Irish motorists fell out of love with Fiat – John Saunders thinks he can change that

Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Jeep have a new distributor. Is it the start of an Italian renaissance?

Fiat once had a position of dominance in the Irish market. Back in the 1970s, when new car sales hovered at around 60-70,000 per annum, Fiat was selling 12,000 cars a year in this country. Not only selling them, but making them too; the 126s and 131s in a factory on Kylemore Road in west Dublin.

Even more recently, Fiat was a major player in this country. In the boom year of 2000, when more than 230,000 new cars were sold thanks to a combination of the "00" numberplate and generous government scrappage grants, Fiat had the best selling car in Ireland – the Punto. On top of that, the Alfa Romeo 156 was proving a massive hit with company-car buyers, taking a 1 per cent market share all by itself.

Since when, it's been all downhill. Fiat and Alfa Romeo have slipped well and truly off Irish car buyers' shopping lists. A more recent alliance with the American Jeep brand has yielded all but nothing, which is incredible when you think how SUV-mad the Irish car market has gone. Aside from the evergreen 500 small car, Fiat essentially has no market presence in Ireland anymore.

That could be about to change. Fiat, in a global sense, has merged with PSA Peugeot-Citroen-Opel to form the vast Stellantis car-making supergroup. That merger has opened up a new importer in Ireland, the Gowan Group. Gowans had long been Peugeot's Irish importer, with no little success, and had acquired the distributorships for Opel, Citroen, and the DS luxury brand. It seemed, then, a logical step that Gowans would also take on Stellantis' Italian-American brands, and so it has come to pass.

John Saunders is the man tasked with running point for the Fiat-Alfa-Jeep franchises in Ireland. He has long experience of car sales in this country, and has for some years been running the Honda import franchise on behalf of Gowans. He now faces the seemingly impossible task of convincing Irish buyers that Fiat and Alfa make good cars, and of getting them to realise that Jeep exists at all. Clearly this will be no easy task.

"There is brand strength and brand recognition there," Saunders tells The Irish Times. "And Fiat is coming up to its centenary in Ireland, having started selling cars here in 1923. So notwithstanding the performance of individual models in Ireland, it's actually a fabulous position to be starting a new business partnership with these brands."

Uphill struggles seem to be a Gowan Group speciality. The group has already taken Peugeot from minority-interest French brand to a major top-10 seller, and has also turned around Opel's fortunes in Ireland. It'll be a tough job to resurrect Fiat and Alfa, but Saunders is confident.

“It will rest on the back of the product,” he said. “On the back of new technology, and the Stellantis influence is crucial. When we start to see common platforms and model development on that sort of scale, it can only augur well for the brands.”

The growth of electric motoring will doubtless be key for the revival plans. Fiat already has a very impressive electric 500 small car on sale, and that will be shortly joined by a new Alfa Romeo Tonale small SUV with plug-in hybrid power. Beyond that, Stellantis has plans for major new electric car platforms, versatile architectures with big batteries and 500km-plus ranges on one charge. That’s for the future, though. Right now, the Italian brands need rebuilding.

Saunders reckons that it’s Gowan Group’s experience and knowledge of the Irish market that may give it an edge over previous Fiat operations in Ireland. “In the difficult and competitive market that Ireland is, if you don’t have that on-the-ground knowledge and intel, it’s incredibly difficult to support brands as they transition through model changes, especially when those models might not be sitting at the heart of the market at any given time. So as I say, customers recognise the brands, and recognise all the unique characteristics of the brands individually, so that’s not a problem for us. The challenge is having the right product at the right time, sold through a functioning and engaged network. It’s not that the brands themselves failed, it’s that the approach to the market needed to be revitalised.”

There will also be a need to shake off the persistent image that Fiats and Alfas have poor build quality and reliability. For one thing, parts supply for the Italian brands was often, historically, patchy and expensive. To remedy this, Gowan Group is in the process of opening a dedicated new office and warehouse complex in Citywest in Dublin. In this vast warehouse, it's promised, key parts for all brands and models will be kept in stock, ready for rapid dispatch to dealers and customers. This, it is hoped, will give the group a significant edge over rival brands at a time when many are sourcing parts directly from the UK and Europe, with no local warehousing.

“This suite of brands haven’t had on-site parts warehousing for I think around 15 years,” said Saunders. “So it’s transformational for a business, when you can react much more quickly, and with so much greater certainty for your customers. On top of that, as the technologies of the brands merge, as we start to use more common platforms and components, it gives you huge synergies. It’s so much harder to support smaller brands with that sort of level of service, simply because you wouldn’t have the economies of scale that you do have when you have eight joined-up brands.”

Speaking of smaller brands, what of Jeep? The 4x4 maker has enjoyed massive success in the US market, and has done well across Europe and the UK, but is almost invisible in Ireland.

“I think in terms of untapped potential, it certainly exists with Jeep. It’s a very strong brand, with a huge heritage and pedigree, but [it is] not recognised in Ireland for that pedigree. I think when you combine that pedigree, that ability to make big, utilitarian 4x4s, and combine that with plug-in hybrid and eventually electric technology, I think the Jeep brand has a very strong proposition. On top of that, the brand has very passionate customers, so when we have models that are suitable for the Irish market, maybe with smaller engines and two-wheel drive, but with that American big-car presence and style, you can see people indulging in that American culture.”

Dealerships

There remains the question of dealerships. One of the key shortcomings of Fiat in Ireland in recent years has been a dearth of dealers. How many are needed for success in the State, or whether Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Jeep will be joined up with existing Gowan brands to speed up development of the network is still being decided. “There’s no defined number on the board, but certainly we would consider that there has been a lack of representation for the brands at the moment. And we’d look to make some some appointments in the medium term [and] short to medium term to bolster the current network,” said Saunders. “Supply in the short term will dictate that. And then in the medium term, it’s model development. So when you look at the model development coming down the tracks from each of the brands individually, or particularly with the technology that is being rolled out over a period of time, between now and the end of the decade, really, you’ll start to see a growth pattern emerge. It’s not crystallised yet.”

Can Gowans turn that around? It’s a tall order, but the group has already shown that it can work relative wonders with Opel, so there is at least some hope.

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