During my time brief there in the 1980s, I helped my friend with all sorts of tasks for a little bit of welcome (and much-needed) pocket money, including selling the occasional new and used car. This often included suggesting ways to ‘dress up’ a car that had been in stock for far too long. There was a top-of-the-range Fiat Croma Turbo i.e. that sat on very public display in the showroom window (when did you last see one of those?!), painted in a dull shade of brown; the worst possible colour for a lively but expensive performance executive Fiat.
Among my suggestions were fitting some snazzy Fiat official accessory alloy wheels and the application of some eye-catching contrasting ‘go faster’ stripes. Much to my amazement, within a week the car had sold! As this simple but cost-effective formula seemed to work, within days I’d created the ‘Bella’ series of old-stock specials for Bell Street Motors, applying stripes, decals and different wheels to new cars that they were struggling to shift.
The first of these was a white Panda 1000 S (when white was the kiss of death, a colour as unpopular in the 1980s as brown is today for a new car!). Plonked in the showroom window, the eye-catching tarted-up Panda Bella (Italian for ‘beautiful’ and a nice play on the Bell Street name) sold within a couple of days. It generated so much additional showroom traffic that Bell Street soon began doing the same to slow-selling 126s, Stradas and Regatas, but not Unos, because they sold like hot cakes at the time. Inspired by the Bell Street special, eventually even Fiat GB launched an ‘official’ Panda Bella as a popular limited edition model, available across the UK.
Many other new car dealers in my local area did the same, my nearest British Leyland/Rover agent (Lex Mead of Maidenhead; now also demolished and turned into a block of ‘executive homes’) amusingly creating a series of Mini Soopers. These were standard Mini City models dressed with go-faster decals and a white roof to resemble a ‘real’ Mini Cooper, long before Rover re-introduced the Cooper in the early 1990s. Within months of launch the car parks of Maidenhead were full of Mini Soopers, especially on pension day, this locally-made special helped to revive interest in the Mini when sales were flagging.
A few other Leyland dealers were even more enterprising. Long-established Triumph dealer Page Motors of Epsom, for example, commissioned Kent-based car converters and coachbuilder Crayford to create the Triumph TR7 Tracer in the late 1970s, a Reliant Scimitar GTE-style of shooting brake, based around the controversial wedged Leyland sportster. Another Leyland dealer, Spikin’s of Twickenham, foolishly became the sole sales agent for Crayford’s ill-conceived Austin Allegro Convertible conversion. Somehow, 19 examples of this forlorn floppy drop top were sold.
Crayford didn’t just do work for desperate British Leyland dealers though. It carefully sliced the roof off many two-door Cortinas and Corsairs exclusively for nationwide Ford selling agents: Bristol Street Motors. It later took a grinder to around 30 Mark I Fiestas for Ford dealer F. English of Bournemouth, to offer its unique Fiesta Fly convertible.