Technician’s Update : QA businesses – are they really?

Words and photography: Mike Humble

Even had the garages diagnosis been right, £700 + vat for a head gasket job with no warranty is quite simply not on.

We all must have seen the adverts on the TV or read in magazines about the number of ‘quality approved’ businesses or garage schemes. The well known one that comes to mind has a whistling tune akin to the William Tell Overture, penny dropped now? My question is this, are they really worth anything or more to the point, should a business have to pay a third party organisation just to tell the world that they ‘claim’ to be of assured quality or more to the point, a square dealing business of sound repute? It seems that some of these schemes are easy advertising money and a big red tick on a plumbers van sadly means very little.

Don’t  get me wrong, some schemes are genuinely good and not for profit solely relying on customer experience feedback. Car Mechanics magazine for example feature a good garage section whereby readers can write in and give a hearty thumbs up for their local workshop. This seems a fairer system than ‘Bodgit, Scarper & Sons’ simply paying a few ‘sovs’ just to join a scheme that only appears to state they are trusted. The problem with a car to many people is that their expertise on engineering ends at pumping up the tyres and topping up the tank. The minute the family Fiesta goes on the blink they are relying on someone else’s opinion and skill set.

Dragging things into the present, my neighbour’s Rover 25 has kept me in pin money on more than one occasion mainly owing to the odd service and replacement of items like pads or wipers. They bought the car very much against my advice a few years ago as I was asked to give it the once over. It was accident damaged, overpriced and I couldn’t be certain at the time whether the head had blown and had just been fixed rather poorly, or in the process of failing. Sadly and against all advice in good faith, they bought the damn thing and seven days later it dumped its coolant into the sump.

They asked me if I could fix it but I chose to have nothing more to do with the car, Instead, I put them onto a chap I know who is really top notch and not adverse to the provocative little cash in hand kind of task. With over 20,000 trouble free miles passing it recently starts getting through copious amounts of coolant without warning and unbeknownst to me, they take it to a local garage who are part of a national chain for diagnosis. After a doorstep chat they tell me their woes and how this garage initially quoted just over £700 for head job albeit with no warranty on the work undertaken.

When she baulked at the cost the garage then quickly back peddled and offered to knock £100 from the job providing she booked it in there and then. Rightly so, she declined their kind offer and came home after paying a small sum for a pressure test they carried out – and here is where I stepped into the breach. My recommended garage has closed down since they did the job a few years back, so I offered to do it at a much reduced cost. I recall that Steve Anderson skimmed the head and did a damn good job for the money with the only fly in the ointment being that he fitted parts that the owner sourced, not the MLS type kit I would have used.

Preparing for the worst this morning, I ventured outside with the tools and straight away found there was nothing wrong with the head whatsoever. The coolant was leaking from the extreme right of the inlet manifold, running to the corner of the head and thus leaking onto the gearbox bellhousing. By pumping the top hose with your hands, you could even hear the air escaping from the inlet manifold along with lots of coolant. So before I got carried away with the thought of ripping out cam belts and timing covers, the trusty 13mm socket and ratchet soon had the inlet manifold off – the gasket was split and perished.

A quick call to Express Car Parts secured an inlet manifold gasket and some OAT coolant and just a short while later the little 25 was buzzing merrily away like nothing had happened. Yet another perfectly usable car saved from the breakers yard with no thanks due to the so called breakdown service recommended garage chain we all know well. So – my advice is this, forget the so called approved traders schemes, forget the fancy jolly adverts on telly and just because the RAC or AA have a sign outside doesn’t mean you’re going to get a square deal for sure.

My diagnosis was such an easy spot too, it was more than obvious the head gasket was fine. Quite simply the garage was out to fleece the customer and where I appreciate and endorse the art of ‘up selling’ – the method of gaining extra work by advising associated items like timing belts or the water pump, this was nothing more than attempted robbery. The garage in question bailed out of the repair and service game some years ago, partly I guess because of their ineptitude of which I experienced first hand some time ago, only to buy back their outlets fairly recently.

