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Specialist Visit: IntroCar at Home with Rolls-Royce & Bentley Driver Magazine

Keeping any classic vehicle on the road can mean is no exception. However, we went to visit IntroCar to learn searching for parts and the Rolls-Royce and Bentley market one man’s philosophy that will ensure many more models now have a very positive and secure future.

When the recently graduated philosophy student went for his first day at work at what he later described as a ‘friendly but chaotic’ Rolls-Royce breakers in Kingston back in 1993, his first job was to make the tea. Fast forward to our visit today and John Tupper still makes a very good cup of tea, but as we sit in the IntroCar boardroom, it’s obvious that a lot has changed, much of it driven by a particular philosophy about providing the very best service possible to customers. And it doesn’t take long to realise that it isn’t just an improvement in the location that has made the difference; it goes a lot deeper than that.

The location, however, is interesting in that the IntroCar premises are built on the site of the original Connolly leather factory in south London; known of course, for providing leather to Rolls- Royce Motorcars, and to the British Royal family, so the strong links of the location add an extra ingredient to the story. That area of South Wimbledon has changed beyond recognition over the years, and the IntroCar premises are tucked onto a small industrial estate in a residential area crammed with parked cars and ridiculously busy traffic and seems somewhat incongruous with its purpose of keeping some of the best cars ever built in fine fettle.

IntroCar will soon be celebrating thirty years in the business of spare parts, having been started back in 1988 by Struan Erskine, a man who had spent decades involved in the Rolls-Royce and Bentley business. Erskine was selling Rolls-Royce and Bentley motor cars, often to US customers, which meant he had been trading with spares for a long while and one day realised that he had a significant collection within his garage, leading to the logical development that he could sell these used spares. Of course, it was more than just a simple commercial decision, years of experience in both the Rolls- Royce and the Bentley marque were vital to get IntroCar started. However, back in the late 1980s, the classic car market was very different to what we have today, there weren’t many people around looking after Rolls-Royce owners with spare parts and the business grew. This developed so that the company would buy cars and dismantle them, selling the parts. But today, as Managing Director, John Tupper admits, the actual set-up in the ‘scruffy and chaotic’ Kingston location didn’t appear to have a specific direction, although it was working OK. Tupper, however, had become addicted to the industry and while confessing that when he started work his mechanical and engineering knowledge was limited, he could see that things could grow and develop, but to do so, there needed to be some significant changes, as he explained:

“People would phone up and ask for parts and we’d say, yes, I think we’ve got that and then run out the back to find it and send it out. However, I’d worked my way up from making the tea and packing, doing all the general stuff and into sales and it became obvious that actually the owners of these cars didn’t want second-hand parts as such, but preferred new parts that were both readily available and reasonably priced.”

This had been reflected in that the business had actually been moving away from this and they were buying a lot of new spares from Rolls-Royce dealers as well as finding other spares from different suppliers that would do the same job, selling on to customers. Indeed by 2000, only around 10 per cent of the business was second-hand, which made John Tupper, by then the General Manager looking after all aspects of the company to ask: “Why do people still think of us as car dismantlers?” It also became obvious that there was more money to be made with the new spares, for one thing it was easier than acquiring vehicles and dismantling them, and new products seldom go wrong – not something you can guarantee when you unbolt a part from a crashed or MOT failed vehicle.

The move, therefore, for IntroCar in 2000 was to turn the business into a company that primarily sells new spares, with some used or reconditioned parts to fill in any of the gaps, when needed. To make this happen, IntroCar took over a company called Healey Brothers that had mainly been in the business of manufacturing new spares. This put the company on the right road, but it wasn’t until Tupper was contacted by Pete Buckles (formally of Cox and Buckles, which later became Moss) who offered advice and the all-important introductions to the specialist aftermarket vehicle spares manufacturers. This new association has been hugely beneficial and has transformed the IntroCar business, which has quadrupled in size in the last 10 years and is continuing to grow very fast, over 20 per cent in the last year alone. As John explained:

