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NGK at Goodwood FoS

arrows-smallHad a great time at the Goodwood Festival of Speed with NGK last weekend.

I took this photograph of the Red Arrows flying past its two-story suite, but the NGK flag fluttered at just the wrong moment so there’s no flashy product placement.

Goodwood is filled with lots of vehicle manufacturer/race team noise and nostalgia, so there’s not a huge amount of aftermarket flavour to it.

After tyres, perhaps, it seems to make most sense for a plug producer to be at events like this, however. I can easily imagine a consumer asking a garage to fit NGK plugs, but I can’t picture the same conversation over a Schaeffler dual-mass flywheel.

Traffic to the spark plug challenge in NKG’s suite was also brisk, as were some of the times for removing and reinstalling four plugs. plugs

I had a go, but came nowhere near the amazing 43-second time, set by a race mechanic that was leading the day when I stomped up, dropped a plug and got my ratchet in a twist.

Besides Michelin and NGK, I suppose it also makes sense for Turtle Wax to have been at Goodwood considering the amount of pretty metal that parades up the hill.

I wondered how many of these might be getting their sparks from NGK plugs, but all of the drivers I asked were too busy to let me know.

NGK itself was also unsure, but it was certainly pleased with the footfall to its suite over the weekend and seems ready to sign up for another year.

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How to make 12 million pistons a year

Nuremberg-Production-1I love a good factory visit, and yesterday’s visit to the Federal Mogul facility in Nuremberg was very good.

The factory opened in 1924 and now produces 12 million pistons a year for the likes of Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Porsche.

Every piston starts with molten metal, so there’s a lot of melting in a lot of furnaces. Every day Federal Mogul melts 60 tonnes of the stuff to 830 degrees in seven gas-fired furnaces for casting in the foundry upstairs.

It’s rather incredible to stand next to several hundred kilos of molten aluminium and feel the heat as deft robots collect the material in crucibles and pour it into the molds.

Of the 36,000 pistons that are cast here each day, 80% are for diesel engines including those for BMW’s six-cylinder 3.0-litre diesel. This, we are told, is the most stressed piston in the world.

Once cast and cooled, the machining lines await. The multi-stage process takes around twenty minutes and creates ultra-smooth surfaces, precise combustion bowls and carefully located cooling galleries around the top of the piston.

More nimble robots whir and spin in a dizzying dance that carefully passes each part down the line. A piston is produced every every 14 seconds, seven days a week.

For those destined for life in engines working at high temperatures and pressures – up to 400 degrees and more than 200 bar – the edge of the combustion bowl is also re-melted with a TIG process that Federal Mogul calls DuraBowl.

This reduces the size of the particles in the metal by ten times and improves lifespan by between four and seven times.

Every single piston is subjected to a battery of non-destructive tests on the line, including UV scans which look for correct gallery position and near surface defects. Coating thickness and tolerances are measured on each, while a final six lines weed out any other imperfections.

The Nuremberg tour came off the back of a conference that the $6.9 billion company held to look at the solutions to the challenges presented by engine downsizing and what they mean for the aftermarket. Look out for that on Catmag.co.uk, and in CAT Magazine, soon.

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Halfords, strap wrenches and grass seed

Halfords has got a bit of a roasting from Which? for poor levels of customer service this week.

It gives me the opportunity to tell you my number one favourite story about stock and customers service.

I popped into one a Halfords in Guildford a while back looking for a strap wrench. The young lad had never heard of a strap wrench, so he went to get ‘the tool bloke’.

“The sort of thing for taking off an oil filter,” said the tool bloke.? Yes, sort of, but it was for a viscous coupling on the fan unit of a particularly dreadful VW Passat I bought off my father-in-law (never buy a car from someone you know).

“No joy. Try Machine Mart he suggested. The bloke in Machine Mart knew what a strap wrench was, but they didn’t stock them either.

Last chance saloon was a shop called Cummins in Dorking. It’s an independent hardware store that’s been in the town for decades and survived the nearby openings of B&Q and Wickes over the years.

“Of course,” said the man in Cummins, “would you like small, medium or large?”

Brilliant, but what can we conclude from this massive survey of three shops? That all independents offer better service, stock and knowledge than the chains?

That’s not always the case. In fact, Dan Kimpton from Mountney, who popped in to see us at CAT Towers last week, reckons unless you get the owner, you get someone clueless.

That’s almost, but not quite, the case at Cummins when, on another occasion, I went in for two kilos of grass seed and watched the new lad weigh out two pounds instead.

The other more experienced guys and owner were watching him like a hawk and put him right before I did, so no harm done. It goes to show that they’re training him, too, so that hopefully he can continue to help Cummins shine with the kind of service that you don’t always get at a chain.

Cummins can’t differentiate on price, but it sure can on service. Have you ever heard that before?

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CAT runs for BEN

Congratulations to all of the CAT team members who ran Sunday’s London Marathon for BEN, the automotive charity, and thanks for all of the generous donations so far.

We had three direct entrants taking part – David Harris, Jonathan Whitehead and Martin Lee – and all finished.

David suffered a hamstring injury at around mile 21, but he soldiered on to finish in 5:48. Jonathan managed 4:48 while Martin recorded our fastest time of 4:46.

Congratulations to all out aftermarket colleagues who took part including the IGA’s Stuart James with a 5:33 and Neil Kennett with a stonking 4:06.

We’re still collecting money on behalf of BEN, so click on this link and dig deep for a great cause.

