Protection after the smoke clears: Corinne Simcock finds a car rescue policy that also has off-road benefits

MOST people have as much trouble with their car's insurance as they do with its mechanics. With this in mind, National Roadside Recovery has a scheme that offers the same type of service as the AA and the RAC but includes a legal department to assist members with insurance claims. Had I known about it earlier, I would certainly have put it to good use.

On the morning of 16 May last year I had just bought a second-hand Citroen Dyane, my first car for years, and I was looking forward to the new freedoms it would bring.

Heading for London from the garage in Herne Bay, I got within sight of the Blackwall Tunnel when I smelt burning. I looked down, saw smoke pouring in to the car and realised it was on fire. I pulled over, panic-stricken, and ran for safety as flames shot from the engine. Within 45 minutes there was nothing left of the car but the shell.

My third party, fire and theft insurance policy was with Halifax Insurance, part of Provident Financial, and arranged through Swinton. It cost pounds 201, which was rather expensive for an hour and a half.

The car had cost pounds 450 and I had just installed a new radio- cassette at a cost of pounds 193 so, naturally, I turned down Halifax's offer of pounds 225.

It was the start of a battle which was to last more than nine months, during which Swinton used every possible excuse, including - unbelievably - depreciation to account for Halifax's behaviour.

In February, sick to death of the whole affair, I settled for pounds 325.

This is precisely the kind of case in which the Nationwide service is effective. Ordinarily it is not practical to ask a solicitor to pursue a claim for less than pounds 1,000, because even if the claim is successful, your insurance company is not bound to reimburse your legal fees as you could have made your case, without professional help, in the Small Claims Court.

With Nationwide Roadside Rescue there are no legal fees as all the work is completed in- house. For larger claims, it has a network of solicitors and barristers to take up your case.

David Hamilton, NRR's managing director, said that insurance companies' tactics are well-rehearsed: 'They make a derisory offer you can't possibly accept, and by the time they increase it you have waited so long that you'll take anything.

'That's why we personally oversee every claim and make insurance companies aware of their obligations,' he added.

One NRR member I spoke to is a chauffeur. His two-year- old Daimler Sovereign was insured under a fully comprehensive policy.

When it was stolen, Norwich Union made him an offer of pounds 10,000 less a charge of pounds 4,828.50 for outstanding premiums. That would have left him with pounds 5,171.50. Mr Hamilton stepped in on the chauffeur's behalf and secured a cheque for pounds 14,721.12.

Marcus Cummings, a minicab driver, is another satisfied customer. His Ford Orion was insured under a third-party policy which also covered him for hire and reward. When his car was written off, he was unable to work for five months as a result of a whiplash injury.

Frizzell Financial Services, which operated his policy, had agreed to pay pounds 2,250 for the vehicle, but the money had not yet arrived.

'Our solicitor put in a claim for loss of earnings, and pointed out to the insurance company that it had removed the vehicle without our client's permission, which is illegal,' Mr Hamilton said. A cheque for the car arrived immediately, and Frizzell agreed to pay at least pounds 4,500 extra.

'It's a wonderful service which I don't believe I would have got anywhere else,' Mr Cummings said.

NRR makes its money from the garages, taking commission for parts and labour at no cost to the motorist.

While most other organisations offer free legal advice, their service is less extensive than NRR's.

'We might take up the claim on your behalf if we felt you had a valid case,' a spokesman for the AA said. The RAC quoted a charge of pounds 50 for negotiating with an insurance company.

National Breakdown's Extra Care package includes legal aid, but the company said it would not battle on a customer's behalf.

Nationwide Roadside Recovery is offering 'Independent on Sunday' readers membership at a special rate of pounds 45. Telephone 0635 297795.

(Photograph omitted)