It's always sad when a local business closes down, even sadder when it's a business you can relate to. It's really sad, certainly for people like us, when the local business is a garage.
It is, however, absolutely devastatingly tragic when a local business closes down that has actually held a tiny space in your heart for dozens of years. In my case, the Ford dealership that was at the centre of my world of cars since I was four years old, has finally bitten the dust.
In 1985 my grandparents gave my Dad a Ford Cortina for Christmas. Pretty soon after that, the word Motorcraft entered my vocabulary; that unmistakable brand name and logo, the GT40 in flight, in orange and black, that would grace every boxed oil filter, every bottle of fluid. It was, of course, the moniker under which all genuine Ford spares are sold. And you buy them from your local Ford dealer.
Ours was Westwood and Clark, Valleybridge Road, Clacton-On-Sea. Sounds idyllic, doesn't it? Well, apart from the Clacton-On-Sea bit. This was our local Ford dealership. We would abbreviate it to Westwoods in conversation, and it became a popular leisure haunt for my Father and I.
In the 80s my parents weren't especially aspirational; they worked hard, no question about that, Mum as a teacher and Dad as an explosives engineer, and Ford was their brand. No particular reason for it, it just felt like home. The next time we would get a new car, it would be a new Ford. That was just the way things were. Consequently, quite often we would “have a look around Westwoods” on the way home from a Clacton supermarket shopping trip.
And every time it would go roughly the same way. Mum would occasionally come into the showroom, but would usually sit outside in the car, listening to Atlantic 252 on the MW/LW radio (model P21 if you were wondering). They called the operation Westwood & Clark Motorworld, and it was about as exciting as this seven or eight year old could imagine. Dad and I would salivate over the exciting offerings within; maybe there had been a new model launch, with bunting and special point of sale materials gushing over the new wrap-around front indicators of the facelifted Sierra, or its homofocal headlight lenses.
And, of course, there were the brochures, all of which I still have, providing they escaped the great Maternal Clear-Out of '93. Westwood And Clark were a proud firm, their brochures were almost always stamped or stickered with the company details. Virtually all of my Ford collection proudly bears the details of the great Clacton institution, subtly changing over the years until reaching an apogee in 1996, when a golden ribbon marked the seventieth anniversary of the franchise.
That year was when I did my “work experience” at secondary school. I was desparate that my fortnight of unpaid work should have something to do with cars, and I was completely delighted to see Westwood and Clark on the list of work experience providers. I applied for three of the positions, hoping to end up with the sales team and their shiny showroom of delight. I ended up with my third choice, in the workshop; not the Ford one where they carried out PDI work on glamorous new Scorpios and Mondeos (!), but the one next door where they did routine maintenance on any old shitter that drives up. They called it Rapid Fit.
I gained a whole lot of memories from that fortnight. I remember a metallic blue Escort that came in for an MOT, failing spectacularly. The defiant owner claimed to be an ex-welder, but that must have been an extremely long time ago if judged by the state of the car. On top of the structural deficiencies there was paint overspray on the tyres and windows, and all over the indicator lenses. But the crowning glory was the '80s analogue Pioneer stereo, mounted neatly in its DIN slot in the dash, neatly, but upside-down.
I remember being introduced to the now familiar sport of leading young, impressionable and naïve people completely up the garden path. People joke of being asked to “go to the stores for a Long Stand” and the likes; and I kind of knew they were taking the piss when they asked me to go to the parts department and ask for “a bucket of wet labia”. I'm embarrassed to admit that I wouldn't know what that meant for at least another two years.
I remember the staff, for the most part, and their dry, nee caustic sense of humour. Kelvin was the most approachable; you could speak to all of them if you were wary and kept your armour up, although none of them would win any awards for patience or understanding. I remember being berated for having “done a shit job” of painting the safety barriers on one of the hydraulic lifts. I felt deeply wounded, I thought I'd done as good a job as was likely considering I'd never painted anything like that in my life and that nobody had shown me what to do in the first place.
But most of all I remember my disappointment at how my stint at the dealership ended, come six o'clock on the last Friday of the fortnight. I had finished my day by trying to clean a sump off in the solvent bath, I was taking my time, expecting somebody to sidle up to me and tell me I could stop, thank me and wish me luck in my future endeavours. Maybe give me a little something, my work overall perhaps; as a memento.
It didn't happen.
Every day, for two weeks, I left the house at 7:30 in the morning and cycled the twelve miles along the sea wall and into Clacton to get to “work” at 8:30, and every evening I'd finish at 18:00 and arrive home, exhausted and unpaid, at 19:00. And as far as I could see at the conclusion of my time there; nobody really gave a shit.
I guess you could say that my work experience at Westwood & Clark actually taught me an invaluable life lesson, especially for all the cynics out there; be prepared for the possibility that, despite all your hard work and diligence, there's a strong chance that people won't really care.
In 1998 the name Westwood & Clark sadly disappeared from the telephone directories, Dutton Forshaw moved in on all the Ford Dealerships along the A12 corridor and swallowed them up, aligning Westwoods with the other seven dealers in the county and putting them all under one name; Dovercourt. Now, this was a strange thing to handle, initially, as Dovercourt is a town ten miles from Clacton, and to have Dovercourt Ford of Clacton was a weird old concept, but it soon etched itself into the conscience and became accepted. Albeit we would still habitually refer to the dealership as Westwoods, for evermore.
My parents bought two cars from Dovercourt, the Mondeo V6 and the Ka, the latter of which they still have and never, ever intend to get rid of until its body has turned to orange dust in its entirety. The Dovercourt-branded number plates are still present, and the Dovercourt; the home of Ford in Essex sticker only recently went adrift.
It was only fairly recently that I realised how many people the dealership really has affected, when I found that my girlfriends best mate, and many of her friends had worked there at some point in their lives. Ford in Clacton, in any of its guises, was a major employer in the local area. For many families it was a provider of not just cars and transportation, but of bread, milk, shelter and warmth.
It was a sudden change when, recently, the Dovercourt name disappeared too, to be be replaced by the somewhat anonymous “lookers”. Here was a name that was established for miles around, but felt alien and had none of the “family” feel of Dovercourt or dear old Westwoods. And it is, therefore especially sad that that name should be the last one the old buildings will ever wear. The dealership, now awaiting demolition, has closed its doors after 85 years of selling Ford cars and Vans.
Big Corporation has allegedly decided that centralisation is the name of the game. The rumour is that they deem that closing their Clacton operation will simply move customers in the direction of their Colchester branch, fifteen miles up the road. It's a sad way to treat a business that has meant so much to so many people, for so long a time.
RIP Ford In Clacton.