MOTORING : But I know a man who can

The new breed of Arthur Daley doesn't have second-hand motors cluttering up his forecourt. Armed with BMW and mobile phone, he trawls auctions and magazines for the car his customer wants. Matthew Gwyther reports
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The Independent Culture
IT'S a long way from selling copies of Socialist Worker outside the old Chrysler plant at Linwood in Scot- land to driving a BMW 325i, sporting a mobile phone and earning your living dealing in second-hand cars. But Douglas Coker isn't your conventional sheepskin-coated shark, shifting tons of "lovely little runners" from his down-at-heel forecourt.

Coker has just set up a bespoke second-hand car purchase service, a relatively new phenomenon in the motoring trade. The move was forced upon him. Earlier this year he was made redundant from his job as a training manager at a further education institution in east London, and though he left with pounds 28,000 in redundancy he needed a new career.

Coker has always been a car buff, and regularly helped colleagues who were buying second-hand models. So he bought himself a computer, designed his own promotional material and set up Cars For Customers, based in his front room. Since his student flirtation with Marxism, he is learning capitalism the hard way.

The service Coker is offering is relatively simple: the surprise is that more people haven't thought of it. Customers come to him saying which model they want, from which year, and how much they are prepared to spend - and off he goes to hunt down the right car. If customers are unsure about their requirements, then, like a bespoke tailor, Coker will measure them up - asking about size of family, and number of miles to be travelled each year. Do they want power steering? Go-faster stripes? Unlike a dealer, he doesn't mind which type of car he sells - as long as he sells cars.

The advantages of this approach are several. First, and most importantly, comes cost. Because Coker often buys at auctions, he pays trade prices, or even less. He has no stock, no premises and no staff, so his overheads are low. His charging system is straightforward. For finding a car up to a value of pounds 6,000, the fee is pounds 330 plus VAT; the scale increases to pounds 550 plus VAT for cars over pounds 10,000. "If I do my job properly," he says, "customers should be saving around pounds 1,000 on a car by using me, but that figure could be even higher."

The second advantage is that it's Coker's shoe leather (or his BMW's tyres) that gets worn out in the search. But why shouldn't members of the public attend motor auctions themselves and cut him out altogether? "First, they haven't got the time. And second, they can easily come a cropper. Most people don't have the know-how for auctions, and they might buy a duff car. I once saw a family actually bidding against each other without realising." Coker offers a three-month guarantee.

I joined him on a Friday morning for a Central Motor Auctions event in Wimbledon. He was after a Metro for around pounds 4,000, for a customer called Dermott Wynne. "I've had mixed experiences with main dealers and buying privately through ads in the past," said Mr Wynne, "so I've given Douglas a go. I wrote a couple of pages for him about exactly what I'm after in a Metro." This included the fact that he didn't want metallic paint - "Damn difficult to patch."

We wandered around before the sale, sizing up what was available. There was an F-reg BMW 525i SE with no fewer than 141,000 miles on the clock that took our eye. "Last owner Captain Kirk," muttered Coker, still sniffing around for his lowlier Metro. "People are frightened of high mileage but you need not be. If the car has been looked after, serviced properly and has done those miles rapidly on a motorway, then you might get a bargain."

He also liked the look of a Citroen ZX Volcane - a hot hatch that one might assume has been thrashed to within an inch of its life by some boy racer. But maybe not. "Look at these," said Coker, pointing to National Trust and World Wildlife Fund stickers on the rear windscreen. "They're very good news." (Boy racers note: if you want to get rid of your overused machine, develop a well-timed love of endangered pandas and historic country houses.) No suitable Metro was found anywhere, and Mr Wynne did not want a Volcane. We left the auction empty-handed.

Despite the day's disappointment, Coker remains chipper. "It would have been nice to find something, but there's always tomorrow and next week," he said brightly. "I admit I could do with the phone ringing a bit more." But he has had some successes so far. One of his early coups was to find some wheels for a young and none-too-affluent couple who wanted to get out of town at weekends but could not afford many b&bs. They were after a van they could stick a mattress in. Coker furnished his clients with a G-plate Maestro van that used to house Customs & Excise sniffer dogs; for this he bid pounds 850.

"The clients ripped the kennels out of the back," he recalls. "They were really nice kennels, as well. And there was a little safe between the front seats to stash the confiscated contraband." Suitable for storing weekend provisions, perhaps?

On the other side of the Thames from Coker is another bespoke service. Search 2000, run by Andrew Carter and his partner Pete Dann in Croydon. Like Douglas Coker, Car-ter came into the car game by an unconventional route. He used to be a city slicker dealing in foreign currency for a Canadian bank.

In addition to sourcing cars from auction, Carter is a keen scourer of the classified advertising magazines. There is the occasional real bargain to be had here among acres of dross. This approach can, however, lead to problems. "The trouble with going to look at cars that the public advertise in Exchange and Mart or Loot is that there is a bit of Arthur Daley in everybody," he says. "It doesn't matter how squeaky clean the individual is, it all gets lost when they want to get rid of their car. They suddenly become unable to read their own mileometer properly - they say in their ad that the car has done 19,000 miles when it's really done 34,000."

This can lead to some disastrous wasted time for Carter. "I've made more utterly useless trips than I want to think about," he says. "Last year I went all the way down to Brighton to look at an 'immaculate' BMW 2002 without 'a spot of rust'. I arrived, and there it was outside the house. There wasn't one panel without a hole in it. The car was a shed. I was going to bawl the guy out, but in the end I couldn't even be bothered to knock on the door and just headed back up the M23. Your skin thickens very quickly in this business."

What Carter finds consistently surprising is how vague many clients are about exactly what it is they want. "The only thing most people are certain about is how much they can afford," he says. "But that's a pretty good starting point." This gives Carter the opportunity to steer people in the right direction for trouble-free motoring. He is up on Japanese and German cars, less enthusiastic about French and British, and very nervous of anything Italian.

Once a decision has been agreed on, the customer's advantage is that it is, of course, Carter's time that gets wasted on the hunt. If he doesn't come up with the goods, he doesn't eat. Sometimes, though, trips to private sellers can lead to real success stories. "We had one customer who wanted a Mazda 323 on an L-plate, and she'd seen one in a Mazda dealer for pounds 9,995 with 12,000 miles on the clock. I hunted around and heard of one in Milton Keynes which had done 18,000 but which I bought for pounds 7,400. Bingo. Everybody's happy."

! Douglas Coker can be contacted on 0181-340 1868 or 0973 506288; Search 2000 is on 0181-686 8863.