In the first of a two-part special, the Torbay Weekly has spoken to motoring expert Peter Vosper about his family journey to becoming the name synonymous with cars in the South West. TIM HERBERT reports

Frank Vosper with Michael Aspel at the opening of a Ford On Show Week 1966Frank Vosper with Michael Aspel at the opening of a Ford On Show Week 1966

It all started after the First World War in Plymouth when Peter’s grandparents Len and Florrie owned a general store in Russell Street but their business enterprise took its first step into the technological world in the early 1930s.

Peter takes up this fascinating story with the emergence of his father Francis Leonard Vosper, known as Frank, developing the first real family passion for motor cars.

“My grandparents established a wireless supplies business before opening a second shop in 1935, which became Vospers Radio Plymouth Ltd.,” said Peter. “In the original shop, my father began selling bicycles.

“His main interest, however, was motor cars. When he met his future wife, and my mother, Dorothy Brown, the first date was a drive to Bournemouth and back. My mother later on lent him the money to buy his first car to resell, a Renault.

Princess Square in the 1950sPrincess Square in the 1950s

“The era of Vospers’ selling cars had begun.

“My father was called up for duty in World War Two but the motoring business continued with my grandfather selling a few cars on his behalf. When he returned from the war, Vospers truly took off from the Willow Plot in Plymouth and the Looe Motor Company in Cornwall.

“In 1951, the family acquired a premises in Princess Square, Plymouth, which had been built for R. Humm, the Rover dealer, and was positioned close to the Royal Parade, later to become the new route on to Plymouth Hoe.

“As a successful used car business my father was regularly approached by a number of new car manufacturers, eventually taking on his first franchise, AC Cars. At the same time, my grandfather sold Vospers Radio and used the money to invest in my father’s business.

Vospers Radio in Russell Street on the corner of Willow PlotVospers Radio in Russell Street on the corner of Willow Plot

“A new premises in Old Town Street was developed and a director of Fiat described it as the most modern showroom he had seen. Vospers now had agencies for AC, Ford, Jaguar, Fiat, Rover, Simca and Volkswagen.

“As a family, we were regular visitors to Paignton, where my mother’s cousin worked for the chemist Timothy Whites and Taylor. We opened a showroom on Torquay Road in Paignton and summer holidays were spent on Goodrington Beach and at Paignton Cricket Club.

“In 1960, Vospers took the major step of becoming a Ford main dealer. The biggest gamble of this move was that terms of the agreement meant that we had to be exclusively Ford, therefore giving up the other brands and sales outlets within a 30-mile radius of our base in Millbay Road, close to the Hoe.

“As the aspiring next generation in the family dynasty, I remember voicing doubts with my father but he introduced me to the Ford Cortina, a car that would transform family motoring. By the early 1970s, the Cortina had 15 per cent of the total new car market and Ford was on a path of dominance.

Len Vosper, Frank Vosper and Dorothy Vosper at a company dinnerLen Vosper, Frank Vosper and Dorothy Vosper at a company dinner

“I was now a qualified chartered accountant and ran the accounts division for Vospers. We became the sole Ford main dealer in Plymouth and, after a management training programme with Ford, I was appointed the general manager.

“We also purchased the site of the former Jaguar dealers next door as the home of our new Ford commercial operation and, in addition to the Cortina, the Ford Transit was on the road to becoming Britain’s best-selling van.

“A relatively smooth journey to business success was then rocked by tragedy.

“My father died, totally unexpectedly, from a heart attack in 1974 and, in order to pay the estate duty, we had to choose between selling the family home or selling the business.

“We took the brave decision to maintain the business and I took on the responsibility of 70 employees.”

In next week’s conclusion to the Vospers story, the family branches out in motorcycles and boating, and a new generation steps forward.