Look to the specialists

For a superior service, avoid franchises and go independent, James Ruppert advises

I can't quite remember exactly when I regretted returning to a franchised dealer for my servicing requirements. Maybe it was when I looked at the initial extravagant bill, perhaps it was the first, or possibly the second time I broke down. It hardly matters now because I won't be going back and there are hundreds of thousands of disgruntled drivers like me. Increasingly, once a car is out of manufacturer's warranty, owners are switching their allegiance to a growing band of independent garages. Not only do they provide the same maintenance at a lower hourly rate, their level of expertise can be higher and their eagerness to please overwhelming. In short, owners are realising that specialists can provide a better all-round service at a sensible, wallet-friendly price.

I had been out of the franchise garage servicing loop for six years when an official recall meant that the only place which could install a "Bypass valve for the heat exchanger" was a Volkswagen dealer. This work was, in VW's words "carried out without charge", but while my Golf was in the workshop I decided to let them loose on a major service. Big mistake. I'll gladly name the guilty dealer - Robinsons in Norwich. The car broke down twice: once because they had not replaced the fan-belt, which should have been part of the scheduled service. The second breakdown was due to the fact that they incorrectly fitted the "bypass valve". Then there was the bill, inflated by the cost of labour for replacing a rear wiper and then charging for washer fluid, both non-essential items. Then the drama of trying unsuccessfully to extract a loan car to complete an important journey while the Golf was in the workshop. Worst of all, Robinsons' management was impolite.

This would never have happened if I had trusted my not-very local Volkswagen specialist, Stevens & Stevens in east London. I happily travel 100 miles out of my way to get my Golf fettled by a small family business who know what they are doing. They are not especially cheap, but they use genuine parts, always have the car ready within the day, tell me what they have done and have the old parts to prove it. Any car of mine they have serviced has never broken down. That is all the reassurance I need.

Over in Bridgwater, Somerset, Tim Stiles Racing, another Golf specialist, gets "plenty of regulars from the Midlands and South-east who pop down here for the day. They would not think about going anywhere else." In the same region but even deeper into the county is AM Cars in Chard, who sell and service Audi Quattros. Again they have customers travelling hundreds of miles for a service. When it comes to cars a little out of the ordinary, a specialist is usually best.

At Automotive Unlimited in Hertfordshire, Duncan Purssell, who services Ford Cosworths, said: "First and foremost I am an enthusiast. Not all Ford garages are capable of servicing these models. My engineering background is perfectly suited to looking after Cosworths." This is the basis of the motor engineer vs fitter debate. The argument runs that franchise garages are little more than fitters: if a part is broken or failing they simply replace it, whereas anyone with an engineering background aims to solve the problem in a practical way. This keeps costs down and also means they understand the mechanics of the car intimately. Specialists are also prepared to source non-mechanical items second-hand. Recently, a door-handle mechanism failed on my Golf and the specialists supplied and fitted a replacement for a few pounds when the cost of buying new was over pounds 20.

Motor industry conspiracy theorists have long reckoned that manufacturers make cars ever more complex to dissuade private tinkering. However, when I asked Stevens & Stevens about looking after the latest Golf, they said: "That's not a problem". Keeping up to speed on the latest developments is hardly difficult, and neither is having the correct diagnostic equipment. You may even find a mechanic who works by day in a franchised garage, freelancing during evenings and weekends.

Recommendation is the key to finding a good specialist. Owners' clubs are a good place to start. The important questions to ask an independent specialist include the hourly labour rate, whether they fit genuine rather than pattern mechanical parts, keep the old ones for you to see, and are prepared to wait for authorisation for any additional repairs over and above what has been agreed. What about a loan car, free collection and delivery? I phoned around Norwich dealers pretending I owned a Honda Accord, and it is remarkable how the charges varied - pounds 50 per hour at a main agent, pounds 35 at a specialist, with the same facilities. The key to a stress-free service is tracking down a specialist you can trust. It won't be easy, but it will be worth it.

Bad servicing clues: Charging for oil by the litre as bought over the counter. Inconsistent parts prices. Charging VAT twice, on parts and labour. Not producing replaced parts. Undertaking unauthorised work.

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