September 1985: England regain the Ashes at the Oval, the Super Mario Bros. video game is released by Nintendo and, in momentous motoring news, SEAT UK opens for business.
The first right hand drive SEATs arrive at Ramsgate in September 1985
25 years ago this month the Spanish brand’s fledgling UK operation opened its doors for the first time and a handful of dealers across the country introduced British motorists to the delights of the original SEAT Ibiza.
A mere quarter of a century later, with a little under 500,000 sales to its name, SEAT UK is a thriving business with a strong and growing market share – currently running at a record 1.6% – an enthusiastic band of loyal customers and an ambitious plan to further expand its sales success.
The story of the Spanish brand in this country is one of consistent growth built on an impressive array of sporty, engaging and great value cars.
When the company first set up shop here it was as a franchised importer owned by Tiny Rowland’s sprawling Lonrho conglomerate – the group which at the time was also operating the UK’s Audi and Volkswagen franchises.
Entitled SEAT Concessionaires and headquartered in Reading, with the ex-Volkswagen premises in Ramsgate as its distribution centre, the business was led by managing director Douglas Clare, a former marketing manager for Volkswagen.
1985 SEAT Ibiza Mk1
Sales got off to what can only be described as a ‘considered’ start: September 1985 saw the brand notch up 24 registrations – 405 for the year. The handful of dealers focused their attention on the Mk I Ibiza, the first model to be developed entirely by SEAT alone rather than with previous co-owner Fiat, along with the Malaga saloon.
1988 SEAT Malaga
The Spanish outfit’s mix of value, style and sporting intent quickly struck a chord with British buyers and in 1986, its first full year of operation in the UK, 5,922 new SEATs found homes here.
1986 was important to SEAT for other reasons, too, as it was also the year that Volkswagen AG grabbed a 51% stake in SEAT, Spain’s only major car maker.
Progress continued apace and within five years SEATs were being sold through a network of more than 130 dealers nationwide. Annual sales topped 10,000 for the first time in 1988, new HQ offices opened near Gatwick Airport in Crawley, cars were being imported via Southampton and Alan Priest had taken over as managing director.
In 1990 Volkswagen completed its takeover of SEAT S. A. and the Germans bought out Lonrho as the UK importer, making SEAT the first of the Volkswagen Group brands in the UK to be factory-owned. The following year Stan Cholaj, previously with Nissan, took over at the helm of the UK business.
1991 SEAT Toledo Mk1
Meanwhile, the relentless development of new and exciting models continued in Spain as SEAT took full advantage of its new position within the Volkswagen Group.
A new factory on a greenfield site at Martorell, new cars such as the first Toledo and a renewed programme of aggressive pan-European marketing resulted from Volkswagen’s £4 billion-plus investment over a frenetic three-year period.
By the mid-90s SEAT sales here had hit 18,500-plus, fuelled in no small part by the debut in 1993 of the all-new second generation Ibiza, the Cordoba and, shortly after, the Alhambra.
1995 SEAT Ibiza Mk2
The 90s also saw SEAT once again branch out into light commercial vehicles with the arrival of the Inca, the Spanish firm’s follow up to the characterful Terra and even more characterful Terra Vista models of the 80s.
1995 saw SEAT UK move to its current home in Milton Keynes, coinciding with the appointment of Kevin Rose as the brand’s charismatic new boss. A period of consolidation followed and, by the turn of the millennium, SEAT was selling upwards of 20,000 cars in the UK.
The SEAT range at the turn of the Millennium
In the last ten years, SEAT’s sales have continued their broadly upward trend peaking, along with the market, in 2007 when 34,790 products of Martorell and Palmela found their way onto British driveways.
Today, aided by one of the broadest product ranges in its history comprising Ibiza SC, Ibiza 5dr, Ibiza ST, Leon, Altea, Altea XL, Exeo, Exeo ST and Alhambra, and led by dynamic brand boss Peter Wyhinny, SEAT UK is targeting further ambitious expansion.
2010 SEAT Ibiza ST
Indeed, 2010 could even see the brand equal its best ever sales total while grabbing its biggest slice of the UK car market to date.
Traditionally a success with private buyers SEAT is, increasingly, seeing savvy fleet and business buyers turning to it as the cars’ enviable mix of quality, value and style appeal both to hard-headed fleet managers and image-conscious user choosers.
1998 SEAT Cordoba WRC - World Rally Car
Motorsport has been integral to SEAT’s success both here and across Europe, with various race and title wins over the past 25 years in both World Rallying and World Touring Cars – the latter with the globe’s most successful diesel-powered WTCC car.
2009 SEAT Leon WTCC Car
Sponsorship and marketing activities have been as varied as the brand’s products with, in the UK, notable successes around Colombian pop star Shakira’s UK concerts, Red Bull Air Races and, today, SEAT’s extensive sponsorship of the UEFA Europa League.
Commenting on the Spanish firm’s successful first quarter century of operation here, SEAT UK boss Peter Wyhinny said: ‘It’s been an exciting, eventful and above all successful first 25 years for SEAT in the UK.
With almost half a million cars registered here over that time, and with an exciting range of new models in the pipeline, I truly believe there’s never been a better time to be associated with the brand.’