1960s ( I certainly remember it) before attempting to sell it at auction in Glasgow. It failed to sell and a secretary from the auctioneers phoned to explain this & that the VW could be collected from their yard BUT the vehicle documents including the tax disc were in the office which was closed. They would be posted. Driving home across Glasgow the good Reverend was stopped for …….”ok…where is your tax disc sir “? The policeman on hearing the sad story of no sale from my uncle, expressed interest himself and a few days later came, off duty, to see the VW parked outside the Manse…..a deal was done between the Minister and the policeman drove off in LSP 500…. presumably with the tax disc firmly reattached to the windscreen.
    As you can imagine this story has never been quite forgotten!

  4. This is the story I heard as a child…my uncle having inherited LSP 500 drove it for several years into the early 1960s ( I certainly remember it) before attempting to sell it at auction in Glasgow. It failed to sell and a secretary from the auctioneers phoned to explain this & that the VW could be collected from their yard BUT the vehicle documents including the tax disc were in the office which was closed. They would be posted. Driving home across Glasgow the good Reverend was stopped for …….”ok…where is your tax disc sir “? The policeman on hearing the sad story of no sale from my uncle, expressed interest himself and a few days later came, off duty, to see the VW parked outside the Manse…..a deal was done between the Minister and the policeman drove off in LSP 500…. presumably with the tax disc firmly reattached to the windscreen.
    As you can imagine this story has never been quite forgotten!

  5. FRS 462 was a Black model bought from “Harper’s? or Central Garage?” at Kittybrewster Aberdeen around 1957. Ah, the chrome button on the dashboard by the steering column somewhere for starting! that was another story – on the trip home. Had to stop for fuel somewhere on the A96. couldn’t get it restarted, but Station attendant knew the Salesman from the garage and after a quick call, all was dealt with. White-walled tyres and superb chrome – I know, I was that child that saw his reflection in it and had to help wash and polish it! Yes and it could climb the non-paved country roads in the winter, FORWARDS where the Postie got stuck in the Morris Minor van, or whatever it was that they had then. I wasn’t really interested in cars then, if it wasn’t a volkswagen. Been abroad in it too – Dover – Dunkirk and in those days there was NO RORO ferry – car was slung over with special wheel slings, these odd details I remember as well as that yellow dusters and Puke! – no longer do I have a yellow duster around me – that awful association – was it travel sickness or what? Anyroad I’ve lived to tell the tale.

  6. Does anyone have a VW with a HX registration post 1960 in the format
    ****
    HX
    The HX was reused from 1960
    “Chiltern Historic Vehicles” says – February 1960 to March 1965 when issue moved to Central London. Trying to Establish VW Garagewhich may have sold a February 1960 Single Cab.

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