From horseless cart to HSV

The Rosewarnes of Kadina could be the oldest GM dealership in the world. They've been selling cars in the same spot for 131 years and no FBT crackdown will change that.

Rosewarne’s of Kadina seems to be Australia’s oldest car dealer, a family business now about to be passed to the fifth generation.
In fact the Rosewarne family might be the oldest General Motors dealership in the world, not just Australia: they started flogging Oldsmobiles in 1901 (not that GM existed then; old Mr Olds’ company wasn’t taken over by the newly formed GM until 1908).
Anyway, I thought that when I rang David Rosewarne, MD of Rosewarne’s of Kadina, I would get a harrowing tale of woe about how the recent decision to crack down on FBT was killing their business, in keeping with the cries of pain emanating from car dealers around the nation.
But it turns out that this South Australian town is well beyond the taxman’s sticky fingers. There’s no salary packaging going on in this neck of the woods.
Kadina is on the knee of the Yorke Peninsular a few kilometres from the waters of Spencer Gulf, and about two hours drive from Adelaide. It used to be one leg of the “copper triangle” (Kadina, Wallaroo and Moonta) and is sometimes called “Little Cornwall” because that’s who populated the place in the late 19th century… to mine copper.
Nicholas Rosewarne was no exception. He arrived alone from Cornwall in 1857 and first went to Burra, the other “Little Cornwall” in South Australia, and didn’t muck around on the romance front. He married Jane Harris in 1858, and she quickly gave birth to John Henry.
The family, small child in tow, went to the Victorian goldfields for a while but didn’t find any gold and, no doubt bedraggled and disappointed, returned to what Cornishmen knew best – copper, and the mines of South Australia, this time not to Burra, but the other copper province, at Kadina. And that’s where they stayed – for 131 years and counting, on the same piece of land on Graves Street.
John Henry was a blacksmith who started selling buggies as well as shoeing the horses. When the horseless variety arrived in the form of Ransom E Olds’ Oldsmobiles (the first car to be produced on an assembly line), he put his hand up to be the Kadina dealer.
John Henry Rosewarne ended up having 13 children, which rather complicated succession planning, but it all came together later when David’s father Jack bought out his brothers after WW2.
As a result of that, David Rosewarne inherited 100 per cent of the business in 1987 (assets other than the business were left to his sister Diana). The business was apparently in poor shape at the time, but David and his wife Sally turned it around.
Now Rosewarnes of Kadina are right in the middle of another succession event: David’s oldest son Tom, 33, who’s been working in the business for 10 years with David, is to become managing director and will get 50 per cent of it – half each from his mother and father.
Tom’s brother Henry is a pilot in Vancouver. He’ll inherit other assets, perhaps the retirement village the family owns behind the dealership, but not the family business.
I asked Tom whether he feels the burden of 131 years of family history and, yes, of course he does. Who wouldn’t?
And he wonders what the future holds for selling cars, not just his own family’s part of the industry but the whole thing. The prices of cars haven’t gone up for ten years so it’s become tougher and tougher to make a living. Will General Motors continue manufacturing in Australia? What, if any, will be the impact of electric vehicles?
And what will his two young daughters want to do when they grow up? Sell Holdens in Kadina?
But that’s the thing about family business: it’s not just about making a living – it’s about family and history, sometimes very long and rich history.

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