“And when you’ve worked in a business for that length of time – and it’s the only business I’ve ever worked in, you note patterns and trends, be they positive or negative, and everything I’ve noted in recent weeks and months for that matter suggests that things are moving back in a positive direction here in Waterford.”
Car registrations for a month we’re only halfway through – traditionally the busiest month for showrooms across Ireland – are significantly improved on last year’s figure for the same timeframe.
And even if the sales projected for the year represent a similar figure to new cars sold in 1994 or as far back as 1981, it’s clear that the industry’s bottoming out during the recession is well and truly behind it.
“It’s very difficult to draw a conclusion 10 business days into the new year,” said Mr Murphy, the principal Mercedes Benz dealer in Waterford.
“For as long as I can remember, there’s been an old rule of thumb: 50 per cent of the month’s registrations took place in the first 10 days, 30 per cent in the next 10 days and 20 per cent in the last 10 days.
“But what’s happened in recent years, since the advent of a lot of the manufacturers getting involved, the reality is that a lot of the major manufacturers are involved in self-registrations.”
Mr Murphy added: “If you look at the registrations through last year, there was 50 per cent registrations from most of the main manufacturers in the last 10 days – and the only explanation was that the cars were being registered by the manufacturers themselves – and that’s fact.”
At the start of the year, most motoring specialists, including the SIMI, predicted new registrations to total 80,000 this year. Tom Murphy didn’t agree with that sentiment.
“I said 100,000,” he stated. “And I’m sticking with that. It will be nearer 100,000 to 80,000. One newspaper at the weekend suggested 80,000 to 85,000, but I firmly believe it will come to over 95,000 at the very least.
“But what’s forgotten by many when talking about the numbers is that such a sales figure will see the industry return to 1994 sales figures. And I can go back to 1981 when there were over 106,000 cars sold when there was a change in government.”
He recalled: “We went down to 57,000 units in 2009 and there were 75,000 units sold in 2013. But it’s worth pointing out that the 2009 figures represented just under one quarter of the total sales achieved in 2000 – there were 230,000 cars sold that year. So that represents the ground out there that needs to be made up.”
Acknowledging that the 2000 figures represent a historic high for the Irish motor trade, “a one-off, no doubt about it,” Tom Murphy feels the age of the private motoring fleet (approximately 1.9 million cars) provides the industry with room for optimism.
“Another rule of the thumb I’ve learned down through the years related to the natural replacement of cars, and this is the instance across the developed world – it tends to be somewhere between nine and 10 per cent of the (national) car park.
“So if you take 10 per cent of that, then you’re talking about 190,000 cars a year. And if you took nine per cent of it, you’d be talking about 170,000, so I would say that in this country in normal times so to speak, that nine per cent represents a realistic figure for total national car sales per annum.
“It’s certainly what we ought to be aspiring to. I believe 175,000 car sales a year is a sustainable figure – and all of the infrastructure is there to achieve that. It’s definitely sustainable.”
Tom Murphy, whose statistical savvy has been gratefully plundered by this newspaper down through the years, revealed that there are less than 300,000 cars in Ireland which are currently five years old or younger.
“That means there are 1.5 million cars on our roads at present which are over five years old, many of them 10 or 11 years old. So the law of averages would stipulate that that number will not remain as high as that for too considerable a timeframe – and I have to say we’re seeing a dramatic change in customer behaviour.”
He continued: “As late as last June and July, when we were making follow-up calls to customers, there was a totally negative response whereas now, people want to talk.”
And what is that down to?
“Confidence,” he replied. “There’s a growing sense of confidence and I think, despite the tough situation that a lot of people find themselves in – and sadly some people will always find things tough – that there’s a growing sense of optimism not only in this business but right across Waterford that simply wasn’t there a few months ago.”
As for the wider picture, Tom Murphy believes a corner is, slowly but surely, being turned in a positive manner.
“This is a very resilient city – and I’ve sensed a more upbeat attitude among people around Waterford. And that’s due to a returning sense of confidence, so I’m very bullish, but then again if you weren’t bullish in my business, you wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning.”