Johnny Rocks and the 107: An Apocryphal Tale — A guest post by The Battered Bunnet.

19 Jul

Johnny Rocks and the 107: An Apocryphal Tale

by The Battered Bunnet

The 5 door Peugeot 107 “small city car” is one of identical triplets, born of the B-Zero collaboration between Peugeot-Citroen and Toyota, each parent taking one of the newborns and giving it the family name. Thus the Toyota Aygo and the Citroen C1 are the siblings of the 107, separated at birth at the purpose built TPCA car plant in Kolin, Czech Republic, each differently labelled but carrying the same genes.

Like its siblings, the 107 comes with Toyota’s 1KR-FE engine as standard, a straight 3 cylinder, 996cc unit delivering 68 horse power at 6000 revs, and 70 lb.ft of torque at 3600 revs. With such a little motor, fuel economy is optimised, with a claimed 65.69mpg combined cycle, meaning the cautious driver might eke out 500 odd miles from a single fill of its tiny 35 litre fuel tank.

Numbers aside, the 107’s engine is to performance motoring what Joe Dolce was to pop culture. In a non-empirical test carried out in this household recently, the 107 was unable to pull a Welly boot out of the mud. The standard gearbox is a 5 speed manual, where one needs to thrash the engine in 1st gear to make the change up to 2nd without going backwards. 3rd gear is strictly for going downhill, while 4th is for stalling. The 5th gear is essentially no more than a decorative accessory.

While the Aygo is finished to a higher standard, and the C1 is the cheapest of the three in the showroom, Peugeot dealers are better provided with support from head office, and therefore tend to be more willing to cut prices to shift cars. Accordingly, the 107 is the most popular of the 3 amongst fleet managers and retirees alike, with over 100,000 units sold each year since launch in 2005.

Gwanni ‘Johnny Rocks’ Scirocca, from a young age known affectionately to family as “ta’ Xewwiex” – The Troublemaker – is something of an entrepreneurial legend on the island of Malta. As with all legends, what is known of Johnny Rocks is somewhat shrouded, but it is known that he grew up in the Paola district of Valetta in the 60s, learning the tourism trade at his father’s kerbside café in the docks area, and earning pennies and the odd shilling from table tips.

Hustling tourists from the cruise ships that docked in Valetta harbour, the seven year old ta’ Xewwiex first made trouble selling bottles of Coca Cola to parched tourists around the Barrakka Gardens. While few customers complained about paying a shilling for a cold Coke, the ruse was rumbled when he was caught knocking stock off the back of a delivery truck. Another scam involved selling ‘lottery’ tickets, the winner getting dinner for 4 at his father’s place, rumbled when someone bought every ticket and actually turned up at the dive to claim the prize. More Trouble.

Of course the café couldn’t contain young Johnny Rocks’ enterprising nature for long, and at 16 he launched his first business, a mini-cruise wheeze that offered tourists (for 10 shillings) the unique chance to view the historic city of Valetta and Fort Saint Elmo from the water. Being 16 of course, he was not permitted to obtain the necessary Boat Master’s licence, and matters ended somewhat dramatically when the “Scirocca Breeze” – a patched up 18 foot traditional wooden Kajjik powered by a clapped out 3 horsepower Evinrude 2 stroke outboard – was caught in the wake of the harbour dredger, necessitating a Coast Guard emergency rescue for the 11 paying passengers dumped into the water. The whereabouts and identity of the pilot was never formally established, although the boat was traced to a salvage yard in Mgarr, a breaker that had been bought for 30 shillings cash by “a young man from Valetta” earlier in the season.

And so the legend of Johnny Rocks was born. Did Johnny Rocks go down with his boat? Was he drowned? Certainly no body was ever retrieved from the harbour water, and no funeral service was ever held. Business at the Scirocca café continued as usual, although conspicuously without the help of ta’ Xewwiex.

From that point, Johnny Rocks’ career developed in tandem with the growth of Malta as a tourism destination in the 80s, a series of pubs, clubs and restaurants opening and closing in quick succession, leaving behind a string of bemused creditors, frustrated landlords and bewildered city officials. While it was widely believed that Johnny Rocks ran the operation, his name appeared on no official register. Indeed, there was no trace of Gwanni Scirocca in the public records since his leaving school at age 15. He was invisible. He had, in effect, disappeared the afternoon the Scirocca Breeze capsized.

In the early days, Johnny Rocks was able to use his contacts at Farsons Brewery in Mriehel to obtain back door supplies in return for cash and assorted favours, but as the business grew, the stock losses at the brewery became impossible to hide, resulting in 2 warehousemen spending some time in Corradino Correctional Facility, coincidentally just round the corner from the Scirocca family home in Paola.

