She moves through the gloom

 

THERE’S A water-cooled concrete-cutter, some welding gear, two small generators, several saws, some key-cutting equipment and a lot of high-visibility vests. But there are also sports bags, tracksuits, fishing rods and a loose bundle of golf irons that came out of a Ford Focus. There are toys everywhere – football games, pink parasols, dolls’ prams – frequently jumbled up with the work equipment. One bag contains a large protective sheet, splattered with paint, of the sort house painters use, and a single Barbie armband. That van came in yesterday.

These are the contents of the repossessed cars and vans that are cleaned by staff at Merlin Car Auctions prior to sale. Each vehicle is cleared of its personal contents and these are then bagged, with the type of car and its registration on the label, along with the date that it was brought to the 15-acre Merlin site in Naas.

Serkan Erke is from Turkey, and at the auction warehouse, his work colleagues call him Sergio. He looks at the date on the label and says: “This one is fresh. I just did it today.” An empty suitcase stands by itself. It is a mournful business. Imagine if someone cleaned out your car. These are the contents of a Volkswagen Golf. There is a high-heeled patent-leather shoe. There are two carrier bags of Christmas presents, still wrapped. Sergio could not decide if these gifts were for the owner of the car, or from her. “I didn’t look, because it’s personal.” But the gifts are all wrapped in various types of paper, so I think they might have been bought by the former owner of the car. Maybe she didn’t have the time, or the heart, to distribute them. We also find an unopened bottle of vodka. “You’d be sorry for her,” says Sergio.

There’s a young man’s sports kit here, from another Volkswagen Golf, with his soccer boots, his underpants, and his Fructis hair gel. The hair gel is called Manga Head. The jar reads “Free style putty for messed-up spikes”. Out of a Mercedes comes an Evening Herald, some Turkish Delight and a guide to some bloodstock sales.

If these personal items are not claimed within a year, they are dumped. Until then they are stored in the loft above the valeting bay at Merlin. A pink heart-shaped cushion that says “Baby on Board”. An entire toolbox, carefully organised, with the owner’s initials carved into the head of the mallet. “There’s a barbecue around here somewhere,” says Sergio. “And sometimes a pile of buggies.”

Sergio lives in Navan with his Irish wife and their two little girls. “The finance companies gave the money so easy,” he says. “People can only afford a Micra, but they get a BMW. I’d never get finance. If they take your car away from you, you can’t work. I drive 90 miles a day.”

The repossessed cars and vans come in from all over the country, on trucks that can take two or three vehicles at a time (although Sergio says the trucks from Cork carry eight or nine, because the journey is so long). “We get a list in the morning and then we know what we can sell.” Once the cars are cleared for sale the cleaning starts. “The lads can do six or seven each per day. Some take a long time, because people use them rough. We got 25 done today.”

Sergio oversees this work. He has seven people under him. “They work between here and the yard. But I started at the bottom.” He’s never seen anyone come back for their belongings. “I think Irish people are so relaxed. In their minds they’re going to pay in a few days. But it doesn’t work like that.” Instead you don’t even clear your car or your van before it is repossessed. The tangle of your life is put in a plastic bag by strangers. And it sits with all the other bags that belong to people who were unlucky, or chancing their arm, or just plain wiped out by the juggernaut of recession. We are driving across the car park now and Sergio stops to wind down the window and say “what’s the crack? welcome back” to an unseen colleague.

“Ireland has changed. I came in 1996,” he says as we approach the auction area. “When I came it was a different country.”

CLEANED OF ALL their human detail, the cars lie shining under the lights, looking pretty spruce, like old war horses waiting for another army. Who knows what stories the 2007 Mayo Ford Transit could tell? Who knows what happened in the 2004 Sligo Land Rover Freelander? And who cares now, really, as prospective buyers move among them? Two uniformed gardaí are examining a bronze Ford Mondeo Estate with a 2007 registration. Are they looking for stolen cars, I wonder? No, one of them is looking to buy a car.

His colleague and I agree that this is a sad sight, all these suddenly repossessed cars. All you had to do was pay your bills, says the purchasing guard briskly, after he has lifted the bonnet of the Ford Mondeo. The car later went for €13,500.

There’s a young van dealer here from Cork. There are two men, Damien Stoney and his friend, who’ve come up from Clifden, Co Galway, for the auction.

“You can take the car away tonight, if you buy,” says Stoney. “You just change your insurance and you can do that with most of them online.” He is hoping to take advantage of Merlin’s new car swap scheme, under which you can put the value of your present car up against a new purchase. This new scheme was started, say Merlin staff, partly to facilitate customers who wanted “to swap downwards”.

Martin Calderwood, who lives in Maynooth, is looking for a car for his wife, who is expecting a baby. “A [Renault] Scénic or a Mégane,” he says. “But the deals in the North are better. They’ve 2004 cars up there of the type I’m looking for and they’re €5,000 with the VRT paid.” You can buy a burger or hotdogs – €4 each – from a stall. You can eat them looking out at a sea of gleaming cars and vans. A Clare man, who runs his own auctions in his home county, gazes out at the hundreds of cars. “You have to say that something serious is going on in the country when you see this,” he says.

He’s heard that the finance companies are looking for a lot of dormobiles and camper vans, which have “just vanished on to the continent. They’re looking for them in Europe. A lot of them would have been bought here with the left-hand drive. They were worth more with the left-hand drive.” There are stories like this everywhere but it is still cheering, to think of Irish camper vans kicking their heels in Morocco or the south of Spain, fugitives from the slaughter.

