Technician’s Update: It doesn’t stop with cut-price cowboys

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Mike Humble

When I used to put a price out for a job whilst working as a mobile mechanic, I would always ask if the potential customer had obtained a quote from elsewhere before giving a price. Pitch the opening gambit too high and you will get three beeps or a long tone to signify the caller has rung off, but go in with both boots too low and you will be out of pocket and patience. Some guys who work out of the back of their vans, who I know and keep in touch with, constantly complain about the cut-price cowboys who give the trade the bad name it often gets.

I almost applauded at my TV screen a while back when the BBC’s Watchdog team did their ‘Rogues’ Gallery’ on a mobile mechanic who took customers cars to a forest to repair – badly I may add. I reckon that too much attention is given over to bad garages and dealer chains simply because that makes for better coverage on the telly but, blimey, did I come across some horrendous mobile mechanics during the two years I operated in County Durham and Teesside. All I ever wanted to do was an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay and not to mince around for hours on end – for cherry-bobs.

I guess many of you AROnline readers must wonder just where these rambles come from. The answer is simple – I kept a very detailed log of every job tallied to an alphanumeric job number and that enables me to refer back to my old customers. After all, it’s sometimes impossible to remember everyone. Besides, when you fire back all the nut and bolt detail the customer is often impressed and it really hammers home the ethic of offering a truly personal service – I applied the same trick in the showroom too, and it DOES pay off.

A customer called one day and asked me to take a look at the rear brakes on his MG ZS 120 saloon after picking up an advisory note at the MoT. It transpired he had a semi – regular mobile guy who had vanished into thin air shortly after doing some previous rear brake work just a month or two prior to my involvement. The driver in question was quite a fastidious owner but one whose skill set ended with fluid levels – he did, though, know when something was amiss with his MG.

HHR & Rover 600 cars are prone for rear brake issues which often turn out to be a simple easy sort.
400/45/ZS and Rover 600 cars are prone to have rear brake issues, but there often turns out to be a simple and easy fix

The MoT advisory was a common HHR and 600 series issue relating to a brake imbalance on the rear axle which was, more often than not, cured by stripping down the brakes and giving everything a good clean up with a wire brush and some copper ease. Less honest garages quite often stung the client for a reconditioned caliper with pads and discs, but it makes a £50 job become one of £250 or more for only a whisker more labour. My customer’s paperwork revealed his car had been fitted with a remanufactured caliper discs and pads by the aforementioned mobile mechanic, so what was causing this issue?

Visiting his lovely property in the picturesque Harrowgate Village area of Darlington, he explained how he had tried to contact the other fellow after picking up the advisory notice but had only had a mobile number which was now unobtainable. Peering through the spokes of the alloy wheels I could see the new discs, caliper and what looked like new pads and stated the only way to see what the issue was involved pulling things apart. Authorisation was given and I set about the job but, with  just one wheel off the car, an interesting discovery was made.

Now, the customer showed me his invoice for the work involved and the receipts for the parts from the local branch of Partco/Unipart but the discs were not Unipart items as the quality was quite, well, rubbish, in all honesty. The claimed overhauled caliper was in fact his original item which had in fact been wire brushed to an inch of its life. There was no spanner rash on the flexi hose and no sign of damp or fresh brake fluid from the bleed nipple either so, before I reported my findings, I called the factors. Unipart Automotive very rarely let me down, not as cheap as rivals Andrew Page, but the service was outstanding every time I found.

I used no one else for filters and brake components and, as a direct result, a great relationship with the counter supervisor was forged. Andy went on to tell me the customer had purchased these items only to bring them back an hour later claiming the job was cancelled. “ Is there a squiggle in the top right corner of the invoice? ” said Andy on the ‘phone “That’s where I mark the bill so I know they have been returned and credited.” A man of process after my own heart… The biggest outrage was to be found on the brake pads, especially the one on the inside where the piston operates.

The rear pads show the audible warning tangs on the two right items (pic: rovertech.net)
The rear pads show the audible warning tangs on the two right items (Picture: Rovertech.net)

The pads were not new but cleaned up and liberally dolloped with copper ease. Original or quality aftermarket Rover rear pads on these cars feature a device known as an audible warning indicator. That, in laymen’s terms, is a soft metal tang which scrapes the disc when the pads wear down making a grumbling or shrieking noise upon brake application telling the pilot something needs attention. These had been hacksawed off the pads and the linings were virtually down the backing plate whil the disc on the side of the imbalance was showing an ugly deep lip towards the edge and a hint of blueing – early signs of overheating.