Your best bet for recommendation is a relative or a work colleague or even a buddy down the pub. Everybody knows somebody who knows their stuff when it comes to cars. The best ones are the chaps you never hear of, they don’t need to join a wishy-washy back slapping scheme to earn a good living. Their reputation by word of mouth is their life blood and quite often THE only sure fire way to good old honest decent workmanship and quality without having your leg lifted high and dry for the privilege.

As far as the outlet in question goes; stick to selling stereos, push bikes and air fresheners – you’ve obviously not improved over the years!

A failed inlet gasket is all it was. Blindingly obvious too and the 25 was purring like a kitten within two hours.
Mike Humble


  1. Ah yes, the famous ‘H’ chain,I have vivid memories of them when working at Daewoo,who made the mistake of choosing them as sales and service outlets,talk about trying to rip off 🙂

  2. More good advice from Mike. I would add that when a garage/repairer is a member of an “Approved” Traders scheme, it’s often still a daunting task trying to resolve a complaint by going back to that scheme’s administrators.

    Word of mouth recommendation from friend’s & family is usually more reliable.

  3. Yes the infamous H chain, I had a headlight bulb go on a 2005 Nissan Almera and they said they weren’t allowed to stock them due to the bulbs melting on 2001 models. Actually I pointed out the car had a mild restyle in 2003 and the headlight was redesigned to prevent this, but they said they weren’t allowed to stock bulbs for Almeras. Ended up going to a local motor factor who said they were talking rubbish and got a new bulb for seven quid and fitted for free.

  4. Kwik fit tried screwing a lad i knew years back with a suspect HGF on his 45,he alaways used to tell me i could do any work etc but i never did hear from him until he called at our garage i was working at and we checked it and the exact same symptons as above,this being a warranty job as well,he could not believe the car was ready the same day all for £120!
    Forget the AA and RAC,they are a towing and battery sales service now they are venture capitalist owned.The good Garage scheme or IMI approved are about as good as you can get,they are star rated and customer rated,just type in your post code and up will pop garages within the scheme in your area the best rated are at the top of the pile,in this world you get what you pay for and national chains are in it for the money.In any case,when a belt has gone on a K anddone the valves in, i charge £700 for the job tip to toe.

  5. I don’t know why people slag Halfords off so much. They are the only ones open at 4.30 on a Sunday afternoon, which is handy if you want to get a part for your car to get to work next day. Most motor factors slag them off too, but they are all home with their feet up at 1.00pm on Saturday until 8.30am Monday complaining about the downturn in business…

  6. @6 Kev – people do slag them off, you’re quite right – and they do open on Saturdays and Sundays when a lot of us aren’t around (but the so-called workshops are often shut) – but when they try to charge you sixteen times the amount that my local motor factors did for an interior bulb for my Rover (P5B) and supply possibly the worst value for money bicycles in the land – their Apollo brand, which are quite literally bent (as in frame) one can only hope that people will get wise one day. And anyway, what did we do for spares 18 years ago before the Sunday Trading laws came into existence – when we had cars that certainly needed more fettleing than our current crop? And – they failed my Rover on its MOT two years in a row because the same 50 something tester didn’t know about floor mounted dip switches 🙂

  7. Kev (comm 6)

    Halfords are perfectly fine if you:

    A – Know exactly what you want
    B – Own a trade card
    C – Only rely on them for consumables
    D – Need a Rip Speed branded tax disc holder

    The issue is that they are keen to get ‘the trade’ to use their stores, but owing to the fact they are a Venture Capitalist owned business, the keep very little parts on the shelf and rely on local factors that you and I would use anyway. This is the reason that their superstores have a measly 10% of floor space dedicated to ‘hard parts’ the rest being bikes, car cleaning products, camping equipment, radios, and now… wait for it … wheelchairs and mobility scooters.

    Quality of certain items are dubious, their own brand brakes for example: Rover 75 pads lack the anti squeal fabric bonded onto the backings, result? your front end chatters over rough roads. Their HHR rear pads only just fit in the carriers – even after shaving them.

    To expensive in general and staffed by kids who know more about Facebook than Fiesta’s. A couple of good examples of this: a chap behind the parts desk told me that a Rover 25 does not have CV boots fitted to the driveshafts after spending almost 20 minutes haplessly stabbing away at the computer trying to find said item.

