In 1995, Mike Humble was given a brand new Daewoo Nexia to drive for a year and help to mark the launch of this brand new marque to the UK scene. It took him nearly two decades to work up the courage to recount the tale of breakdowns, misery and heartache – be prepared to feel Mike’s pain re-lived in all of its excruciating glory…
The year was 1994. The month was October. And for anyone remotely interested in cars, it was the time of the International Motor Show at the NEC in the former UK version of Motown – Birmingham. For a person who has visited every British show since 1982, this one by far remains engrained in my mind for many reasons. Firstly, my girlfriend at the time moaned all the way there – all the time there – and all the way back. Secondly, I left the interior light on which both melted the lens and flattened the battery. And finally, there was the Daewoo experience. And BOY! what an experience it turned out to be.
At the Motor Show, Daewoo had a huge and swanky stand which was causing much interest with visitors and which featured various cars that looked familiar. I had heard of Daewoo, but only for cheap microwave ovens and the occasional fork lift truck, cars were new to Daewoo. However, by forging an engineering alliance with General Motors and using a UK-based styling house, this Korean company had created a range of cars based on hand-me-down models from GM in the form of the old Mk2 Astra/Belmont and pre-1988 Cavalier.
The stand sported a huge banner reading ‘The Biggest Car Manufacturer You’ve Never Heard Of’, which I thought hardly made the best impression. But the cars themselves featured some novel ideas, such as free servicing, free three-year warranty, free AA breakdown and a collection/delivery facility for routine servicing. Now all this sounds average by today’s standards but, back then, this was simply unheard of. Suffice to say, this was mind-blowing. Where could it possibly go wrong? Daewoo ran no franchised dealers, and the price you saw was the price you paid. So no tiresome haggling!
Bear in mind that every car also featured an airbag and ABS, with nearly all models featuring air conditioning, too. Younger readers may struggle to grasp how unreal all this seemed at the time. Car sales were done from Daewoo ‘Motorshows’, which sprung up on various retail parks up and down the land, and were staffed by Daewoo employees who were non-commission, salary-paid, who were known simply as ‘advisors’. It seemed that that this smart-thinking company was indeed, re-inventing the wheel – or, at least, re-inventing the way you bought your wheels.
What grabbed my attention at the NEC was the way you could experience a Daewoo free of charge for one year. All you had to do was supply the petrol – tax, insurance, tyres etc were all part of the deal. Daewoo was offering 200 lucky people the chance to run a car, and all you had to do was fill out a short questionnaire and leave your details. All you were expected to do was fill out a running report every month, which noted all your experiences and ownership. You then posted back to them each month. I fancied a spot of free motoring, so I filled out a form and forgot all about it.
A few months passed by, and then I was contacted by a person from Daewoo UK asking when would I be free to be interviewed? I had reached the next stage at least. Somehow, I had almost forgotten about this – maybe because the perspex box all the completed forms were to be placed into back in Birmingham seemed almost full to burst. Just a few days later, a nice PR lady from Daewoo was dispatched to visit me and take a few mug shots – after a pleasant hour talking about cars and my lifestyle, she left saying I would be written to explaining the next stage if I was to be chosen.
True to her word, a letter from Rickmansworth arrived at my house telling me that I was one of the lucky 200 people to experience a Daewoo for a whole year. I was chuffed to bits. Here I was in my early 20s getting the chance to smoke around in a brand new car that still hardly anyone had heard of. What made it extra special was the fact I worked in a franchised dealer at this time. I just couldn’t wait to see people’s faces or reactions at work. A map and instructions of where to attend this exiting hand over ceremony were included in the letter and my good friend Richard offered me a ride there in his Golf GTi.
Arriving at a posh hotel and golfing complex just outside Rotherham, we were ushered into a conference hall where we were greeted, had our names and licences checked. A grand speech from the actor who featured in the huge TV marketing campaign told us of the plans ahead for Daewoo and, on a huge video wall, we were shown the many commercials which were due to be shown on TV. After we had been fed, watered and asked to sign a contract of terms and conditions, we were back outside in to the winter gloom to be shown our cars.
I had been assigned M868 CLO, a dark blue metallic Daewoo Nexia 1.5 GLi, which in layman’s terms was a re-worked Vauxhall Belmont. Not the most exiting car I will confess, but hey, it was free and what could possibly go wrong with the idea of a free car? Well, funny I should type that, because a taste of things to come came in the form of a fault that appeared before I had even left the car park. All the cars were running ready for the off but, after jumping into my car and being shown the bells and whistles by a marketing executive, I noticed the interior was blisteringly hot and tried to turn the heater down – but to no effect.
Looking back, it seems obvious that some cars had been ‘doctored’ to test the aftersales side of the car, but an on-site mechanic fumbled around behind the centre console for a few moments and set the heat dial to a medium setting. I was told someone would call to arrange a correct repair ASAP so, still being in a euphoric mood, I hit the M18 for the long haul back to Northamptonshire. The return journey back went without a hitch, and I was impressed with the car’s cruising ability, performance from its eight-valve 1.5-litre engine, the seemingly impressive fuel consumption and half decent build quality.
The car was a base model and basic it certainly was. Take away the standard power steering and ABS brakes and you were left with a car that had not even a quartz clock fitted. The ‘Tank-branded’ radio cassette player showed the word ‘COD’ for a moment after switching on, this amused me somewhat. But subsequent events soon wiped the smile from my face – as I shall share with you the catalogue of misery and stunning ineptitude which started soon after taking delivery. It continued almost non-stop for nine months. And I promise you this, every word and scenario is the gospel truth – ‘stand on me’, as Arthur Daley would cry!
