Good cars an enduring passion

COLIN GILTRAP: "If you're not enthusiastic about what you're doing, you're not going to succeed."
COLIN GILTRAP: "If you're not enthusiastic about what you're doing, you're not going to succeed."

Colin Giltrap has been buying and selling cars for around 58 years now.

It's no wonder the gruff 73-year-old has some trouble getting dates and the order of events in his lengthy motor trade career straight.

"It's quite hard, they've been trying to get me to write a book," he mutters.

He is sitting in his office above the showroom at Giltrap Prestige on Auckland's Great North Road, submitting to this interview only because he has been named a Laureate in the Fairfax New Zealand Business Hall of Fame.

As a newly anointed role model, what advice would he give a budding entrepreneur? 

"You have to absolutely believe in the project ahead. If you don't there's no point doing it. If you're not enthusiastic about what you're doing, you're not going to succeed," he says.

It pretty much sums up Giltrap's relationship with cars. From selling his first Morris Minor as a teenager he grew a car sales empire that at one point spanned three countries, and has involved trade in practically every vehicle marque you can name - including Audi, Porsche, Volkswagen, Hyundai, Holden, Toyota, Skoda, Aston Martin and Lamborghini.

Inextricably linked with that has been his enduring passion for motorsport, which has seen him support a myriad of drivers including Indy champion Scott Dixon, A1GP drivers Matt Halliday and Jonny Reid, and teenage star Mitch Evans.

"I made a lot of good friends through motor racing, that helped me in business."

It is "sheer love of the sport" that keeps him backing Kiwi racing, and "the belief that I had that we had a number of Bruce McLarens and Denny Hulmes and Chris Amons that were world class, that never had any opportunity to show their driving skills".

What drove him commercially was "the thrill, the achievement", he says. "[And] I always loved good cars."

The young Giltrap didn't mind his days at New Plymouth Boys' High, but "I loved business", he says. He left school at 15 and began selling cars from his father James's tractor, machinery and car dealership.

When his father retired in 1957, Giltrap moved to Hamilton and with James's help opened a car yard selling near-new cars.

Following a stint working for a racing driver friend and Nissan dealer in Australia, another friend enticed him back to Hamilton to help run his yard there.

But Giltrap always yearned to be in business for himself and his next move was to buy GM dealer Matamata Motors, his first dealership. And so it began.

Next came Daimler importer Coutts on Great North Road, and Monaco Motors in Greenlane. Because he had Daimler, Leyland New Zealand gave him the Rover and Triumph franchise.

"The biggest windfall was, because of having Coutts and the import licence, I finished up getting the Audi distributorship for New Zealand. That lead on to Porsche and then Volkswagen."

In the 1970s, Giltrap Group assembled and distributed Suzuki in a joint venture with Coleman Bros. In the late 1970s, it bought publicly listed Schofields. Later it was a major shareholder in John Andrew Ford, became the importer for Peugeot, and expanded into Australia. It was the Hyundai importer from day one and built the market for the brand here. From 1989 to 2003, it was the sole New Zealand importer for Mercedes-Benz.

"I wouldn't move on till I'd got each business under the right management and correctly funded," Giltrap says. "As we made profits we invested them in dealerships that were available in the market, particularly around the Auckland area."

In the late 1970s, Giltrap spied opportunity in the UK where he felt the English dealers did a poor job retailing used cars.

His purchase of the Chelsea Mercedes dealership in 1977 led to another windfall. The retiring owner would sell only if Giltrap bought the property as well, which turned out well when Mercedes bought back all the London dealerships but wanted only to lease the sites. Mercedes has been leasing the now extremely valuable site on the River Thames ever since.

It's not the only example of Giltrap doing well in property by selling the dealership and keeping the land, says New Zealand Herald motorsport writer Eric Thompson. "He's extraordinarily astute."

It hasn't always been plain sailing. In the early 2000s, Giltrap City Toyota was fined along with other companies for price fixing after an eight-year battle with the Commerce Commission.

Giltrap's anecdotes paint a good picture of how sharp a salesman he is.

"We had very good connections with most of the embassies in Wellington," he says. "The chauffeurs used to tell me when the new guy was coming. We would talk them into ordering a new Mercedes, and when they would transfer home ... they sold them to us. It gave us a regular supply of near new Mercedes."

He had a similar in with the Christchurch-based personnel of Operation Deep Freeze, the US mission to Antarctica.

"I had a friend in Christchurch who lived right alongside them, he would drink with the US officers in the mess, [and] get them to order a new Impala, or Buick."

People describe Giltrap as tough in business. "He's hard, he started out as a used car dealer," says Thompson.

Rich List car dealer and super yacht builder Neville Crichton has both competed against and partnered with Giltrap over a 50-year business career. He categorises him as a "tough competitor".

Tough, but fair? "Tough competitor," Crichton repeats.

The pair remain friends. "Colin's done a hell of a job building up a big car business in New Zealand, and you don't get there unless you're good at it and you give good service."

Longtime motoring writer Allan Dick says Giltrap is still probably a car dealer at heart, despite his success in building a business. When he moved from dealing used cars to taking on new car franchises "there were people who thought those two worlds could never ever meet and be successful".

"Giltrap has been able to marry the hard dealing and selling with successful business management."

Dick and Thompson say Giltrap is not so much respected in the motorsport world as adored.

"Just about every youngster that's come up through the ranks, and has gone on to Europe or even Australia, Colin's had a hand in," Thompson says.

His most visible and expensive act was to back the New Zealand A1GP team, which he continued to do against the odds.

Dick believes Scott Dixon owes his career to Giltrap. "He would probably not have had the success that he's had if Colin had not come to the rescue at the right moment and bought a new car for him."

Giltrap's sponsorships don't do his business any harm of course, but his generosity goes beyond motorsport.
He and his wife Jennifer are significant supporters of the Starship Foundation, and numerous charities have benefitted from the supply of cars.

Giltrap was part of the original syndicate which bought Peter Blake's original Around the World boat. He's also helped with the America's Cup, the New Zealand Olympic team, and provided a fleet of vehicles during the Rugby World Cup.
Giltrap claims to take a backseat to his sons in the business these days, but his passion for cars goes on.

"His enthusiasm for both the industry and the sport are those of an 18-year-old who's only just discovered cars," Dick says.

Sir Colin Giltrap
Born:  1940, New Plymouth
Career:  Built large car dealership the Giltrap Group
Family:  Married to Jennifer, sons Richard and Michael now run the business
Honours: Knighted in 2012 for services to motorsport and philanthropy, inducted into the Fairfax New Zealand Business Hall of Fame in 2013.
Drives:  Porsche or Bentley