    Upon enquiring about a pollen filter for a Vauxhall Vectra ‘B’ the lad wandered off and came back with an oil filter & had to then mince around on the keyboard for another 5 minutes only to be told ‘oh.. I can order one in for you’ the price quoted was something like 50% more than Joe Factor. Mentioning about my trade card and their price match scheme, they said that diddn’t include ordered parts.

    My Daewoo was serviced & warranty repaired by them in 1995.. it was a complete fiasco, they simply could not cope.

    And in the case of my nearby resident… want over £700 to replace a miss diagnosed K series HGF even after pressure testing and a visual inspection, with no warranty supplied on their work… Oh, thats using a standard Payen gasket not an MLS one by the way!

    Even their own fitters and workshop managers seemingly have no confidence on their quality of workmanship.

    Anyway, the article does not serve the point of knocking Halfords, most of my transactions there are fuss free to be frank, but merely to explain that approved schemes and check my trade .com et al prove nothing, just a third party outfit making money.

    Does that answer any of your reservations?

  8. The question is,who in thier right mind institute repairs at Halfords or anywhere else that did not guarantee thier work? ludicrous and unthinkable in this customer focussedday and age.I would also add that i would be extremely relaxed if some of these chains went tits up,mainly because they are scammers dressed up in some supposed respectability-target led,mark ups and “technicians”(ho ho ho)encouraged to sell up on shockers,tyres and exhausts.And some folk think back street garages are bad.

  9. I was thinking of buying a Saab.
    The nearest dealer was 12 miles away, so I thought I’d check on consumables at Halfords.
    “Could you quote me on an oil filter for a Saab 9-5 diesel, please”
    The 16-year-old girl at the counter was sure of her automotive knowledge.
    “Saab – that’s an Astra, isn’t it”
    Almost right.

  10. Halfords just seem to be able to sell mountain bikes, roof coffins for qashcows and kenwood radios and ripspeed alloys for saxos. (Heck, even on the radio front I got a cheap CD player when I was fixing up an Alfa, and it arrived missing half the leads and with someone else’s recordable CD still in it!)
    Their sump plugs and spark plug leads don’t have a guide book for make/model, and when I asked I was told that they were being phased out of sale.

    However – as others have pointed out, they are open when you need a window wiper on a wet evening, or if you need filters when you decide to do a quick service on an idle Sunday. Too many small businesses bemoan the fact that too much trade goes to large chains, when it is these that are open when it is convenient for those of us who work 9-5.

    Try even getting a tyre place that will fix a puncture at 11.30 on a Saturday, as I tried recently, and they’ll all laugh saying “Can’t. Knocking off in a minute mate.”

    Mind you, when I can, I do try and get to one of the better ones, such as the independent motor factor formerly known as Motorcraft in Merville, or EuroCarParts.
    (Can’t and wont recommend GSF who were very unhelpful).

  11. There are a few in north manchester that are open till 3pm on sundays,just make sure you make an early start if you break something!

  12. They can only open 1-6 in NI.

    Wouldn’t be the first time that I’ve had a car on axle stands on a Sunday evening because I needed to run to the motor factors!

    (Though most recent example was when my brake piston pushback tool broke, a trip to B&Q on the way home on the Monday got a decent G clamp that did the trick)

  13. The radio I had fitted by fitted by Halfords hasn’t caused me any trouble since it was done last year.

    It only took 30 minutes & the mechanic managed to get all the dash taken apart and back together without any fuss.

  14. I’m from Sunderland and I have to say that Autosave in Grangetown is great for parts. The guys seem to know about everything and it is also an off-license so it is even open late in the evening and on Saturdays and Sundays.
    As far as getting tyres, Peacock tyres at Pallion, open on Saturdays and even on Sundays from about 10 to 12.
    Good prices as well; I’ve been using them since before time began!

  15. “I don’t know why people slag Halfords off so much. They are the only ones open at 4.30 on a Sunday afternoon, which is handy if you want to get a part for your car to get to work next day.”

    Well, in part it’s because Halfords had a big investment in advertising some years back making that point – IIRC, Jaguar V12 studs were the subject of their “we’ve got it” type campaign.

