Vin Kean was the third son of Christopher Kean and Mary Agnes and brother to Peter and Chris (both deceased).
When Vin was three, his father left his life at sea as a ship’s captain and purchased a newsagency at Hindmarsh so he could spend more time with his young family.
The family had a close association with the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (Chris was later ordained an MSC priest) which ran the parish in Hindmarsh.
The family lived above the newsagency and Vin used to spend a lot of time reading the automotive magazines that came in from the United States – a sign of things to come.
His interest in cars resulted in a family friend taking him as a young teenager to an open day at the Holden factory at Woodville. It had a big impression on Vin, who later spoke about his amazement at seeing the production line machinery operating at a time when the family didn’t even have a refrigerator at home.
After graduating from Rostrevor College, to which he travelled by tram each weekday, Vin began studying engineering at university but presumably wanted a more hands-on involvement with cars.
In 1956 he purchased a small service station, Seacliff Motors, with four mechanics, where he started buying and selling cars.
Around this time, Vin was involved in a local Catholic outreach group which visited people in need in the area. He met a woman whose husband had been a policeman and was killed in a motorcycle accident, leaving her a widow with three children under the age of seven.
Vin fell in love with Betty and the couple was married in the Henley Beach church by Fr Hoy in 1960. Vin bought some land for a house on market gardening land on Henley Beach Road at Fulham. In one of his many astute business decisions, he sub-divided the land and sold the other blocks to help pay for the house. Ever the salesman, he also started talking to the mainly Bulgarian market gardeners about cars. He would meet them and their families at dinner time, using an interpreter because they spoke little English.
To help a friend with a family illness, Vin went to work for the Smith Motor Company, Holden dealership at Port Adelaide. The rest is history with Vin ultimately running and then acquiring United Motors Holden and then combining Freeman Motors to build Adelaide’s biggest car and truck business employing more than 600 people. In Adelaide at that time he also held franchises for Rolls Royce, Jaguar, Datsun, Diahatsu and Isuzu trucks. In 1986 he purchased Motors Ltd in Tasmania with six Holden dealerships across the island state employing in excess of 400 people. He expanded this business to include BMW, Hyundai and Chrysler Jeep for the Tasmanian market.
In 1989 he established the BMW dealership on West Terrace and this was followed by multiple BMW dealerships in South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania.
Throughout his 61 years in business, Vin showed a remarkable aptitude for seizing on market opportunities. In a rare interview to mark the Motor Trade Association’s 90th anniversary last April, he said the motor business was his “passion” and was never about making money.
“I’ve never owned a boat, a farm or a light aircraft; to me it was about building a business into what I call a passion,” he said.
Vin and Betty had three children together, taking the total to six. When four of the children were still living at home, Betty became very sick and no-one could diagnose or cure her illness. Vin sold the family home to send her to Harley Street Hospital in London. He and the four children moved into motel rooms at the Arkaba Hotel, which he owned through his business, and Betty remained in London for several months until finally she was diagnosed with Lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
With proper treatment, Betty improved but still had many unwell days when Vin would help out with the children.
While travelling overseas in 1968 on one of his many business trips, Vin decided to look up his father’s family who came from Skerrie in County Dublin. He met his eldest cousin Dr John Kean with whom he became great friends and from then on whenever he was overseas he would “pop in” to see his relatives.
Between 1975 and 1980 there were five family trips to Ireland, usually around Christmas time, and many more on his own up until his last visit three years ago. He was a familiar figure in the town of Skerrie and after he died Masses were celebrated for him.
Five of his cousins, including 84-year-old Rosanna Keane, attended his funeral Mass in Adelaide. Such was their affection for Vin, as soon as they heard he was terminally ill, they jumped on a plane and made it in time to see him the night before he died. Vin had been holding business meetings in his hospital room earlier in the day which had exhausted him but his face lit up when his cousins walked in.
Delivering Vin’s eulogy, friend and work colleague John Cambridge said in life we can often find many good people but seldom can we find a person who is an outstanding human being.
He outlined Vin’s role in securing the Australian Grand Prix for Adelaide and in the development of the prototype Brock Commodore and the Holden Dealer Team which became instantly successful on the race track.
The former director of State Development said Vin’s advice was frequently sought by a wide range of key people in the State, including Premiers Des Corcoran and John Bannon.
“The automotive industry and many businessmen and women throughout Australia held him in the highest regard. Politicians of all persuasions respected and regarded him highly and frequently sought his counsel,” he said.
“He was respected and admired by his managers and staff, loved by his customers and revered by his competitors.
“He felt deeply and sincerely for people in difficulty and hardship and employed many people, providing them with a job, income and security.”
As chairman of SGIC Vin was acutely aware that the interests of the State were paramount and that his organisation should recognise and follow a conservative approach to its investments and lending.
Numerous charities, sporting activities and sports people benefitted from his personal and generous support, from football legend Neil Kerley in the 1960s to Olympic cyclist Anna Meares in recent times. Vin always worked behind the scenes and never sought any publicity for himself or his business.
He made a significant contribution to the heritage and life of the Catholic Church in Adelaide, including through his involvement with the papal visit to Adelaide and the St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral Appeal.
He was a great supporter of Australia’s first saint, Mary MacKillop, and the Sisters of St Joseph. When he first heard that his Adelaide BMW showroom was located on the site of the House of Providence, which Mary MacKillop and the Sisters established to provide support and shelter to the underprivileged, he went to great lengths to confirm that the information was accurate and then proceeded to install a plaque on the premises.
Vin told The Southern Cross at the time that the plaque had “nothing to do with his business but rather was about verifying a piece of history in our life-time”.
Only recently, Vin helped the Sisters of St Joseph in establishing the Mary MacKillop Foundation to raise funds for a museum at Kensington.
Vin was a devoted husband and family man. His commitment and love for Betty was exemplified by his own dedicated personal care of her in her final years. He was much loved by his children Robyn, Dean (deceased), Kym, Christopher, Mary-Anne and Jacqueline, and his 15 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Celebrated by Fr John Curtis CP and Fr Paul Cashen MSC, in the presence of Archbishop Philip Wilson, the funeral Mass for Vin was held in his beloved St Paul of the Cross Church at the Monastery. Vintage Holden cars led the motorcade to Centennial Park.Jump to next article