“We exist because we try to stop people buying used spares. Take brake calipers, no one just puts a used caliper straight on a car. People will spend eighty to two hundred pounds on reconditioning a used caliper, and buying new bits and pieces for it. You will have to clean it, parts of it will be loose, parts of it will be seized. By the time you have done that, logic and maths tell you to put a new one on. Buy a new caliper from us and there’s no surcharges, no exchange units, which is something we have tried to get rid of, since more than 60 per cent of our business is overseas, so exchange parts were a nightmare. Plus, we give a two-year warranty on everything we sell, and for products in our own brand of Prestige Parts, we give three years’ warranty. No-one else does that.”

The example of the calipers is not just that they are new, but that they are built by exactly the same supplier that produces brake calipers for today’s BMWs, and this is where IntroCar differs from other suppliers.

“Ours are made in the very same factory that makes calipers for the BMW production line,” confirms Tupper. “Now the only way to get in there is to place a very large order… well, a large order for us. There are four basic specifications of calipers for models built from 1965 to 2003, and the minimum we order is 500 pairs of each, so in total that’s 4000 calipers at a time. That’s a lot of calipers. But the upshot is that a reconditioned unit will probably cost a customer around £250, whereas we can offer a new manufacturer specification version for £279.”

But throughout the classic car market, there are those who always want to keep their vehicles 100 per cent original, and many Rolls-Royce and Bentley owners are no different, so is there any resistance to buying non-genuine parts? “Absolutely. You have to be honest and say that if an original part is available new and it’s available at a decent price, then that’s everyone’s first call. We stock as many original parts as we can, but we only really exist because some parts are either no longer available or it’s too expensive.

“We have a long-term philosophy here, and that’s what makes us different. Those 4000 calipers may well be 10 years’ stock, but we are prepared to do that. Sometimes you can only get a part made if you are prepared to order enough for 10 years, not everyone will do that, or can do that. We do.”

The long-term philosophy is highlighted by a story that Tupper tells regarding a problem with a fuel sender unit for an early Spirit, which they became aware of from a video on You Tube. A customer had bought the sender from IntroCar, and on the You Tube clip he could be seen throwing it across the garage, because he was so upset with it. The world of social media meant that this was shared and was hardly the kind of publicity any company could want. Ironically, the part was actually bought direct from Bentley’s current supplier, so the unit wasn’t a newly produced IntroCar product, but a piece of original equipment. The casing for this new product was plastic, where in the past it had been metal. The unit was attached to a metal plate, but with the new ‘plastic’ covered version, fitting wasn’t simple; if you were in the industry you knew to take the mounting plate off, make a simple modification to allow the new version to fit correctly. If you didn’t do this, you would have a problem… and a potential fuel leak, hence the original You Tube clip from the angry customer. Once this was discovered, however, Tupper decided to have a new mounting kit made, which they now send out with the official Bentley product, complete with a simple set of instructions. As you can imagine, this completely changed the customer’s view of the company, and any future Facebook posts are now made with that customer clicking ‘Like’…

Issues like this are important to the Rolls-Royce Specialist Association, an important industry body that is now over 30-years old that links all the companies involved in remanufacturing spares. Shared knowledge and experience keeps the standards high, and has over the years kept many a Rolls-Royce and Bentley on the roads that might otherwise have found their way to a dismantler! The RRSA is also valuable to IntroCar when it comes to testing any new products being produced. It is a very collaborative association, despite the obvious commercial pressures that there could be between members, since at the end of the day they are all in the business to be successful and make a profit, but this working together approach appeals to Tupper: “There is a really strong ethic. They are very much about the preservation of the marque, doing things the right way, not the cheapest and often not the easiest. I am very supportive of that association.”

The benefits to making new spare parts is obvious, and explains in simple terms where you find IntroCar in 2017. This philosophy is, however, hugely capital intensive and the company has some £8million of stock on the shelves in South Wimbledon – a figure that would surely have bemused the Connolly brothers working with those hides on the same site at the turn of the century, times have indeed changed.

