An amazing anniversary road trip to mark a golden Mazda milestone

Bourne Road Garage is celebrating five decades of being a Mazda dealer, and earlier this summer Car Dealer associate editor James ‘Batch’ Batchelor got behind the wheel of a 50-year-old RX-3 to be there for the celebrations, which he wrote about for a special feature in the current edition of the magazine 

Time 9:22 am, August 6, 2022

Beneath the bustling Bourne Road in Crayford, south-east London, lies a story.

The tale goes that a coffin of a young Roman girl was discovered there in the late-1870s and, despite local residents’ protests, it wasn’t removed and remains there to this day, its precise location still a mystery.

But before it was covered over, never to be seen again, the coffin, decorated with scallop shells, was sketched by the Rev George Savage of St John’s Church.

The building that now stands on the long-demolished church is Bourne Road Garage.

This is just one line in a large file emailed to me by Mazda Motors UK, for Bourne Road Garage is the Japanese brand’s second-oldest dealer.

Aside from Roman remains, the site has had a colourful history over the centuries, and its association with Mazda makes for a large chapter – 50 years to be precise – and Car Dealer wanted to be there when the business and Mazda marked this special birthday.

Arriving at the celebrations in a loaned modern-day family hatchback seemed just a little too ordinary for Car Dealer, so Mazda Motors UK arranged for me to pick up its charming little rotary-engined 1973 RX-3 from its heritage garage in Royal Tunbridge Wells and take it on a road trip, with the final destination being Bourne Road Garage.

Batch gives a careful look as he pulls away from Mazda’s heritage garage

Batch gives a careful look as he pulls away from Mazda’s heritage garage

Along the way, I’d stop off at the former MCL Group building – the firm that imported Mazdas for decades before Mazda Motors UK was formed – and the Japanese carmaker’s current headquarters nestled near the Dartford Crossing.

All in a car that Bourne Road would have sold to inquisitive customers half a century ago.

Having a collection of the cars you’ve sold in the UK since the year dot sounds like a lovely idea, and many car manufacturers have flirted with and embraced this quaint concept.

Smart but pretty unassuming

But in these days of draconian finance departments and a need for carmakers to keep more than an eye on the green agenda, a heritage collection is a rare thing.

Not so for Mazda.

Over the past few years, it has steadily built up an assortment of some of the most interesting cars it ever sold off dealers’ forecourts.

A smart but pretty unassuming little garage stands on a narrow thoroughfare in Tunbridge Wells.

Its large plate-glass windows give glimpses of an eclectic mix of shapes covered in silky smooth red car covers – sleeping giants of Mazda’s past.

Inside, and along the garage’s brilliant white far wall, sits a line of cars cloaked in the red coats – unmistakably a row of MX-5s.

Inside Mazda's heritage garage

Inside Mazda’s heritage garage

Another shape is of a sports coupe, while at the back is quite distinctly a Mazda Cosmo – its protective cover pulled tightly over its stubby, flared-in front-end and stretched rear deck.

But at the very front of the little toyshop, its teal blue paintwork glistening in the early morning light, is a beautiful, mostly original 1973 RX-3.

With the garage doors peeled back, I twist the key and the RX-3 thrums into life and I nose the car out on to the road.

Our first stop is the old headquarters of MCL Group and that’s on the other side of town, through some tight streets and busy main roads as locals fight for road space to get to work.

The RX-3 is slightly recalcitrant – a tug of the choke is needed – and the exhaust – a non-original straight-through type – crackles, pops and reverberates off Tunbridge Wells’s upmarket shops and icy-cool cafes.

Not before long, we rumble, rather noisily, around Oakhurst House’s turning circle.

The RX-3’s Coke-bottle 1970s styling stands in sharp contrast to the Eighties, rather severe architecture.

This was the home of MCL Group – a company formed in 1978 that held the distribution rights for Mazda in the UK until 2001 when Mazda Motors UK was established.

Mazda first came here in 1967 and was officially launched at the British Motor Show in 1969.

Parked up at the old MCL Group HQ

Parked up at the old MCL Group HQ

Fearful of the threat from the then-new Japanese carmakers, the UK put strict import quotas on the sale of Japanese cars, including Mazdas.

By 1973, Mazda sales were pushing 7,000 a year, and by the time MCL Group was in charge, Mazda had a strong footing in the UK car market.

Mazda’s growth in the UK in the Eighties and Nineties was mostly due to MCL Group – which was 60 per cent owned by Itochu Corporation (one of Japan’s leading sogo shosha, or general trading companies) and Inchcape – and the now-named Oakhurst House was the firm’s confident premises, officially opened in 1982 by none other than Peter Braddon, Bourne Road Garage’s owner.

Just as employees at the firm that now calls Oakhurst House its home gather at the windows, wondering why there’s a man standing next to a 1970s Mazda wearing matching trousers and who’s being told how to stand by the photographer, it’s time to leave.

The next stop on our road trip is Mazda Motor UK’s headquarters some 30 miles away, and I’m keen to take the quieter, more twisty roads to get there.

