With all the talk of Brexit, it has been interesting to look back to see what impact being part of the EU has actually had on the UK car market.
When, in 1971, the then Prime Minister Edward Heath took Britain into the Common Market, it was on the back of a demand-led reflation. Up until then, the UK had a policy of ‘competition and credit control’, which meant, in the terminology of the day, that the UK had restrictions on hire purchase, which stopped products such as cars being bought on credit.
To boost the economy, Heath withdrew the policy and unleashed a pent-up demand for motor vehicles. One of the interesting but unintended consequences of this policy was the start of the ‘Kwik Fit revolution’.
The dropping of the credit restrictions meant the demand for new cars rose dramatically and the dealership networks were able to make good money simply focusing on the new car side of the business. Aftersales was neglected, with the networks getting a reputation for being uninterested in servicing vehicles and overcharging for inferior work.
The build quality of cars had been historically poor with, in some cases, a built-in obsolescence of nine months on some exhausts. The Government attempted to address the issue with the introduction of the MOT in 1968. The challenge for the public was how to get poorly built and maintained vehicles through the new testing regime.
Consumers had the option of going to an expensive dealership that was not particularly interested in doing the work, or resorting to a back-street operation stereotypically portrayed in TV soap operas as being underneath railway arches.
The environment gave the opportunity for Tom Farmer to develop a national brand in the form of Kwik Fit that could be trusted and that offered a viable and strong alternative. The company brand became recognised throughout the country, supported by aggressive marketing campaigns.
When the previous pent-up demand for new cars started to wane in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the franchised dealers were left trying to regain the aftersales they had lost to Kwik Fit during the previous decade.
This resulted in the launch of manufacturer-led brands such as Rapid Fit, Master Fit, Better Fit and all the other permutations that a thesaurus could generate to indicate speed in juxtaposition with the word ‘fit.’
Although it was never intended, the entry into the Common Market provided an environment that reshaped the service sector in the UK. It was also the low point for the perception of car dealership aftersales servicing – an image that we are still trying to shake off in both the media and the minds of the general public.