Investment column: Inchcape

THERE'S BEEN so much toing and froing at Inchcape that making comparisons with the past is a tricky business. The group has now almost completed its transformation into a pure car dealer - sorry, automobile services business.

The group yesterday sought to convince investors its markets were about to turn. They couldn't get any worse; the Hong Kong car market fell 34 per cent in the period, and Latin America plunged 45 per cent. With three- quarters of group sales sourced overseas, Inchcape has taken a battering.

In the UK, sales were affected by Inchcape's refurbishment of 47 of its 57 dealerships. The aim is to lift margins here from 8 per cent to 12 per cent.

Inchcape says the real driver of earnings growth will be recovery in its markets. It has also extended its range of related motor sales services. Naturally it has gone on to the Internet, and wholly owns the UK website of Autobytel, the US online motor trader, which has 350,000 regular users.

WestLB Panmure expects pre-tax profits of pounds 87m and earnings of 60.4p this year, rising to pounds 93.5m and 63.6p next. That is hardly stunning earnings growth and given Inchcape's markets, the shares are unlikely to motor forward for some time.