And that’s never more obvious than when you investigate IntroCar’s website. Obviously, in today’s market you need to be able to buy online but Tupper has taken this beyond what you could expect, as he explained: “We wanted people to buy online, but not just the major parts, we wanted our entire database on there.” Now, if you know the specific part number that you are after, that’s not too difficult and you can search for that and find the ‘live’ availability, and there are 264,000 lines, so that in itself is a massive database. IntroCar goes a step, and it’s a big step, further in having what Tupper calls ‘Look Books’ which are individual web pages direct from the official parts books, with all part numbers linked to the pictures and then linked to IntroCar’s EPOS (electronic point of sale) system. This means that the website and the ordering, sales and dispatch systems have to ‘talk’ to one another, and that’s impressive. IntroCar’s internal EPOS system is in fact the same as that used by the high street retail medical chain Superdrug. Each page has a drawing from the original parts book, some of which are scans from original microfilm. The drawings have a heritage and even on a high-resolution lap top screen still have the glorious texture of what in many cases was a technical drawing done by hand, which allows a customer to link ‘live’ to the IntroCar stores, check availability and buy instantly. When selecting, the customer will be able to see if it is available as a genuine part, an aftermarket option, a Prestige part or even if it is available as a used option. And it’s quite obvious listening to John Tupper explain all this, that it’s something of a personal project, that involves him spending a number of hours each day building.

“My job at IntroCar is like spinning plates, but this is a really nice part of that job. This is my magnum opus. This database has everything, not just all the major parts, which other companies do perfectly well, but this has every nut bolt and washer. That’s the important bit.”

This project was actually launched last year, but IntroCar is a relatively small company, with around 20 employees, and so it is taking Tupper time to build. The company has completed pages for Rolls-Royce and Bentley models built between 1946-1980 and is now working on the period 1980-2003 and they expect to have this classic model section complete by the end of this year, a potential total of some 2700 web pages. He will then move to the more modern options and estimates that in total there will be around 4500/5000 pages – although, of course, it will never actually be finished as new models will continue to be added, and changes made to original stock.

Even if you have no specific need for a spare part, check out this website, since if you have an interest in Rolls- Royce and Bentley engineering, this is a fascinating resource and quite addictive. It’s intuitive and so easy to find what you are looking for. And it’s being built by a relatively small team, with Tupper leading the way and then three other IntroCar staff involved in making sure it is all linked and categorised correctly. Besides being labour intensive, it also needs a significant financial investment, which with a smile Tupper suggests is “probably bonkers for a small company like us.” But it is certainly unique in this industry and will be the bedrock for IntroCar’s future development and it has to be said, for the continued existence and preservation of the global garage of Rolls-Royce and Bentley models.

Tucked away in the popular, yet congested residential area of South Wimbledon, there’s little from the outside that shouts about what is behind the doors at IntroCar. There are three Rolls-Royce and Bentley models in the car park, used as test ‘mules’ for new parts before they are allowed to be on the shelves and sold to customers, but it is all very understated. It is all very different from when that young philosophy student walked through the door to accept the post of tea boy and general dog’s body. But then philosophy is all about wanting to understand how and why people do certain things and how to use that to build a better life. It’s fair to say, therefore, that the influence John Tupper is having on this business is certainly making life better for Rolls-Royce and Bentley owners searching for the correct spare parts to keep their beloved models running smoothly. And the man still knows how to make a decent cup of tea.

www.introcar.co.uk +44 (0) 20 8546 2027 info@introcar.co.uk

 

Tool tray mouldings – the original and the new IntroCar replacement. Rubber tool trays for the Silver Cloud are no longer in production. In order to remanufacture the rubber tray, John Tupper had to locate an original tool kit, which he purchased
for $1600 while travelling in the United States. “We needed original tools to make sure that they would fit perfectly in our new tray” explained John, “then we could make a quality replacement tray.”

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