A LOCAL GARAGE By Malcolm Jeal Introduction It is unfortunate that when such an eclectic language as English adopted the French word 'Garage' around the turn of the 19th-20th century, it then became arbitrarily assigned to two quite distinct buildings: the 'motor house' adjacent to a private residence; and, the publically accessible multi-vehicle storage facility then generally to be found at inns and hotels. It is essentially from this second nature of the word garage that its nuanced meaning came to be applied to a repair shop, frequently where motor spirit could be obtained along with replacement parts and tyres, together with, in due course, the sale of new and second-hand motor vehicles. In the following discourse, garage will be used to mean this repair-shop, petrol-supply point, car-sale facility, not the domestic motor house. In Britain, as in other pioneer automobile-orientated countries, garages are just about as old as the motor car. On the 'Emancipation Run' in November 1896 one of the cars had a minor mechanical problem as it passed through Crawley and it was put right by Ambrose Shaw who had a cycle shop in the High Street. It was the 'cycling boom' of the 1890s that had provided the stimulus for the rapid establishment of numerous similar premises in every town, and many a village, throughout the length and breadth of the country. From these cycle shops, staffed by mechanically adept owners and employees, the vast majority of the earliest garages rapidly evolved. In November 1898 when The Automotor and Horseless Vehicle Journal published a listing of towns in which there were businesses that could offer: 'Petrol, Stores, Repairers, Storage of Moto-Vehicles (sic)', it ran to seven densely packed pages. Most of those given as Repairers can be identified as cycle shops. The village blacksmith as the primary fettler of the early motorcar is a popular misconception, although it undoubtedly happened on occasions.
To write the histories of each of these garages would be a task of several life-times and create a multitude of volumes. What follows is the story of but one such establishment and the purpose in describing it here is two-fold: to recount what is hopefully an interesting tale; but also as a form of tribute to the thousands of British garages that have existed over the past century-plus. In each case the personalities must inevitably be different, as with the makes and types of motor vehicles involved, but the origination, the supplying of fuel and oil â€“ a dwindling feature these days, the maintenance and repairing, and the trading element, plus the ups and downs, will be common to many, if not most. The tale that follows has four main elements to it: the founding and evolution of two entirely separate businesses in the villages of Chirton and West Lavington which are about five miles apart and near Devizes in Wiltshire; the combining of these into a joint venture but still in their original locations; and finally, the relocation of the latter enterprise to a single site at the start of the 21st century. However, since the location is germane to the story, it is appropriate to commence with a brief geographical discourse.
The original Chirton Garage in the mid-1920s.
The County of Wiltshire Wiltshire is a fairly large tract of sparsely populated rural land in central southern England with but one major conurbation: in the north, the town of Swindon. This grew rapidly in the mid-19th century due to Brunel’s choice of it as the mid-point of the London-Bristol Great Western Railway and the building there of a now closed major railway engineering works. Close to the county’s southern edge lies the city of Salisbury with its soaring mediaeval cathedral. Extending north from the city is a vast area of chalk upland: Salisbury Plain. This is in part agricultural, and on which stands Stonehenge, but much of it serves as the largest military training area in Britain. Almost at the centre of the county is the market town of Devizes, through which passes the 18th century Kennet and Avon canal. In the Middle Ages Wiltshire thrived as one of the centres of the English wool trade, but as this declined so did the county’s prosperity which was only marginally relieved by the coming of the railways. By 1900 it was one of the poorest counties in England and fairly thinly populated. The growing military presence from the 1890s onwards contributed to gradual economic growth which continued after the Second World War, whilst in the 1970s the building of the M4 motorway that passes close to Swindon resulted in it becoming the fastest growing town in Europe in the first years of the 21st century. Over the last 30 or so years, better agriculture and light industry have also aided the county’s economic revival. Apart from the Brown & May traction engines built in Devizes in the later Victorian era, and Scout motorcycles, cars, and commercials made in Salisbury from 1904 to around 1920, motor vehicle manufacture in Wiltshire was, unsurprisingly, absent for some 70 years until the Swindon Honda factory opened in 1992. The Wiltshire Registration records up to the Great War show an almost precise 50-50 split between motorcycle and car registrations, with medical professionals, a wide variety of tradesmen, and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, members of the clergy, in that order, being the largest groupings who used their vehicles on the still at best indifferent roads and lanes of the county.
