As modern cars become ever more technologically advanced, are the days of the independent garage numbered? We visit some to find out
Richard Bremner Autocar
18 February 2018

Don’t despair! These ‘ things can be fixed more easily than you might think.’ So says the website of one garage specialising in the maintenance and repair of modern and complex but ageing cars.

Cars are a lot more durable today than they were 30 years ago – rust rarely causes a premature death – and the greater rigidity of today’s crash-test-honed bodies ensures that cars feel robust and rattle-free for far longer than a Ford Escort or Rover 800 ever did. Modern cars are also pretty reliable (although there are a few exceptions), but the thought of taking on an out-of-warranty V10 Audi RS6 or Jaguar XKR-S, an ageing Porsche or even a well-used Renault Mégane RS can be daunting.

So we decided to talk to a few of the specialists who cater for fast, interesting and complicated models. Do they have the equipment to interrogate these cars’ computer-controlled brains? Are these models actually reliable? And can you afford to service them?

Our Verdict

Volkswagen Golf

New 1.5-litre petrol engine promises to help keep the refreshed Volkswagen Golf ahead of rivals

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week

Audi: 

Fontain Motors is a well-established Audi specialist in Buckinghamshire that sells, services and repairs the high-performance S and RS models, although it can work on any Audi, according to service manager Sunny Bhamra. Fontain offers menu pricing for them all, including the RS6 V10, for which a major service costs a not unreasonable £679.

Its 5.2-litre engine “is okay if maintained correctly,” says Bhamra, but beware an RS6 that has been mapped to yield 700bhp rather than the standard 552bhp, because the gearbox struggles to cope. “The newer RS6 is fairly reliable,” he adds. “We see cars with 40,000 to 60,000 miles that have had no issues.”

The more desirable RS4 is also largely trouble-free, although it needs regular use to prevent the crankcase ventilation system gathering oil, which in turn can cause carbon build-up.

A major service for the R8 V8 is £649, while for the B7 RS4 it’s £549. As with all Fontain servicing, it’s carried out using a web-based diagnostic system that covers all the Volkswagen Group brands. But it’s not cheap to subscribe, a Toughbook digital service PC costs £4000 and dialing into the system costs about £22 a day.

It means Fontain isn’t vastly cheaper than a main dealer, but it does mean it has all the latest software updates and diagnostic tools, while offering what Bhamra says is a friendlier, more personal service.

BMW:

Gary Woollatt has been running his one-man-band Autobahn Services for 25 years, and he worked at BMW garages for 14 years before that. The result is a huge knowledge of BMWs and a reputation that prompts some owners to bring their cars to him even if they’re still under warranty.

“All cars are going the same way with electronics,” Woollatt says. “A lot of them go to the dealer repeatedly with small issues.” Woollatt solves these with a methodical A-Z approach rather than jumping to conclusions. He’s a subscriber to the BMW diagnostic system and notes that “it’s not always the same cars having the same problems”.

He admits there’s now less of a price difference between a specialist and a main dealer because the parts discount is less. “It used to be 35-40% 15 years ago, now it’s 10%.” But what you get with Woollatt is the application of 39 years’ worth of experience applied directly to your car, and a more personal service.

“These days I prefer restoration,” he says, an original Alpina six-pot M3-bodied E30 on the ramp. “People can see something for their money compared with spending £3000- 4000 on an M5 V10 with problems.”

Jaguar:

Kevin Brackley is Jaguar specialist Chiltern of Bovingdon’s aftersales director. Chiltern has sold, serviced and repaired used Jags for years, and Brackley has acquired a vast knowledge.

“From around 2006, it’s very difficult to use second-hand electrical parts on Jaguars because they are particular to the car,” he says. “When you programme a new module into the car it will lock to the VIN number.”

That eliminates the possibility of using a second-hand part (although there are some people who can wipe the memory). The car’s mileage is also stored in every part, and a generalist garage he knows of used a second-hand module “causing 40,000 miles to be instantly added to the car’s odometer”. For these reasons Chiltern only uses new parts, and its technicians attend official training courses.

It has been doing this since the new Block Exemption Regulation ended the manufacturer and franchised dealer monopoly of specialist diagnostic equipment. “There’s little you can do without the equipment,” says Brackley. So, like the other specialists featured here, Chiltern subscribes to a manufacturer technical website. Jaguar’s costs around £1500. “You pay around £500 annually for updates,” says Brackley. “A lot of things are cured now by programming.” An example is the poor shift quality between first and second gears on the 2004 XK, which was sorted with new software. 

