Duke of London isn't like most car dealerships. PH went along for a socially distanced chat
By Matt Bird / Tuesday, December 15, 2020
For anyone who's visited the Duke of London's Brentford premises, or simply noticed its presence online, the back story is hard to believe. Now a hotspot by the high street, offering everything from ceramic paint protection to takeaway pizza, The Factory is quite the community hub – and not just for car sales. But it wasn't always that way.
"We moved in here June last year", says Merlin McCormack, Duke of London founder, "having spent the first six months renovating it. We took it on and it'd been empty for 20 years." You can imagine how bad the abandoned plot looked. "F***ing desolate", is McCormack's view, with no windows, no wiring and all manner of litter strewn across the 51,000 square foot site. It was just The Brewery Tap pub down Catherine Wheel Road, now run by McCormack's mum in fact, and not frequented by many locals at all. Perhaps just as surprising was that a space off Brentford high street reserved for development hadn't been revitalised in two decades. That was the task taken on by Duke of London having originally been in Kew Bridge.
Not that it was without opposition. "We came here and the locals resisted", says McCormack, despite being form the area himself. "Flash w*nkers with fast cars" was the common perception, he reckons, but the reality was quite different. "We wanted to build somewhere we'd want to go… it's about building a car community here and a local community thing as well." Hence having the Brentford Cobbler in the space, Kings of the Wild Frontier driver training and There Cycling bike repairs.
Obviously the impression is subdued somewhat during a lockdown period, but you can see the ambition here: people are encouraged to simply be at The Factory, to see what's going on and not be put off with the stuffy atmosphere endemic to many if not most high end dealers. McCormack is honest about his intentions, calling the space "an entirely selfish project" that "won't appeal to everyone", but is also well aware that you're never going to please everyone – so why bother? That said between cars, bicycles, pizza, coffee and a pub, there should be something there to keep most people happy…
We're most interested in the cars though, of course, and that's perhaps where the notion of not appealing to everyone is at its most obvious. Most dealerships can be pigeonholed, their specialism hinted at by the stock – not so here. On our visit last month the Duke of London has for sale a 700hp 911 Turbo cabriolet (on air suspension) alongside a Mini Moke, and a Lamborghini Aventador next to a Radical SR3 – you really don't know what you're going to get next. Which, rather like a box of chocolates – and the immediate surroundings – does at least keep things interesting, even if it's not all to your personal taste.
As for how the stock gets there, that recurring theme of creating something he wants extends to how McCormack sources cars – largely speaking, he buys and sells what he wants to own. See the 928 that's currently for sale at DoL, intended to be his personal car because of its incredible interior but now being moved on. "It's like a puppy farm, I can't keep them all. I have to be militant." With £2k recently spent on bodywork and an interior like no other, it looks a lovely Porsche. And if you're wondering about the white Alfa, that was a stock acquisition that's become part of the personal collection – too good to let go, apparently.
As for the majority of the rest, long standing customer relationships means that clients often sell back what they've bought previously or offer something else from a collection through DoL, ensuring that what's there "grows organically." It also helps explain the variety, with cars from £6,000 to 30 times that. However, there is now an aversion to what McCormack calls the "big ticket" stuff, an attitude he's taken on since moving to the new premises; specifically, that's the really pricey Ferraris, Astons and Porsches. The brands are certainly still well represented in the DoL stock, but typically at a lower price point. "Ultimately if the expensive stuff doesn't sell, then it's just a burden; I'd much rather the little and often." He's not into the latest supercars much, either, or more specifically "those people buying GT2 RSs and wanting £100k profit a week later". According to him, "that's not a market I'm arsed about."
Despite being just 26, he has plenty of experience when it comes to buying and selling, too. McCormack explains: "I bought my first car when I was 11, then sold that for a profit just before I was 12. I bought the second on my 12th birthday, then I just carried on from there bouncing the ball. It wasn't quite as straightforward as that – it wasn't like suddenly there was just a big pot of money. It just kept me busy out of school.
"Then when I was 16 I started doing scooters because I could actually ride them and move them about, not rely on my mum for transport! That carried on until I was about 18 or so; then I took a job in the city for a year, f**ing hated it and then started this when I was 19." That was 2014, with Duke of London having grown bigger ever since – this year saw a drive-in cinema added to the events roster, with sold out screenings for films like The Italian Job and Bullitt.
Cliched though it might sound, The Factory really is a family affair. As well as mum's pub, Merlin's dad runs a restoration business on the same site, using his expertise from a decade working at Rolls Royce and subsequent years in the industry. "When we were growing up we were always spending weekends and holidays sweeping up around the shop", says McCormack. "Mum and dad always had interesting cars; nothing very expensive but always weird and quirky cars: Bristols, early 911s, American hot rod stuff and so on. Mum used to take me to school in a Plymouth." This might explain where the stocklist diversity came from, then…
As for Duke of London's future, McCormack is keen for events to resume whenever it's safe to – we've already suggested a PH Sunday Service at The Factory – and potential further expansion as the business grows. Given what's already been achieved off the Brentford high street in a year and a bit, why on earth not? "We want to be able to… we're not trying to reinvent the wheel", he explains, "we're not doing anything exceptional; we just want to do it well." With The Factory now looking as it does, it's hard to imagine many of the locals disagreeing.
Image credit | Louis Beausoleil
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