It’s a humid day in mid-June and the rotary engine needs a good chunk of cool air to keep happy.

On more open stretches of asphalt, it’s easy to pick up speed thanks to the engine.

According to Mazda Motors UK, there are only around seven RX-3s currently registered in the UK, making it a rather rare car full stop, not just a scarce model from Mazda’s back catalogue.

This one is a little different as it’s been slightly modified by a previous owner – the original ‘10A’ engine has been replaced by a larger, 1,146cc ‘12A’ from a later RX-3, and therefore benefits from a pair of large intake trumpets.

Mazda RX-3 1973 model

The Mazda RX-3 in all its glory

With a round 110bhp on tap and the rotary engine’s love for being revved hard, progress is remarkably quick.

And all the time there’s a soundtrack to accompany the smell of petrol and hot vinyl seats – a sort of high-pitched snarl. It’s very addictive.

It’s not just the engine that’s a treat but also the gearbox.

Surprisingly, it’s a five-speeder and the tall gear lever neatly clicks between the gears, helping you to keep the rotary singing.

And while the wheel itself is covered in a tacky wood-effect plastic, the steering is hefty and just a little imprecise.

The only thing that really reminds you that you’re driving a 50-year-old car is the cornering ability, as the skinny tyres do a feeble job of sticking the car to the road, favouring understeer more than anything.

More than once, I feared for the life of the beautiful retro metal hubcaps, expecting them to ping off at every quick s-bend.

That aside, the zesty engine and slick gearbox are features that would live on in future RX models, helping to make them must-have motors for fans of Japanese performance cars.

The drive to Mazda Motors UK’s headquarters in Dartford is over a little too quickly, and before too long we’re mixing it among unforgiving motorway traffic.

Mazda’s HQ sits in the shadow of the impressive Queen Elizabeth Bridge, and just like Oakhurst House was in period, it gives off a confident air.

Parking next to a current Mazda 3 – the nearest equivalent to the RX-3 – there’s very little in common, naturally. The flashy Seventies styling jars with the 3’s organic-looking, flowing bodywork.

The Mazda RX-3 nestles alongside a current Mazda 3, which is its nearest equivalent, at Mazda Motors' UK HQ

The Mazda RX-3 nestles alongside a current Mazda 3, which is its nearest equivalent, at Mazda Motors’ UK HQ

Inside the HQ lies another group of heritage Mazdas, enforcing the notion that Mazda is rather proud of its earlier efforts.

There’s a highly unusual RX-7 Mk2 Cabriolet parked alongside a proper time-warp Mk1 model with under 1,000 miles on the clock.

But of more interest to me is the Porter Cab that Mazda has converted into a cute coffee van, and with an Americano served it’s time to read up on our next stop – Bourne Road Garage.

Thriving operation

Bourne Road Garage’s life in the automotive scene began when Edwin Henry Braddon, grandfather of present owner Peter, bought the site on April 1, 1938.

He soon moved his engineering works and haulage business from Waterside in Crayford to Bourne Road and built a thriving operation.

By the Sixties, the business had ventured into car retailing and stocked Ford’s latest models, including the Anglia, Cortina and blocky Zephyr Mk4.

The story really gets going in 1972 when Bourne Road Garage became a fully fledged dealership, complete with a showroom and parts department.

After a brief affair with Datsun, Bourne Road Garage selected a franchise with Mazda and there began a relationship that has lasted half a century and counting.

It also had a franchise with the East German carmaker Wartburg and operated a sister dealership – Nuxley Road Garage, Belvedere – where it sold Polski Fiats and, later, Subarus, Isuzus and then Daihatsus.

Pulling up outside, it’s immediately clear this is a dealership that has no wish to be a glass-fronted corporate showroom that occupies many a busy street.

Bourne Road Garage wears all the latest Mazda signs but its low-slung stature and diminutive size give a welcoming feel.

There’s even a pair of listed lampposts from the local Princesses’ Theatre at the entrance, which were saved from the scrap man by the Braddon family when the theatre was demolished in the 1960s. Bourne Road Garage isn’t like most other dealerships.

The RX-3’s loud exhaust causes the showroom staff to leave their desks and come and take a look at the noisy arrival.

Bourne Road Garage staff pose for a team photo to celebrate its 50th anniversary

Bourne Road Garage staff pose for a team photo to celebrate its 50th anniversary

One of them is managing director/company secretary Andrew Mooresmith, who remembers the dealership selling used RX-3s in the late-1970s. But before I can ask some questions, he’s whisked inside to see the boss.

As manufacturer MDs go, Mazda’s Jeremy Thomson is one of the most humble and charming you’ll find, so it’s no surprise he’s made the drive over to Bourne Road Garage to hand over a smart trophy celebrating the garage’s 50 years of Mazda trading.

After the snaps with the team are taken, Thomson explains to me why having dealers such as Bourne Road Garage is so important to Mazda Motors UK.

