Whatever happened to motorcycle Mega-dealer Carnell?

1 of 5

They were the future of motorcycle sales in the UK… so what went wrong?

Carnell. That name rings a bell…

And so it should. By the late 1990s this dealer chain had grown to become not just the UK’s but Europe’s biggest, responsible for nearly 10% of all British new bike sales but also, arguably, the first ‘mega dealer’. If you didn’t buy your bike from Carnell back then you almost certainly knew somebody who did – or who worked there.

What do you mean ‘mega dealer’?

The biggest Carnell branches had it all – selling new models from not just all the leading Japanese manufacturers but quite often a few European ones as well, usually at discount prices, not to mention having masses of used machines, clothing, helmets, accessories – the works.

Sounds good. Were they popular?

Hugely. As I said, for a while nearly 10% of all UK new bike sales were through Carnell. But it was more than that. Because of the masses of bikes and kit on display, all under one roof, with plenty of bargains, Carnell became a destination to ride to and hang out on a sunny weekend afternoon.

So where did it all start?

In Doncaster in the ’70s, of all places. Founded by Yorkshire brothers Martyn and Paul Carnell in 1975 with its base in Marshgate, by the mid-1980s the operation had grown into three outlets, selling both bikes and cars. Then, progressively, it took off and went nationwide.

What happened next?

By the mid-90s the number of outlets had risen to 14 – 10 car and four bikes then, in 1997, it went turbo after being bought by Dixons Motors, a large Yorkshire-based car retailer for a reported £12.4million. Under Dixon ownership (although the Carnell brothers stayed on under the deal for two more years) Carnell opened nine more bike dealers up to July 2000 and also a mail order business via a catalogue – Carnell’s Big Bike Book.

Couldn’t anybody stop them?

They tried. A more southern-based ‘mega dealer’ sprang up around the same time – Motorcycle City – which was probably Carnell’s biggest multi-franchise rival. Dixons bought them, too, in December 2000 in a deal worth a reported £8m. The result was the biggest dealer chain in Europe – 30 strong with 17 Carnell outlets and 13 Motorcycle City ones.

So why aren’t Carnell still around today?

Soon after things started to go wrong. The “stack ’em high, sell ’em cheap” approach had already resulted in a damning reputation for aftersales which management repeatedly attempted to address. One scheme in 2001 meant no staff were allowed to go home until all that day’s calls had been responded to.

Was that it?

Motorcycle retailing began to change, too. Honda led the way in demanding its dealers be solus, or single brand, in the belief it would allow salesmen to have more detailed product knowledge and thus be more effective – something which, after all, BMW had been doing for years. This in itself directly led to the closure of five outlets.

Anything else?

But the biggest factor, almost certainly, was when Dixon Motors was itself bought out by Lombard, a subsidiary of the Royal Bank of Scotland, in May 2002. RBS were already then a big player in car insurance and retailing, through Direct Line and Jamjar.co.uk and wanted access to Dixons’ huge stock of cars. That was bad news for its bikes business, which Lombard simply wasn’t interested in.

So what happened?

It all imploded pretty quickly. The aforementioned five London branches of Carnell/Motorcycle City were closed in September 2002 along with the mail order business. Then, in a bid to improve its image, the remaining 26-store chain was rebranded as Riossi (after Carnell’s own motorcycle clothing brand) in October that year. It didn’t work. By the following June five more stores were sold to Infinity Motorcycles. Then it was announced the remainder would be closed if buyers couldn’t be found.

So was that it? No more Carnell or bike supermarkets?

Not quite. Infinity, which took over some of the stores, lives on today with 10 branches nationwide. Some of the others are now operated by J&S Accessories, which has 27 branches, so the big chains aren’t dead, they’re just different. It’s J&S, incidentally, which now occupies the original Carnell site in Marshgate, Doncaster. 

Fact file

Carnell Motorcycles Ltd

Born: November 1975
Claim to fame: Europe’s biggest bike dealer – for a while
Killed off:  October 2002

Read the latest stories causing a buzz this week in News…

Phil West

By Phil West

MCN Contributor and bike tester.