It’s on a main road. Hundreds, if not thousands, of cars pass it every day. They pass it. They don’t stop. Would you?
I did, because there was something about this building…something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
It wears its former tenants like bad tattoos all over its festering body. On the eastern side, the Japanese Car Centre dares car shoppers to compare their prices.
A quick glance across wild grass to the neighbouring site almost has you thinking that was possible, but the cars on the lot were peppered with P plates and those flag boxing gloves, the 21st century fluffy dice. A quick inquiry in the Toyota dealership revealed that the Japanese Car Centre had been abandoned for years, and was now used as Toyota staff parking. As I left the slightly confused receptionist to her absent Facebooking, I thought about the reality of what she’d said: staff parking. Hell of a lot of staff.
On the western side, trees had worked to cover this once-prominent advertising canvas. The lights were long dead, whatever the sign had said was lost to the ages.
Buildings like this have a way of opening up to you after awhile. In this case, it was the abundance of electronic doodads covering its face like piercings that gave it away. From this former sign…
…to the downlights above the doorway…
…to the Secur-A-Posts preventing Smash-N-Grabs, gadgets had this place covered. But who had done the covering?
The glass door didn’t reveal many secrets, except for a distinctly retail feel inside…
…a notion backed up by their generous acceptance of TeleChecks. Now, the kiddies in the audience might be wondering what the hell a cheque is, and even if I told you you’d probably doze off halfway through. Let’s just say that this TeleCheck company – which I’d certainly never heard of – claims to have been around for 50 years. This must have been an early adopter.
And then it struck me: the colour scheme. Look at the building for a moment. It’s canary yellow. What kind of madman would have it this way?
Yes, the truth is revealed at last. For years, this was a Dick Smith Electronics outlet, back when Dick Smith Electronics emphasised the electronics side of the business rather than the dicksmithing. When Dick sold out to Woolworths in 1980, they (for a time) stuck with his main street store approach. This would have been one of the last, dying out sometime in the mid 1990s.
From the look of things, a furniture factory outlet took charge of the prominent location and eye-grabbing paint job before (in a cruel parody of the corporate 80s) it was absorbed by the Japanese Car Centre. And now that’s been gone for years, so who’s here now?
The Japanese Car Centre traded up to become Five Dock-smiths (You’re fired. -Ed) while this building has been left to rot, and that’s where the story should end. But you’re my readers, and I love you, so I want you to know I tried to go the extra mile. I know that you love photos of docking bays around the back of places like this…I know that. But when I went around to the abused little alleyway that ran behind the site, I, for the second time in Past/Lives’ history, interrupted a drug deal. So I’m very sorry, docking bay lovers – I just couldn’t get that shot.
Epilogue: Don’t cry for Dick Smith. His NSW warehouse is situated just a bit further up the Hume, where Homebush Bay Drive intersects, with a small retail outlet tacked on for good measure. He ain’t hurtin’. The Japanese Car Centre’s doing just fine too, joining a thriving indie car dealership strip on Parramatta Road, and abandoning the big boys who dominate this section of Chullora. In fact, the only loser in this story is me, because I had to spend so much time across from Fairfax’ offensive billboard of “journalist” and apparent buccaneer Peter FitzSimons while I took these photos. What’s that doo-rag all about, Peter?
Original article: Rick Damelian/For Sale – Leichhardt, NSW
Over the last year, you’re likely (I would hope) to have enjoyed a healthy bank balance, a good credit rating, a roof over your head. Simple stuff that the people of Sydney take for granted. Rick Damelian on the other hand…
When we last left the epic tragedy that is the Rick Damelian saga, things weren’t looking too good for both Rick and his former dealerships. Despite their desirable location along Parramatta Road at Leichhardt, the caryards, weren’t attracting any offers, and Rick himself was staring down the barrel of a pretty severe bankruptcy.
But hold on. Look there, in the window…is that what I think it is? Let’s take a closer look.
Your eyes aren’t deceiving you. In November 2012, these showrooms finally sold, and since then have returned to doing what they did so well at the peak of Rick’s success – selling cars.
