EXCLUSIVE: SMMT sells Forbes House HQ

By Rob Golding | 11 October 2010

Forbes House - an undeniably elegant HQ for the SMMT

Forbes House - an undeniably elegant HQ for the SMMT

Britain’s motor moguls have sold their elegant clubhouse. Instead of living in one of the most imposing mansions in London, they are to abandon the Belgravia building in Halkin Street in the heart of London’s West End.

They have been there just over fifty years having bought it just as the first Mini emerged from Longbridge, 18 years after Herbert Austin died and three years before the death of William Morris. Forbes House is headquarters for the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, better known as SMMT and casually referred to as Smut.

The unnamed buyer paid just under GBP40m for the building and its surrounding gardens which is a few hundred metres from Hyde Park corner. The sale has yet to be announced.
There are several reasons for the decision but foremost among them is an inclination to throw off the image of British cars being rooted in the era when they were pioneering but not exactly the best designed or made.

Today’s UK industry of 15 very different manufacturers runs all the way from multi-national Japanese volume carmakers to the revived and vigorous Aston, Bentley and Rolls.

Paul Everitt, chief executive of the SMMT which was formed in 1902, is one of the youngest leaders of the society and has seen a need for a more modern image. He is looking in Westminster and Victoria for offices that will put them within lobbying distance of the politicians.

He has said that his job is to promote an industry that is fundamental to the economy and reckons that living in a charming house in Belgravia does not convey the urgency and hard work that exists in that industry.

Though the new offices will be functional, it is expected that they will not be short of space for the sort of Press and social gatherings that the 1824-built Forbes House was so good for.

In an effort to keep the running costs of the SMMT and its 80 staff below its natural level of GBP1m a year, the building has regularly been let out for weddings and other events.

It is probable though that the greatest parties of all were held before the SMMT’s occupation. For some of the time between the end of the war in 1945 and sale to the SMMT in 1959 it was inhabited by the War Office Institution Club. Those boys had plenty of reasons to party.

The SMMT will be left cash rich and its members paying far less each year for maintenance and overheads. There have been assurances to staff that this is no job-cutting exercise in disguise. All 80 are to move when the new headquarters is up and running.

A large part of the workload for the SMMT was running the British Motor Show but that was outsourced some years ago. There are to be no more official shows run by the UK industry. The major gatherings in Europe are now reserved for Geneva, Paris and Frankfurt.

Property Week magazine has speculated that the chairman of the Telegraph Media Group, Aidan Barclay has bought Forbes House for a lavish London home. Barclay, the son of Sir David Barclay and nephew of Sir Frederick Barclay, is believed to have bought the unexpired 47 years of the lease - meaning that he will be spending nearly GBP1m a year for the lease alone with nothing at the end of it.

Rob Golding

See also: Forbes House, end of an era