P Fussell & Son - Chirton Garage Percy Fussell was born in 1889, one of a family of 10 children whose father ran a coal distribution business in Chirton that served other villages in the Vale of Pewsey and the town of Devizes. When old enough he worked for his father and during the Great War he volunteered, enlisting in an infantry regiment: the Royal West Kent. Before being sent to the trenches he saw a Royal Flying Corps recruiting poster for engine mechanics and his fortuitous joining of the RFC almost certainly save his life as the West Kents were decimated at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. So, although Percy served in France, he avoided the slaughter. He remained in the, by then, Royal Air Force until 1922, and prior to returning home used some of his free time to buy and sell bicycles and motorcycles. Once back in Chirton, Percy Fussell built a small wood and windowed workshop adjacent to the family home which, rather than being in the centre of the village, was at the side of the ‘main’ road, today the A342, that skirts the northern edge of Salisbury Plain and meanders its way from Devizes to Andover, about 20 miles distant. Corporal Percy Fussell Detailed business ledgers from 1924 onwards show that Percy’s principal activities were repairs to, and maintenance of, bicycles, motorcycles and cars; plus the supply of petrol, oil, and tyres; whilst there were regular sales of a wide variety of makes of both forms of two-wheelers, as well as the occasional motorcar. Rarely were these straightforward cash purchases, an informal type of hire purchase predominates. These records also indicate that Percy must have worked long hours, that he had a very good grasp of where he was financially even allowing for the substantial number of customers’ accounts that were not always promptly paid, and that he was mechanically and practically adept.
Corrugated-iron clad buildings had replaced the original workshop by the beginning of the 1930s and there were hand-cranked petrol pumps, dispensing Shell, National Benzole, or BP fuel – customers demanded, and got, a choice in those days. As motoring became more popular the workload increased and Percy had to take on staff whilst his wife, Maud, became the secretary and kept the accounts. At the outbreak of the Second World War there were two or three full-time staff in the workshops and although it might be expected that this number reduced during the hostilities, in fact the opposite happened. Firstly, there was the a need to keep those existing cars, vans, and motorcycles of essential users in good working order as they were unlikely to be able to be replaced. Secondly, prompted by the country’s drive for self-sufficiency in food supplies, the taking into cultivation of much marginal land that had been totally neglected in the agricultural depression of the twenties and thirties required machinery, principally tractors. These vehicles and their associated equipment were, by and large, a mystery to the farmers who used them, and their hard usage meant maintenance was essential. Village garages were the obvious place for this to happen, and it certainly did at Chirton, where staffing levels more or less doubled. One other event occurred in the pre-War period that was to have long-term implications for the business: the birth of son Tom to Percy and Maud in 1933. He was initially educated at the village school, then at Devizes Grammar, which he left in 1949 after successfully obtaining his O-Levels – mathematics being his particular forte. After working at the garage, principally taking care of the accounts and incidentally passing his driving test in 1951, there followed the then obligatory two-year period of National Service, in Tom’s case served in the RAF where he trained as a motor transport mechanic. He recalls one particularly good course at Weeton near Blackpool with Bedford 4 x 4 3-ton QLs being the principal vehicles worked upon. Returning to the family garage Tom soon began to assert himself and persuaded his father that if the business was to prosper, updated premises were essential. A new two-storey steel-framed brick clad workshop and offices was built during 1954 and the following year an Austin ‘Retail Dealership’ was obtained – A30s, then A35s, plus A55 Cambridges were the majority of the models sold, along with the occasional Metropolitan, Gipsy, and later, Austin Healey Sprite. The first Mini, actually an ‘Austin Seven De Luxe Saloon’, was sold as early as November 1st 1959. An indication of Austin sales volume is that in the first six months of 1960 customers bought 18 new cars, and this in an era when overall car ownership was but a small fraction of the level that it is today.
Leafing through the by now P Fussell & Son Sales Ledger of 1956 to the end of 1964, many other makes of new cars appear, including, various Fords, Hillmans, Jaguars, Standards, MGs, Vauxhalls, and some Land Rovers. Second-hand sales indicate a similar diversity, an interesting feature being that during this period pre-War cars were still occasionally being taken in in part-exchange. Even more surprising, looking back to that time, is that if it was not for the sale of three Renault Dauphines between 1961 and 1964, there would be no evidence at all that there was any motorcar industry outside of these shores â€“ not a single other foreign car, new or second-hand, was sold during this nine year period.
Improved workshops, plus petrol pumps, c1934.
1955 saw new brick-built premises ready for use.
Austin â€˜Flagshipâ€™: A95 Westminster, sold new in 1958.