And your specialist subject is...

For almost every car with a following, there will some kind of specialist, be it one man and a car lift or a well-staffed multi-bay garage — and they’re not limited to high-end machines. Dorset-based KTR started as a tuning company but now sells, services and repairs Renault Sport models, claiming to be the UK’s leading specialist. It has diagnostic equipment, factory-trained technicians and a rolling road. It also sells used RS cars.

RS Méganes are good for big mileages, although sometimes with minor issues. One is knocking or creaking front suspension, which Derby’s Aaron Autos can rebuild for £175 per side inclusive, comparedwith more than £1000 for a Renault dealer’s hub unit change.

Smart lovers, meanwhile, can head to Watford-based S2 Smarts, which has the latest diagnostic capability, years of experience and menu pricing — a service starts at £99 — and provides free clutch adjustment for the Fortwo and Roadster. Smarts are notorious for water leaks, so S2 will do a check for £25 (there are well- known pathways to your footwells), plus realignment of cabriolet roofs for £30 and door handle replacement (a weakness) for £55.

S2 also offers power-boosting remaps from as little as £150. Their most expensive remap takes the Smart Roadster to 113bhp for £245.

Porsche:

A useful thing to know about Porsches, says Robert Pickering, is that they can be electronically interrogated to reveal not only their mileage, but also whether they have been over-revved (crucial, not least because it affects their resale value) and what history of operating errors there has been. Pickering is showing us the way to the workshops of JZM Porsche, a specialist that retails some of the most desirable used models out there – 911 GT3s are a staple – as well as running a workshop with decades of collective Porsche experience.

JZM claims to be the only non-franchised garage in the UK equipped with the Porsche Integrated Workshop Information System, plus it has all the previous generations of official Porsche diagnostic tool and it’s also linked directly to the factory via an external network, enabling it to perform the latest reprogramming updates.

Senior technician Andy David has worked at JZM for 15 years and specialises in rebuilding engines, from regular flat sixes to RSR motors and even, quite recently, a 1968 2.2. “It takes about 40 or 50 hours to overhaul an engine,” he says. “I do one every two weeks, and have three or four on the go.”

David has worked on Porsches long enough to know what robust, high-quality machines the pre-996 911s were, to see the quality dip with the 1998-2004 models and climb again with the 997 and 991.

Of the infamous 996 intermediate shaft (IMS) bearing failures, his colleague Ricky Nash reckons “most have either gone or been repaired”. And there’s now a solution to the problem anyway. Cylinder bore scuffing is still a problem with 997s, but there are no problems with the latest engines. “Although it’s early days,” adds Nash. 

Worth the risk?

AUDI RS4 B7 2006-08 - Reliable but needs regular use to prevent the crankcase vent system gathering oil and coking up the heads. Quattro system and transmission are tough; DRC dampers are a weakness.

BMW M5 V10 2005-10 - Sadly one to avoid unless you’re willing to gamble. “If the engine blows you can’t really rebuild them,” says Gary Woollatt. “Great cars but can be troublesome.”

JAGUAR XK 2006-14 - The aluminium-bodied XK can suffer from a bit of blistering under the paint but no holes in the body. “Good, reliable cars,” says Chiltern’s Kevin Brackley.

PORSCHE 911 1994-98 - JZM technician Andy David reckons that, overall, the 993 911s are very strong and well- engineered. Valve guides are a common issue, though.

RENAULT MEGANE RS 2008-16 - Vastly more durable than Renaults of the late 1990. The creaky suspension issue is a good example of specialists making repairs more affordable.

Read more 

BMW 5 series review 

Porsche 911 Turbo review 

Audi RS6 review

Join the debate

Comments
13

18 February 2018
A series of random adverts.

18 February 2018
eseaton wrote:

A series of random adverts.

A series of helpful adverts....

Peter Cavellini.

18 February 2018
eseaton wrote:

A series of random adverts.

18 February 2018
eseaton wrote:

A series of random adverts.

 

An interesting article about interesting cars that enthusiasts like. Random comment from you.

Saw three 996 intermediate shaft bearing failures in less than a year. They are still out there, so beware. One actually in the workshop on start up. £2000 labour plus a new or used engine £7k upwards - Yikes. Feel for the guys who had to stump up. Basically an incorrectly specced bearing that runs out of lubricant, shaft wobbles and puts various important moving parts into contact with each other. 