With perhaps a dozen pubs and clubs in his growing chain, and back door supplies cut off for the time being, Johnny Rocks became a leading exponent of “closed chain” trading, buying supplies on credit through one of his ‘wholesale outlets’ and reselling on open credit at eye-watering margins to each of his myriad retail outlets in turn. Each outlet thus ran at a loss on paper, but cash poured in through the tills, and was banked in Pozzallo, Sicily, each week, a mere 75 minutes away by speed boat, but safely out of the reach of the Maltese tax authorities. As the credit line ran out, the wholesaler would file for insolvency, and the operation continued in turn through another wholesale front, primed with a good trading record for the purpose. The introduction of VAT in Malta in 1995 provided a handy 15% leverage on trade.

Matters became interesting in 1998 when Frederick Nielsen, a bank clerk in Ballerup, Denmark, disputed the validity of a 83,000 Lira back-dated VAT demand received in the post from the Maltese VAT Department. Nielsen claimed (correctly) that he was not and never had been the owner of the Mardi Gras nightclub in St Julians, and indeed, had only ever set foot in Malta during a 2 week holiday in 1995.

Investigations into one insolvent wholesaler by the office of the Director General and Commissioner of VAT found that the licensee for each debtor pub and restaurant was a foreigner, a different person for each shop, none of whom were resident on the island bar a short vacation around the time of the licence application, during which a passport was lost. Jennifer Woods from Leicester; Wilhelm Koller from Zurich; Rune Lien from Oslo and so many others, each the unwitting licensee of a pub or club in Malta, connected only insofar as at one time or another, they had each stayed at the Blue Horizon hotel in Sliema, and there lost their passport.

By the turn of the millennium Johnny Rocks was in his forties and in his prime. Pubs, clubs, restaurants, taxis, properties; business was booming. He knew the tourism market, and he understood human nature. Wherever there were tourists in Malta there was a Johnny Rocks enterprise helping them spend their money, but there was one itch Johnny Rocks had never scratched, one that he had quietly dreamed of for many years, in his view the height of tourism enterprise: Car Hire.

The car hire business is a tough racket, with huge depreciation and slim margins in a heavily price sensitive market. The key in the standard car hire business model is vehicle utilisation: A car doesn’t earn any income sitting depreciating on the car lot, and thus competition between the major rental brands is fierce. The big rental companies fight for discounts from the manufacturers, they fight for prominence in the airport arrivals hall, for ranking on Google, and for customer loyalty. Price-critical and capital-intensive, you need deep pockets and a sharp mind to compete.

Johnny Rocks knew that in order to crack the market he needed to find something new, something different, something the big guys couldn’t touch. He found it by reverse engineering human nature and came up with the notion of Disloyalty. Johnny Rocks knew that, for a local car hire firm, tourists were a strictly buy-once market. There is no prospect for repeat business and therefore no penalty for customer disservice. While Avis, Enterprise, Hertz and the rest need to maintain a consistent level of service to match customer expectation the world over, the local firm needs just one hire per customer, and beyond a friendly smile, screw the added value. For the local guy, it’s all about price, and moreover, about margin – the difference between the depreciation of the vehicle and the revenue it generates.

Johnny Rocks realised that he need two key things for his car hire business to succeed: The best Price to get the hires in the first place; and the best Margins to profit from. His genius was in figuring that one out, and in 2006 Johnny Rocks launched the Goldstar Cars business.

It is well known that Michael O’Leary first discovered the low cost airline business model at Southwest Airlines in the USA in the 1990s, but he got the polish for his brass neck only after hiring a car from the Goldstar Cars’ desk in Luqa airport in 2007. O’Leary’s business approach involves a relentless pursuit of cost cutting, and it was only natural that, when visiting Malta on a business trip, his PA would book a car with the cheapest rental outfit she could find on the internet: Goldstar Cars.

Initially, O’Leary couldn’t understand how a small, local outfit could offer a 7 day rental for less than €10 per day. The depreciation alone on a typical hatchback is more than that after all. He didn’t take long to figure it out, and what Michael O’Leary learned from Goldstar Cars made Ryanair the most profitable airline in the world.

And so, here I sit in Marsalforn, supping a cold Cisk lager in the shade under the awning of a Gozitan bar, a Johnny Rocks bar perhaps, the vivid colours of the moored Kajjiks reflected in the clear waters of small harbour in front of me. The light breeze is welcome as I type out this little story while my rented Peugeot 107 sits across the road, heating inexorably towards fusion ignition temperature as the southern Med sun beats down on its black paintwork, its black dashboard, its black upholstery. Why black? Who would buy a black car in Malta where the sun shines for more than 300 days per year, and the average summer daytime temperature is 87 degrees? Moreover, who in Malta, in their right mind, would buy just such a black car with no air conditioning? Why, Johnny Rocks of course!

