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Changing Times | Wilmott family had drive to succeed in town

AS WE look around our town today we see a distinct lack of family businesses, which were prevalent during the last century, therefore I thought I would take a look at just one. How many people can remember Wilmott’s Garages that were around the town in a variety of locations?


Norman James Wilmott was interested in the new motor cars that were being produced in Coventry where he had been an engineering apprentice. Norman’s interest in cars was established when he was involved in the production of the first Rover cars.


He eventually left and searched along the south coast for a suitable site to set up a business. He arrived in Bognor in 1902 where he was to ultimately start two garages in the town. His first premises were in Waterloo Square, where he launched The Pier Motor Cycle Works.


At this time, he was to derive his income principally from the hire and repair of cycles, trailers and bath chairs. The trailers were a type of wicker chair on wheels, which were attached to a cycle by a long iron bar.


Norman was also involved with the developing and marketing of the ‘mechanically propelled vehicles’ to which they were sometimes referred and was to possibly have the earliest Rover car dealership on the south coast of England in 1904. Norman claimed that he taught one of the first women to drive a car, but unfortunately her name is unknown.


Motoring at this time was very different to the way it is today. Memories from one of the Wilmott family recalls how people at that time drove without driving lessons, or maybe just a couple to set them on their way.


Driving tests had not been introduced so most people did not have a licence, as we know it today. Cars were frequently breaking down or running out of petrol and I suspect out in the countryside.


Telephones would have been few and far between so if this occurred it would entail a walk or a knock on the door of a house to ask if you could use their phone.


The driver would then have to wait by the car until assistance arrived sometimes, we suspect having to wait for several hours. Petrol was very often kept in the car in a small can.


We have to remember that people did not usually have garages with their house in the 1920s but equally they would not dream of leaving their cars out at night. Therefore, many cars would be taken to garages similar to Wilmott’s to be garaged overnight.


All the cars would be gently pushed into lines, very close together, to make maximum use of the space available.


The company was also to become involved in a variety of tasks associated with royalty, the first being in 1910 when a letter was sent on June 28 from Buckingham Palace to Norman requesting, ‘Kindly let me have by return the bill for the 910 x 90 cover tube supplied to Thompson’. Thompson was a royal driver.


Business continued to increase and before 1914 Norman was to negotiate and eventually buy an area of fields that bordered on to the Aldwick Road at a cost of £2,730. The local builders named FW Hill were to become involved when the new premises were constructed on this site. One of the costs to be incurred was for the roof, which amounted to £167.10s. (£167.50) and was constructed with girders and materials from an aircraft hanger. When the family eventually moved to Stocker Road, they had their sons pile their furniture on top of a bath chair and push it to their new home.


Unfortunately, the First World War was to create a delay in the building of the new garage. People still continued to believe he was mad as their new site was completely in the countryside!


Eventually, the garage premises were built in 1921 and named The West End Garage. For a time, Norman continued with both garages but eventually in 1924 he sold the Pier Garage, as it had become known, to Sait and Gale who continued to run the business.


A receipt issued in August, 1930, to a woman in Victoria Drive, advises that her 10 h.p. Swift Foursome coupe was to cost £276.15s. (£276.75) and this was to include aluminium numbers plates at 12s 6d (65.5p) and a licence for the remainder of the year costing £4 7s 6d (£4.375) at this time the receipt also mentioned that ‘customers’ cars stored and driven entirely at owners risk’. At this time, Wilmott’s were able to garage 120 cars.


Norman died in 1929 and his son, Bernard, took over the business. Seven years later saw Bernard pursue one of his interests – the Monte Carlo International Car Rally, when he competed in the event in the light car section with a Rover 12, open four-seater vehicle. The rally started from Stavanger in Norway. He was accompanied by Mr K. Croxford of Bognor Regis and Mr H.B. Browning of London.


They finished fifth and were awarded the Riviera plaque in addition to the cash prize of 1,000 francs. For a number of years, the Wilmott family held the registrations of BP01 and BP02 denoting their vehicles were registered from Sussex.


Although Bernard was away from the town between 1939 and 1944 while in the Army, the garage remained opened and continued to flourish. On his return from the war, Bernard again took control of the garage. After the Second World War, the business changed from principally maintaining cars to selling more new vehicles. He was a supporter and a founder member of Bognor Regis Motor Club where he helped to establish the Goodwood Motor Circuit.


Bernard died in 1973 but his widow, Betty, carried on the business. However, in February, 1976, Mrs Wilmott advised her customers the company had amalgamated with the Dove Group of Companies. The group took advantage in 1977 of the vacation of the Pennicotts premises next door to become one of the most modern garages in the area. These premises today are the home of the Kia showroom.

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