Independents Day: the alternatives for getting your car serviced and repaired
This is a true story, although some names have been omitted to protect the “innocent”.
When my car was just coming out of its warranty period, I took it to the main dealer for its 75,000km service, and the service manager, when I collected it, told me that the next one would be “the biggie”.
Apparently at the 90,000km mark, my car would need to have its camshaft drivebelt changed and the entire service would come to about Dh6,000. Reasoning that it would still be a lot cheaper than having to repair the engine when the belt eventually broke, I sighed and went on my way.
A few weeks later, my three-year manufacturer warranty expired, and at the same time, one of my car’s headlamps stopped working. I rang the service centre to enquire about having the “bulb” replaced and was told, remarkably, that there were none in stock and I would have to wait for one to come from Germany – something I thought was unacceptable.
“Try Autohaus,” advised a friend, “they’ve just opened.” I rang them. Yes, they had the parts on the shelf, and I could head over right then for the job to be carried out. As the technician was carrying out the repair, the service manager asked me where I went for servicing. I said that I’d been going to the main dealer, but that my options were open as the car was out of warranty. And then I told him about “the biggie”.
“But your car doesn’t have a cam belt, sir,” was his response.
I felt angry and a bit embarrassed, because I should have known that little nugget of information. But the fact that the service manager at the main dealership was prepared to book me in for work that didn’t need doing – work that couldn’t be done, indeed – was enough for me to change allegiance. From that point, my car has been looked after and serviced by Autohaus, and I’ve never had a single moment’s bother with them. Welcome to the joys of using an independent marque specialist.
Since my wake-up call, I have spoken at length with other motorists about the issue, and many of them have had similar experiences, with all sorts of brands. Now, though, if your warranty has expired, there are a growing number of alternatives – independent service centres that specialise in particular makes of car, run by enthusiasts with incredible knowledge, expertise and a desire to improve the customer experience across the board. And you, too, might be able to save time, stress and money by finding one for your own car.
There are hundreds of garages out there with no affiliation to a particular manufacturer, but with today’s cars being incredibly complex, computer-laden pieces of engineering, there’s much to be said about heading for a specialist rather than a generalist.
Autohaus specialises in Volkswagen and Audi cars, but what if you drive a BMW, a Mercedes-Benz or even a Porsche? Who can you turn to once your car is no longer covered (or restricted) by its maker’s warranty?
An internet search on “BMW specialist Dubai” reveals a reputable company called Munich Motor Works, which is in Al Quoz. Another that claims to specialise in BMW, Mini and even Rolls-Royce and Ferrari is Tony Edwards Motors, although the fact that the “about us” section on its website says “We Established Our Company In Dbai To Look After Lexury Cars [sic]” might make me think twice.
If your car happens to be a Porsche, I have excellent news for you. A company I had dealings with a few years ago in the United Kingdom, when I was a writer for a Porsche magazine, has set up shop in Abu Dhabi, and the man who founded it has relocated to the Emirates, overseeing its start-up and inevitable expansion.
Jonas Zambakides established what’s now JZM Porsche in Hertfordshire, just north-west of the M25 motorway that encircles London, in 1996. In the years since its conception, the business has continuously evolved and forged a brilliant reputation for itself, offering an alternative to Britain’s OPCs (Official Porsche Centres).
“Three years or so ago, I took a call from a guy in Abu Dhabi, who suggested bringing the JZM concept over here,” Zambakides tells me. “And when I looked at the potential, it was obvious that it could be a success. There are so many Porsches here, of all models and ages, that I knew there would be sufficient demand to warrant setting it up.”
Two-and-a-half years later, JZM Gulf opened its doors in Abu Dhabi’s Mussaffah industrial zone. “We’ve just passed our first anniversary,” he says, “and things have gone remarkably well. The first batch of customers were already familiar with our UK operation, but word of mouth has been good for business, and now we’re seeing all manner of cars coming in.”
