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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 April, 2005, 10:07 GMT 11:07 UK
The dark arts of the car mechanic
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Mechanic
The car repair industry has been given one last chance to improve its service, says the National Consumer Council. After 30 years of warnings, why are some garages still ripping off customers?

There are 25 million of them in the UK and they've become an integral part of modern life. But while we rely on our cars to get us from A to B, most of us know little about how they work.

Even those that used to confidently reach for the spanner at the sound of a splutter are now perplexed by modern engines.

What goes on under the bonnet has a sense of mystery and the keeper of its secrets is the mechanic.

I got a lot of satisfaction from the job itself but the problem was the stigma from the cowboys
Peter Wooton
Former mechanic
This makes the owner feel vulnerable when things go wrong, because paying for car repairs can sometimes feel like writing a blank cheque.

That's no surprise, given government figures suggest you're more likely to get a poor service than a good one. Among 265 garages spot-checked in 2002, 51% were rated poor or very poor. Smaller surveys conducted since show little improvement.

Former mechanic Peter Wooton says he left the industry after 15 years at good firms because of the job's low status and too many "poorly-trained cowboys" who gave it a bad image.

Milking drivers

"I got a lot of satisfaction from the job itself but the problem was the stigma from the cowboys. They see it as easy money to take advantage of customer ignorance.

"Customers are dependent on their knowledge, so they can spin a yarn and milk them for what they're worth."

Frank Butcher in EastEnders
Fancy a motor?
They not only rip-off the customer, they can cause deaths, says Mr Wooton, who is now an IT manager in local government. He thinks the solution is a licensing scheme.

One unscrupulous franchise nearly conned motorist Yao Ng, 29, out of more than 1,000. When he found his clutch was a bit stiff, he took his car into the manufacturer's official dealer.

Staff later told him it needed a new clutch priced at 400, plus a new head gasket at the same cost, plus labour. Shocked, he got a second opinion at an independent firm, to be told there was nothing wrong with either the clutch or the gasket.

"To go through that made me feel sick inside," he says. "I lost all trust immediately and didn't know if I could go to any garage and get a truthful service. These people can tell you anything and make it sound convincing."

Extra 100

The image of the dodgy car dealer has more than a grain of truth in it, says Honest John, the Daily Telegraph's motoring agony uncle. But there are complex reasons behind it.

"The fundamental reason for the dishonesty is the way garage premises are financed. Car manufacturers demand a garage build a chrome and glass palace full of sophisticated equipment worth a fortune that the owner has to pay back out of servicing income over 10 years."

INDUSTRY IN NEED OF REPAIR
Households spend 6.55bn a year on motor repairs
There is a total of 26,000 traders: 15,400 independent garages, 6,300 franchised dealers and 4,200 fast-fit and auto centres
Average loss to individual consumers is 125 for each unsatisfactory repair or car service
A Which? survey in 2004 found 73% of garages offered an unsatisfactory service

Source: National Statistics, Mintel, DTI
They will stick an extra 100 on a bill because they have to pay off the loan, he says. The extra income then leads to a habit it's difficult to shake.

His advice is to do the little jobs - such as changing wiper blades, washer fluid and other consumables - yourself, to avoid the high prices.

Mr Ng eventually found a good car repair firm, and there are plenty out there. For them, all the bad publicity makes depressing news.

"I don't know why anyone would want to con people, because there's more than enough work to go round for everyone," says Paul Mason, manager of John Sharpe Motors in Whittlesea, Cambridgeshire.

"A conned customer is not going to come back, so you've lost that customer for good. But they try and hit them once and get away with it and not worry about the consequences. But it affects us all."

Within 10 years, a garage foreman will be a graduate profession
Peter Simpson
Car Mechanic magazine

One reason is the changing nature of the work, as cars become more electronic and less mechanical, says Peter Simpson, editor of Car Mechanic magazine. This has led to a recruitment shortage, which means less qualified staff are getting jobs.

"Being a motor mechanic is thought of as a dirty fingernail profession, but it's more hi-tech than that," he says. "You need a brain. Within 10 years, a garage foreman will be a graduate profession."

But the number of rogue mechanics is not as high as the surveys suggest, he adds, and customers can help themselves by looking under the bonnet to check the basics have been done, before leaving the garage.


HOW TO FIGHT BACK

Use a garage you can trust, recommended either by a friend or a trade body.

Ask for a breakdown of the bill and make sure things have been done.

Look under the bonnet. You can see if the filter or spark plugs have been changed.

If necessary, ask the mechanic to show you what he's done.

Don't be afraid to say "no" and get a second opinion.

Generally, going to an independent firm can mean a better service than a car manufacturer's franchise, according to Honest John.

But the first 3-4 years can be beneficial with a car manufacturer, he says, because they know of any faults with new models.

Do the small things yourself. For example, a remote control key should not need recoding (at a cost of 60 to 100) if its battery runs out, so long as the replacement is done proficiently.

Learn how to fit some basic components and head to the shops. See below.

DO-IT-YOURSELF SAVINGS
Typical High Street shop Top Garage Price
Wiper blades 20 60
Washer fluid 5 10
Number plate light bulbs 1 60
Parking sensor 5 200
Top-up synthetic oil 25 (5L) 12.50 (1L)
Source: Honest John




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