Even on the roof, Rick’s private helipad has been obscured by a legion of cars. The staff might want to check to make sure Rick isn’t living in one of them.
Remember Ric’s Cafe, the on-site licenced restaurant that was the jewel in the crown of Rick’s decadence? It’s since been replaced by even more cars! It’s funny, Rick might not be in the situation he’s in today if he’d just thought to sell a few more cars instead of food and helicopter rides. Live and learn, I guess.
Further down the road, a modestly priced used car dealership has set up shop on Rick’s old turf. So toxic was the land, so tarnished was the site’s reputation as a car seller that the signs feel the need to be as explicit as possible: “WE BUY CARS! WE SELL CARS!”. It’s a trick Rick didn’t seem to be able to employ in his last years: speaking the language of the customer. Having cars onsite helps too, I’d imagine.
Rick’s old bedfellow, Honda, has returned as well. Formerly the core of Rick’s sales strategy, Honda left Rick holding the bag when the Japanese tsunami decimated their inventory, and some speculate that this marked the beginning of the end of the Damelian empire.
Yet here they are.
Fancy that: it’s easier to come back from the ravages of a tsunami than it is to survive Rick’s management.
One thing Honda has held onto are Rick’s ‘Dealer of the Year’ awards. I can see what Honda’s trying to do…but Honda – you issued these awards. It’d be like me giving myself the ‘Blog called Past/Lives of the Year’ award.
Over the road, Morris has set up shop at the old Rick Damelian Prestige lot. A few examples of Rick’s flamboyance remain: the floodlights, the pointless sign on the far left, the Hollywood-style palm trees. But the cold, impersonal MG style sits heavily at odds with these elements, further highlighting their uselessness.But fortune hasn’t been so kind to the man himself. As Rick Damelian and his wife sit together in their $3.3m McMahons Point townhouses, arguing over whose turn it is to heat up the beans tonight, the banks and other creditors hover over him like a hawk. Should he decide to sell his two townhouses – thereby leaving himself, his wife and his mother homeless – he’s so in debt that he’s likely to receive nothing. It’s reported that Rick has just $73 left in his bank account, and can’t even afford to buy a car. You really have to feel for his wife at a time like this…with no car, she may never get off her Ls.
After nearly 40 years in car sales, Rick’s biggest accomplishment was establishing his own name. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – take Dick Smith for instance – but it meant that Rick’s triumphs and tragedies didn’t stick to Honda, or Fiat or whatever brand of car he was flogging at the time, they stuck to him.
$200m-a-year sales? “Damelian’s business savvy creates sales juggernaut.”
Your new car sucks? “I wouldn’t buy from Rick Damelian again.”
While it’s true that the financial crisis hit everyone hard, Rick’s lavish showrooms didn’t help him weather the storm. And since he put himself forward so often, it was his name that thousands daily saw stagnating as they passed his high-visibility caryards at the top of Taverner’s Hill.
No matter what should happen in the future, the name Rick Damelian will forever be tied to car sales, and there are plenty of dealers who would kill for that kind of association. At least in his downfall, Rick has provided a cautionary tale for the next generation hungry to make an impact as the world’s financial situation improves.Fitting then, that it appears it’s harder to expunge Rick’s name from his old dealerships than it is from bankruptcy court.
Another sad tale from the coast today, this time down south. In 1923, mechanic and motorcycle enthusiast Jim Shipp started a sales and repair business in Wollongong, and in 1949, his son Noel took over as owner. In these early days, dealerships were a huge part of the Shipp motorcycle empire, and Noel sponsored all sorts of club motorbike events and competitions. At some point there was probably a local TV ad featuring the man himself.
But as the years wore on, Shipp’s motorcyclery went the way of all enthusiast business ventures in the modern age. The customers dried up, the big dealers moved in, the internet made sourcing parts easier than ever. What was once a cutting edge mecca for all things motorbikes became that crusty, decaying hulk on Keira Street, itself reforged as a cul-de-sac to prevent noisy motorcycle traffic. Enthusiasm becomes eccentricity. Much like Gould’s or Comic Kingdom, when a business reaches the brink of obsolescence, all it can rely on as a drawcard is the individual experience and know-how of its staff. In Noel Shipp’s case, this was a pretty major asset.