Additional servicing bays were built in 1960, and staff number grew, whilst as a break from business activities Tom was further able to indulged his interest in rallying that had begun soon after he had learnt to drive, at that time using a somewhat unlikely steed: a 1947 Austin 16hp saloon! Participation was principally in events organised by Devizes and District Motor Club, which in various guises had existed since 1922, whilst the Plain, with its many un-surfaced military roads and tracks provided a diversity of â€˜stagesâ€™. The arrival on the scene of the Mini, and more particularly the Cooper and Cooper S versions in 1961 and 1963 respectively, enabled the non-professional enthusiast to take part in events in thoroughly competitive and readily available vehicles. Tom was but one of many who went down this route, as the shot below of his Mini-Cooper in action shows. He had a fair level of success, and was able to thoroughly enjoy himself as well. Tom Fussell rallying with his Mini in 1968.
Further expansion of the garage took place in 1970 with the construction of a showroom, something that until then had been lacking, and all seemed to be well set for the future. Then in mid-1972, completely unanticipated, came the news that the Austin franchise which the Chirton Garage had held since 1955 would be terminated early in the new year. BMC had become British Leyland in 1968 and the new Chairman, Lord Stokes, was striving hard to rationalise a business that quite rightly was regarded as an almost unmanageable mess in every facet of its activities. However, why it was considered that doing away with Retail Dealerships and selling only through Main Agents was going to help with the serious structural and labour problems that afflicted BL, particularly as Fussellâ€™s were selling more new Austins each year than the main dealers that supplied them were doing, remains a mystery. But happen it did, and Tom was obliged to return unsold new cars and he was left without a dealership. A visit by him to the London Motor Show in November 1972 to sound out makes like Renault and Datsun that had little or no presence in central Wiltshire proved fruitless, and the future of the Chirton garage of P Fussell & Son looked bleak for both the proprietors and the employees. How the matter was resolved will follow in due course, but before that an outline of the origins and development of the another nearby garage business is required.
Chirton Garage as it looked in the 1960s and into the first years of the 1970s.
W H F Wadman & Son – West Lavington Garage West Lavington straggles along the main Devizes to Salisbury road, today the A360, hard against the western edge of the Plain which is reached from the village by a steep hill that ascends through a narrow wooded cutting. Some time before the Great War a gentleman named A T ‘Tiffy’ Holliday opened a cycle shop in the High Street and continued to run it for the next 40 years. During the 1920s it became West Lavington ‘Cycle and Motor Stores’, although the cycling element continued to dominate, despite the addition of petrol pumps, with agencies being held for Royal Enfield and Chase bicycles. In 1948 Tiffy wished to retire and the business was bought from him by Harold Wadman who ran the village shop. Below: 1950 and now the premises have become the Wadman Garage, with young Basil standing behind the pre-War Morris 8, the two mechanics, and on the right, Harold.
Above: ‘Tiffy’ Holliday at his West Lavington Cycle and Motor Stores in the late 1920s.
Harold, who had served as ground crew in the RAF during the War and so added mechanical skills to his knowledge of the retail trade, set about developing the business. Soon he was employing two mechanics to work with him in undertaking car servicing and repairs, whilst additionally, car hire was available. In 1950 Harold’s son, 15-year old Basil, began work in the garage straight from leaving school and therefore by the time that he went off to do his National Service he had something of a running start for the 3-year mechanical engineering apprenticeship that occupied most of his time in the Army. When that finished, and now qualified, Basil re-joined the business which then commenced trading as W H F Wadman and Son.
In the 1950s and 60s large numbers of British military personnel were stationed in Germany and whilst there, many naturally bought personal transport. A wide variety of new motorcars were available to them, and, as a ‘perk of the job’, without the addition of British Purchase Tax. On returning to the UK it was necessary for them to find garages that could service their cars, a significant number of which were ‘obscure’ continental makes, and servicing was a much more frequent necessity than it is today. Quartered as many were in close proximity to the Plain, the garage at West Lavington was an obvious place to seek the necessary work being done, and Basil and his father had an unforeseen regular source of work which helped their business to expand.
The garage was completely re-built in 1961 (left) and the petrol pumps moved to a narrow site on the opposite side of the road. Apart from servicing the usual British makes such as Austin, Morris, Dagenham-made Fords, as well as Rootes vehicles and Standards, there was a steady flow of European makes including Fiat, Citroën, and Peugeot. At this time the latter make was hardly known in Britain but Basil was impressed by their quality and in 1963 the garage was appointed as a ‘Peugeot Service Dealer’ and also sold seven new examples in the first year.
