This is a golden age for used car buyers. The buoyancy of new registrations over the past few years - driven in part by the vigour with which manufacturers have pushed vehicles into the marketplace through special deals for fleets - has led to a used car market awash with offerings.
Consumers entering the market for the first time are also benefiting from the slump in residual values caused by oversupply. According to CAP, provider of residual values data, used car prices are at ‘historic levels of affordability’ and, for the first time ever, the typical used car is valued at less than 20% of the average annual gross wage.
So it follows that buyers are able to be especially fussy when shopping around for a used vehicle. That means sellers throughout the disposal chain – from fleets selling through auctions and other channels, to franchised and independent used car retailers selling to the end user – need to present stock in the best possible condition.
In some cases a simple wash, polish and valeting job is sufficient to restore the vehicle to an acceptable condition, but typically a car which has been on a fleet for two or three years will have ‘battle’ scars: minor (and not so minor) dents, scuffs and scratches, stone chips, wheel damage caused by kerbing and interior trim wear.
Step forward the ‘smart repairers’ whose growing range of refurbishing skills do for cars what Trinny and Susannah achieve on the TV makeover programmes. Tired, but basically sound, vehicles are transformed into an almost-new glow. Moreover, the technology underpinning smart repair has advanced to the stage where a greater variety of complex jobs can be completed without the need to use conventional bodyshops.
Notable among the developments is paintless dent removal (PDR), a technique which has its roots in Argentina where, in less quality conscious days, ‘dingmen’ would work their magic with special tools on assembly lines to remove dents from new cars. PDR has been aided by the changing structure of vehicle paints which are now much more elastic so the surface is less likely to break when the dent is being removed.
Originally suitable for small and relatively straightforward blemishes of the type, for example, caused by supermarket trolleys and other car doors, PDR can now deal with dents up to 30cm in diameter or length, as well as creases. Companies carrying out PDR include Carmasters, ChipsAway, Nationwide Smart Repairs and Trimline Systems. Carmasters specialises in the refurbishment of end-of-lease and ex-fleet cars and operates from a 30-acre site near Bridlington which features a training school and a PDR tool manufacturing unit.
The most significant player is Dent Wizard International UK, a member of the world’s largest PDR group and an associate company of Manheim Auctions. Dent Wizard, which also carries out paint and trim repairs under the Flying Colours brand, works closely with some of the UK’s principal remarketing groups and is a technology partner of BCA, Manheim Auctions, Vehicle Remarketing Solutions and Walon. Dent Wizard technicians are located permanently within their facilities.
The company – which still sources many of its tools from Argentina – also serves vehicle manufacturers, franchised dealers and specialist used car outlets. It recently launched Body Perfect, a ‘cosmetic warranty programme’ which has been adopted by a number of leading franchised dealer groups including Lookers and Reg Vardy.
On the auction house front, BCA operates a pre-sale preparation service called ‘Smart Prepared’. According to the company’s director of customer affairs Tom Madden, “there is a noticeable and appreciable improvement in sales performance when vehicles are presented in ‘oven ready’ condition for the professional to take away and retail without delay”. Madden adds: “Currently we are seeing a return that comfortably exceeds outlay by some three to one and many vendors using Smart Prepared have seen a return on investment well in excess of this ratio. On an average fleet car this might mean the value of three or four extra bids, £150 to £200, or perhaps even more.”
Smart repair can claim other financial advantages insofar as costs are far lower than in a traditional bodyshop where a completely new panel may be used. Trade sources point to the contrast between a typical smart repair costing between £40 and £50 and £200-300 for panel replacement. Moreover, the end result is often better, notably for vehicles with metallic paint.
Convenience is another plus factor since the repairs can be conducted quickly on site. When the need arises Dent Wizard is able to muster a ‘hit squad’ of technicians to carry out repairs, for example where stored cars are damaged by a hail storm.
Despite these attractions, Quintin Cornforth, Dent Wizard managing director, says there’s a high degree of ignorance on the part of remarketing personnel on what smart repairs can achieve. “The PDR sector has failed to ensure that fleet owners and others involved in remarketing are aware of the potential impact of smart repairs on their profitability at the time of disposal,” he says. “Many in the remarketing sector are missing out on a huge opportunity to maximise their residual values by shifting cars without regard to their condition and attractiveness to potential buyers.”
Looking ahead, the future for the smart repair sector looks promising. Technological developments continue to progress, leading to a wider range of repair possibilities. There are environmental benefits too which will surely become more prominent as the motor industry comes under pressure to re-use and recycle. As always, though, the clincher concerns money. For an industry obsessed by cost cutting and boosting revenue, smart repair must surely be an astute move.