    Which when you wander in, buy wipers for your less than 10 year old car and find they have the completely wrong spec, or want an oil filter or air filter for your best-selling roadster and find they have to be ordered in… rings a little hollow.

    And I have a trade card. So I buy oil, bulbs, and some tools there, and actually the staff in the Hinckley branch are polite, helpful and generally apologetic about the lack of useful spares carried in order to make room for beaded seat covers, satnavs and bicycles.

    I don’t trust anyone in the trade anymore. It’s a sad situation – my skills are not that broad so I get stuck sometimes – but now no-one will ever get the chance to prove me wrong because of the number of times I’ve been right :/

  16. @14

    Generally one make clubs can be quite cliquey, often asking about something like spares on a forum will either tell you to read the FAQ, search for an obscure thread, or if they are friendly they might direct you to the mnaufacturer or a budget pattern part on ebay (see blog Technicans Update: Cheap Parts can Drive you Spare), or as I find be US based, so the part may not be the same or the postage (if they post here) is ridiculous.

  17. Don’t get me wrong, the 406 forum is an excellent one model forum, the Alfa Owner forum has useful info, but I have struggled to find a decent Honda forum that wasn’t full of boy racers, those who wont answer threads as my model is too obscure, or US-based.

  18. Mike, I wasn’t questioning the article, I was merely sticking up a bit for Halfords. I know they have their faults but as a depot for getting general bits and pieces they’re not that bad. I always buy my chamois leathers there because they are excellent quality and last a good length of time. In any case, most people only go in to get some polish.

    They also offer a fitting service which most people are prepared to pay for as it saves them getting grubby. How many motor factors do that?

    I also had an IMG fail on my MG ZT but I wrongly diagnosed HGF to begin with. The symptome are similar until you look at the evidence.

  19. I’m workshop manager at a small, independent garage that although we specialise in certain high-performance cars, will happily service, MoT and repair anything.
    We go out of our way to give a good & honest service, and I’m pleased to say that we have many loyal, long-standing customers who trust us implicitly.
    Unfortunately ‘The Motor-Trade’ has such a bad reputation for ripping off their customers with stories like this being extremely common.
    It seems to me that ‘the proverbial back street’ garage is far more trust-worthy. The worst tales I hear are regarding big fast-fit chains and main dealers.

  20. QA as a concept was discredited 15 years ago.

    From time to time I’ve received the usual QA guff from firms trying to sell my employers a range of business or professional services. My usual response is to ask for two examples of the bidder’s QA standards exceeding industry norms. And whilst they’re at it, may I see a copy of their latest QA audit? Not once have I heard a satisfactory reply.

    My experience is that the prominence of the QA gloss is usually in inverse proportion to the standard of the product or service. These days I run a mile from any business using QA as a selling point.

  21. In a past life I worked as a software QA engineer.

    The end product can vary depending on the development processes used, and the resources and timescales given to QA.

    Applying that to other sectors, I can see how at one point a manufacturer or a bank might lay off QA development engineers, then the next big release they have engine defects / their banking system goes down for a fortnight.

  22. @3
    It’s actually the post 03 almeras that have the problems with the bulb holders, I’ve seen them break a few times even when the person changing the bulb has been gentle, the whole holder breaks from the reflector.

  23. When I lived up north, I always used my local motor factor, as 1) he was bloody cheap, and 2) he knew what he was on about. The place has grown from a smallish cramped shop, to a large, almost Halfords-esque building. And in 99% of times, he’s had what I needed. People would come from all over Yorkshire for their ‘consumables’ from Ian & his team of staff, and even after all these years, it is still Ian at the helm, with his son.

  24. When I lived up north, I always used my local motor factor, as 1) he was bloody cheap, and 2) he knew what he was on about. The place has grown from a smallish cramped shop, to a large, almost Halfords-esque building. And in 99% of times, he’s had what I needed. People would come from all over Yorkshire for their ‘consumables’ from Ian & his team of staff, and even after all these years, it is still Ian at the helm, with his son.

