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The tattooed vroom, vroom salesman




15-6-1925 8-6-2012


PROBABLY the only managing director of Holden who sported a tattoo on each arm at a time when only sailors and Hell's Angels favoured body art, John Bagshaw was also the last Australian to hold the top job at Fishermans Bend.

Bagshaw, who has died on the Gold Coast just a week short of his 87th birthday, was an old-school salesman who brought passion to everything he tackled. He was also what the industry calls affectionately "a car guy", a hugely complimentary description for executives who live and dream cars.

Widely respected and admired across the automotive world, the flamboyant, trailblazing Bagshaw served General Motors divisions on several continents in a colourful 42-year career, during which he was known simply as "Bags" as far afield as Russelsheim in Germany, Detroit and Michigan in the United States, and in Melbourne.

More than anyone before or since, Bagshaw gave Holden its reputation for rugged products ideal for Australia and its rusted-on motor sport culture. Without his inventive ways of unearthing race budgets, it could be argued that Peter Brock may not have enjoyed his monumental successes.

Older Holden dealers and motoring writers remember the power of the super salesman's colourful oratory at new model introductions. Resplendent in a suit and loud tie, Bagshaw would deliver with evangelical zeal any number of reasons the new model was the right car for the times. His intention was to turn the flock into believers and he usually succeeded. Even if the model in question was a humble Sunbird.

The prominent Sydney car dealer Laurie Sutton, who knew Bagshaw for half a century, said he was "one of the few factory guys who understood the retail side of the business".

"John was a great motivator who could get the best from people," Sutton said. "He was a vibrant, energetic guy . . . extremely confident, but he wasn't full of himself. He was a good bloke who was great to be around."

Whenever Bagshaw met a sales staffer or dealer his opening line was inevitably: "How many cars have you sold today?"

Bagshaw was born in Sydney into a car-selling environment. After serving in the Royal Australian Navy when he acquired his tattoos he followed his father, Edward, a dealership sales manager, into the car trade in 1948, joining Holden in Western Australia.

Energetic and ambitious, he moved to Holden's headquarters in Melbourne and held management roles in sales and distribution. For a time he was zone manager of Holden South Australia. In 1966, he leap-frogged more senior people to the top sales job. "John hit the new post like a hurricane," recalls John Crennan, then a young sales executive (later to head Holden Special Vehicles). "His energy and drive motivated everyone."

Bagshaw was a great believer in the "win on Sunday, sell on Monday" philosophy linking motor sport with showroom sales, and he was convinced of the powerful role motor sport, in particular the annual Bathurst race, could play in creating a strong brand image for Holden.

The stumbling block was the dictum from parent company GM in Detroit that none of the empire could enter motor sport. Bagshaw deviously circumvented the prohibition in 1969 by setting up a Holden Dealer Team, a race and rally squad ostensibly owned and underwritten by a group of Holden dealers, including Sutton. In truth, Holden bankrolled much of the operation with money resourcefully diverted from various departments and projects.

Wooed from Ford to run the dealer team, Harry Firth recruited emerging race and rally drivers Brock and Colin Bond. This was the start of an amazing run of successes for the HDT, which ultimately morphed into today's factory Holden Racing Team.

Earlier, in 1968, Bagshaw supported David McKay's Monaro team in the car-breaking London-Sydney Marathon. On the back of racetrack and off-road triumphs, Bagshaw energised the Holden brand with muscle cars such as the Torana XU-1, Monaro GTS, and Torana L34.

These models were the road-going versions of cars that won at Bathurst.

Bagshaw was always a man to practise what he fervently preached inevitably, his company car of choice was a thundering V8 model, often in bright colours and with a brace of custom features.

At the urging of racing driver and journalist Jim Sullivan, who had been critical of the handling of its cars, Holden set about giving new products much-improved European roadholding. Holden's chief engineer, Joe Whitesell, and his deputy, Peter Hanenberger, tuned the suspension and brakes to European standards and added radial-ply tyres as standard. Then Bagshaw did the hard sell to dealers and consumers on what was called RTS radial tuned suspension. It was a meaningless term but Bagshaw turned it into something memorable, using slaloms in television commercials to illustrate its clear benefits.

Though brash and not without a healthy self-esteem, Bagshaw encouraged others to think beyond the square. With the flexibility of new computerised production systems, he seized the opportunity to create a succession of low-volume, high-appeal market specials, from the sporty HQ SS (1972) to models such as the Vacationer.

In 1978, Bagshaw's talents and popularity within GM took him overseas for nine years, initially in corporate international marketing and then for the Pontiac brand in Detroit.

Senior leadership positions with GM's Vauxhall and Opel brands in Germany followed, with Bagshaw rising to managing director of the struggling Vauxhall in Britain.

He overhauled the brand and then was called back to Australia in 1987, aged 62, to take up the top job at Holden, heading a youthful executive team of aggressive Australians engineers, designers and marketers.

Bagshaw is credited with leading Holden's return to profitability with the successful VN Commodore program in 1988. He also guided Holden's controversial joint venture and product development program with rival Toyota, which spawned rebadged clone cars.

Like many successful people in an industry laced with ambition and clashing egos, he was not without his detractors. "Many of his more conservative fellow executives at Holden did not like his flair, his showmanship, his love of the limelight and the techniques he used to bulldoze his decisions through the system," Crennan recalls.

Bagshaw's time as Holden managing director ended in 1990 when he reached the compulsory retirement age of 65. In retirement, he joined the board of the then new Holden Special Vehicles and for three years brought his experience and dealer connections to the table.

A former Australian champion yachtsman, Bagshaw simultaneously pursued his love of motor sport and sailing from his waterfront home at Clontarf in Sydney. In recent years he lived in Queensland.

Bagshaw is survived by his second wife, Gillian, his three daughters Liz, Karen and Lauren, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

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