As discussed previously, a lot of what will appear on this blog will be about memory. My memory, to be both precise and selfish. I was born in Cambridge but spent my childhood split equally between there and the rural Breckland of west Norfolk. This was not because of a divorce or family separation, I must emphasise, but because of a happy romance between two adults who had already bought and mostly paid for two homes in two adjacent counties.
There is, here in Norwich, a newly franchised dealer of the Chinese car manufacturer Great Wall. Their range is currently limited to a handful of keenly priced pick-up trucks, vaguely familiar of (and in all truth probably copied in large part from) Isuzus of the last decade. But don’t be fooled. Just as in the nineteen-sixties it was the Japanese who arrived on our shores with a range of cheap, practical but largely unrefined cars, so it was that the nineteen-eighties that brought the automotive work of the Koreans. No-one’s laughing at Honda or Hyundai now.
This building was part of my first experience of the previously unheard of Kia Motors. Kia started importing cheap hatchbacks and saloons to the UK in the early nineties, following their sibling Hyundai. Just as there are now a surprising number of Chinese built pick-up trucks working the roads and farms of Norfolk (they are now a daily sight in my cross county travels), this county was highly receptive to Kia’s proposition of cheap hatchbacks and saloons based on mildly reworked Mazdas and Mitsubishis of previous years. There’s something about Norfolk – far from the centre of automotive fashion – that makes it a sensible landing ground for new automobile companies looking to establish a reputation at the value oriented end of the market.
Back to the architecture. Watton is an odd town, close to where I grew up although far from my heart. The town is long and thin, stretching along the Norwich road. Architecturally, it gets more grungy and interesting east of the town centre, where the former RAF Watton air base has sadly been carpet bombed with overpriced undersized shit box developer housing. Some of the original military housing (detached for officers, terraced and semis for everyone else) remains, as do some of the administrative buildings on the opposite side of the main road to the airfield.
The Drome Garage is a little treat. Presumably named after the defunct aerodrome, it makes a valiant attempt at jet age architecture using nothing more than materials that could be reasonably acquired from the local Jewson’s yard. The showroom is raised off the ground in order to counter the effect of the difference in levels with the main road, and is large enough for just one car. It sits in front of and barely disguises a corrugated barn. Although the Kia franchise has long been withdrawn, much of the signage remains.
As a kid, I devoured car magazines and I hoarded manufacturer’s brochures. It would have been at one of the annual Wayland Shows held just outside Watton that I would have discovered the beige delights of the Kia Mentor, and it was from either there or this garage that I would have pilfered an early (certainly pre-launch) brochure for that model. I’m ashamed to admit that I might still have it somewhere. Although the Mentor was clearly not going to set anyone’s pulse racing (precisely why it was so popular with the blue rinse brigade) its aesthetic neutrality made it highly intriguing to me, the thirteen year old car fanatic who preferred sedans to sports cars.
I’m presuming that as Kia’s star rose, the demands made on dealers to upgrade and expand their retail space has rendered this business unviable. It’s comforting to see that the proprietor is still able to make a living selling petrol – Watton has a Tesco but as yet no supermarket petrol forecourt to kill this kind of rural enterprise.