Bentley to Citroën — A Bear Market Deal

By Geoff FitzGibbon….

One of my more embarrassing moments in my auto sales career happened when I supplied a Citroën DS Familiale to someone I will call Mr. James H-E, the proprietor of one of the largest game bird farms (sport-shooting suppliers) in the UK.

My dealership lacked a Familiale to show the prospect – that model was very rare in the UK – and so I borrowed the car usually driven by a Citroën executive at the nearby Citroën distribution center in Slough. 

James liked the car and asked me to value his Bentley, an R1 Continental with Mulliner body. This was the most expensive and fastest 4-seater car in the world when it was introduced in 1951. I took the relevant details and said I would need a specialist to evaluate the car and would get back to him.

My dealership’s GM arranged for a Bentley expert in nearby London to see the car. I turned up at our local rail station to collect a rather dapper, older gentleman; he looked the epitome of a maitre d’ at a fine London hotel.

We chatted a little on our journey and he was friendly enough but definitely distant. His demeanour changed completely when we met our prospect and the two of them started discussing the Bentley. In addition to their shared encyclopedic knowledge of all things Bentley, it was obvious the two men moved in the same social circles – which implied important social connections in class-conscious 1970s Britain.

The evaluation concluded and we returned to the station, where I dropped off the specialist. He promised to get back to my GM with a value. 

A couple of days later the GM advised me what price range to negotiate for the Continental, and I concluded a sale for a white semi-automatic Familiale. The car was duly delivered to us some weeks later and I called Mr. H-E to arrange the final details, which included taking a prized mascot from a badge bar on the Bentley and installing it on the Citroën. 

This sculpture was of a small, bronze bear, curled up asleep; it had belonged to James’ late father – as had the Bentley. The DS nose precluded a badge bar being fitted, so the customer specified placing it one third of the way down the hood, directly in the center. I advised Jim, the technician looking after the car’s final preparation, accordingly.

Shortly after, Jim came up to me and asked me to confirm the placement; he was not happy with it. When I looked at the sculpture sitting on the hood, I saw the problem: imagine a brown object, about 2″ in section, curved around into a tight semi-circle about 6″ long. On the white hood it looked as if an animal had clambered up and relieved itself; the car looked terrible. Jim and I discussed a few options that might make the sculpture look less scatological. 

I called James and, without specifying explicitly what the problem was, I requested the customer reconsider the requested placement and offered our alternatives. James H-E would have none of my ideas. He told me to basically stop arguing and just stick to the plan.

We completed the preparation of the car as specified and I duly drove it to the game farm. James H-E excitedly walked over towards the new car with me, but suddenly stopped in his tracks as soon he caught sight of the sculpture. Not one word was spoken, but none were needed; he was obviously mortified. I handed over the car, pocketed the cheque and drove the Bentley out of there, all in record time.

A few weeks after that I happened to see this Familiale in for its first service, but it was minus any hood ornament. I asked our body shop guys if they had removed the bear and repaired the hood, but they had no idea who might have done the work. I could only think he had a body shop local to his home resolve the problem – so he would not have to talk to us about his aesthetic faux pas.

But then it got worse…

I brought the Bentley back on a Friday night, just after our GM had left for a long weekend in the country. To add some extra class to the dealership’s overall appearance, I placed the car at the front of our used area with a price on the windshield. This was my first mistake.

Never intending to actually sell the car, and without any idea what price to use, I just took the trade-in value and doubled it. This turned out to be my second mistake.

Thirty minutes after opening up on the Saturday morning, a local passerby spotted the car and asked to see it. Impressed, he then asked if I could bring the car to his home so he could look at it properly. That sounded reasonable to me and so I drove the Continental to his nearby home. He opened the garage door to reveal a fully-equipped and gleaming, professional workshop – complete with full hydraulic lift, workbenches, lathes and mills, halogen lighting, several large Snap-On tool cabinets and two other classic Bentleys; I had met the only Bentley expert and collector for miles around.

He went over that car quickly, efficiently and completely, noting the need for new front shock absorbers, two new brake lines and the need to correct some minor body corrosion. He offered to buy the car at the posted price, subject to having these “minor” issues attended to. I calculated in my head what the repairs were likely to cost – based on my experience with Jaguar cars – and then doubled it, concluding this would be a very good deal for the dealership and nicely profitable for me. 

I fairly bounced into the GM’s office on the Monday morning, telling him with pride what I had done over the weekend. 

To my surprise, he bawled me out for selling the Bentley at all, which he had promised to the Bentley specialist. It seems I had probably damaged their business relationship forever. He then “educated” me (quite enthusiastically) on the true cost, high complexity and difficulty of making this R1 perfect again. I was dismissed from his office summarily. I kept out of his sight for several days.

Our technicians looked after the mechanical work required; it took forever to get right. The parts’ cost alone was horrendous, and way beyond my naive guesses. The very dark green metallic paint could be obtained only from Bentley, who had to custom tint it several times to match correctly, because the original colour on our car had changed slightly over the years due to sunlight and atmospheric pollution. 

Eventually it was completed and a very happy Bentley buyer took delivery. I never knew if the GM and the Bentley expert managed to rebuild their working relationship; wisely, I never asked.

When the bills were all added up, the dealership had made very, very little on the Bentley sale, although the Familiale sale’s profitability was satisfactory, thank Heaven.
It is probably needless to say; I learned a lot from the whole experience.  

But somehow, I managed to keep my job and go on to sell many more wonderful Citroën cars, one of which went to a Lord Mayor of London – with whom I once went for an afternoon swim – but that is a story for another day.

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