It transpires that in February the Czechs at Kolin inadvertently shipped a consignment of 100 black, no frills, base model Peugeot 107s to Malta. Being right hand drive, the only other markets in Europe for such a car are the UK and Ireland, their original intended destination, the cost to reship being huge. Johnny Rocks caught wind of the Peugeot flotsam, made an offer, and took the entire consignment. If you see a black Peugeot 107 in Malta this summer, odds on it’s a Goldstar 107.

By bidding a fraction above the competition for ranking order on the internet price comparison sites, and undercutting the prices of the Luqa Airport based multi-nationals, Goldstar Cars is able to place every vehicle for hire virtually every week to cost conscious tourists like me. Who can resist a 5 door hatchback for €140 for a fortnight when the best of the rest is €220? Valetta is a small city, what better than the 107, a small city car after all, to scoot about in?

Of course, as I found out when I collected the car, €140 euros is just the cost of the car hire…

“Insurance Sir, which option would you prefer? The basic CDW option included in your reservation, or the full cover?”

“I’ll go for the basic option please.”

“Very well Sir. I’ll need a deposit of one thousand euros, which we’ll re-credit to your account within 3 weeks of you returning the car undamaged.”

“eh..uh… WHIT?”

“Yes sir, a €1000 deposit to cover any damage you might cause to the car.”

“€1000? Three weeks?”

“Yes Sir. €1000. We promise to refund your deposit within 3 weeks of you returning the car, provided there is no damage.”

“And what constitutes damage?”

“It covers pretty much everything Sir, from collisions to small dents and scratches. We give you the car in perfect condition, and you just return it to us the same way. Otherwise, we use the deposit to repair the car.”

“To hell with that! I’ll take the full cover.”

“Very well Sir, that’ll be an additional twelve euros. Per day. So that’s an extra €168 altogether, plus the small €150 deposit. And of course, the car comes with a full tank of fuel. Just bring it back empty.”

“Not full to full? I always do full to full. Everyone does full to full.”

“No Sir, we only do full to empty. Just bring it back empty. So that’s €140 for the car hire, €168 for the full insurance cover, €150 deposit, and €75 for the fuel. Total €533. Your card please Sir.”

“€75 for the fuel? SEVENTY FIVE EUROS! FOR THE FUEL! The bloody car only has a 35 litre fuel tank. That’s… that’s… that’s more than €2 per litre!” [further quotes redacted to avoid causing the reader offence]


Post Script

Unleaded fuel in Malta is around €1.45 per litre this week. The 35 litres in my hired Peugeot 107 was sold to me at €2.14 per litre, almost 50% mark up on the forecourt price.

Moreover, the small island of Malta has just 140 miles of coastline. Given the efficiency of the Toyota 1KR-FE engine, it seems possible to circumnavigate the island 3.57 times in a Peugeot 107 on a single tank of fuel. I’m trying it. Any fuel remaining in the car will be resold to the next hire, as the last hire’s doubtless was to me. If there’s a quarter tank left, Goldstar Cars make another €20 on the deal and clever Johnny Rocks has just doubled his margin on fuel sales. That car’s not going back with anything more than the smell of petrol in the tank.

At least I have full insurance, and perhaps, unwittingly of course, I have been a little less careful a driver than usual. I must confess that in the past week or so I’ve grounded the car 3 times going too fast on Malta’s quaint, unsurfaced back roads, kerbed it twice, been rather clumsy with the supermarket trolley, and used the bumpers to pretty good effect while parking in Malta’s congested town centres.

The poor clutch has been thrashed on the tight hill climbs up to Bingemma and Had-Dingli, the engine hammered relentlessly, the gears crunched up and down and the front tyres spun to the smoke point on the hot, slick tarmac.

To be fair, the wee car has held up pretty well, but I’m not finished yet. I’m damned if I’m going to let Johnny Rocks resell what remains in the fuel tank to the next schmuck who books a Goldstar deal online, fuel I paid Goldstar 50% over the odds for in the first place. My final stop then, before returning the car to the airport, will be to the Scirocca & Sons Home and Garden Emporium in Hal Qormi, from where I will purchase a siphon.

Roond ye, Johnny Rocks. Right roond ye.


Author’s Notes:

This story is a work of fiction. Any similarity to persons, living, dead or legendary is entirely coincidental.

The People of Malta may be unfairly maligned by this tale. To be perfectly clear, in my experience they are warm in their welcome and generous in their hospitality. Perfect hosts.


One Response to “Johnny Rocks and the 107: An Apocryphal Tale — A guest post by The Battered Bunnet.”

  1. voguepunter July 19, 2013 at 7:51 pm #

    BRT&H ,young??? TBB shows potential a right good read,well done.

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