18 February 2018

"Not much cheaper than a main dealer but offer more friendly service".

That might explain why the 'specialists' didn't get back to me after requesting my reg no. Requested quotes for a 1st year service from two different specialists. At least main dealers returned my calls so in my case at least, much more friendly.  

289

18 February 2018

You are surely missing the point here.

These are all one make specialists, which while often more reliable than the main dealer (and more willing to find a cheaper solution rather tha keep fitting crazy priced parts until they find a fix), they may not be conveniently placed for you....unlike your local all makes garage.

No. these fantastic jack of all trades local garages are being totally squeezed out on anything less than 6 years old, and it is a disgrace to the industry that they are allowing the manufacturers to do this - effectively putting them out of business.

For example why should you need a special tool to reset the callipers while changing Brake Pads? its a simple enough task, and just increases expense and reliance on main dealers/specialists. Or should you have to reset the cars brain because you have replaced a front bumper on a Golf....I could go on.

We have an excellent local garage where al of our cars are serviced, but they are running out of options....they cant buy specialist equipment for every make, there would never be a return on that sort of investment. So their options may be limited to older cars...but even todays cars will be 'older cars' one day and totally unservicable. Effectively writing off perfectly good cars.

The manufacturers are engineering this situation....in my view deliberately to sell new cars  (on lease) rather than have the used car market prosper....remember the used car market is way bigger than the new car market, and therefore important to the ecomomy with all its peripheral services.

18 February 2018

My 2009 911 has, until now, had a full main dealer service history. This time I took it to a very highly regarded indie. They found a whole bunch of items that should have been covered in previous service and which just hadn't been. Just one example: according to the main dealer service record, the spark plugs had been replaced three times previously, the last time less than 7000 miles ago. When the indie pulled the plugs (after having to saw off the corroded coil heat shields), the plugs had clearly never been changed in the car's 32,000 miles. The service almost certainly cost me more than a main dealer's menu price for a service, but I know that the work has been done properly and completely, and that my money is going into the work that's being done, rather than into marble floors and salesman incentives.

18 February 2018
Technomad wrote:

My 2009 911 has, until now, had a full main dealer service history. This time I took it to a very highly regarded indie. They found a whole bunch of items that should have been covered in previous service and which just hadn't been. Just one example: according to the main dealer service record, the spark plugs had been replaced three times previously, the last time less than 7000 miles ago. When the indie pulled the plugs (after having to saw off the corroded coil heat shields), the plugs had clearly never been changed in the car's 32,000 miles. The service almost certainly cost me more than a main dealer's menu price for a service, but I know that the work has been done properly and completely, and that my money is going into the work that's being done, rather than into marble floors and salesman incentives. The only difference between n original parts and pattern parts is....?, the latter doesn’t have the Car logo stamped on it, is this true....?

Peter Cavellini.

18 February 2018
Peter Cavellini wrote:

The only difference between n original parts and pattern parts is....?, the latter doesn’t have the Car logo stamped on it, is this true....?

Sort of. Typically an OEM manufacturer that provides parts to a car maker for production will also provide (car logo) branded parts for service (i.e the dealer network) but will have the right to sell the parts outside of the dealer network (independent garages, motor factors, etc.) but not as branded parts. So e.g Bosch will provide parts to VW factories, the same parts with VW markings/packaging will be available from VW dealers and the same parts but with Bosch markings/packaging will be available from Halfords. Those are not pattern parts though, they are 'Genuine' (VW-branded) or OEM (Bosch-branded). These will be from well-known major companies - Bosch, Continental, Bilstein, etc. 'Pattern' parts by their definition are not the same as what was originally fitted and so are not the same parts.

18 February 2018

It's been clear for sometime that indies are almost or as expensive as a main dealer. One BMW indie near me was actually are more expensive than the main dealer for a service until I said as much wherein they immediately knocked 100 quid off the price! Another indie disconnected my steering column for some work and didnt bother to make sure the wheels were straight when connecting it again. Result, off centre steering wheel. The moral is, if you get an excellent indie, you are doing well but most of them are as bad as main dealers if not worse. At least with main dealer service record, you have more likelihood of a goodwill contribution if something does go wrong.

Pages

Add your comment

Log in or register to post comments

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week