The Trader and The Smallest Room

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

(c) Car

Once upon a time, a man wished to buy a car. This wasn’t his first purchase; no, he was experienced at this game. But this was new to him. A newspaper, nay, phone book thick weekly publication, chock full of tiny pictures, reliable information and the sellers telephone number. Buying, and indeed selling cars just got a whole lot easier. And where better to keep this fantastic tome other than the gentlemen’s water closet?

Robert John Hurst adopted his stepfather’s surname of Madejski and was on a family holiday in Florida in the mid-seventies when he came across a local car sales magazine containing pictures of the vehicles on sale. Inspired, he took up the idea with business partners Paul Gibbons and Peter Taylor upon his return, founding the Thames Valley Trader in 1976. This paper sold anything – cars, boats, planes – the kitchen sink.

Realising that cars held more sway, expansion and a name change were key to success. And lo, the Home Counties were joined by leagues of purchasers in far flung southern based counties. By 1983, they had joined forces with the Guardian Media Group, who had plans to launch a similar Trader venture up North, to create regional variations. It took until 1988 to amalgamate these separate entities into one colossal tome, coining the name Auto Trader. By 1995, Ireland came under the fold, which helped amass sales at its peak during the Millennium year of 368,000 copies per week.

Every Thursday morning, men could be seen at newsagents across the land buying their fags and the Trader in preparation for their daily ablutions and their fifteen (and frequently more) minutes of circling interesting cars in biro. Auto Trader became an institution – alphabetically arranged, bargain basement section, the local dealers – car buying had become easy.

My working career began in a paper mill. In that first week I witnessed several arguments with colleagues over who was buying what, why, how much for and ‘don’t tell the wife’, all after a trip to the loo. To cap it all, someone had the temerity to remove the car buying bible just as the big boss fancied a gander during his toilet break. To my knowledge no-one was reprimanded and the mills manager had a new-ish XJ6 parked in his reserved place not long after. Status quo maintained.

By 1998, Madejski was out of the scene, selling his publishing company Hurst for over £170M. The Trader however continued to grow. Occasionally late to the news-stand owing to mechanical breakdowns at the printers, a consequence of its sheer size. Adverts had grown from literally thumbnail to approximately an inch width. With caveat emptor, buying and selling advice at the front, ads for insurance and registration plates and all those other related sundries at the back, The Trader had it covered.

(c) Speed

Then, of course, the internet struck. Quick to hitch a lift on this new bandwagon, beating Google to the net by two years, a website appeared but the printed periodical rolled on. Although the writing was on the wall it still took years for the print and the screen versions to begin their separation. For younger readers or those not au fait with life before the World Wide Web, this may all seem like a bad fairytale. As computers were not as accessible as popping to the newsagents, the status quo remained until the final issue was printed on 28th June 2013. The Trader had gone over lock, stock or nearest offer to the electronic world.

No longer was it just the likes of Dave selling his pristine Rover 200 for genuine reasons – those rust bedevilled, mechanical misanthropes could now be easily weeded out and dismissed. The main dealers and car supermarkets realised the benefits of the coverage: with but a click, dozens of quality pictures would immerse you in used car nirvana. From 2011, new cars could be had, too. The net cast ever further.

These days of course anything can be bought online. Manufacturers offering easy configuration and then new car delivery to your door. But the Trader retains a strong presence even with progressive attacks on its once protected borders. In many ways, the passing of the paper copy was not only inevitable but wholeheartedly beneficial. The pictures were too small, there was often just the one view of the car and did you really want to visit Dave at six on a rainy evening, thirty miles away? A car is our second most expensive purchase, they deserved better.

A current Auto Trader ad. Check out that lens flare!

The Trader certainly helped me buy a couple of motors, way back in 1991 and ‘94 respectively. The Metro and Vauxhall Nova were advertised in glorious black and white but at local dealers I may not have otherwise visited. Job done, sale(s) made. And the Fiesta Mk6 on the forecourt had a higher windscreen price than was advertised on the Trader – leaving the dealership no option but to sell it me a grand cheaper. Result.

Nowadays a click and swipe, back in the day it was part of the fun not only to find but then re-find the car of your dreams in the paper on page 137 (or was it 157…?) before your tea break was up. This opened the floodgates of not only finding Dave’s place but then haggling – a skill barely used now I suspect.

But one attribute is eternal; patrons of all ages, ensconced in the confines of the smallest room, phone or tablet held with incredulity with an under breath utterance of, How much…?! Fairy tales can come true.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

7 thoughts on “The Trader and The Smallest Room”

  1. Good morning Andrew, and thanks for sharing the history of an institution that is so familiar to anyone with an interest in cars that we probably just take it for granted. I have to confess that I rarely paid the print edition much attention (and had no idea it was such popular reading during ‘comfort’ breaks!) but I do recall that it was a frequent cause of lunchtime congestion in WH Smith.

    The website is always an interesting place to research second-hand values (or at least asking prices, not always the same thing) and can be fun to do some fantasy shopping: “Just how cheaply could I pick up a Lamborghini Gallardo?” is a question I’ve asked myself more than once in my less sane moments.

  2. I was a sometime purchaser of Autotrader and remain a regular visitor to the website, but somehow the final collector’s edition passed me by…

    The online operation now faces myriad competitors, from more specialist operations like Pistonheads or classic car classifieds at one end, to generic sites like eBay and gumtree at the other.

    I find it easier to trust a seller who has gone to the effort of listing their car on Autotrader, but maybe that’s just me. It’s certainly a great way of wasting precious time. Did you know that a BMW i8 loses almost half its value in a year?

  3. I remember the printed tomb well. I bought and sold several cars that way. I used to take my car to their office so they could photograph it, way before digital photography made such things much easier. In this modern world I now have AutoTrader’s app saved on my phone and have several wish list cars saved and get regular notifications of potential purchases pinging on my phone. Does anyone remember Exchange and Mart? Now that was a good read every week 👍🏻

  4. Yes Tim, I certainly recall Exchange and Mart. I remember in the early 60’s my father using it to source an exhaust manifold for his pre-war, daily driver Armstrong Siddley. I used it myself in the late 60’s to buy camping equipment, outdoor clothing and parts for my MG TC, also a daily driver. I seem to recall that many items did not quite meet expectations! Still it was a fascinating read.

  5. I Live in Oxford so Thames Valley was our local edition, I can remember paying 35p for it.
    Loved Exchange and Mart with all the adverts for re conditioned engines which you very
    rarely see now and regular trade advertisers like Cory motors for cracked BMW cylinder
    head replacements and Rover parts at I think Holt near Norwich for 6 cylinder Rover SD1
    heads and replica glass fibre Vitesse spoilers
    Great days

  6. Interesting piece Andrew but I have never bought or sold a car through the paper version as far as I can remember. Weird but true.
    Thank goodness for t’internet though. Bought and sold a few there in my time…

    1. I tried to sell a couple of cars through Auto trader back in the magazine days, but got fed up with time-wasters either not turning up or trying to low-ball me. Both cars were fairly priced, meticulously maintained and in really excellent condition. Since then I’ve simply sold to a friendly local mechanic/dealer who gives me a fair trade price without any of the hassle.

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