It was around this time that Basil became active in rallying, initially with a Ford Anglia 105E, and followed by a Cortina. However, as Peugeot became the predominate element in both the retail and servicing side of the business, the logical next step was to start using the robust 403 and then the 504 models for this activity. A satisfactory decade of trading with the make prompted the Peugeot distributors for South-West England, F W Kerridge of Alton in Hampshire, to offer the West Lavington garage a full dealership in 1972 â€“ providing suitable premises could be found. Basil Wadman and Tom Fussell knew one another from their rallying activities and membership of the local motor club, but their garages were far enough apart, and largely selling different makes of cars, so that whilst they had common interests, they were not direct business rivals. Then, in a scenario that if it appeared in a novel or film would be dismissed as a contrived coincidence, at a local motor club meeting one evening in late 1972 they had a chat over the proverbial pint. Tom mentioned to Basil the loss of his Austin dealership and the inability to find a replacement make to take its place. In return, Basil explained to Tom about the Peugeot offer and the caveat of finding suitable premises that went with it. Almost instantly the penny dropped. Both realised that in the situation of the other, lay the solution to their own dilemmas. They rapidly worked out a way forward, a partnership was formed, and Fussell Wadman Ltd opened for business on the 1st of April 1973, the premises being the two garages.
Fussell Wadman Limited â€“ Chirton & West Lavington
The two principals were joint managing directors and shared all the responsibilities, although Tom tended to concentrate on administrative matters whilst Basil had more of a ‘hands on’ role, but there was considerable overlap. Tom recalls how impressed he was with the new product that he had to sell. The cars arrived by road or transporter and once in the preparation bay they simply needed cleaning, fluid levels checked along with the tyre pressures, and they were ready for customers to buy and drive away. This was, sadly, in marked contrast to the work that had been needed on the later Austins, when frequently many hours of remedial work had had to be undertaken before the cars could be considered fit for purpose. The year after the start of the joint venture the Chirton garage was further re-developed, as more servicing bays were needed, a new showroom was built, and the forecourt became an ‘all weather’ facility thanks to the constructing of an extensive canopy. The business flourished as although the Peugeots of that era were not exactly the most exciting cars . ever made, they met the needs of many local people who wanted sound, reliable, transport with friendly and efficient back-up for servicing and should anything go wrong. Within 10 years Fussell Wadman was supplying 20 per cent of the new cars to the local community, whereas the overall national rate for Peugeots was around 6 per cent. Considerable publicity for the business was generated in this period, and later, as Basil continued to be a very active rally competitor. He made a number of successful forays in national events which the local newspaper was happy to report, and from time to time he ventured further afield. Perhaps his most notable achievement came from participation in the World Cup Rally of May 1974. This gruelling 20-day, 10,000-mile event went from London to Munich, but by way of Spain, the Sahara, to Nigeria, and back through Turkey and the Balkans! His vehicle was a 1970 Peugeot 504 with which he had taken part in the similar event four years earlier, and some twenty other rallies since then. It was completely rebuilt in the West Lavington workshops, and despite the front nearside suspension collapsing in the middle of the Desert and receiving an improvised repair from Basil and his crew, they came 9th out of 18 finishers, all that survived from the original 52 starters.
Among those who had assisted in the preparation of the car for the rally was Basil’s son Kim, then just 14 years old, who was described in one newspaper report as a “general factotum and uncomplaining fetcher and carrier”. He was not put off by this experience and on leaving school entered the business and served his apprenticeship therein. Four years later he was joined by his younger brother Mark, who did the first part of his apprenticeship at the Chirton garage, and completed it at West Lavington. When asked what his work consisted of once he was qualified, Mark recounted that he started as a mechanic, followed by a period in the parts department, ran the Service-Reception side for a while, and then became involved in sales; diversity of experience being the order of the day. By this time Peugeot UK were running a range of staff training courses and both Kim and Mark successfully completed the Graduate Programme that was available. The business partnership continued to thrive and it was not only rallying that brought publicity of the firm’s activities. On two occasions the imposing Corn Exchange in Devizes Market Place was the venue for the launch of new models. In 1978 it was the 305 that featured as the centre of attention, and 1983 saw the turn of the 205 to be in the spotlight. The West Lavington garage was completely rebuilt in 1987, and its new showroom served as the location for the launch of the 405 in January 1988.
