By Geoff FitzGibbon…..
At the age of 22, and with no auto sales experience, I was hired in 1971 to sell Citroëns in a beautiful and wealthy south Buckinghamshire village.
The dealership was tiny by today’s standards and was family owned. It was run very successfully by a young General Manager, Roy, who had started there as a 15-year-old apprentice. By 1973 it was the second-largest Citron dealer in the UK.
While I was still new and assigned to only the Dyane and Ami new models and to used car sales, I met a family with a late 1950s DS they wanted to replace with a newer model. Their car was a Slough-built beauty – with perfect dark green paint, excellent leather interior and gleaming brightwork; this car clearly received lots of regular TLC and its appearance belied its more than 10 years of age.
The entire family, including several young children, dropped by to see what we had, and they eventually decided on a low-mileage D model with the revised, enclosed headlights; I can’t recall if the lights turned or not because both fixed and turning lights options were offered in the UK then.
The car’s price would clearly be a stretch for these folks, as husband and wife put their heads together to discuss whether they could proceed. The trade-in value would be key.
I had a technician drive the car with me, and he confirmed it drove well, We took it back to the workshop to check the chassis because of its age and the notoriety Citroën had then for sustaining damage from winter salt.
That’s when it all went downhill: the moment the lift took the weight off the wheels, we heard an ominous tearing sound. Before the tech could quickly stop the lift, it was obvious the car was buckling in the center. Several technicians came over and surveyed the damage that road-salt had inflicted.
This beautiful car had gone in a few seconds from almost concourse condition to being a donor car. I rushed to tell the GM and to ask what to do. He inspected the car on the lift, sadly shaking his head.
“This is one of those moments that separates the men from the boys, Geoff”, he said. “Best to ask him to join us and have a look”.
I recall feeling awful as I walked down to where the family was joyfully still poring over their next car, but the truth could not be ignored. As gently as I could, I asked him to join me in the workshop.
The father took the news remarkably well as he looked up at his beloved but now terminal DS. He actually thanked us for identifying the corrosion, realizing that the car could have separated any time as his family drove along in it. But what to do now?
The GM took him to one side, told him not to worry too much right then but to go home in a no-charge loaner car we provided. We would do some research on options and get back to him.
We were expecting another, lower-priced DS trade-in within a few days, which might be more affordable for the customer, so we book-marked that car temporarily. We also talked with a sub-dealer of ours that sometimes bought older DS models for parts or rust repair. He came over to look at the car and made a reasonable offer for the car to use as a repair parts source for his used car business. The sub-dealer had his arm twisted somewhat by our GM to bid his best price, in anticipation of “future considerations”.
I arranged for the customer to come over to discuss our proposal: the dealership would sell him the newer DS at almost no margin – just enough to cover our usual 3-month warranty – and he would receive the total value of the sub-dealer’s offer. We would also provide financing at the minimum rate offered by our finance provider.
He was elated and agreed to the proposal, subject to seeing the trade-in vehicle. I called him as soon as it came in, he drove it and readily confirmed his agreement. I processed the sale myself (no finance managers or other annoying intermediaries at our dealership) and had the car serviced and polished.
The customer was somewhat tongue-tied and emotional when we concluded the deal, but his wife stepped up and thanked me for everything we had done; the entire family beamed as they drove away.
The firm probably made nothing on that transaction. I know I did not, but nobody seemed to mind much. Years later I asked the GM, who was a close friend by then and remains so to this day, why we did all that work and for so little.
As Roy pointed out, “Swings and roundabouts, my friend: I bet you would find we sold lots of cars as a direct result of what we did for them. Customers like that, who have had it tough, appreciate a hand and usually tell everyone who will listen what we did. In the great picture, we didn’t do that much really, but he will always appreciate it; we always get it back a hundred times over”.
And we did.
Roy retired a few years ago as a multi-millionaire, having subsequently owned 5 Citroën and Peugeot dealerships and having had a very successful career – by always practicing what he taught me when I was 22; food for thought.