  25. N16 post 2003 Almeras. The bulb holder melts. Though I would imagine by now that most affected would have been changed by Nissan or by their subsequent owners.

    If the indy motor factor had inadvertently broken the bulb holder, and hence ruined the unit, would you be seeking a new headlight from them?

  26. Unfortunately, speaking of QA, Nissan seemed to have inherited Renault’s QA practices.
    My fathers Navara D22 had the conrod bolts snap, ruining the engine.

  27. Aahh, Halfords or “The Last Resort” as I call them,
    Approved or otherwise, there’s no way would i trust the Halfords “Wefit” staff with my car.

    Showing me latest mobile phone app maybe, but car stuff – i dont think so.

  28. @27,Prone for it and halfshafts,but Nissan wont acknowledge it,but they have derated the engines and derate customer vehicles without thier knowledge.

  29. Halfords need to take a leaf out of some of the American auto parts dealers.
    One called pep boys supply’s almost any part for any car, things like window motors or wiper arm linkages, parts that would normally be dealer only in the UK, but they also sell the Halfords type of stuff like cd players and polishes and they will even lend you tools for free.
    And the main thing with them is they know what they are doing and the staff are normally petrol heads.

  30. I actually now entrust my car to a bloke like Mike, he’s an MOT tester who does work on his own classics, and other people’s cars at his little barn, that even has a proper spraybooth, and does jobs at less than half of what a garage would charge, and he is fairly high up in the UK owners club, so knows his stuff 🙂

  31. I have worked for Halfords on and off for 12 years now, the problems (as far as I see them) are something like this: They are a relatively newly independent company (No longer owned by Capital Venturists) and are run by money men, there is no one in the company (at a Management level anyway) that has a “drive” for cars or bikes, their only concern is to drive profits, so anything they can do to shave off costs here and there they will, staffing the stores with 16 year old school leavers costs less than paying a mature, experienced member of staff so they instruct Store Managers to recruit young’uns. There is no training or resource for anyone, you are literally expected to jump into the job and know everything about everything!

    They still live in the pre-internet days where Halfords would have traditionally be the only place to buy a wiring adapter for your car Radio, ignoring the fact that you could buy their £19.99 aerial adapter online for £3.99 including postage. I have seen the standard of customers change over the years go from basically everyone who owns a car, to more recently being only either Women or Old folks who know nothing about cars and how expensive Halfords can be, or Idiots who never venture out of their home towns and don’t know the internet exists…
    Their “We fit” scheme is also a farce, a purely profit driven initiative that assures the customers that their “Trained Professionals” can fit a Battery, Bulb, Wiper blade, Stereo system, Hands-free kit, Cycle carrier, Roof Bars/Boxes etc, etc. when in reality, the fits are being carried out by a completely UNTRAINED 16 year old being paid minimum wage and who knows less about fitting (probably) than the customer him/herself!!!
    So while they continue to push prices up in their stores, their customers dwindle and go elsewhere, this cycle drives further panic into the management team call for further price rises to counteract the drop in custom and maintain profits for the Shareholders, there is only one way a company like that can go…

    The company, in short, is a joke…

  32. We used to supply Halfords with their own branded tools, but in the end they squeezed us so hard on price we just stopped supplying them and asked them to go elsewhere because it just wasn’t worth doing. They would buy drain pug keys for 55p each and retail them for £5.99. They would sell hundreds of them each month.

  33. I would also agree that their ranges of filters, brake pads, wipers, spray paints and other consumables are woefully out of date as their reference guides are rarely updated and more recent cars from the last 6 years or so aren’t listed.

    You can buy a can of Brooklands green paint for a 1978 Princess off the shelf, but Starlight silver for your 2004 MG? Not a chance. They can mix it for you, but they usually have run out of one of the colours needed to make it up.

  34. Halfords are OK for bikes and things like windscreen wipers, but I wouldn’t trust them with anything else and their customer care can be bad. I can remember being on my way to work one day in winter and I needed a headlight bulb fitted in a hurry. Rather than do the job myself, I paid a few pounds extra to have it fitted and the fitter looked like I wanted to kill his mother and didn’t even acknowledge me when I thanked him. Probably I took him away from his warm office and his copy of Revs.

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