And here’s a snapshot of the CAT team in action:

Screen shot 2012-04-26 at 14.04.06

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Do you pay your taxes?

Just settled down to lunch at my desk, flicked on the BBC website news and discovered that George Osborne was “shocked” to discover that some of the UK’s richest residents have been paying virtually no tax.

This is George Osborne our Chancellor of the Exchequer, by the way, not a random George Osborne who drinks at the Three Dirty Ducks every Tuesday evening with Dave Two Fingers from the bookies.

So, our Chancellor of the Exchequer is surprised that the rich have been avoiding paying tax? Besides swearing loudly at my screen, there are two conclusions to this.

Firstly, if George Osborne, our Chancellor, is genuinely shocked to discover this most obvious of facts, our economy is in terrible hands and we’re all going down with the captain of the ship.

Secondly, George Osborne, our Chancellor, has grossly underestimated the intelligence of hard-working, tax-paying individuals and businesses if thinks that the we’re stupid enough to actually believe this.

Right, where’s my Twix?

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Whoopee! 0.3% growth!!!

Good news. Today the British Chambers of Commerce said that it expected 0.3 percent growth in the first three months of this year so, technically-speaking, we’re not in a recession.

Bring out the balloons.

It sounds pretty pathetic to me, and also got me irritated since it reminded me about the nonsense ‘negative-growth’ double-speak that seems to be used everywhere when trying to talk about ‘the situation’.

However, it also reminded me about the most sage advice I’ve had recently, not just in terms of the aftermarket, but also in terms of life in general and my job here at CAT.

Change what you can change.

There’s no point worrying about things you can’t affect like macro-economic shenanigans. It’s more important that you concern yourself with decanting the delivery that’s just arrived, convincing a customer to let you supply their new roofbox, or breaking the bad news that a timing belt needs changing.

Change what you can change.

For me, my number-one guiding principle is to help ensure that the aftermarket is as professional, efficient, attractive and, most importantly, profitable as possible.

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IGA now with added independence

I caught up with Stuart James, Director of the Independent Garage Association, today.

The IGA is part of the Retail Motor Industry Federation, of course, but the RMI has re-written its articles of incorporation and just voted them into effect.

It means the IGA is now more independent within the RMI, taking all of the money its members pay to do with as it sees fit. Previously IGA member money went into a central pot which many have been used by the RMI’s National Franchise Dealer Association to fight their corner instead – a little odd.

One of the things that Stuart is spending the cash on is free garage training for his members. Part of the training on hybrids, electric vehicles and tyre pressure monitoring systems is done ahead of a visit from the IGA’s newly-appointed training guru Lee Simonds.

Lee will then turn up at your workshop and complete the ATA-accredited course on your own turf. No travel expenses, hotel bills, greatly limited spanner-down time and new skills.

Seems to me it’s far too good an offer to turn down – brilliant.

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Drat and damn

I was hoping that the Kia dealership I took a Picanto to for its first service yesterday (not my choice, don’t blame me) would drop a ball somewhere, but it didn’t.

In fact I think it was pretty much a model for how a garage needs to take care of its customers.

Everything was clean and tidy, there were lots of comfortable seats and access to computers, current magazines (not two-year-old jobs), coffee, tea, water, biscuits, toys (for kids, not me), a television, fresh flowers and wifi access.

The toilet was spotless, the staff were friendly and the work took half an hour less than suggested and cost £10 less than promised. It’s easy to under-promise and over-deliver in this way, but it still leaves customers with a tiny little extra spring in their step. My car was also valeted.

I watched a procession of satisfied customers come in and out during my hour-and-a-bit wait, so it seems Lovekyn Kia in Ewell is doing well out of all of this attention to detail and making tidy money on servicing and repairs.

Lots of you out there have facilities like these – I know because I’ve been there – but I also know there are more who could quite easily up their game considerably by adding in a few missing pieces.

It’s not reinventing the wheel, it’s just making the customer feel comfortable and valued.

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Brighten your day with a visit to a franchise

I’m off to visit a franchised dealer to test out the customer service and workmanship on offer.

It’s been quite a while since I last swung open the door on a franchise, more than a year in fact, so I’m looking forward to seeing what it’s like.

It would obviously be very useful for independent garages to do the same and find out what the competition is up to in their area. Considering the poor service I’ve had at franchises in the past it could brighten your day.

Then again, the franchise might be very good and keep to its 1.5 hour service wait promise and rough quote of £140 for the work. We’ll see – spy’s report will be filled tomorrow, so watch this space.

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Shopkeepers of the world…

I’ve been out and about in Coventry, Hungerford/Bristol and Warwick so far this week.

On Tuesday I went on the road with Saxon Brands area sales manager Nathan Flower to get a feel for his day and visit a couple of retailers in Bristol on his rounds.

Nathan’s a great guy, and he has to deal with a fair bit of banter between him and the guys at the retailers we paid visits to. He can give as good as he gets.

The retailers we dropped in on were very friendly, and hardly backward in coming forward with their opinions with Nathan, but they all looked horrified of the idea of me taking their picture and appearing in CAT magazine or online here.

I’m not quite sure why, although it chimes with previous experience over the nine months I’ve been hanging around the aftermarket. Of any sector, I am finding it hardest to get feedback, opinion and advice from retailers.

It’s a shame, because it’s not for want of trying and of any sector retail is one, perhaps, where it might pay to stick together a little bit more.

There are still a couple of spaces on the CAT Council for some retailers, so don’t be shy. Get in touch and get it all off your chest.

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