Captain Moonlight: Chill wind on the forecourt

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IT'S NOT easy, selling second-hand cars. There you are on your windswept forecourt, plastic bunting flapping, motors gleaming; but where are the punters? Rare birds, these days, squire. Bad times. No one so much as kicking a tyre.

And then there's the reputation. Not brilliant before Arthur Daley, and going downhill on a pair of dodgy linings ever since. The last couple of weeks have been typical. First off there were all these reports about the energetic private life of Steven Norris, the transport minister, reports which tended to emphasise, quite gratuitously, that before entering the Commons, Steve, as he was then known, had been in the second-hand car trade. And if that wasn't enough, blow me, on Monday came the news that the Marquess of Blandford had taken up peddling used wheels as well. It's enough to make a double-glazing salesman snigger, it really is.

Daley's imminent retirement is too late. These are not all people in brown hats and fawn coats with a plausible manner. Some of them are sensitive: Tony Mendes, for example, who sells cars at the Car Supermarket, on the Great West Road, looked me straight in the eye and told me the worst part of the job was when the customer didn't trust him. His colleague Mike Murphy said the nastiest thing in his private life was his mortgage, and I believed him.

So I went South, towards Balham and Tooting, legendary haunts of the used motor man. At its gateway, Clapham, the salesmen at McCarthy Cars told me they didn't want to be mentioned in the same piece as someone like the Marquess of Blandford, despite my offer of a plug for the lovely little Honda Legend coupe, super runner, 24 valves, luxury interior, service record, E reg, to you, pounds 5,995.

Steve, in Tooting, on forecourt, outside little hut, was unmoved by either Norris or Blandford. 'Nothing bothers me,' he said. 'I'm skint and that's it. This last month has been so quiet it's untrue.' Eddie turned up. Eddie had been selling cars for more than 10 years but things had got so bad he had now turned to chimney sweeping, and he produced the brush to prove it.

Any advice for Blandford? 'Get them to trust you. Get them to like you,' said Eddie. 'Then do them straight up the bollocks.' Steve said they don't kick tyres so much any more; now it's pressing the back down to check the springs.

'Presentation,' said Bill Gower of Bee Gee Autos, that was the thing. Bill was bucking the trend, selling a lot of used German cars to people in Clapham, so he was wearing a thornproof jacket and striped shirt. Bill was very busy, he had his finger on the button. Tooting-educated. He'd been a child actor, too, in Peter Pan, one of the Lost Boys, understudied Tootles. A bit like acting, selling cars. 'Tell that Blandford to ring me,' said Bill, who had a very tasty BMW, an Alpina, dolphin grey, air con, full history, pounds 12,999, very keen price. 'He'd do well with it,' said Bill.

ONE item you didn't see on Rory Bremner's new Channel 4 show last night was a series of telephone calls to members of the Tory Barmy Tendency by Bremner pretending to be John Major. All collapsed before the charm and authority of Bremner's convincing Major, apparently, and none more so than Sir Richard Body, member for Holland with Boston and Chief Barmy. My sources claim Channel 4 chief Michael Grade declared the tapes intrusive; officially, they didn't work out to Bremner's satisfaction. Perhaps Rory and John should meet, and swap notes, or just swap.

(Photographs omitted)