Jokes and county prejudices aside, Essex really is a land of car dealers, both new and second hand. Take a stroll along the main drag at Leigh-on- Sea and you will find car showroom butting into car showroom, a continuous strip of motors from pounds 50 Ladas to sky-limited Mercs and BMWs. This plethora of dealers means that competition to "shift metal" is more intense than a grand prix duel between Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher; and that towns like Leigh-on-Sea are a car buyer's paradise. The choice is vast, prices are low and dealers have to work hard for a living. Things were very different seven or eight years ago when the Thatcher- Lawson bubble had yet to burst. Essex, land of lager and money (loads of it), was the Prime Minister's favourite county, an economy of opportunity (not problems), a place where there was no such thing as society, only families and individuals living out the libertarian Tory dream. Along with the heavily mortgaged Joke Oak or Neo-Geo pile, the natty double- breasted whistle (for New Lads made good in the deregulated City of London) and padded-shouldered power suits (for Essex girls), the key status symbol was a smart motor. Not any motor, mind, but a Cosworth Sierra with a wing at the back that made the Batmobile look tame. For the Essex girl, a soft- top Bimmer (BMW) was the business, while absolutely everyone aspired to a Porsche 911.
The biggest boom of all, though, was in the sale of "Rollers". Where once the Rolls-Royce was the preserve of the reticent rich, a horseless carriage for the upper classes, in Eighties Essex it was the status symbol for self-made commercial heroes. Essex dealers did good business selling purple Rolls-Royces with white leather upholstery and gold-plated mascots to brickies, plasterers, financial advisers and DIY merchants.
Those were the glory days for Essex car dealers. They could afford to be the butt of jokes then. Now, life is hardly a barrel of laughs. The first thing to go when the P45s took wing in 1989 and the Essex economy nose-dived was the flash motor. Dealers who made a bundle selling Jaguars and BMWs in the Eighties are now trading in Metros and Fiestas; punters who might once have been lured into rash purchases have learnt a new caution.
Meet today's dealers face-to-face, and suspicions that they might be a bunch of wide boys, out to trick you out of your hard-earned dosh and con you into buying a nice little motor (one lady owner, never raced, never rallied... ) that will grind to a halt on the way home prove groundless. The cowboys have either gone out of business or else pretend to be private sellers and flog cars from home. You should always be able to tell a dodgy dealer: he knows bugger-all about the car's history, is always in a hurry, can never find reverse gear, puts ads in Exchange & Mart with the pugnacious warning "No Time Wasters" and talks in jargon current only at car auctions and garage forecourts (engines are "mills" or "lumps", money comes in Arthur Daley units - "monkeys" and "ponies" - and the dullest cars have noble attributes, "honesty" chief among them). Dodgy dealers move pitch frequently (normally when the rates are due), and continue to "clock" cars in the time-honoured fashion.
What all this means is that the Essex dealers with proper premises who have survived the recession are probably as decent a bunch of lads and lasses as you can hope to meet at the tail pipe of Mrs Thatcher's Britain. You might even buy a second-hand car from them. ADRIAN LYONS, Auto Car Exchange, Westcliff-on-Sea: 'There's this Bermuda Triangle of punters out there on the London Road. I mean, they come in, poke around and then they say, "I'm just going to the cash machine", or "I'll have a think and come back", and they never do. Where do they go? Do they ever actually buy a motor? They might be with the opposition, of course; competition is tough now, and there's not so much money about as there usd to be. Look at me: I used to drive big Yanks in the Eighties. Pretty plebby, you might think today, but times have changed; I'm driving around in a G-plated Colt Gallant GLS now, after 26 years in the car business, although I've still got a Cosworth Sierra for the high days and holidays. BMWs? Forget it. I'm selling perfectly decent Metros and Fiestas for pounds 295'
