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They don’t call them ‘Main Stealers’ for nothing!

On the whole, I try to think of the car repair and servicing business as a fundamentally honest game. Unlike the offshore tax affairs of politicians and the super rich, the simple act of a professional technician carrying out necessary repairs and servicing to your car in exchange for a fair price paid to the company is quite straightforward.

At the top of the automotive repairing tree sits the Franchised Dealers. Affiliated to a particular manufacturer, their showrooms sell the cars and the aftersales departments (service and parts) cater for your needs from then on. Many people argue that there’s simply no better standard than a ‘main dealer’ and still insist on taking their cars to them for all servicing and repairs long after the manufacturer’s warranty has expired and often until the cars are in their teenage years and worth little more than a few hundred pounds! Having a ‘factory trained’ technician (as opposed to a regular qualified technician) working on your 12 year old Passat may make you feel mildly smug but when every service or repair bill puts a family holiday sized dent in your Barclaycard, it might be worth questioning whether the extra cost was really worthwhile?

Sure, the main dealer has a bright, clean and tidy workshop with a foreman to oversee everything. Their customer waiting area may even boast a ‘Juice Bar’ , a creche, and comfy armchairs to lounge on whilst your car is being fixed but did you ever stop to wonder who pays for all this?

Well, today I saw two perfect examples of how they might achieve this.

Imagine if you will an elderly lady with an 11 year old Volkswagen Polo. Believing that having a Volkswagen dealer do ALL of the servicing and repairs is the only way, she had a service a few months ago during which she was also told she needed a new cambelt, water pump, new front brake discs and pads and a brake fluid change. This little lot cost the best part of £800 and they also thoughtfully presented her with a list of other things that will need changing soon!

Up until the day it had this service, it had never leaked a drop of oil so imagine how surprised the owner was when every day afterwards, a few drops of engine oil would appear on her driveway overnight. After waiting a few weeks for it to stop (which it didn’t) she decided to call the Volkswagen dealer that carried out the work. They duly booked her in and carried out a ‘free’ inspection and quote to repair the oil leak.

Here is the actual wording on the job sheet she was given:

‘Carry out investigation in to oil leak. Raised vehicle in air and saw spots of oil on the floor. Cleaned area contaminated by oil and found dripping out from cambelt area and oil pump. Requires new oil pump and possible cambelt. Total cost £1008.51 including cambelt and poly V belt’

Now, the more vigilant reader of this blog might (quite correctly) say, ” Hang on a minute, didn’t it just have a new cambelt at the same dealer a few weeks ago?”. Well, this managed to raise alarm bells with the owner who decided to seek a second opinion. Her daughter has been a regular customer of ours for many years and recommended that we take a look for her.

Having cleaned all the oil that’d dripped everywhere and removed the timing belt cover for  look, it was immediately apparent that the only reason it was dripping oil was that the hole the oil was coming from was meant to have a bolt in it! I suspect that whichever ‘factory trained’ technician had recently replaced the cambelt had a small (but vital) spare bolt left by his toolbox having finished the job but rather than get the car back in, probably swept the evidence under the bench, leaving the poor customer with a dripping engine and the prospect of spending another £1000 on fixing the very leak their incompetence caused!

Fortunately, our technician, who’s not VW factory trained but is a time-served apprentice with more than 20 years experience of working on ALL makes of car, located a correct sized bolt to fit the hole, cleaned and degreased the area and fitted a new alternator belt (as the oil had been dripping all over it). Total time spent was about 1.5 hours and no need for a new oil pump and another cambelt! Total cost less that £150 all in. I’d like to think that we’ll also gain a new customer.

The second example of a main dealers’ over-zealous pricing and stringent MOT standards came in the form of a 2007 Nissan Note that belongs to a friend’s father. Having just been to a well known Nissan main dealer for a service and MOT test, it had failed on a few items. Now, the MOT scheme is just a minimum standard of safety for certain items and should be the same whether the car is tested at a main dealer or an independent garage like us. They had failed it on the two front lower suspension arm mounting bushes having ‘Bonding deteriorated and resulting in excessive movement’ as well as advising the front brakes ‘extremely worn’ and two tyres ‘on the limit’. Best of all, they’d quoted the owner the best part of £1000 just to fix the suspension bushes! The Nissan Note is a very modest family hatchback and not a supercar or limousine so quite how they justified these prices I have no idea. All I can say is that their MOT tester must’ve been in a foul mood or was awaiting the prospect of a healthy ‘bonus’ in his salary for helping to generate revenue for work that was clearly unnecessary.

The suspension bushes were a bit worn and the rubber bonding was certainly deteriorating but unless the bloke had the strength of the Incredible Hulk whilst shaking the wheels, I have no idea how he’d decided that this resulted in ‘excessive movement’. I’ve driven a Note with these bushes properly knackered and it knocked and clonked all over the road. This car drove silently and even after examining them closely, I still couldn’t see how they were a fail!

Anyway, to get it through their ‘free’ retest, they clearly had to be changed and unlike Nissan’s price, we fitted a pair of good quality aftermarket suspension arms at £44 each plus a couple of hours of labour to fit both sides. Even with replacing the two tyres that were close to the limit, the owner still had change from £420 which was a saving of well over £600 compared to their quote (which didn’t even include the new tyres!).

All I can say to those of you that insist on using a main dealer for all of your servicing and repairs is to ask yourself what you might do with the money you could save? Over the course of 5 years of using a dealer over a reputable independent, savings of £3000 are not unrealistic. That’s enough for a good holiday, a new boiler or even to upgrade to a newer car!

I know that they’re not all ‘stealers’ and that the majority do a great job at a fair price but if I can find two examples in one day, imagine how many must take place the length and breadth of the UK every day? I will leave you with one final thought……….

As a car dealer that takes cars in part exchange, I can tell you that if your 15 year old car has a full service history from a main dealer, or a similarly history from an established specialist or independent, it won’t make a penny’s difference to the price you’ll get! I might make the car more desirable to a fussy buyer to see row upon row of main dealer service stamps, but not if it’s dripping oil on the floor from a missing bolt!