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Garages Still Living In Rip Off Britain Era, Says What Car?

16:38 Fri 16th Jul 2010 |

A What Car? survey has issued a fresh health warning over the rip-off practices of UK mechanics, warning that engineers at some garages pull down an hourly rate above that of many doctors and lawyers. Calculating from what the general driving public are charged in some parts of the country, mechanics are earning around £100 every hour, claims What Car?

The costs of franchised servicing also vary massively across the country, with BMW servicing in London costing up to £140 an hour, compared to costs of less than £50 an hour for a Vauxhall in Scotland. Costs of servicing at un-franchised garages, however, charge a far more reasonable average rate of £35 an hour across the UK.

Matthew Carrington, chief executive of the UK Retail Motor Industry Federation (RMIF) defended the cost differences and claimed to be "mystified" at What Cars?'s comparison. "Dealerships have high operational costs - they have to invest in training, technical equipment, substantial workshop premises, as well as customer benefits such as courtesy cars," he told the Independent. "There are also numerous costs associated with health and safety issues." This is undoubtedly true, but by no means the entire picture. Finding the best price is a matter of shopping around and if you don't like the prices charged by dealer servicing, go elsewhere.

Problems arise where the general driving public are given the impression that they have to use franchised garages to maintain their warranties. Secondly, new cars are designed with so much electronic equipment specific to the marque or even model that finding an independent garage with the technical know-how and equipment to repair them can be almost impossible. This is doubly true for new high-end makes such as BMW and Mercedes which may require sophisticated computer diagnostics.

Any garage should be able to service our cars in theory. "A suitably equipped independent repairer, who has undergone the relevant training to meet the required manufacturer standards, can work on a vehicle without invalidating a warranty, giving the consumer a greater choice," claims Mr Carrington. Sadly, this is far from the case. Until 2003, manufacturers were exempt from competition rules and could restrict access to technical information, training tools and equipment.

Authorised independent garages are still rare however, with only 100 across the country at last count in 2005, and many garages are simply unable to afford the latest electronic equipment required. While electronic equipment may save lives and make us more comfortable while driving there are undoubted benefits to manufacturers in keeping us reliant on dealers for parts and repairs.

In the course of its research, What Car? discovered that while a headlight bulb on an Audi A2 costs less than £4, the costs to an A2 owner of getting it fitted were more than £60.

A classic car enthusiast, engineer and owner of a new Renault Megane explained his experience. "The bulb went and I thought it would be a simple job to replace it myself, but I couldn't see how to get to it," he said. "Eventually I took it to the dealer and they had to put the car on a ramp. It was the only way to get behind the bumper. I'm glad the car was still under warranty!"

Efforts at persuading the industry to adopt serious code-of-conduct standards have so far proved unsuccessful. The launch of a standards kite-mark scheme last year could have been effective - but so far less than 100 of the UK's 25,000 garages have signed up and only three are licensed.

Even if, as seems likely, consumer protection agencies launch a 'super complaint' this year and start the ball rolling towards mandatory legislation, the end programme is still years away. So, it falls on us to protect ourselves against greedy garages.

Calculating the costs of work is relatively easy. Manufacturers will supply standard times for all jobs from major crash repair to installing a new aerial. Multiplying this against garages' quoted hourly rates will enable you to make a quick cost comparison and find the best price - and check their figures when you receive the bill. Ensure that VAT and parts costs are included, supply what work you want done in writing and the minimum you agree to spend. Make it clear that any additional work must be authorised by you.

Consumer complaints organisations have reported cases where drivers arrived to collect a car and found that it had an entirely new engine and a four figure charge after they insisted that it be ready by the end of the day. If despite these precautions you still have reason to be unhappy, talk to the manager straight away. If the problem cannot be resolved there and you have to pay to have the car released, provide the money with a letter detailing your complaint and adding that payment is made "without prejudice". This will ensure that the garage cannot try to use your payment as acceptance of the bill. Garages signed up with the RMIF have to go through an arbitration process if there is cause for complaint.

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