Noon on the Thursday before August bank holiday and within a minute of Paul Oakley logging on for the start of his 12 hour shift he receives his first breakdown call from the RAC control centre located on the M6 near Birmingham.
It’s a suspected flat battery in a Seat Toledo and the 10-minute journey takes him from Brent Cross shopping centre in North London through nose-to-tail traffic.
The Toledo is parked in a residential side street. Paul phones the vehicle owner on his mobile to say that he’s arrived. “Mobiles are a godsend for keeping in touch on a job like this,” says Paul. The owner appears from a block flats and explains that the car’s been stationary for a couple of weeks. Paul soon has the engine going, but it’s bad news. The battery is charging at less than half the required voltage and it’s low on water. Paul’s advice is a new battery from a nearby Kwik-Fit depot.
Next call is another ‘non start’, a VW LT35 van located in West Hampstead. Fitful sunshine is heating up the interior of Paul’s patrol vehicle, a Mercedes Vito, which has no air conditioning. “Never mind,” he says cheerfully, “just wind down the windows.”
His vehicle has been selected for its size in the territory he covers. With its fold down rear beacon, it can just about squeeze into the underground car parks of the blocks of flats which populate the area. “If planners allow for headroom any lower, the only vehicles that will get in there are sports cars.”
RAC patrol areas are split into cells. Paul and nine colleagues share shifts in cell 5. It covers only five square miles, from Brent Cross to Regent’s Park and Harlesden to Hampstead, but has the highest traffic density in the country. “Cells in some of the more remote areas can cover 100 square miles, but during the rush hour it can take as long for us to travel to a breakdown as a patrol in Wales.”
Paul’s earlier comment about the convenience of mobiles doesn’t apply with the VW van. The caller’s not responding on his mobile and information from the control centre doesn’t tally with any of the landmarks he’s come across. After a few more minutes of searching, though, the vehicle is found in a Network Rail compound. Paul soon identifies a possible reason for the non-start. All the doors don’t close properly because of damage, so maybe the battery’s been drained by the interior lights being left on. Plus, the van has certain extras, like a microwave oven. Someone from Network Rail strolls out from his office and says the van is used for signal maintenance. The battery doesn’t need changing but “it’s hoovering up the amperage” and the engine needs to be kept running for 40 minutes or so to get it fully recharged.
Doors that don’t shut properly are not the only cause of flat batteries. Paul points out that power demands of modern cars are so great that alternators can pack up even when the engine idling. “Heated front and rear screens alone consume more power than people realise. In cases of really severe traffic hold-ups, it would help if local radio stations advised motorists to turn off all but essential controls and switch from main to side lights.”
Advances in technology bring other problems. Instances where people lock themselves out of older vehicles can still be tackled with rods down the doors. But with the increasing presence of deadlocks, it’s a more complex task of ‘backfeeding’ the wiring system.
His oddest lockout involved an MPV where the owner left four dogs inside the vehicle and one of them had pressed the locking mechanism with its paw. “It was a right pantomime. I was trying to tackle the driver’s door lock while the owner distracted the attention of four yapping and highly excited terriers.” More common are lockouts by mothers with infants still inside the vehicle. “My first job is to calm the mother down. Then the babies are less likely to become distressed.”
While on the subject of children, Paul recalls an incident where truth really was stranger than fiction. A youngster had somehow dismantled a car key and the microchip was missing. Could the child have swallowed it? In an inspired moment, one of Paul’s colleagues held the baby close to the steering wheel and his suspicion was confirmed – the immobiliser disengaged.
Not so straightforward are instances where the engine is started and the ignition is turned off within a few seconds. The car’s electronic control unit automatically leaves the injectors fully open, which floods the engine with fuel if the vehicle is restarted within too short a time period. With evaporation taking longer in cold weather, each attempt to restart leads to more flooding. That’s why Paul’s kit contains a butane torch – to dry out the plugs when all other efforts have failed.
Ignition coils are another headache. “Instead of one fixed to the inner wing, there’s now one per cylinder. They’re not filled with oil and they get too hot, causing damage to the insulation.” Paul’s temporary ‘fix’ is insulation tape. As with other jobs, he often has to improvise. Lengths of angled pipe retrieved from skips come in handy as a substitute for split hoses. Wire coat hangers are useful for temporary linkages. And bits from a salvaged Flymo provided the answer for the snapped clutch arm of a Peugeot 205.
Having dealt with the Network Rail van, Paul stops in another part of the compound to take details of his next call. Which prompts someone else from Network Rail to tap on his window with the comment: “Could you please move your vehicle. You’re in a restricted area.” Paul smiles at the irony of the remark, and he’s still smiling when he recounts another example of officialdom at work – traffic wardens. “I’ve been ticketed when attending call-outs and so have most of my colleagues. An inch into the yellow lines and they’ll have you.” Colleague Mike McNulty, who we later meet up with, adds: “It’s a business driven by commission. Wardens still get their bonuses even though we don’t end up having to pay the fines.”
Paul’s vehicle carries the number plate P1 RAC and an “RAC Ambassador” inscription on the door panel. The plates have to be handed over to the next Ambassador, but he retains the inscription.
It was not until he attended an RAC dinner for the top 50 patrols that his name was announced for winning the Ambassador title. “It was enough of an honour to be invited to the dinner. The most I hoped for was ‘Rookie of the year’ title. When my name was read out as Ambassador, my wife almost deafened me with her scream of delight.”
