There are, of course, a lot of excellent and reputable classic car workshops who do a superlative job of putting old cars back on the road, often better than they were when they left the factory. The trouble is that it is quite difficult to spot the good from the bad, even when you're working on recommendation. There are many reasons why garages have such a poor reputation - customer service, communication and explanation often rank very low on most proprietors' checklists. Often even when they do a good job the shock of the bill that these failings causes leaves a sour taste in the mouth.
I have owned and run classic cars for 20 years and can comfortably describe my mechanical skills as limited. I have run Great Escape since 2006 and over 6 years spent in excess of £150,000 with external workshops to repair and maintain our fleet of cars. My exasperation with classic car workshops forced me to set up my own workshop - www.geworkshop.co.uk. As a private owner and then major client it took me until 2012 for the scales to fall from my eyes.
Here is some objective advice on finding a good, reputable workshop based on our experience at Great Escape.
1. Don't overestimate the value of a recommendation
Many classic car owners choose garages based on recommendations from fellow enthusiasts. While this is a safe and logical way to start, do not rely too heavily on it. A recommendation is only as good as the person who provides it - someone's good job may be another's nightmare. Their expectations may not be yours. So take advice but make up your own mind.
2. Seek honest before knowledge
Garage owners are generally friendly and willing to chat. They want your money after all. You should be confident that they understand and can deliver what you need. But you really want someone who is honest and clear. Most repair work tends to evolve as it proceeds - you want updates on progress and the opportunity to make decisions as the work progresses. Too many garages will repair your car then tell you about the multitude of minor problems that will need addressed some time soon. This is their way of getting more work, often by repeating the work they did first time around, in terms of dismantling and assembling components. A reputable garage will give you a full assessment of the car before work starts and give you honest advice about what should be done now and what can wait.
3. Check who will actually do the work
It is common practice for the garage owner, who is the knowledge hub of the business, to tell you what your car needs and impress you with his experience. Unbeknown to you, your car is actually worked on by someone else, generally a junior mechanic. The owner may not even get his hands dirty. This means you may not get the quality of job you expect - and the feedback you need to make the right decisions as the job progresses.
4. Get a quote
I can honestly count the number of times the verbal quote I got before work began corresponded to the final price I paid. I learned the hard way to get a clear quote in writing, outlining the work to be done and the price to be paid. When you ask for a written quote most garage owners will look at you as if you were born yesterday, arguing that it is 'impossible' to price the job. It isn't. Any job can be priced. If the scope of the job is likely to change they can either tell you or make allowances for this in their quote. If you get a quote make sure you keep in touch with the garage to ensure the price is being adhered to.
5. Check what you are paying for
Make sure that you understand what work is being done, why and how. Do not be bamboozled by technical jargon. Get alternative quotes from other garages. Garages make money by charging their time - unless you know how long a particular task should take you are open to being taken advantage of. But be reasonable - honest, reputable garages will be open about how long it will take and why. If you think this is reasonable, accept it. Good garages generally put in unpaid hours simply to get your job done right in the hope that you'll come back.
6. Be clear about what you want and expect
When it comes to repairing classic cars there are many ways to skin a cat. You may want a concours job or a low cost tart up. Be clear in your own mind what you expect and explain this to the garage. If the garage knows what you want it is much easier to fulfill it.
7. Set a clear timescale for the work
Running a classic car business means I needed quick turnaround on my cars. Some garages eventually twigged this - and generally charged through the nose to achieve it - others refused to be rushed. The latter are examples of a common garage disease - a refusal to put the customer first. I symapathise with working to a deadline because parts supply - and quality - as well as the intricacies of a job can be hard to control. But that might account for a delay of a few days, not weeks. Get a clear timescale and keep in touch with the garage to check progress - turn up unannounced if you can. That way you can make sure that your car isn't being sidelined in favour of a more interesting project.
8. If you find a good garage, stick with it
Good garages are like good doctors - the more they know you, the more useful they are. Taking your car to the same garage regularly means that they get to know your car and it's quirks. They know what they've done and that makes it quicker to diagnose faults. Every classic car is different and every mechanic works differently - your mechanic needs to develop an affinity with your car in order to provide good value. If you chop and change garages different mechanics are more likely to be confused by the work of the last mechanic.
9. There are no simple solutions
Classic car repairs can be like surgery - the problem may be familiar but the solution may be different every time. Every mechanic will approach the problem differently - some solutions will be more valid than others. You don't need to know how they solve the problem but you do need to be sure that how they fix it will work and work for your budget and requirements. This is not about understanding the solution but being confident in the experience and honesty of the garage owner.
10. Check the set up
Every garage is different, with its own character and culture. You either get a good feeling or a bad feeling when you walk in. Don't ignore these first impressions - they probably tell you more than you will discover talking to the owner. If you're able to walk in and talk to the person who will work on your car, then you're on safe ground.
I hope that the Great Escape workshop meets these standards when we work on customer cars. I've certainly learnt how much of the competition works. If you are looking for a reputable garage feel free to call or email me for a chat, whether or not you want us to do the work I'll be happy to help.