Old cars and and garages are familiar bedfellows. Even if you're handy with spanners there always comes a time when you need the help of a specialist workshop.
I've learnt the hard way that you can't usually spot a bad garage until it's too late and there are more bad garages than good. Overwhelmingly so. I think I can say this with some authority having spent over £250,000 with garages between 2008 and 2011 keeping our fleet of high mileage classic cars mobile. The detail of that experience will have to wait until a chat with my lawyer and perhaps a book... Suffice to say, my disappointment with classic car garages is the reason why Great Escape now has its own in-house workshop. If we can we avoid external garages.
But that doesn't work for everyone. Garages are a necessary evil if you own a classic car so here is my guide to avoiding the pitfalls and finding a good one.
1. Research and Recommendation
This is usually how most classic car owners find a local repairer. It is the first and best step but it is only the first. What works for someone else may not be right for you. Someone else's idea of a fair price and good quality might not be yours. I know this from bitter experience. Garage owners are very good at being your friend - don't confuse a recommendation based on mateyness with one based on a good job.
2. Expertise and Specialism
Some garages specialise in a type of work or a type or model of car. This is of course extremely valuable as they should know the short cuts and clever fixes that will save you time and money and ensure a job done properly and well. If you choose a specialist decide whether the work is being done by the man who knows the cars - the specialist - or a minimum wage mechanic he relies on because the specialist is in the office running the business. This is a very common occurrence - you pay for the surgeon, you get dealt with by the nurse. Often the best specialists are the small outfits run by an owner operator who may not be flash or rich but actually does the work himself.
3. A fair price for the job
We work on cars, I know that a 1 day job can easily become a 2 or 3 day job as the extent of the problem reveals itself. But there is a difference between transparency and surprises. Too often I arranged for a garage to fix one of my cars, agreed a quote and ended up paying three times what I expected. My exclamations were met with a 'so what?' shrug. The garage argues the work was more involved than expected, the owner suggests the garage could have anticipated this or let them know. Very few garages communicate well - they need to explain progress, changes to costs and how they propose to deal with it. Some garages will work to a fixed price if you can be flexible on the completion time. I recommend you try that.
Garages often play on your ignorance. If you don't know what they're talking about ask to be shown. Expect photos of corrosion or faulty parts. Ask for an explanation of the labour costs. Do not take what you are told at face value.
5. Understand their motivations
Garages are tough businesses to run and the only thing they sell is time. It is very easy to mislead because unless you've done the job in question yourself you will have no idea how long it should take. So check on forums and get comparative quotes. Try to get a fixed price. Be polite and open but do not get too friendly with the garage - this is a business relationship, not a gathering of old friends.
6. Get the car fully assessed before work starts
It is very common for a car to go in for certain work and come out with lots more. This is not necessarily a bad thing - a reputable garage will tell you if any other work needs done. Just be sure it needs to be done. Fluid leaks and corrosion may not need to be dealt with there and then. If in doubt get a second opinion.
7. Reward a job well done
If a garage treats you well and repairs your car at a good price stick with them. Nothing aids a mechanic more than knowing your car. If you chop and change garages the mechanic will find it difficult to diagnose problems because he won't be sure what other work or workarounds have been done. For the same reason try to ensure the same mechanic works on your car each time.
8. Can you fix it? Well, I'll give it a go
Cars are cars and generally they all work in much the same way. So a competent mechanic can in theory work on most old cars. And most will be happy to. In my experience a garage will generally not tell you that it isn't comfortable doing the work. They'll try because they want the money. Often this means they get it wrong - so you pay twice for the same job - or you pay through the nose because they spent ages fixing an unfamiliar problem. It is impossible to prevent this but you can minimise it by asking what experience they have of this car and this problem, how serious they think the problem is and how they intend to approach it. Also check forums and owners clubs to find out what kind of complexity is involved and what other owners have done in similar circumstances.
9. If you have to complain be fair
If you're not happy, be reasonable. There can be a multitude of explanations as to why repairs fail such as faulty parts or incorrect diagnosis (which is not a sign of ignorance in all cases). Let the garage explain or rectify it. A reasonable, calm discussion should get the result you want. If it doesn't consider the small claims track.
Finding a good garage is, unfortunately, a minefield. I lost so much money and became so exasperated that I set up my own workshop. That, initially, just brought the problem in-house as I struggled to find a mechanic who honestly would say what he could and couldn't do and who wanted to do the job well. Three mechanics later we have exactly the right person. We still use external garages to fix cars in Devon and Yorkshire but they are ones we know, trust and like.
We only repair our own cars but that may change next year. To find out more about our fleet visit www.greatescapecars.co.uk or call 01527 893733.