How small workshops can thrive from combustion car end

The end of combustion car production may be edging closer but the business opportunities presented to small workshops show no signs of cooling off thanks to an ageing car parc.

According to the Independent Garage Association (IGA) – part of the Retail Motor Industry Federation (RMI), a leading automotive trade body in the UK – the average vehicle age in the UK stands at 9.1 years; 32m are aged three years or older.

Initially, the older parc was blamed on Covid disrupting new car production, but since then other factors have influenced purchasing practices such as spiralling motoring costs, the rising price of vehicles, and the general cost of living.

Key to keeping this older parc running will be the local independent garage. Across the UK there are around 35,000, the IGA estimates.

One of those is Essex-based G&H Automotives. Owner Gareth Bowen told CAT the majority of his work is around maintaining and repairing older vehicles.

A key to this is that they, of course, need more work than newer-built cars, but another, he said, is down to today’s motorists not having the same level of ownership pride as previous generations, meaning cars are becoming neglected and repairs are only requested when forced upon the owner.

AP Scanlon of Bury is another indy garage that is working with a lot of older vehicles. The small firm told CAT that it has “more than enough” business to keep its staff-of-two busy, putting it down to good old fashion service and word and mouth recommendation.

Further south, The Garage Warmington in Banbury, run by the same family since 1974, is also seeing a healthy amount of older vehicle work.

Proprietor Adrain Smith told CAT he has noticed that customers are hanging onto their cars longer, even if it means shelling out disproportionate amounts on repair bills simply because they fear newer, more complex cars will prove even more expensive to own.

This was brought home by a recent CAT report where up-to-the minute later plate vehicles can actually prove cheaper to repair at a main dealer due to their sophisticated makeup and the need for special tools.

Yet, while some garages predict there will be enough work on older vehicles to be sustainable, Smith’s Banbury firm is also looking at the future.

On the outside, the appearance of this homely two-bay premise gives lie to the fact that it embraces electric vehicle work. Smith said that “I try to keep up with the technology and the necessary training required” and has attained skills Level 3 for EV work.

A stark warning about future-proofing was sparked recently when it was rumoured an impending European directive could effectively kill off fixing vehicles over 15 years old due to the EU’s desire to increase end-of-life recycling percentages.

However, that’s not the case, the Federation of British British Historic Vehicle Clubs told CAT. “Policy makers are largely supportive of our mission to preserve transport heritage for tomorrow’s roads. There have been no such discussions of this being considered in the UK.”

Yet, future-proofing isn’t a straightforward task. While it’s assuring to hear that the independent repair trade is in good health, an equal number are on life support.

This is due to workshop costs (parts, materials, energy) having risen by as much as 40 per cent, claims Shawn Taylor, proprietor of STR Service Centre based in Norwich.

“Our running costs are up around 30-40 per cent but we’ve only put our prices up by about 10 per cent,” he told the Eastern Daily Press.

“You can only pass on the cost to customers so much before you price yourself out of the market. The truth is we’re barely breaking even right now.”

Due to this, Andrew Raphaely, managing director of 365 Finance claims he’s seen an increase of 47% (almost half) in the last 12 months of workshops and MOT centres seeking flexible funding.

He said: “The increase in garages and MOT centres applying for alternative finance is down to numerous factors, including the ongoing higher costs associated with running any business right now, but also the need to periodically purchase new equipment and stock, along with maintaining and updating premises.”

One of the main issues, mobile mechanic Kevin Bradley sees, is that garages are being priced out by customers who – due to the cost of living crisis – are looking for the cheapest deals.

He said: “If a gas boiler breaks and they are quoted £1800, then there’s no questions asked. Yet if a mechanic quotes £200 to replace front brake discs and pads using quality parts [the customer will] go on ebay, get a cheap Chinese alternatives, and pay ‘John’ a drink to fit them – that I just can’t get my head around”.

He added: “It should be regulated to stop novices touching things they have no idea on”.

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