He says the majority of cars are out of warranty, but he’s starting to see owners of new cars coming in for upgrades and other work, including regular servicing – obviously unafraid of invalidating that precious documentation.
“What has startled me the most,” he continues, “is how many Porsche owners here have neglected routine maintenance, and it’s now becoming a major issue. The climate causes an enormous amount of wear and tear, the heat damages rubbers and wiring, causes hoses to perish and suspension mountings to fail. And sometimes when I ask an owner when his or her car was last serviced, they just shrug their shoulders and say: ‘Dunno’.
“Yet regular servicing pays for itself many times over in the long run – air-conditioning units, for example, are always working flat-out here, and they need servicing if they are to last.”
He says that JZM Gulf is working at about 35 per cent capacity, which is excellent after one year of business. Owners are constantly surprising him with what cars they own. “Many of them don’t realise just how special or valuable their classics are – there are a surprising amount of  SCs, 3.2L Carreras and even older than that being driven out here, and these old cars are traditionally ignored by official dealers. Now they have an alternative – we know these cars inside out.”
As for the benefits of an independent, he says they tend to care more. “You can come in here and see everything – we’re completely transparent about costs and we look after the owners’ interests. That’s what’s built our reputation. We do things differently, and we’ve started ‘quick bay’ servicing for simple maintenance jobs, as well as a free health check every Saturday, when we carry out a 30- to 40-minute inspection with no obligation to spend.”
It’s these clever details that make specialists so popular with owners – something backed up by the guys at Silber Arrows in Dubai. A clever play on German and English words that anyone with an interest in Mercedes-Benz knows all about, this is a relatively recent start-up.
Unsurprisingly, business is booming. Mercs are ubiquitous in the UAE, having been sold here for decades and run by the most senior figures imaginable. In general, they have been built to last, which explains why so many battered old-timers still pound the streets of Middle Eastern cities such as Beirut. But as I’m taken on a tour of Silber Arrow’s impressive facilities, the 30-or-so cars in for maintenance and servicing are looking in fine fettle.
Silber Arrows was set up three years ago by Phil Smith and Julian Redman, both of whom have many years’ experience with the brand. The idea that resulted in Silber Arrows was initially limited to either a mobile repair service or “a workshop with a couple of bays”, but the duo’s business partner, Yasir Al Naqbi, had bigger ideas. “He basically said that if we were to do this, we’d need to do it big,” says Smith, “so we found a premises big enough to cope with all the cars you see here today.”
There are bays and ramps specific to special models, such as the SLR McLaren, and the overall ambience is entirely similar to any official dealership – which isn’t a coincidence. “We want customers to feel like they’re in a familiar environment,” says Redman, “although we’re passionate about the brand in ways only independents can be.”
The front-of-house staff are either British or Australian, and like JZM in Abu Dhabi, customers are starting to head for Silber Arrows even though their warranties are yet to expire.
“We get requests for some crazy stuff,” Redman says. “Some owners just want more and more performance, even from their AMGs, and we can take care of that. But we know these cars and what they need to be reliable – it’s what makes us different.”
The other thing that makes them different is the Dh275 hourly labour rate, which makes a sound financial case for taking your Merc, Maybach or McLaren SLR to them, whatever age it is. “We only market ourselves as an ‘after-warranty’ option,” says Redman, “and we only look after models made by the [Daimler Group] brand. We only use genuine parts and Mobil oil, our technicians have a huge level of past experience within Mercedes, and we offer online booking with iPad check-in – something we think is a first for the UAE’s automotive sector.”
It’s heartening to see these expert enthusiasts making a go of things, making a difference and offering credible alternatives to the norm. And things are only going to get better for us motorists, as others come along and open specialist facilities for keeping ageing motors healthy. Independents Day is here, and here to stay. The benefits are there for the taking – all you need to do is talk to other owners, learn from their experiences and vote with your wallets, no matter what you drive.
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Updated: September 10, 2015 04:00 AM