As the business had developed after the formation of the partnership, and with his wife Maureen and a growing family to give attention to, Tom had gradually ceased his rallying commitments. However, recreational motoring did not disappear from the scene as in 1983 he acquired a 1904 single-cylinder Bébé Peugeot that was in very sound condition, having spent many of its years in hibernation. The car was complete with its original two-seater bodywork, including the leather upholstery, and it retained its 1904 registration number. Tom took care of the mechanical refettling work and had the bodywork restored. Under a coat of battleship grey paint that had been hastily applied years before was found the original bright green with red Tom Fussell (left) and Basil Wadman at the launch of the Peugeot 405 in 1988 lining colour scheme and the car was repainted accordingly. Tom and Maureen successfully completed their first London to Brighton Run with the Bébé in November 1986 and from then on they took part in numerous old car events with it, across the length and breadth of Britain, and abroad, for the next 25 years. Rallying though would seem to be in the Wadman genes and Mark competed for a number of years in the 1980s and into the next decade, in the UK, Belgium and France, generally at the wheel of a 205GTI. Probably his best result was in the 1995 RAC Rally where he finished among the prize-winners. However, this activity was eventually curtailed by having a growing family of his own and much-increased responsibilities at work. The latter came about sooner than anticipated, as a consequence of totally unforeseen circumstances. Basil had continued with rallying whenever time away from his working life permitted and in 1993 he was persuaded to go as co-driver on the 25th anniversary running of the London-Sydney Marathon.
During the traversing of India he was taken unwell, and died before adequate medical facilities could be reached. Apart from the obvious devastating blow to his wife and family, for Fussell Wadman it also had potentially serious implications. That these did not actually manifest themselves was due to a number of factors. In large part it was down to the structure that Tom and Basil had created for the business – there was no debt, it always having been self-financing; there was a well-motivated and valued staff; a loyal customer base; and a sound product with which to continue trading. And so Mark, at the age of only 31, moved up to take on the work that his father had been doing, whilst his brother Kim continued his responsibility for the separate body shop that had been established slightly earlier at a site on the eastern edge of Devizes, and Tom continued to oversee the running of the Chirton garage and the business. As the millennium approached it became clear to Tom and Mark that changes were necessary. Whilst the two garage sites had served well enough for years, all available land had been fully utilised and so there was no room for further expansion. In addition, there was unavoidable duplication of staff responsibilities, and, more often than was desirable, instances of ‘things’ not being in the right place at the right time occurred – not a major problem but a source of irritation nonetheless. Rationalisation was required and after due consideration a single site was deemed to be the best solution. Neither of the existing premises could adequately meet this need and so relocation was the only viable option.
The 1904 single-cylinder 5hp Bébé Peugeot withTom and his wife Maureen aboard.
Fussell Wadman Ltd – Devizes After visiting a number of potential sites in the area, attention focused in on a new industrial estate that was being developed off London Road, the main road north out of Devizes. Plenty of plots were available but Tom realised that the prime position was on the corner where there was a turning off to the estate from the main road. The new premises would thus be clearly visible to everyone travelling along it. This corner site was acquired and a local architect, Peter Kent, was commissioned to design the new showroom, workshops and offices, which not only had to meet the needs of the business but also Peugeot’s corporate identity criteria applicable to such a franchise. The new premises opened in November 2002 and at that stage Tom decided that at the age of 69 it was time to step down from the day to day running of the business. Responsibility for managing what was in many respects a new venture passed to Mark Wadman and a former Chirton Garage member of staff, Mark Lovatt. He had joined Tom in the 1970s, initially as a salesman after qualifying in business studies, and in the new circumstances became ‘Dealer Principal’. In simple terms this means all the liaison work with Peugeot UK in Coventry. With that element in safe hands, Mark Wadman deals with the marketing and staff side of the business, although inevitably there is overlap and they work as the joint leaders of a team of over 30 people, in much the same way as Tom and Basil did.
2002 not only saw the opening of Fussell Wadman in its new location, but it also led to the most successful 12 month period so far in terms of new vehicles sold â€“ a shade over one for every day of the year, whilst in 2010 the business had the third highest market penetration out of all the Peugeot franchises in the UK. The recession has had an effect on the business, but although new car sales are not at the 2002 level they have still held up remarkably well. A significant factor in this has to be the ethos adopted long ago by the firm of being scrupulously fair in its dealings with customers. It should also be mentioned that staff training has always been a priority and the various courses offered by Peugeot whether for those who are â€˜customer facingâ€™ or for the mechanics brings its own rewards. With Fussell Wadman approaching its 40th year of operation, and having roots that now go back 90 years, all those involved can be both proud of its heritage and optimistic for the future.
Mark Wadman in the summer of 2012
The tale that follows has four main elements to it: the founding and evolution of two entirely separate businesses in the villages of Chirto...
Published on Jan 29, 2016
The tale that follows has four main elements to it: the founding and evolution of two entirely separate businesses in the villages of Chirto...