Paul’s aspiration to Rookie stemmed from the fact that he’d been in the job for less than 18 months at the time of the awards assessment. Before joining the RAC he worked for M&M Autos, an independent garage in Iver Heath, Bucks, for 18 years. “Dealing with all-makes and the different problems you come across every day was the best training I could have wished for.”
Paul was judged top patrol of the year on a series of assessments – not least the number of compliments he received from customers who are asked to fill in a questionnaire on service standards.
Call three takes him to an avenue off the North Circular and a case of clutch failure. Paul suspects a leaking slave cylinder, tops up the system with hydraulic fluid and advises the owner to book the car into a garage as soon as possible. It’s not the owner’s day – he also has a puncture which requires a quick wheel change.
Next job is to find a suitable location for photography because the RAC is keen to show off its Rapid Deployment Trailer. Designed exclusively for the RAC, it can be stowed inside a Transit without the need for major vehicle modification. Hook-up time using an RDT is typically 10 minutes and there are now more than 1,000 in use across the country. Driver of the Transit is the forementioned Mike McNulty – also an Institute member – who joined the RAC just over two years ago. He’s well suited to being on RDT duty because he enjoys towing and prefers to wear gloves while working. Paul on the other hand likes roadside fixes and getting his hands dirty.
Photography finished, there’s another call-out, this time to the Ikea car park at Brent Cross. Paul is resigned to heavy congestion on the approach to the shopping centre, so there’s time to mention a couple of celebs he’s been called out to help. Actress Helena Bonham Carter had a flat battery on her A-Class Mercedes and TV presenter Louis Theroux reported that the engine on his Fiat Uno was overheating. Theroux afterwards admitted that it had been giving him trouble for a couple of days. Little wonder - he’d been driving around with a broken fan belt.
On a typical shift, Paul deals with anything between four to 20 calls. His record is 24. “If I don’t get at least 10 I go home feeling pretty miserable.” The call to the Ikea car park turns out to be a simple matter of a loose connection to the starter motor of a Rover 214. But this was only part of a troubled spell of motoring for Saiff Kazmi and his partner Catherine Griffiths. A new engine and ECU had already cost Saiff £1,500, while Catherine was faced with a repair bill after a blown cylinder on her Golf. It turned out that the Golf breakdown a couple of weeks previously had been attended by none other than Paul. Hence the greeting at the Ikea car park from Catherine: “Hello again, remember me?”Paul suspects a botched job on the Rover because the owner reports a series of problems since the engine and ECU replacement. “I’m all in favour of some form of technician licensing scheme, which is why I welcome the IMI’s efforts in this direction,” said Paul, who has been an Institute member since 1992.On the way to his next call – the owner of a Vauxhall Corsa reporting a smell of burning – Paul anticipates one of three likely causes: slipping clutch, engine misfire or a plastic bag wrapped round the exhaust pipe. It turns out to be the remnants of a plastic bag. “They’re a menace. They float around in the road and wrap themselves round the exhaust, where the heat welds them to the pipe. A piece of heavy duty plastic once caused a drive shaft seizure and it took me an hour to hack it off.” The Corsa’s owner was understandably nervous about the burning smell – his previous car had been wrecked by an engine fire.
More time spent on photography for this feature and Paul was now due for his 70-minute break, but first he chose to deal with a jammed clutch pedal on a Golf GTi. Phoning to say he’d arrived, a woman’s voice answered: “Is that the man from the AA?” It’s the man from the RAC actually,” replied Paul with a wry smile.
The woman’s son watched Paul fix the clutch pedal problem and then enquired about a book he’d spotted in the patrol vehicle’s glovebox: “Teach yourself Serbo Croat”.
Paul explained that his wife Marjana was Croatian. They met in a London club and now have an 18-month-old daughter Miya. The family live in Ruislip Manor where Paul spends most of his spare time on D-I-Y jobs on their recently bought house. Before that, he competed in rally cross with a modified Vauxhall Nova 1600. That and house im-provements proved too expensive, so now his “weekend toy” is a Honda CBR motorcycle which he bought as a crash wreck and rebuilt.
Another non-start, this time on a Mercedes Sprinter ambulance which has fuel pump problems and needs a squirt of ether into the inlet pipe so that the vehicle can be driven to a garage for a more thorough checkover.
Then as dusk settles and the traffic eases, Paul heads back to Brent Cross for his long overdue break. But first he attends to an incident beyond the call of duty. The driver of an LDV van is stuck on the concrete base of a bollard in a street which has been given the ‘traffic calming’ treatment. The driver is far from calm because his exhaust is badly twisted. Paul wrenches it back into some form of workable shape and the van’s on its way, with the occupants – a group of gospel singers – waving their gratitude.
Break-time, when it finally comes, is taken in the Tesco car park at Brent Cross where Paul watches a floodlit game of soccer on an adjacent all-weather pitch. “Rugby’s more my game,” he remarks, as the ball arcs over the high fence and he throws it back.
Then it’s a return to work, this time to deal with faulty indicators on a D-reg Golf. Again, it’s a loose connection, but Paul advises the owner to get a replacement plug and shows him how to fit it himself. “I’ve saved him going to a garage, so that probably counts towards most of his next RAC subscription,” said Paul later.
For the remaining two hours, he deals with only one more call, a wheel change in Hampstead. Then it’s home to Ruislip Manor, a lie in before he does the same shift the following day, and the welcome prospect of the bank holiday weekend off duty.