Reporting these findings to the owner, he justifiably bounced off all four walls of his kitchen but some relief came when I told him the caliper was seemingly okay. A trip down to the town for some more discs and pads saw the job done just in time for Countdown and I arranged for my MoT guy to pop his MG onto the brake rollers for free in a few days’ time after the new items had bedded in. After doing some additional investigative snooping, I never did track down the mystery bodger from Barnard Castle. I was, though, soon looking after the cars belonging my customer’s close family…

Clearly, the other guy was just out to make a tidy sum with maximum profit. The effort involved was remarkable and how he managed this without being spotted… Well, that beats me. What it comes down to is this: watch your mechanic carefully if able to, ask to see old parts where possible and use the word of mouth recommendation wherever you can. The key factor in giving up the mobile game after just shy of two years revolved around the issue of being priced out of jobs by chancers time after time. Loyalty seems to end with cheap prices so often and I never was cheap – just good value.

Mike Humble

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade.

Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications

10 Comments

  1. Another excellently written article, Mike.
    Amazing how peoples trust can get ripped to shreds in the pursuit of some more beer tokens.

    You always do the right thing.

    I’d trouble with the rear brakes on my car, was told sticking calipers was a common Honda issue – and from that I assumed Honda-based Rovers would be affected.

    When I changed the pads on the other half’s Hyundai, they were missing the backing shims. Are these needed?

  2. I disagree Will M

    I don’t always do the right thing, we all have to be creative sometimes.

    Must write the story about how a Corgi model of a Fiat X1/9 helped me bodge the clutch on my old Ital to keep her running for a few days…

    I kid you not!

  3. If the parts are returned to the supplier, then the invoice should be clearly and indelibly stamped as such. A ‘squiggle’ in the top right corner, that only the squiggler can interpret, does not seem adequate to prevent to the end customer from being duped by the cowboys. Unipart should know this.

  4. The one I cam across was the mechanic who had a van load of Unipart, Lockheed etc boxes in the back of his Transit that were actually filled with cheap copies. He used to keep the boxes from any OEM parts supplied by customers and then buy cheap pattern copies and stick them in the OEM boxes. He would then charge top prices for inferior parts.

    He got away with this for many years until trying it out on an elderly man who was a retired mechanic – and whose son in law was a traffic cop. Turned out that the old guy knew the difference between genuine items and copies and actually took the time to examine the components being fitted.

    He stopped the mobile mechanic stuff shortly later after he kept getting stopped for random spot checks by every traffic cop in the district.

  5. Lots to agree with in this article Mike. My own MG ZS used to occasionally exhibit squealing noises from the rear brakes, only when reversing and usually only in wet conditions. My servicing garage (who sold me the car) checked them over and told me this was a trait on the rear brakes of the ZS(?). No bother with the front discs or pads though.

    Incidentally the ZS in the photo looks like it’s in LeMans Green… the colour I always wanted but I ended up with X Power Grey – still nice though.

  6. Honda-derived rear brakes on Rovers are often a source of trouble – be it an 800 or a small 200. With gentle use of the brakes and the low weight of a small hatchback our R8 216 GSi had typically under-used rear brakes. The result was, that in most cases the calipers did not outlast the pads, which in itself only lasted about 1/2 the mileage of the front brake pads. On our Tourer now I actually have one caliper that actually outlasted two sets of pads so far! (the other side did not) Front brakes give no hassle at all… In our personal case a reasonably sized drum brake would have been so much better…

  7. @7
    The rear calipers on the Accord coupe are a nightmare. Pricey too.

    Some Peugeot 406 buyers guides advise that the HDi 90 isn’t a bad option as it usually came with rear drums – therefore eliminating the problem of rear discs.

    Was it Rovers plan for the MINI to have rear drums too, before BMW changed to discs?

  8. I agree with Mr Bucket- nothing wrong with drum brakes at the rear if the car isn’t designed for doing track days.

    Having had a ‘discs all round’ 2.0 Focus Mk1 and had a 1.6 as a courtesy car (with rear drums), I actually preferred the disc/drum setup. For the average motor, rear discs are probably only of benefit for those people who go down steep hills using only their brakes to retard their progress, rather than engine braking.

  9. Someone on the Honda forum once suggested dabbing the brakes at motorway speed every now and then just to exercise the rear brakes….

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