2014 sees Warr’s Harley-Davidson celebrate its 90th anniversary. The company, which is Europe’s oldest Harley dealership, is already looking forward to its centenary as it announced ambitious plans to completely redevelop its central London premises in order to meet the growing demand for its services
WARR’S Harley-Davidson first opened its doors on London’s famous Kings Road in 1924, and today the business is still family owned and continues to operate from the same address as the day it first opened.
The Warr’s story began with a cycle shop at 661 Kings Road when Captain Frederick Warr started working for himself in 1924 after having seen active service in World War I and then returning to employment in the army after the war due to the lack of work elsewhere. Within a year of opening the shop he had expanded his operation to include motorcycles. During that time the Motor Company had its European operation based in an office on Newman Street in London, and so Frederick, having seen how reliable the early Harley-Davidsons were during his time in the Royal Artillery, visited the Company’s agent and became an authorized dealer.
When asked why his grandfather chose to work with Harley-Davidson when there were so many other brands available at that time, John Warr, the current Managing Director of Warr’s, said: “He was already a motorcyclist at that time, and being in the Royal Artillery he witnessed the move from horses to automotive power, and that included motorcycles, and there were a lot of Americans involved in that process, so he was exposed to Harley-Davidson motorcycles. While there were lots of options for American bikes at that time, he chose to go with Harley-Davidson simply because he liked them, and because of his exposure to them during his army service.”
When World War II started Frederick went back into service putting the family business on hold until his return from the war effort, by which time he was joined by his son Fred Jnr, who had also seen active service, in his case with the Royal Air Force. It was Fred Jnr’s exposure to WL45 bikes during his time in the RAF that led him to join his father in the family business. However, it was a difficult time for them as the war effort had forced the British government to introduce rationing, a restriction on what goods people could buy that stayed in place until 1954.
The rationing had a very deep impact on the Warr’s family business as imports of new motorcycles from the US were not allowed during the time of rationing. However, the war effort did mean that there was a ready supply of army surplus motorcycles available, and buying, selling and servicing them kept the Warr’s shop running in the years after the war had ended. Once the supply of ex-army machinery began to dry up, Fred Jnr decided he would travel to the States to source Harleys direct from the factory. Travelling by sea on the Queen Mary, Fred Jnr landed in New York and then traveled by train to Milwaukee where he met with William H. Davidsons on the banks of Lake Michigan. As a result of that meeting Fred was able to secure the first new Harleys to be imported into Britain since 1939 and the outbreak of war. His first shipment of motorcycles from the US were 1957 model Sportsters in late 1956.
The tradition of working in the family business is continued today by John Warr, who joined the company in 1981 just as the Kings Road site was redeveloped, causing the showroom to be relocated to the nearby Waterford Road. His joining the business also coincided with the management of H-D buying the company back from AMF and the introduction of the Evo motor. These two changes led to a resurgence in people’s interest in Harley-Davidsons at a time when Fred Jnr was looking to retire, making John’s timing perfect to take Warr’s Harley-Davidson on to the next stage of its history.
Today Warr’s Harley-Davidson is well known for its custom builds based around new Factory models, and it was under John’s guidance that this strand of the business first developed. When he first joined the operation Arlen Ness products were beginning to come onto the marke,t and Warr’s began to look at fitting these parts to new bikes before they went on sale.
Realizing that he could generate greater profits if he did not have to buy custom parts in, John began to explore options for doing as much custom work as possible in-house, and today Kings Road Customs is a business within Warr’s H-D, which has become well known for its Softail based Bobbers, but the style of builds that have passed through the workshop include everything from traditional Choppers to Cafe Racers.
It is not just custom builds and regular service work that passes through the Kings Road workshop as Warr’s does regular restoration work on older H-D models and has an extensive collection of old Harley models as part of its museum.
The Warr’s museum is made up of older Harley motorcycles that the family has acquired over the years. Talking about it, John said: “The museum is an obvious extension of our passion for bikes, but it is also good business. We utilize them having them on show as museum pieces, but it also endorses the fact that we know what we’re talking about and that we really like Harleys too.
