A driving force

His everyday vehicle of choice is a sleek but eminently practical and comfortable, two year-old Citroen C5 estate: pretty much what you might expect the owner of the Island’s main Citroen dealership to be driving.

But you might also catch sight of Central Garage boss Roger Sixsmith behind the wheel of an altogether different type of motor – an American World War Two Jeep.  He’s been driving a whole series of these classic military vehicles since the 1960s, and says they feed his love for character vintage motors.  We spoke to Roger about his lifetime in the motor trade, and how it’s all changed in the last half century.

As often happens, the early signs of Roger Sixsmith’s future career path were clear to see, even in his schooldays.

He’d ruled out a life in the air after spending time as a cadet in the school Combined Cadet Force (CCF) and deciding that the Air Force wasn’t going to be the career for him.

But when he discovered that the Army section of the Cadets was running an old, pre-war Ford 8, that really sparked his interest – and prompted him to switch to the CCF’s Army section.

In fact, during his last year at school, he and a group of his 17 year-old mates clubbed together the-then hefty sum of half a crown each (now the equivalent of 12.5 pence) to buy an old Ford of their own, which they promptly stripped of its body, pushed across the A4 to Marlborough Downs, and ran around there to their hearts’ content.

Forget ‘Elf’n’Safety’ – in those more liberal and free-wheeling days, the schoolmasters knew all about the lads’ extra-curricular activity and simply regarded it as part of their education.

It certainly proved to be a valuable part of Roger’s, because he decided not to continue with his A-level studies and, encouraged by his dad, started to seek out an apprenticeship in the motor trade.

“I was one of three brothers and because our father had lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s, we were all encouraged to get into good, solid trades rather than going to university” he says.

Which suited Roger down to the ground – especially when he managed to secure a four-year Technical Apprenticeship with the iconic Jaguar motor company in Coventry.

It fuelled his love of all things automotive, and firmly set him on his future course.

Taking flight

After undergoing such a prestigious grounding in his chosen trade, Roger was frustrated to find that at the end of his four year apprenticeship in 1967, there were no suitable vacancies at the Jaguar factory – and indeed, few jobs to be had in the UK motor industry.

Whilst during the 1950s, the UK had been the second-largest manufacturer of cars in the world (after the US), the 60s saw considerably lower growth, as competitor countries such as France, Germany and Japan began to develop their car markets.

Undaunted, the 22 year-old Roger promptly took his skills Down Under, and worked in Australia, where one of his brothers had already emigrated.

“My dad paid the fare for me to go and while it was a good experience to have had, I never really felt that Australia was for me” he recalls.

So, once back in the UK, he had to re-think .  All he knew was that motors were still his passion, and so in the absence of any mechanical jobs, he applied for a sales position with a Jaguar and British Leyland dealership in Haywards Heath.

And when he wasn’t selling cars, he kept himself busy as a member of the local motor club, marshalling at rallies and doing auto tests.

Fateful meeting

It was at the motor club that Roger first met Ron Truscott – who was later to become his business partner on the Isle of Wight.

At that time, Ron owned a small, single-seater Cooper racing car and was looking for someone to mechanic for him in return for a drive of the car.  For Roger, it was a dream deal which gave him the chance to get his hands back not just into an engine but behind the wheel of an iconic race car.

What he didn’t realise was that it would also lead to a massive and life-changing business opportunity for him.

That happened after Ron Truscott had supposedly ‘retired’ to the Isle of Wight in 1970.

“He just phoned me up one day and said he’d seen a garage for sale at Avenue Road in Freshwater and would I like to go halves with him and buy it” recalls Roger.

It didn’t take them long to agree the details, and that initial investment of £10,000 each was what brought Roger – on Boxing Day 1970 and at the age of just 25 – to the Island that has been his home ever since.

He and Ron opened up on January 2nd 1971 and took on an agency for Daf, the Dutch brand that was later taken over by Volvo.

Business went so well for them that by 1975, they had undertaken the build of a brand new garage and re-located to the present site in Newport.

“Ron had also been a property developer in his previous life” says Roger, “and he felt that the place for us to be was right in the centre of the Island”.

It was around this time that Daf was incorporated into Volvo – a brand that did particularly well on the Island, and with which Central Garage enjoyed huge success until 1982.

Around that time, trading conditions for new cars began changing after a series of financial episodes that had included an oil crisis, three-day week and a recession.