Even after a spell of ill health and admittance to a nursing home later in life, Noel would still make his way into the shop to tinker around with the bikes brought in solely by enthusiasts. A much-loved and well regarded member of the community, Shipp passed away last September, and the shop has been boarded up ever since. Once the name finally rots away and the motorcycle signs are claimed by souvenir hunters, Noel Shipp will join Jim in the annals of the forgotten, and the shop will just be another brick box in the warehouse that Wollongong has become.
UPDATE: Or worse. The old Shipp place has met its end, making way for a new attempt to breathe life into this end of the ‘gong.
If you owe $80m to creditors, lost eight car yards in the last year and failed to get any bids at all when you tried to sell your three Parramatta Road dealerships, chances are you’re Rick Damelian. Born in Uruguay to Armenian parents, Ricardo Damelian came to Australia in the 70s, and in 1978 started the Damelian Group. Establishing his dealerships along the high-visibility Parramatta Road at Leichhardt, Damelian changed the face of car sales by doing everything bigger and classier than his I’ll-appear-in-my-own-TV-ad competitors. Rick’s strip of dealerships contained a business centre which included a gym and a library, while rumours suggest a secret tunnel existed between the caryards and his volcanic island stronghold, which boasted a rocket launchpad, submarine base and a highly trained force of ninjas. Hey, they didn’t call Rick the ‘King of Taverners Hill’ for nothing.
Rick was known as ‘dealer to the stars’, but not for the reasons you may have heard. What it means is he sold cars to celebrities, if you count Lara Bingle as a celebrity. There’s one of Rick’s problems right there – if you sell an expensive car to someone with the surname Bingle, nothing will stop you when Larry Smash or Howard T-Bone walk onto the lot.
The motto of Rick’s dealerships was “The Best Place in the World to Shop for your Prestige Vehicle”. Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? This motto meant little towards the end, when to stop the cash haemorrhage Rick had lowered himself to *vomit* making cars affordable for families and lower income earners. The things you do for money, right?
As good as he was at selling cars, with $300m-a-year profits and more than 100 cars sold per week at his peak, Rick made some bad choices in his time. In 2003, he invested in struggling radio and phone company Strathfield Group, of Strathfield Car Radios fame. Both Rick and Strathfield went into receivership in 2011, with Strathfield holding on for a whole month longer than Rick did before the bean counters came knocking. Shoulda kept the money, Rick.
One of Rick’s major problems was that Honda, his bread and butter, had been hit hard by the Japanese tsunami. No supply meant no sales, and the big bosses in Japan were too busy placing saucepans under their dripping ceilings to return Rick’s calls. When Rick went under, his remaining cars were returned to their suppliers, which I’m sure was just what Honda wanted. How many of these cars were destined for low income families we can’t know, but we do know that they’re getting their deposits back from the Office of Fair Trading’s motor vehicle compensation fund, and NOT from Rick himself. That may seem unfair, but think about it from Rick’s point of view. As a low income family himself now, he’ll need those deposits to buy a 1994 Mazda hatchback to drive to Centrelink.
Another was that Rick’s brother Robert, thought to have been the mastermind behind the whole operation, left the Damelian Group in 2008 after a falling out with Rick, leaving only Rick’s flamboyance at the helm. Unfortunately, this was no longer the 80s – it just doesn’t fly anymore. Just ask Mad Barry. Of course, there was a lot of blame placed on the global economic crisis, and I’m sure that had *yawn* a lot to do with it, too. Robert’s apparent business savvy does not seem to have been shared by Rick; when the banks were encouraging him to start selling off his assets when his fortunes started to dip, Rick would ask for more than was offered every time, and would subsequently lose the sale. Maybe he wasn’t throwing in air conditioning and a three year warranty, those always help to sweeten the deal. Now that expressions of interest are being called again after the collapse, no one’s interested. I don’t see how the apartment building craze doesn’t catch on here, a few more ugly towers wouldn’t be out of place in the area.