“They are also a solid investment, we’ll never lose money on them. It has also led to us acquiring over time a huge stock of vintage Harley parts that we are known for worldwide, and that gives us additional sales opportunities.”
However, the bikes are not simply bought as investments as John was quick to point out: “I’ve got a 1912 Silent Gray Fellow Harley-Davidson sitting in my office. It’s there because I like it, not because we’re short of storage space. It’s an example of how we couple a passion for the brand with excellent customer service, and it works as witnessed by our high level of returning customers. They realize we’re just as passionate about Harleys as they are!”
Having a collection of old bikes and displaying them in-store is not the only example of how Warr’s Harley-Davidson differs from the vast majority of motorcycle dealers. The business also takes a different view to clothing sales, so much so that at one time it had a separate retail outlet at a different site just to sell Motor Company clothing. John said of that aspect of the operation: “The Warr’s Boutique developed because H-D has always had a nice collection of clothing. In the mid-90s, when I became the Managing Director, we took the decision to open a separate store near Sloane Square just for H-D clothing. That was very successful and ran for about 10 years, we only closed it due to the excessive cost of the rent on the property. We realized we could transfer the experience of shopping there to right here in the store, and that’s why we have the Boutique now on the mezzanine level. Through having that store on Sloane Square we learnt how to run a clothing business - in a location like that you simply cannot afford to make mistakes.
“Unlike other motorcycle dealers we have made a feature of the apparel, we merchandise it like a clothing store and rotate stock. We keep everything fresh and current. We treat it almost as a separate business, but that works as we are the biggest retailer of H-D clothing in the UK, and the biggest retailer of Harley T-shirts outside of America,” concluded John.
The changes to the business continued under John’s guidance with him being able to buy back the original site at 661 Kings Road and oversee the building of a state-of-the-art facility. Created by architects Kilburn & Nightingale, the new showroom was soon winning awards for its innovative design, which featured ideas that were considered new at that time, such as polished wooden floors and exposed brick work walls.
When talking about the showroom, John said: “This is a venue as much as it is a motorcycle dealership, we get tourists visiting every day of the week. If any Harley enthusiast comes to London, then they’ll make a point of visiting us too.”
Visitors were one thing that was not in short supply at the beginning of June when Warr’s Harley-Davidson held an Open Day to celebrate its 90 years in business, and at the same time announced its ambitious plans for the future. A key part of the celebrations was the unveiling of designs for a new facility to be built on the existing Kings Road site.
Over the next two years the current building will be demolished and completely rebuilt as a far bigger facility. However, rather than relocating, or relying on the business’ second showroom 14 miles away at Mottingham, Warr’s will continue to trade at 661 Kings Road, as the plan is to carry out the redevelopment in two halves to provide continuity for the business and its loyal customers.
“We have a big site here, and when this facility was built we did what was needed then, and now we are looking ahead and things need to change again,” said John of his master plan for the showroom. “We need more space and we’re going to take the opportunity to redevelop the entire site and create a stunning new showroom.
“Fourteen years ago, when this building was designed and built, it was done so that we could put an extra story or two on top, but given the high level of property prices now we have had to start with a clean sheet this time. The new plans include going down into the ground two stories as well as going further up above ground.
“We are going to be very careful with the new design. Although it will be considerably bigger we don’t want to create a showroom that feels like an aircraft hangar. We want to retain the character of the current building and the atmosphere we have.”
Not only will the new build include more space for motorcycle and apparel sales, it will also house a larger custom and restoration workshop, an on-site deli-style café, a dedicated museum area along with motorcycle rental facilities and a club room for the local HOG chapter. However, perhaps the most surprising aspect of the new design is the inclusion of 22 residential properties on the upper stories of the building, which will have a view of the river Thames.
“When it’s complete it will be a temple to Harley-Davidson. It always has been, but it will be even more so,” said John. “With this new build we’re fortunate that we’re not starting from scratch, we know what works and how to make it work better, and that’s what we’ll be doing. The strength of experience I have with the team here means it will be absolutely perfect!”
With such ambitious plans ahead it looks like Warr’s will continue to be not only a successful Harley dealership, but also a tourist destination for many years to come with a state-of-the-art showroom taking pride of place when the business celebrates its 100th anniversary in ten years’ time.
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