After an undistinguished schooling at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (Belfast Inst.), all I really wanted to do was work in the motor trade, third generation as it turned out to be.
My father was in the motor trade, he had his own Ford Dealership called Lindsay Robb ltd. Grandfather Robb had also been in the trade owning “Robb’s Garage” in Dundonald, just outside Belfast. On a separate location about a mile away towards Stormont Castle he also had another site which specialized in International Harvester agricultural equipment amongst other things.
Grandfather Robb (Davy) was quite an innovator as he had the first garage in Ireland with a canopy over the petrol pumps, and also I believe the first garage in the UK with a grocery and sweet shop on the same site, including an ice cream parlour.
So, forget any claims by Shell or Gerald Ronson, old Davy Robb was first to operate with everything on one site in the very early 1920’s – fact!
It’s interesting to look back at the basic layout of that business: petrol pumps at the front – car service area around the back – parts available from a counter at the side of the workshop – and a shop with groceries, ice cream etc., attached to the side.
In other words, much the same layout as we have today – nearly 100 years later.
(who says the Motor Trade doesn’t move with the times?)
Anyway, after much harping on by me, Dad fixed me up with an interview at JE Coulters, the big Belfast based Ford main dealers, and I duly got a job as a junior salesman.
My initial “training” was at a small subsidiary outlet, north of Belfast city centre, under the guidance of the site sales manager Constantine Rogan.
The bold “Constie” came from a well healed family in County Down, was well spoken and had received a good, strict Catholic education. He was a 60 plus a day cigarette smoker and was probably Northern Ireland’s champion fish and chip eater. The showroom always stank of fish and chips – you know, that stale, greasy smell. But at least if he was eating his fish and chips the chances where he wasn’t smoking.
When the company boss visited and mentioned the smell in the showroom and office Constie always blamed it on the Fish and Chip shop up the road – ….”it’s the way the winds blowing today Boss” he would say.
Constie’s body shape reflected his lifestyle. Let’s not beat around the bush – forget 21st century PC – Constie was a “fat git!”
His poor lifestyle had generated those fat legs which “shuffled” along, rubbing tightly up against each other in a way sure to generate air conditioning in his suits trouser legs before too long.
He was close to but not quite at the point where he would have difficulty sitting in most chairs, or indeed behind a car steering wheel.
Exercise for him was opening a new packet of cigarettes, striking a match, walking to the toilet.
His equivalent to a 10k or half marathon was walking to and from his car.
He had a knack of smoking a cigarette and being able to retain the remnants of all or most of the ash – which was near remarkable feat. I’m sure had those people from the Guinness Book of Records been aware, Constie would have been proclaimed a world champion at this art as well.
Sometimes all the salesmen would deliberately gather in the bold Constie’s office just to see if he had made it all the way with that particular fag. He never seemed to notice either way as when the ash stick fell, either as a result of excessive lip movement or because of the natural force of physics, it would land on some surface bursting into oblivion; usually on his desk, his shirt front, his tie, his trousers, or the driver’s seat in his car.
As a consequence to closely inspect Constie’s clothing you could assume that he had just narrowly escaped death or that someone had recently tried to kill him as all his clothes were peppered in small holes … resembling shot gun pellets.
Thousands of tiny holes on his shirts, ties, waist coats, jackets, trousers, and overcoats gave the impression that he was only alive as a result of the efficiency of some bullet proof undergarments.
As my first manager Constie fell into that management category which I would become more and more familiar with over the years – the “Bluffer”.
Like all ” Bluffers” before and after him, Constantine Rogan could talk for Ireland (or whichever Nationally was appropriate).
Rule one for the bluffer is always to bull shit the bosses or whoever is conducting the interview by talking plenty (usually about how brilliant he is and also how good his boss is). Use all the latest terminology, quote any industry statistics you could think of, and hype up your own background to a point where based on the “facts” presented to the interviewer- this man must be the answer to our prayers.
The girls in the office or me as the junior salesman were constantly at his “bec and call”. I suppose I had to start somewhere and as it was a tossup between the girls and me as to who was lowest in the pecking order – we were his couriers, his shoppers, his valets, his butlers, his chauffeurs. Downtown Abbey’s hierarchy system still existed in that 1960’s Ford car showroom – Constie was the Earl of Grantham and I was Carson.
Like all “bluffers” Constie always knew better than everyone else.
There was absolutely no point in mentioning or suggesting anything to him as he didn’t listen to anyone – except his immediate boss. Even then he would always just take in what he saw as the “good” points out of any conversation with him, and hopelessly forget everything else.
For example, if his boss came to the branch (as he occasionally did) and mentioned initially that the place looked well, but later in his meeting got into the nitty gritty and bollicked him about his poor sales figures – the poor sales figures would hastily be overlooked by Constie because he would be elated at how well the showroom looked!
In my 9 months “learning the business” with Constie never once did I see him appraise a customer’s part exchange vehicle in anything other than a shambolic manner. If it was raining he would walk to the showroom window and look at the customers car from 30 yards – if that was possible. Usually, he would just take the customers description of his own car as gospel and do the deal accordingly without ever casting an eye over the car at all.
On one occasion a customer told him the mileage on his part exchange was 28,000 miles. When a few days later, the customer collected his new car and left the part exchange with Constie the actual mileage turned out to be about 82,000!
Needless to say, the customer told Constie that he had stated this all along and it was his fault he hadn’t inspected the car to confirm it, so told him to bugger off.
I’m convinced there were neighbourhoods in Belfast that knew how Constie operated and took full advantage of his sloppiness to get themselves a good deal.
When a deal was done he always got someone else to complete the paperwork for him – thus supposedly covering himself for the inevitable problems which would appear later: the dodgy clutch, the blown exhaust system or the set of tyres which were required.
Constie survived managing that site for about 3 years before he finally was caught out and was transferred back to head office, where he himself had to be re trained to cope with the skills sets required in boiling a kettle etc.
However, quite a short time after this blow to his social standing his boat came in – the bold Constie won the football pools!
£100,000 we were told, which at that time was a gigantic amount of money.
Constie bought the most expensive car in the Ford line-up at the time, an Executive Zodiac (about £1000 if my memory serves me right), drove off into the Celtic Twilight, and we never heard from him again.
However, my time and initial motor trade training with Constie as my mentor hadn’t been wasted:
He demonstrated to me that you could smoke a cigarette from start to finish without spilling the ash.
Training in the motor industry would improve over the following 50 years -but only just!