Car franchises held by Rick included Honda, Suzuki, Saab (pfft), Renault, Citroen, Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Skoda. All the high quality showrooms in the world won’t help you when no one is buying what you’re selling, and given the number of SUVs and 4WDs on the road these days (oh, and bicycles of course, City of Sydney), it’s no surprise first time buyers or those on a budget weren’t spending cash at Rick’s, despite his library and gym.
When the saga ended in October 2011, Rick’s business was 33 years old, five years older than his third wife.
While the money men behind the scenes struggle to sell off what are turning out not to be assets at all, Rick’s showrooms sit quiet and empty on Parramatta Road, waiting in limbo, like so many other places in Sydney, for their next life. Let’s take a look around.
This was Rick’s prestige car lot, and I believe it was his first car dealership on Parramatta Road. These days, the Peak Hour Parramatta Road Car Yard (™) has more cars than this.
WE’VE MOVED, says the big red lettering, and at first you assume that’s the reason the dealership is empty. But then you look over the road next to Honda, and see that that’s empty too. No big red letters there, though.
What’s wrong with this picture? Notice anything missing? So synonymous was Rick’s name with cars that he didn’t even need to put the word ‘cars’ on his sign to let people know what he was selling. It probably helped too that the yard was once full of prestige cars. Didn’t he ever think it’d be empty?
Rick’s office chair is the only thing on either lot with wheels. It’s got arms too, so of course it’s on the prestige lot.
In a fit of rage, someone’s hurled Rick’s filing cabinet onto the empty lot. It couldn’t have weighed that much, I suppose. There wouldn’t have been much paperwork for Rick to file in the last few years.
Rick’s prestige lot has become one of Parramatta Road’s many ‘dealership dealerships’. They should have some fun with it: “GOOD NICK, ONLY 300,000 SALES ON THE DASH, ONE PREVIOUS OWNER ONLY TOOK IT OUT ON WEEKENDS OR SPECIAL OCCASIONS”.
Here’s that picture again, seen through a ‘Rick Damelian Simulator’.
Fully sick! There’s a fully licensed restaurant here! Rick should have had a Red-P licensed restaurant for the kiddies too, but since they weren’t customers, no dice. I set off the building’s alarm taking this photo, but I wasn’t exactly worried that Rick’s patrolians were coming to sort me out. Those guys don’t work for free.
It’s Ric’s Cafe! I’m guessing that by not calling it ‘Rick’s Cafe’, Rick was a. avoiding any copyright issues with Casablanca and b. liability free if anyone got sick, died or otherwise had an unpleasant dining experience. I like that the ‘N’ in ‘restaurant’ has come loose, giving it that dilapidated, derelict feel. I bet that happened when they shut the door on the last day. This was actually the first restaurant to be incorporated into an Australian car dealership’s premise. Guessing not too many caryards will be following the trend given how it worked out.
The weekly special at Rick’s Ric’s Cafe was a glass of white wine. Well, that IS special.
Rick (nor Ric) hasn’t got many customers today, but just in case business picks up, there’s more seating upstairs.
When the repo men came, they took the Ns first.
Here’s Rick’s Parts & Accessories office, complete with Rick’s trophy cabinet; much like the showrooms, it’s looking a little bare. Those flowers look very ‘with sympathies at this difficult time’, don’t they?
If your Rick Damelian needs service, you’d come here to get him fixed. Ricks generally run for about 40 years before they start to conk out, and when they do watch out: you don’t want to be around.
Dedicated to excellence is a mantra I can believe, because there sure isn’t anything else on this lot. Nice lounges in the waiting area; they’re presumably there for creditors, who’ll be waiting awhile.
Hey, congratulations Rick! Honda Dealer of the Year…no years running. Oh. Still, it’s no biggie – even Honda isn’t Honda Dealer of the Year these days.
When these showrooms eventually go, there’ll be little to remind Sydneysiders of the legitimate impact Rick made on the world of car sales. I propose that in recognition for all he’s done for motorists, the nearby footbridge over Parramatta Road should be renamed the Rick Damelian Overdraw – uh, I mean, Overpass.