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Insight: Octav Botnar, the legend lives on

It is 10 years since the death of Octav Botnar.

OB – as he was known to his staff in Worthing – was the man who revolutionised the motor retail industry in Britain.

I worked for him between 1986 and 1992 for Nissan UK, the privately-owned company that sold more than two million cars and commercial vehicles between 1969 and ‘the end’, 23 years later.

OB changed the way we viewed the industry. From 0% finance to forecourt frenzy of a level never seen before or since, he grabbed almost 7% of the UK’s total new car sales market during the 1980s.

Cars were eminently affordable and widely available. This was the secret of his amazing success.

Today, Nissan, under the auspices of Renault, has little more than 3% of the British car market.

Back in 1969, when OB came to the fore, the total UK new car market for all marques was just over a million models a year.

Nissan, then Datsun, was a nobody.

Some 2,000 cars lay languishing in Amsterdam, abandoned by Datsun. OB was approached to sell them.

He arrived in Britain as managing director of the NSU company after a takeover by the Tillling Group and pledged that he would sell the wasting metal with questionable appearance but unfailing reliability.

At the time, most UK-sold cars were very poorly specified – in many cases even a heater was an extra.

Datsun UK, under OB, pioneered the concept of the fully-equipped car. All models came with reclining seats, heated rear window, radio, clock, cigarette lighter and so on.

Datsun appealed to middle and low income buyers who could not afford the likes of Ford, Vauxhall and British Leyland. They were sold through a network of dealers, mostly small, privately-owned companies, that had high-profit carrots and a full supply guarantee on tap.

Of the 2,000 unsold Datsun cars all were moved on by the end of 1970.

#AM_ART_SPLIT# In 1971 the figure rose to 6,900. The following year saw more than 30,000 variants sold.

In 1973, sales doubled to 60,000 units against an agreed figure of 5,500.

This was in spite of a major disaster when fire destroyed the parts warehouse. Staff at the original Datsun company in Lancing watched helplessly as firemen battled with the blaze.

OB called on the parts manager to take swift remedial action, blasting out: “I’ll watch the fire, you order the parts.”

Within days planeloads of new parts were winging their way to the UK.

This is the same OB who used to supply dealers with cars on a ‘cocktail’ basis.

Transporters would arrive stacked with unfashionable Laurels, Violets and Bluebirds. The prize was a “Cherry on top” – the car that mattered!

OB was famous for the way he did business – in a way that nobody else did. He once asked me to “find some tanks” for him on Teesside where he imported the bulk of his cars.

I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about until he said that most imported cars had a couple of gallons inside the tanks as delivered from Japan.

  • Read this story in full in the 8 August issue of AM. To subscribe to AM magazine click here or call 01733 468659.
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    • john fisher - 21/04/2013 15:48

      i worked and managed several afg dealerships and held ob in high esteem never mat him but traveled to worthing monthly, was pleased to meet Mel Morris briefly when he visited our dealership, i found him very approachable and certainly very switched on, happy times

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