“Volvo’s approach changed and there was increasing pressure on us as dealers to be heavily borrowed and focus on the larger cars” says Roger.

In that situation, he and Ron took the decision to resign the dealership and strike up a deal with a contact in Germany to supply them with second-hand Volvos.

This trade in used Volvos proved massively successful for them on the Island –  at least, until the next recession hit in the late 80s to early 90s.

“Things were going haywire at that stage, and the motor trade was altering rapidly, with more emphasis on customer satisfaction and service rather than selling high volumes” Roger explains.

“We were still selling Volvos, and also did some servicing work, but there was a local Volvo dealership for the new vehicles”.

French foray

So it was that in 1990, Central Garage started to turn towards the smaller car market and French brand Citroen, who at that time were just launching the ZX.

They expanded the garage into an additional building at the rear, and in 1991, became a Citroen dealership.  Subsequently, that has gone from strength to strength, to the point where the original two-man business that started with a £20,000 investment is now a major Island brand with 22 employees, turning over around £6m a year.

Ron Truscott had already retired by the time the garage went to Citroen – having sold his shareholding in the mid-80s to the man who became Roger’s second business partner Stuart Border.

Roger and Stuart enjoyed a long and successful partnership until three years ago when Stuart also retired and sold to current partner in the business, Gary Spencer.

But so far, there’s no sign of Roger wanting to retire and leave behind the business he has loved and nurtured for close to half a century.

At 71, he may have stepped back from full-time involvement and just work half the week, but he’s still very much involved in the business and gets a real buzz from continually moving it forward.

For instance, having become established as main dealer for Citroen and its sister brand DS Automobiles, it would have been easy to let Central Garage rest on its laurels, but instead, Roger and Gary began looking for a additional position in the SUV and four wheel drive market.  Hence, a few months ago,  they took on an additional franchise with premium Japanese brand Subaru.

“It’s certainly a lot different from the old days, when a new Daf 33 sold for just £695” says Roger.  “The lowest-price C1 we sell today is £7,795.

“Cars have become more like white goods these days.  People just buy them and use them, and will rarely, if ever, lift the bonnet themselves. Partly they don’t want to but also it’s down to the superior technology, and engine management systems.  There’s very little they would be able to do even if they did lift the bonnet, as most of the engine parts are covered by plastic”.

He says people buy cars differently too:  instead of trawling round four or five showrooms on a weekend, most car buyers these days turn to the Internet and do online research.

“I’m a bit old-fashioned when it comes to car buying though, and believe that you can’t really see if a car suits you without first trying it out for the ride, handling, and seats, and checking it to see whether your dog and your luggage will fit in the back”.

The fun factor

For Roger, the ‘fun days’ of motoring will always be back in the 60s and 70s, which might explain his ongoing love affair with World War II Jeeps, of which he has owned a whole series since the mid-60s.

In 1964 he could buy one for £35 but, especially since the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the classic old Jeeps have become sought-after collector vehicles, with price tags to match.

He still has one he bought in 1972 that he wouldn’t part with for any price:  he restored it and ran around in it for 16 years until it literally stopped.  Then it was mothballed from 1988 until he restored it again in 2013, stripping it back to the chassis and re-building and renovating it for the second time, so that in May 2014 he and his wife Beverley were able to take it across the Channel and drive it around to the big D-Day celebrations in France, stopping off at iconic sites including Bayeux, Pegasus Bridge, Utah Beach and Mulberry Harbour.

“It hadn’t turned a wheel between 1988 and 2014, but it drove us perfectly around France” says Roger, with obvious pride.

Last year, he and Beverley were on the road again in their trusty Jeep, visiting the Guernsey Liberation celebrations, and then earlier this year they were among the 70,000 people at the biggest-ever gathering of ex-military vehicles from all over Europe, at Hop Farm near Tunbridge in Kent.

Apart from all the Jeeps he’s owned, the other car that holds a fond place in Roger’s memory is the Lotus 7 he built himself from a kit in 1969.

“That was probably my favourite car, certainly the most exciting one I’ve ever had” he says wistfully.

Sadly, he sold it to raise some of the cash he needed to move to the Isle of Wight.

“An awful mistake” he says.

And by that, he means selling the Lotus, not moving to the Island.

“No, I could never regret that” he says.  “The Island is a wonderful place, and people who have lived here all their lives are so lucky.  I’d always encourage youngsters to get off for a while and open themselves to new experiences and new friends – but ultimately there’s no better place to come back to!”