Veteran car salesman says it is not about the sale, but the relationship

When Charles Pratt, one of KwaZulu-Natal’s most influential car salesmen, retired after 50 years in the business — he says he had yet to sell a single car.

Charles Pratt shows the only ‘computer’ he knows how to use.
Veteran car saleman, Charles Pratt.
Veteran car saleman, Charles Pratt.

Pratt says he never thought of his job as selling cars, but as helping people choose the right wheels.

A top footballer who played semi-pro for the MFC, Pratt worked his way up from salesman at Collins Motors in Pietermaritzburg to later become a manager, first at Forsdicks BMW, then at McCarthy before he established Peugeot in KZN.

Asked what the most important trick of the trade is, he pauses a bit and then says: “Get involved.”

And “get involved” he did. Over his long career, Pratt was known throughout SA’s racing fraternity as Clerk of the Course during the heyday of the Roy Hesketh Race Track, where he spent most of his weekends for 20 years of his life, along the way helping to organise the first international Springbok Series of three-hour races. These races were major events right up to the first fuel crisis in the 1970s.

Dealers from the 1980s will, however, remember Pratt for organising a relay run from Johannesburg to Pietermaritzburg to raise funds for charity.

Fourteen dealers of varying shapes and sizes piled into a VW kombi and each ran about two kilometres at a stretch. They slept in school halls along the route and built a great camaraderie along the way.

“I thought we could show (the world) we also have a heart,” Pratt reckons. Back then, Maritzburg’s car sellers met regularly to discuss common issues they had with service providers, including finance, repairs and licensing. Pratt is philosophical about how sales targets and fierce competition have replaced this golden era of cooperation.

He says the easiest cars to sell during his career were the Peugeot 404s, the Datsun 1400 bakkie and, these days, Subarus. What he likes most of the Scoobies is the safety features the all-wheel drive systems offer his clients on the Midland’s sweeping dirt roads and the fierce brand-loyalty that results.

Once in his career, he lived the car seller’s dream, when people thronged to the dealer to buy cars — when a 10% Value Added Tax (VAT) replaced General Sales Tax in South Africa in 1991.

“People literally queued to order cars before VAT started,” he recalls. But he is not nostalgic about those days, saying right now is the only moment that matters.

“I have four children and nine grandchildren, and all my family are still in town. It is something I am really, really chuffed about and I look forward to enjoying them,” Pratt reckons.

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