For me, where the wheels fell off, so to speak, revolved around Daewoo’s aftersales network. To keep costs low, they entrusted Halfords Service Centres to undertake routine servicing and general warranty work – a bold move but this sadly proved to be inadequate and, from day one, Halfords seemed to struggle to cope with this ‘hard core’ contract. They were more geared up to fit radio CD players or undertake basic chores such as oil changes, rather than catering for a huge Korean car builder’s sole UK aftersales needs. They tried very hard, but missed by a country mile.
My car was called in to the Northampton Service Centre to deal with the heater panel, this was done with minimal fuss, while I waited looking at the garish seat covers and huge wall of car audio in the store, chortling as I heard 500 watts of white noise for the umpteenth time. This was caused by random button pushing of some spotty youth looking to spend £400 on audio for his £100 Vauxhall Nova. This ear-splitting racket can still be heard today by simply visiting your local Halfords Store. The car was done, and I set off back home, being impressed with the time taken and courteous manner of the staff – or so it seemed!
I remember noticing the heater dial had a slightly stiff feeling when being turned, but thought nothing about it. However, later on that evening I drove off from home to visit a friend across the other side of town when, en route, the Nexia suffered its first of many breakdowns. Sitting at a red traffic light at a very busy crossroads just outside the town centre, I pushed in the cigar lighter when FLASH! – a bright spark came from behind the centre console and the engine cut out. The ignition was dead, thankfully the road was slightly down hill, so when the lights changed, I free-wheeled to the other side of the junction and parked up.
The AA was called and, upon arriving, the patrol chap set about poking a circuit tester here and there. After spending a few moments poking around behind the centre console, he barked ‘who’s been pi**ing around in here?’. It transpired that, while Halfords had repaired the heater flaps, some metal component had rubbed through the wiring for the cigar lighter and, after I had pushed it in, the whole thing had shorted out. The car’s immobiliser circuit was wired into the same path as the cigar lighter and it was this which had killed the car stone dead.
The wiring for the cigar lighter was disconnected and isolated, fuse replaced and I was back on the road once again, but in no doubt that I was Halfords bound once more. Again, they repaired the car, but this time a fitter left the world’s biggest oil stain on the carpet from his work-boots. A few eventless weeks passed by, and the car seemed to be proving to be a decent machine, once again it had a moody as it chewed up a cassette with no warning. The radio was replaced with another unit which made Pearl Jam sound like Pinky and Perky – this replacement unit also decided to dine out on a cassette soon after.
After checking the oil before driving over to Suffolk to see a friend star in a play, I noticed oil seepage from the cylinder head and the cream of death under the oil cap. The car was taken to… yes, you guessed correctly, Halfords, who said the cream was due to the cold weather and to keep an eye on the minor oil leak. Not being entirely convinced by their diagnosis, I set off on the 80-mile journey. But on the return journey, near Huntingdon, the head gasket let loose at 1.30am. Needless to say, I went beserk and ‘phoned for the good old AA.
After being towed to Northampton and arriving there at 3.30am, I subsequently failed my Saturday morning shift due to having no transport which also gained me a verbal warning. This was not the first time the car had caused friction at work because, soon after, I was summoned into the Dealer Principal’s office for a chat. It transpired that they were none too pleased about having one of these new Daewoo cars in the car park as customers were asking in the showroom what it was. As a result, I was barred from parking it in on the dealer’s premises!
Another issue came in the form of some accident damage caused by some gale force winds which blew an iron drain pipe and masonry onto the Nexia and a few other cars. It badly damaged the A-post, roof and shattered the windscreen as a result and the car was dispatched to a body shop in nearby Market Harborough. A loan car was dropped off in the form of a brand new Rover Metro 1.4LD, which after two weeks, was exchanged for a brand new Renault Clio. The car eventually came back after a month with a door rubber that refused to sit correctly causing a high-pitched whistle at speed. Various bits of masking tape were inside the door jamb and it leaked water inside during heavy rain.
The actual repair was truly awful. The driver’s wiper blade swept off the screen, the front door didn’t align correctly and the radio would not work because the code had been lost. By now I was losing patience with the car, especially after yet another radio needed to be fitted. But this time, the unit was not secured properly and they had forgotten to connect the aerial too. I became sick and tired of Daewoo and Halfords’ constant apologies and countless blunders; the four times I had to be rescued by the AA and general inconvenience I suffered in the nine months of running the car. I spent more time driving other Daewoos, Rovers and Renaults.
After pulling up the aerial one morning before setting off, the whole mast popped out of the rear wing (for the third time) and my patience finally gave in. I telephoned the UK HQ number for Daewoo and demanded that they came and picked up the car and took it away.
It had left me stranded numerous times, nearly got me fired, ate countless decent albums, required four radios, blew its head gasket at 5000 miles, needed its battery replacing after leaking acid started eating the battery tray, immobilised itself twice and spent a grand total of almost two months off the road. By now I was pig sick and wanted nothing more to do with the car, its maker, or bloody Halfords.
Daewoo sent a top brass from their HQ to find out why I was so switched off with everything, I can’t remember how the conversation went, but I do recall the chap being very concerned about the fact that I might have gone to the media about this.
They offered to replace the car, but I explained that my concern was everything but the car, it was the mess of the flawed and incompetent aftersales which ruined the whole experience for me. With some reluctance, they collected the car and, to this day, I have still yet to come across such a chaotic and miserable motoring experience!
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.