Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
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.
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.
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.