A HAMPSHIRE car dealer accused of conning customers should not be blamed for the collapse of a business venture in Australia, a court heard.

Richard Burbage, pictured, and two co-defendants are facing allegations of fraudulent trading following an investigation into five companies that started operating in the Southampton area.

During the trial jurors have heard several references to Burbage’s earlier involvement in a car-buying enterprise Down Under called We Buy Any Car.

Malcolm Gibney, prosecuting, returned to the subject yesterday, saying Burbage left Australia “pretty smartly” after things started to go wrong.

But Mark Florida-James, defending, said the company collapsed as a result of bad management, telling jurors that several customers were paid twice for the same vehicle.

Mr Florida-James said Burbage was only the frontman and did not control the purse strings.

He told jurors at Salisbury Crown Court: “My client has been painted as a pantomime villain who left Australia in suspicious circumstances.

“It’s very easy to point the finger but he was part of a business that failed. There was no dishonesty involved and no charges were brought against him in Australia.

“It was not his proudest moment but you should not hold that against him. He was out of his depth.”

Burbage, 44, of Poplar Way, Southampton, is on trial with Ryan Overton, 22, of St Peter’s Close, Southampton, and Darryl Warren, 35, of Lower Derby Road, Portsmouth. The charges they face relate to allegations of clocking cars and giving misleading descriptions of vehicles for sale.

A fourth man, Stan Rudgley, is not in the dock, having earlier pleaded guilty to fraudulent trading.

Four businesses were initially linked to the defendants – Hampshire Vehicle Sales, Woolston Car Supermarket, Service 4 Life and Deltaflag. According to the prosecution, the original investigation was widened to include a fifth firm called Swiftbird.

Making his closing speech to the jury Mr Gibney repeated his earlier allegation that “hundreds” of car buyers became victims of the defendants’ criminal activity.

He added: “Burbage is involved at every level in these charges. He knew about the clocking, even if he didn’t do it himself.”

Mr Gibney said Overton was initially manipulated by Burbage but became part and parcel of the business and knew exactly what was going on.

During his summing up Recorder Nicholas Haggan QC said Warren had described himself in court as nothing more than a “car washer and mover”.

All three defendants have pleaded not guilty to the allegations against them.