Jim Bourke of Mullingar Autos says the trade in second-hand cars, such as these VW Golfs on his forecourt, is strong.

‘The hardship will be worthwhile if we can stay safe and beat this virus’

Covid-19 might have forced Jim Bourke and his staff to fundamentally change they way they operate but Mullingar Autos remains one of the busiest car dealerships and workshops in the midlands.

“When the workshop reopened [like all car dealerships, Mullingar Autos closed for the best part of two and half months at the start of lockdown apart from carrying out repairs for frontline workers], there was a serious backlog of repairs and services to be done,” said Jim.

“When it came to staycations, a lot of people were driving long journeys around Ireland instead of going abroad, so that put more pressure on family vehicles, and with our VTN testing service, we test campervans and we had a serious amount of work there.

“Also any old van that had a bit of a sleeping department in it – people got them going again to use them for family staycations that brought a lot of work for our aftersales business. The workshops have been busy, overbooked every day.”

Mullingar Autos is one of Ireland’s leading Volkswagen, Škoda and Fiat dealerships. While dealerships around the country are reporting a significant fall in demand for new cars, the second hand car market is buoyant, Jim says.

“Our [new car] turnover is probably about two thirds of where we would normally be, which we can live with because the demand in used cars is very, very strong. Even cars that are six months to a year old are going well for us.”

Like businesses of all types, Mullingar Autos has had to investment in PPE equipment and hygiene products to keep in line with Covid-19 protocols.

“We had to get a new machine to sanitise the cars, the usual hand sanitisers and screens all over the place. We have been quite lucky that a lot of our work can be done outside in the yards, but it slows down the business a lot, and when the bad weather comes that will be even more difficult.”

One of the most exciting parts of buying a new car is going for a test drive and taking along family or friends for the ride. Unsurprisingly, health concerns now mean that test drives are no longer a group activity.

“At the height of it, we weren’t doing any test drives at all, then we let our customers drive the cars themselves – with sanitising the cars, using hand sanitiser and wearing masks and sometimes visors as well, we do accompany people in the cars.

“We try to keep it to a minimum of people. Pre-Covid-19, we’d invite the whole family, and children in particular love getting into new cars. Now all that has changed. You just try and bring of the drivers in the car.

“Contact with our customers we keep it to a minimum, which is difficult when you are dealing with people and you are trying to find out what they want or what is wrong with their car,” Jim said.

A former Fianna Fáil town councillor, Jim believes that the last government did a good job in the early days of pandemic. The €350 pandemic unemployment payment “kept the country going and everyone was very grateful for it”.

“When businesses did reopen the subsidies were helpful for the amount of costs associated with the changes that had to be introduced. That was great and that is why so many businesses are up and running reasonably well again because it has been a huge help,” he said.

For the motor trade, he would like to see the government reduce the Vehicle Registration Tax and cut the taxes on emissions of new cars. However, with the Green Party now in government, he is not optimistic about that.

“The whole taxation on new and second hand cars and vans needs to be changed,” he says.

The economy, which was booming up until the start of the pandemic, is now officially in recession, but Jim notes that it is a “most unusual one”.

“They are telling us we will have to live with the virus and people are still quite concerned about where we are going to end up. On the other side of the coin there, the finance houses have plenty of money to offer for finance deals and have special offers going.

“At the height of the recession 10 or 12 years ago, no bank would come to see you or offer your customers money. Now it’s different, all of the financial institutions, from the high street banks to our local credit union, everyone is out there hunting for the business, which is good news in one sense.

“The money is available if anyone has the confidence to borrow it and wants to expand their business or update their cars.

“A lot of people have more money than ever. A lot have their full week’s wages and some are even working extra hours and didn’t get a chance to spend it either going out at weekend or going on holiday abroad. There is a substantial amount of people there with good earnings and good money to spend. On the other side of it, we have to feel very, very sorry for the people who have no decent income for the last six months; businesses that have been closed down and people who haven’t been able to get working properly.

“It’s sad and it is bound to have a big effect on their business and on their health in general,” he said.

Until a vaccine is developed and mass-produced, Ireland and the rest of the world will have to live the coronavirus and try to keep the economy and wider society as open as possible.

While there have been a “few scares” with employees’ family members being brought for testing, none of the 35 full-time staff at Mullingar Autos have contracted Covid-19. Jim is eager that this remains the case. “The hardship that we have went through it is all worthwhile if we can stay safe and beat this virus,” he said.

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