CAROL REDGEWELL, The Garage, Great Bardfield: 'We sell classic cars, which means anything interesting over 10 years old. Some people wonder why we had a 1980 Escort in the showroom recently, but it had only done 1,800 miles, so it was rather special. People come from all over the country to buy from us. They know all about the cars and so we've always told the truth. Anyway, our reputation depends on pleasing enthusiasts and collectors. I don't know how to put pressure on people to buy cars. I just tell them the facts. Usually, we get such talkative people in here that I hide in the office. I don't object to what the trade calls time wasters; after all, they might go and tell a friend about a car and next week we make a sale. We're just nice to people, and, as the cars are such lovely things, they almost sell themselves'
DAVID BIDWELL, Ashdon Motors, Ashdon: 'Customers will haggle to the point where there's no profit left in the metal you're trying to shift. You don't haggle over a loaf of bread in Tesco, but it's what you do when you buy a car. Not very English, haggling, but when it comes to cars, especially second-hand ones, it's what you do. It's an expensive business if you get it wrong. Still, I'm in a nice village, and on a sunny day I like to see a car going out looking shiny and new. I still get a buzz from that'
MICHAEL BATCHELOR, Wenden Garage, Wendens Ambo: 'If you have a flash car today you're putting yourself above the horizon and risking getting it nicked. I think we'll get to the point where ownership doesn't matter and we'll all hire or lease cars. That way we'd all get a decent motor and not have to worry about status. But it's still true that people expect to get a car for next to nothing And everyone reckons the car they're selling is worth a small fortune. Nothing much changes that way, does it?'
JULIAN CLEMENTS, Cowells of Great Dunmow: 'We're very much the local garage. We service ambulances and cars for the MoD police, so we have to do a good job, don't we? We also sell to retired people - people like to retire to Essex because nothing much happens here. We sell three or four cars a week; to be honest, there's no need for the hard sell. I suppose this is the gentle end of the trade. I earn a proper salary, so I don't have to be as pushy as the dealers working purely on commission'
GERALD CAPPS, independent Rolls-Royce dealer, Great Bardfield: 'The culture of this country has changed, and not for the better. People used to respect a Rolls-Royce. Today, you see them keyed by lazy, jealous people. But the Rolls customer has changed, too. I can sell you a perfect 1973 Silver Shadow II for pounds 8,500 - Ford Sierra money. You ought to have a look at this Silver Shadow II, air-conditioning, velour seats, 120,000 miles on the clock. You won't regret it. Don't let them key it, though'
RICHARD HOWARD, Porsche Lancaster Garages, Colchester: 'Let's face it, a lot of people were chasing rainbows in the late Eighties; Porsches were the car for Yuppies with too much money and perhaps too little sense. Everyone's learnt about the value of money now, so the market is smaller, but steady. We sell one new and three second-hand a week. Competition? Not really. We sell to people who know what they want. Sure, I drive one. I used to sell Volvos, so the thrill of a Porsche has yet to wear off'
JOHN RAYNHAM, Raynham & Co, Saffron Walden: 'We're all judged by the worst, my old dad used to say; but the recession has done for most of the cowboys. Dad set up in 1919 and I've been here since 1953. Times are hard now, so we run taxis, a driving school and a pair of minibuses. We used to be a real market town. The farmers brought the cows in on Tuesdays, I'd chat to them about this and that and eventually they'd buy a car. Now I spend more time on the telephone than talking face to face'
BRIAN BAKER, Leigh Car Sales, Leigh-on-Sea: 'Don't do anything for me, cars. I work six or seven days a week, so I don't need a flash motor. Some dealers feels they need to look the part; I'm happy with a diesel Cavalier. I stock about 25 cars, sell two a week. That includes fifty- quid Ladas, so I'm not exactly rolling in it. What's changed? The cars are better, that's what. Any properly serviced modern car will run round the clock and more, even ones that have had women crunching up the gears'
IAN WESTROPE, Westrope Motors, Steeple Bumpstead: 'First appearances are always important, although what matters at the end of the day is that the customer feels he can trust the salesman. It's all very well having pictures of the wife and kids on the showroom desk, but a sense of trust is the key. Human contact, we need more of it. In the Eighties it was easy to sit in the showroom and wait for customers to walk in the door. Now we have to get out and about a bit more, like a family doctor'