Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Gowing, Dennis (1930–1991)

by John Young

This article was published online in 2014

Dennis Gowing, with his Melbourne Cup trophy, by Rennie Ellis, 1985

Dennis Gowing, with his Melbourne Cup trophy, by Rennie Ellis, 1985

photo privately sourced

Dennis Gowing (1930-1991), car dealer and restaurateur, was born Marshall Dennis Whyte on 3 November 1930 at St Pancras, London, son of Cecilia Marie Whyte, caterer’s counter hand. Orphaned at an early age, in 1935 he was adopted by Frederick Walter Gowing, hot-water fitter, and his wife Elizabeth, née Parsons. Dennis did not regularly attend school until he was about nine years old. During World War II he was evacuated from London and by the time the war ended, both of his adoptive parents had died. From 1946 to 1948 he served in the British Army.

Recalling later that he had eaten sardines on toast for Christmas in about 1943, Gowing observed ‘that was the day I decided to become very rich’ (Whitlock 1986, 24). In early 1949 he sailed from Liverpool to Melbourne aboard the Georgic. Settling in west Gippsland, Victoria, he was employed by the State Electricity Commission; as a barman at a Yallourn hotel; and, importantly, as a trainee used-car salesman. He noticed that used-car dealers lived in better houses than new-car dealers, which made it easy to choose between the two.

By 1955 Gowing had adopted the persona of ‘Dennis the Menace’, sales manager of Reno Auto Sales at North Richmond, Melbourne. He married Elizabeth Chapple in August that year at Christ Church, South Yarra. In 1960 he started a used-car business in partnership with Kevin Heffernan, who had operated a second-hand car lot at East Hawthorn. They combined their first names to create Kevin Dennis O.K. Motors Pty Ltd, but within a few months Gowing became the sole owner of the company. By 1963 he had married his second wife, Faye Kathrin Bate; the union did not last and they separated in the early 1970s.

Gowing chose prominent locations for his car yards, the most notable of which opened in 1963 on the corner of two busy roads in Richmond. He also had a flair for publicity. His classified newspaper advertisements were often full-page displays. In 1963 he sponsored and regularly appeared in a Saturday morning television show Kevin Dennis Auditions (later Kevin Dennis New Faces) on Channel 9, Melbourne. A youthful thirty-three-year-old, he had neatly cut curly hair and trademark black plastic spectacles. He also featured on other sponsored television programmes, including Tell the Truth and the Kevin Dennis Sports Parade. His by then familiar face was brashly used as an advertising logo in print media, television advertisements, and on car yard banners. At the peak of his business career, he boasted that he operated two new-car and five used-car outlets in metropolitan Melbourne.

In the rapidly suburbanising years after World War II Gowing recognised that cars, once an expensive luxury, were becoming a necessity. His businesses catered for those who were unable to afford a new car by offering to trade-in almost anything, and to provide low interest rates and a money-back guarantee. The firm’s selling practices attracted criticism. In 1973 it was reported to the State parliament that over a quarter of the complaints relating to car sales made that year were against Kevin Dennis businesses. Gowing was aware of the ‘sneering attitude’ of others towards him and ‘the used-car image’ (Age 1977, 3) and sought to protect his reputation. He cautioned his staff to lift their standard of ethics, even if it meant losing sales. In an advertisement signed ‘Kevin Dennis,’ he quoted the chairman of the Consumer Affairs Council saying that ‘no other car dealer was as cooperative as the Kevin Dennis Group in dealing with complaints.’ Gowing added that, when fourteen thousand cars were sold, ‘somebody had to be unhappy about something’ (Age 1973, 5). At about the same time he sold half his interest in the firm.

Retiring from car sales, Gowing moved into the restaurant and hotel business. He opened Jacksons (1976) in Toorak, Gowings (1984) in East Melbourne, and then Gowings Grace Darling hotel (1990), Collingwood. He had a passion for contemporary Australian art, buying all the paintings in an exhibition and paying record prices to secure paintings that he displayed at his restaurants and in his home. He also indulged in trial-car driving, for a time ran a horse stud, and was part owner of the 1985 Melbourne Cup winner, What A Nuisance.

Excelling at sales, Gowing made his fortune selling cars, and later bought and sold paintings, racehorses, and property. An obituary recalled that he ‘liked making money, [and] he took pleasure in spending it and sharing the benefits of being rich’ (Erlich 1991, 20). He was courteous and good company but if the mood took him, could be bad-tempered. Survived by his three sons and a daughter, he died from cancer of the bladder on 3 December 1991 and was cremated. His estate was valued for probate at over $1.8 million. All of his children would follow him into the hospitality trade or the automobile industry.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Age (Melbourne). ‘No Other Car Dealer is as Co-operative.’ 23 November 1973, 5
  • ‘Gorton Ad had Kevin Dennis in Stitches.’ Age (Melbourne), 26 May 1977, 3
  • Beilby, Peter, ed. Australian TV: the First 25 Years. Melbourne: Nelson in association with Cinema Papers, 1981
  • Cave, Michael. ‘Cost of Life in the Fast Lane.’ Age (Melbourne), 23 December 1987, Tempo 3
  • Erlich, Rita. ‘Death of a Legendary Salesman.’ Age (Melbourne), 4 December 1991, 20
  • Gowing, Randolph. Personal communication
  • Public Records Office of Victoria. VPRS 8890/P0001 Central Correspondence Files, Unit 125, 8210K/2 Kevin Dennis (KD) Traders – MPRT
  • Whicker, Alan. Whicker’s World Down Under: Australia Through the Eyes and Lives of Resident Poms. London: Collins, 1988
  • Whitlock, Fiona. ‘Perfection Surrounds a Rags-to-Riches Achiever.’ Age (Melbourne), 24 June 1986, 24.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Young, 'Gowing, Dennis (1930–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gowing-dennis-18061/text29638, published online 2014, accessed online 19 November 2017.

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