The new Merlin Car Auctions campus is very bright. As the crowds arrive for the auction they look somehow American, all bundled up against the winter night. With its sparkling new toilets and its hot dogs, this venue could be a baseball park. In reception, John Fell is frantically selling catalogues at €5 each. “No one comes to an auction on their own,” says Patrick O’Reilly, a director of Merlin, darkly. The walls are hung with old photographs of Merlin’s old incarnation, Windsor Motors, which started running car auctions in 1974. In modern times, the Merlin website gets 5,000 hits every day.

O’Reilly does not think there have ever been more people at an auction than there are this evening. About 800, Merlin will say, although it looks more like 1,000 to me. It is like a circus. For some time now there have been so many cars and vans to sell that Merlin has been running a two-lane auction twice a week. Two lanes of cars, two rostrums, two auctioneers running simultaneously. According to Patrick O’Reilly, in 2007 the average value of cars Merlin sold at auction was €8,000-€9,000. In 2008 it was €13,000-€14,000. In June 2006 private buyers made up 7 per cent of Merlin’s customers. Now they make up more than 40 per cent.

Repossessions of commercial vehicles have gone up 147 per cent since July 2007 and prices of commercial vehicles have come down by up to 50 per cent. The repossession of private cars has gone up 100 per cent since September – and is expected to exceed 5,000 private vehicles this year.

Yes, it is a circus now. Norman Colfer, the dapper auctioneer in the lane that contains 138 repossessed vehicles, has to keep asking the crowds to part to let the cars and vans through. Colfer is 80 years old. He’s a showman and as sharp as a tack. “I know things are bad but they’re not that bad,” says Colfer as he provisionally sells a Chevrolet Lacetti for €3,500. During the evening, Colfer periodically cries “Send for the guards, I’m robbed”. There is money here. As each lot comes up Colfer says “she’s clean, lads, she’s clean”.

He is looking for €30,000 for a 2006 Mercedes CLS 320, and gets €29,000. But a 2005 Renault Master II DCI 120, a tall, pale and substantial van, can attract no more than €3,800. The name of the previous owner of the Renault Master is proudly emblazoned on its sides, on its back doors. “Carpentry and Joinery,” reads the sign. It inches through the crowd at a humiliating crawl, leaving the dreams it once contained and the bid of just €3,800 behind.

Then there is the colourful and cheerful signage van. The 2008 Volkswagen Crafter TDI van – which is so big Colfer declares “you could live in this” – goes for €11,000. The 2005 Opel Movano with “Professional Floor Sanders 24x7” written on it. Only the mobile-phone number has been removed. They all roll through the crowd, which is unimpressed by them, even though the same vans were once so busy.

Surely this must be the peak, I say. There are nine or 10 car-finance institutions operating in the country, and even though they have slowed down their lending, the people at Merlin expect a full year of this level of activity, maybe into 2010. There is so much future. In six days time Merlin will receive a 2006 Aston Martin DB9.

Ann Marie Hourihane’s book She moves through the boomis published by Lilliput

'People were changing their cars every year'

JAMES McCORMACK started working in the family car business, Western Motors, in 1988. His mother Anne took over the company when his father died in 1965.

James is her youngest child and the one who always loved cars. “My first car was a Golf diesel. I had the stereo strapped to the passenger seat. Great car.”

Now Western Motors employs 40 people at its huge showroom just outside Galway and another 16 in its new Drogheda showroom, which opened in January last year. “A disastrous year to open a new business,” as McCormack ruefully puts it. “This time last year I had cars arriving on transporters and people literally standing waiting for them. They were pointing up at the transporter and saying ‘I want that one’. These were €180,000, top-of-the-range Mercedes. In January 2008 we would have delivered 10 €100,000-plus cars, maybe 20. This year we delivered one.”

The only expensive car McCormack sold this year went to a green-energy millionaire. “And his trade-in, which was also a flash car, was bought by a builder.”

During the boom, Western Motors sold Mercedes, Volkswagen and Audis. “Everyone had a good time. We were all at it. We all enjoyed it. No point in bitching about it,” says McCormack.

“People were changing their cars every year, and no one needs to do that. My distributor will kill me for saying that. It was February 2008 we first saw it. We had record sales in January 2008 and February was like it fell off a cliff. Everything was down, sales, footfall, everything.”

Last summer McCormack let his Mercedes dealership go. “That was nothing to do with the recession. I didn’t see profit going forward.”

The stress, the debt, the quiet showrooms are a tough combination. Five of his staff, from both administration and sales, are gone, and a line of British used cars stands just inside the gate.

“The facts are that sterling is on its knees and there are deals to be done. Customers are going to take advantage of that. Of course I don’t blame them. If you can’t beat them, join them. We have to adapt to survive.”

He thinks that new-car registrations for the Republic are going to be about 65,000-80,000 in 2009. In 2008 it was 151,607. In the bumper year of 2007 it was 186,540.

He doesn’t blame the banks. “The banks are the banks. I’ve debt with the bank and I have to say they’re working for us. We’ll pay our debts and get to the good times again together. Being an optimist I’d say 2010 has a nice ring to it.”

About the Government he is less sanguine. “They’re not letting you know what they’re planning and it does give you the willies.”

Strangely, the only time in the interview McCormack gets angry, it’s not about the car business. “I’m the last one to leave these premises every night and I make sure the heating and the lights, except for four background lights, are off. I read in the paper that in the Dáil the lights and heat are on 365 days a year.

“That disgusts me. That attitude of ‘who cares, nobody cares, it doesn’t matter’.”