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Stratstone will soon be celebrating 100th year. It all started with Undecimus Stratton (1868 - 12 July 1929). Interestingly the surname Stratton originates from Stratton, Cornwall where the family was originally from. Undecimus was a name used in the Stratton family for generations and was also Undecimus father’s name. Stratton also followed in his father’s footsteps and read for a law degree, but life took another course and he didn’t continue into the profession.
Not long after Stratton was born, cars had started to come into commercial sale, although it wasn’t until 1898 that he was able to purchase his first car, a Daimler. It was not only wheels that interested Stratton, he must have always had an interest in getting around as he used to train racehorses and trotting horses and was also a balloon enthusiast.
It seems Stratton was always destined to be in the motor trade. His close friend Sir Charles Rolls offered him a partnership in his venture, however Stratton declined. They did however share a passion for ballooning and went on to set a balloon altitude record of 7,000 feet together with Frank Hedges Butler.
It wasn’t long after declining Sir Charles’ partnership that Stratton happened upon a chance meeting with E. G Jenkinson, Daimlers’ chairman. Jenkinson was stranded at the side of the road as Stratton was passing in his Daimler and promptly stopped to assist. Stratton impressed Jenkinson with his motoring knowledge and from that chance meeting, he was offered a job as manager at Daimler’s London Depot. Part of his job involved taking care of the royals by providing chauffeurs for the King and Stratton even became an occasional motoring companion. After years of service, he had gained the respect of the Royal Household and the King sought Stratton’s advice on which car to purchase for around the town use, just the usual kind of tailored service you would expect as standard from your local dealership these days. Stratton’s service to the royals extended further than just vehicle acquisition; he also was asked to teach the Prince of Wales how to drive and even converted one of His Majesty’s large Daimlers into an ambulance in order to transport him to Bognor to recover from an illness. That was not his only royal connection, he supplied cars to the Emperor of Germany, the Sultan of Johor as well as the King of Spain, who even knighted Stratton into the Royal Order of Isabella the Catholic. As you may expect, Daimler gained a reputation for being a “Car of Kings”.
His years of work at Daimler led him to partner with Ernest Instone who was Daimler’s commercial manager. In 1921 Daimler’s Pall Mall Premises began to be run by the pair, and in style too. It seems their happy hour was an early one, anyone on the premises at 11am was privilege to a butler service of oysters and champagne. Quite a way to shop.
Unsurprisingly, Daimler was synonymous with the rich and famous as well as the high society. In keeping with the expectations of their champagne brunch customers, the Stratton-Instone dealership continued to cater for the luxury market by creating their own exclusive line of motors and by 1928 they had showrooms on London’s Berkley Street and Store Street as well as distribution centres across the country.
Stratton passed away in 1929 and Instone followed just a few years later in 1932. With both founders sadly gone, it was Joseph Mackle that guided the company forward. Joseph really would have known the business from bottom up as he started as an apprentice engineer at Daimler before rising all the way to the heights of managing director. Mackle decided to rename the company using the founder’s names and created Stratstone.
The Daimler fifteen was launched in 1932 with the aim to appeal to a wider customer base. It was the first low end vehicle offered by the company to increase sales during the 30s more austere times. Although not immediately, this particular vehicle could have been what put Daimler on the path that lost it the super-luxury status and ultimately lead to the brand’s demise. However, during the 30s sales numbers were high for the company and in general cars became a kind of fashion accessory.
The list of how-to-do clients was increasing with the Emperor of Japan frequenting the Pall Mall showroom as well as boxer Lord Lansdale; interestingly, an extravagant shade of yellow was the only colour he would purchase. Nonetheless, with a recession looming on the horizon, Mackle took the decision to sell the company in 1936 to Thomas Tilling. All was going well for Tilling’s growing new business for the first couple of years until the leases were not renewed at Pall Mall and Euston Road in 1938.
Along came the Second World War and difficult times for the whole country. Much to the company’s surprise, their operations did not dry up as they might have expected, on the contrary. Larger vehicles were converted into ambulances and the police were also placing orders of their smaller models. At the start of the war they had taken the decision to store all their stock in a disused chicken farm with reinforced concrete walls. However, those reinforced walls were no match for a stray bomb that struck the factory in 1945 taking along with it all their stock and therefore bringing operations to a momentary standstill.
This unfortunate event was a setback, but after the war it was business as usual for Stratstone. They began selling Volkswagen cars, topping sales of 1000 per year by the 1960, while only two Daimler models remained available.
Significantly in 1961, Mackle signed an agreement with Jaguar and began distributing for them, a decision that would change the company’s future forever and lead to record sales. Not stopping there, they also accepted the Land Rover franchise as well. Quite a number of changes,
although what hadn’t changed was their 11am champagne service. The Gentlemen’s Club style atmosphere was still going strong with team members wearing bowler hats while clients sipped champagne until midday.
Surging his way through the ranks after joining as an accountant in 1956, James Smillie became the company’s Chief Executive in the early 70s. A man of hospitality, he had an eye for what the customers wanted and could be often spotted drinking at Mairfair Hotel’s champagne bar with the late Sir Bobby Moore. Rising inflation meant such luxuries were coming to an end, Stratstone began to struggle which lead to some hard decisions to keep themselves afloat. 1973 saw the creation of a fleet sales department for the supply of limousines to foreign governments, embassies as well as the top companies.
In 1982, for the first time in 46 years, James Smillie made Stratstone a private and independent company again. Scraping together just enough equity to seal the deal, he bought out Stratstone at the last hour at 5.55pm in July 1982.
The start of the 80s was slow, but sales were increasing and by 1986 the company had begun to thrive once again. Getting Jaguar back on the luxury retailer map with backing from its then-chairman John Egan, Stratstone skyrocketed Jaguar’s yearly sales from 10,000 worldwide to selling 1,000 through just a single dealer.
In 1988, Stratstone constructed the largest servicing centre in the UK, spending £2.5 million to convert a former bottling plant into a 279 square meters premises, home to both retail and trade counters. With 24 work bays available, they were also able to service up to 50 cars per day.
It was around this same time that the Berkley Street showroom also underwent a makeover to bring a more updated look, but still keeping that touch of elegance from its bygone past, a style still maintained by the company to this day.
By 1992 they had become the largest luxury retailer in the UK and were prevalent throughout the nation.
In the early 21st century they further solidified their position as the UK’s top luxury retailer, acquiring 32 dealerships from Lex Retail Group and in 2004, they also acquired CD Bramall. By 2005 Stratstone had become the World’s largest supplier of Jaguar vehicles.
Motorcycle coverage grew in 2010 when they opened their first Triumph franchise points, with one in Leicester and another in Wolverhampton as well as Stoke, where they opened a Harley-Davidson franchise point.
From their Daimler beginnings, royal connections and almost one century later, Stratstone represents 13 of the world’s premium automotive manufacturers. Much has changed in the automotive and indeed the wider world of since those days. Stratstone no longer serves up a daily helping of oysters and champagne, however a little flicker of that old tradition is still kept alive at the company’s West End showroom, with champagne served to invited clients and guests on the last Friday of every month.
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