‘These guys are tremendous,’ he beams. ‘The services they offer are almost of the traditional type which isn’t always apparent in modern retailing.

‘The customers and the staff are multi-generational and you get such a real experience of longevity and continuity here – that’s how you build recommendation and advocacy.

‘It’s something that’s very easily overlooked, especially in aftersales, and these guys do it brilliantly because they’ve got a lot of history with Mazda and they’ve got the connections.’

That passion but also breadth of experience from the dealer helps when the cars you’re selling are different from the run-of-the-mill variety.

Andrew Mooresmith. left, receives the trophy from Jeremy Thomson

Andrew Mooresmith. left, receives the trophy from Jeremy Thomson

‘At times, some of what we do is very mainstream, but a lot of the time it’s quite counter-mainstream,’ says Thomson.

‘Take the Mazda MX-5 – it’s in a world where pretty much all affordable two-seaters have disappeared, and it’s a tough market to be in.

‘Rotary is another good example – and we’ll see rotary again in the not-too-distant future – as it’s a very specific technology for Mazda, and for sales staff to talk comfortably about it to customers and educate them about the technology is very important.’

Long service

Andrew Mooresmith has been at Bourne Road Garage for an astonishing 42 years.

He’s one of two staff members who have clocked up 40-plus years, and over a third of the employees have been at the garage for more than 20 years.

Collectively, Bourne Road Garage staff have an incredible 340 years of experience between them.

In that time, he has worked his way up from parts assistant to parts manager and aftersales manager right up to his present role of MD and company secretary.

He’s a good person to take a temperature check of the business, and I ask if in these days of changing automotive retail landscapes Bourne Road Mazda is worried by the large dealer groups.

‘You’ve got to keep doing what you do best,’ he smiles. ‘And what we have – and they [large franchised groups] don’t always have – is the family business culture.

‘That’s the difference. From my point of view, if I go back to a shop and it’s the same faces working there, it gives me confidence – they must be doing something right.’

And Bourne Road Garage has many loyal customers.

‘It’s wonderful when people write in telling us they’ve had a great experience with us.

‘One of our customers sadly gave up driving recently, and she wrote a lovely letter and came and visited us with biscuits and sweets for the staff, thanking us for 30 years of service to her.’

We take a look around the RX-3, which has now been parked inside the showroom for the 50-year celebrations.

Joining us is sales director Garth Vincer, who’s a relative newbie with just 22 years at Bourne Road under his belt, and the RX-3 takes Mooresmith right back to his early days in the Seventies.

‘In those days, the customer would come in and would, more or less, say “I’d like to buy a car, can you help and can I buy one?”

‘It’s so different today where the customer is more likely to say “I’ve shopped around and what’s your best deal?”

Batch with Garth Vincer

Batch chats with sales director Garth Vincer

‘Back then, people were just blown away by Mazda because they had everything as standard, which the Fords didn’t have, and they looked good, too.

‘The typical scenario would be the customer would have been to a dealership [selling a traditional British brand] in Bexley village, and then they would pop over here and look at this new Japanese brand to see what it was all about.

‘There was also the reliability effect.

‘If you went to the Ford showroom, quite often there would be a drip tray underneath the car to catch the oil! We just believed Mazda was a more exciting and innovative brand, and we thought we’d put our future with them.’

When Vincer joined Bourne Road, the Mazda brand was in quite a different place compared with the days of the RX-3.

‘I remember the first car I sold – it was a 626 and you could have driven around in it stark naked and no-one would have paid you any attention. Is it a Ford? Is it a Vauxhall?

‘We’d just had Xedos 6, Xedos 9 and MX-6 and then the styling went off a cliff – but I still managed to sell around 130 cars that first year.’

For Vincer, it was the Mazda 6 of 2002 that got the manufacturer back on track – and the brand hasn’t looked back since, he says.

The Mazda RX-3 at Bourne Road Garage

Journey’s end… The Mazda RX-3 at Bourne Road Garage

Bourne Road Garage’s key to success is a simple one, he believes. It’s about making the car-buying experience easy.

‘We don’t put people under pressure – we just don’t have that sales ethos and the business isn’t built on that. It’s instilled right from the beginning – it should be easy, easy, easy.

‘Give the customers choice and let it flow.

‘When a customer is in that environment where you’ve given them space, it’s great. And for the sales staff, because of the experience they have, they’re empowered to make the decisions themselves.

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‘From a customer’s perspective, they’re dealing with one salesperson. And when they come in again they’ll see the same people working here.

‘We’re not like the big dealer groups who can exercise corporate muscle; we have to use our brain. We go back to the basic principle of keeping it very simple, and people buy a car from people.’

Pictures: Dave Smith

James Batchelor's avatar

James – or Batch as he’s known – started at Car Dealer in 2010, first as the work experience boy, eventually becoming editor in 2013. He worked for Auto Express as editor-at-large and was the face of Carbuyer’s YouTube reviews. In 2020, he went freelance and now writes for a number of national titles and contributes regularly to Car Dealer. In October 2021 he became Car Dealer's associate editor.

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