Miles Brown: garage boss

30 Oct

Everyone on Islington Faces Blog has a story.   Three generations of the same family have run Brownings Garage just off Amwell Street. They’ve never advertised and don’t use a website, but business is booming in the newly refurbed garage. So, what’s business like for the grandson of the original garage mechanic, the well-named Miles Brown?” Interview by Nicola Baird

Miles Brown, whose dad and grandfather also ran Brownings Garage in Islington, with dog Olly.

Miles Brown, whose dad and grandfather also ran Brownings Garage in Islington, with dog Olly.

It’s dark now at 7.30pm so the shutters are down at Brownings Garage. But owner manager Miles Brown, 39, is still at work. In the spotless garage are a mix of cars he and the team of mechanics are working on, and in the office, with its cosy under-floor heating, Miles’ dog Olly is sleeping happily.  “I only live five miles away, in Finchley, so sometimes I ride a bike here,” says Miles but mostly he drives to work with Olly.

Questions for a mechanic…

Q: If money was no object, what would you drive?
“The only cars that really stir me are Porsches. I’d have a 911 Carrera if I had £100 grand burning a hole in my pocket. They are so well engineered.”

Q: Is it hard to mend/service or maintain a car?
“Cars are boxes on wheels aren’t they.  They are filled with electronics that hate heat and cold and vibration but they get a lot of that! You do try your hardest, and do sometimes get caught out, so it’s how you deal with it.”

Q: Are you and your team all petrol heads?
“We like to go to the Goodwood Revival (historic car race meetings for pre 1966 models held regularly in Sussex, see here.“

Q: Do you use the local shops?
“Sometimes we all pop to the Amwell Street deli and have lunch – in theory the garage is closed from 1-2pm.And we use Amwell Wines, the off-licence across the road too.  I use Dale at Amwell Street vets for Olly and I get my hair cut at the hairdressers across the road.”

Q: Do you recommend this job?
In summer it is brilliant – the garage is south-facing and the sun comes flooding in. It is cold in winter, and the vehicles drip, but we’ve got fleeces gloves and hats  – and there’s underfloor heating in the office.

Back at the turn of the century Amwell Street and the roads off it were famous for dairies – indeed Miles’ great aunt had come up from Aberystwyth in Wales to London to find work in “service” [rather like below stairs at Downton Abbey, just done in the smaller Islington terraced houses]. Later on his great aunt ran a dairy right next door to what would become the family garage.  Opposite is number 72 where Miles’s father was born.

Rewind to 1910 when metal fabricator and mechanic, Mr Browning used the building to repair motorbikes.

“In Islington before the second world war no one had cars – it was all motorbikes and sidecars,” says Miles looking proudly around his refurbished garage. It’s a site that has been used as a place to fix vehicles since 1910, though back then it looked more like a cowshed.

“My grandfather, known as Sonny (but really called William), was friends with old Mr Browning’s two sons as they were all mad about motorbikes. They used to do long distance bike rides. Then one of the sons, Cyril, was killed in a motorbike accident and the other not interested in taking over the business after World War Two (1939-45) when his father was ill with cancer.

My grandfather had spent the war building tanks and jeeps with Leyland, in either Richmond or Morden, and he was keen to take the garage on. Soon there were more customers with cars than motorbikes…

Amazingly Miles’ grandparents ran three businesses – the garage as well as a newspaper shop, by Smithfield Market on St John Street, and a petrol station opposite what is now ITN.  “They were working from 5 in the morning until midnight, hours and hours, but made no money. They had no business brain between them,” says Miles good-naturedly.

Like father like son
A sure way of making children rebel is to insist they take up the same career as their dad. “Sonny’s father was a watchmaker and he didn’t want his grandson David (my dad) to come into the garage trade. So he was sent to be a watchmaker, but after two years he’d had a gut full of that. My dad wanted to be a merchant seaman, but it was a closed shop. He couldn’t get on a ship unless he was in the union, and he couldn’t be in the union unless he was on a ship. So my dad worked with my grandfather at the garage. “

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Brownings garage has been open for business since 1910. When it was first used to repair motorbikes, back in 1910, it was more cowshed than bespoke garage.

Cars
Messing about with cars is what Miles has always loved.

“I used to come down to the garage in the school holidays. There were lots of mechanics and you’re a kid so you get to take a wheel off. It was fun and interesting and you’re making mistakes that you learn from.” Although MIles went on from Highgate Boys School to study engineering product design it wasn’t long before he was back fixing cars. Nowadays the cars his customers mostly drive “are German – VW, Audi, Mercedes and BMW.”

Until six or seven years ago the family had been leasing the site from the council, but in the mid 2000s there was a big sell off of properties. Thanks to some effective campaigning from an Amwell Street action group led by Dale Barter from Amwell Veterinary Practice and others, tenants were allowed to buy the property freeholds.

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Olly the dog checks to see if Miles has treats. “I‘m in at 8am every morning and generally do a 12-hour day.”

Everyone knows us
“When we were fixing the garage up, everyone kept asking if we were turning it into flats,” says Miles. “I think they were surprised we were keeping going. But I like projects, and I like the personal touch: we do work that’s quality and value for money. Over 90 per cent of our customers I know by name – a lot of them knew my father, and some knew my grandfather (who died in 1978)!” explains Miles.

Miles seems a happy man – not just because the business has been here for 100 years, but he and his team of four mechanics, plus a local apprentice who he has just taken on, get to speak to the customers – some of whom are definitely famous. Talking to your customers about their car is now considered an old-fashioned style but the regulars love it. It’s an approach very much missing from the modern chains of car dealerships where mechanics do the cars and blokes in the office take the payment.

Islington is lucky to still have a real garage run so effectively by such a dedicated local character.

  • Brownings Garage, 71 Great Percy Street, London, WC1X 9QX tel: 020 7837 5450 or email: browningsgarage@yahoo.co.uk 
  • Amwell Veterinary Practice is run by Dale Barter at 52 Amwell Street, London, EC1R 1XS, tel 0207 833 1320

Over to you

If you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know, via nicolabaird.green@gmail.com. Thank you. 

If you liked this interview please SHARE on twitter or Facebook. Even better follow islingtonfacesblog.com (see menu top right).

This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

 

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3 Responses to “Miles Brown: garage boss”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Anne Weyman: u3a dynamo | Islington Faces Blog - October 1, 2014

    […] Cars We don’t have a car anymore but when we had two, I used to get mine repaired at a garage off Amwell Street. (Here’s the link to islington faces blog’s interview with Miles Brown who runs this garag….) […]

  2. 15 places in Islington to repair, spring clean, hack or get creative | Islington Faces Blog - February 25, 2015

    […] Miles Brown, whose dad and grandfather also ran Brownings Garage off Amwell Street. […]

  3. John Harvey: J& J Motors | Islington Faces Blog - March 11, 2015

    […] You might also like this islington faces interview with Miles Brown from Brownings Garage, off Amwell Street here. […]

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