We've been speaking to independent garages of Britain
￼Gary Woollatt has been working on BMWs for 39 years
Most specialists will have the hardware and software to back their expertise
￼JZM specialises in the most desirable used Porsches
Fontain Motors can plug in to the VW Group’s diagnostics
Chiltern of Bovingdon specialises in Jaguars
Chiltern has sold, serviced and repaired used Jags for years
Don’t despair! These ‘ things can be fixed more easily than you might think.’ So says the website of one garage specialising in the maintenance and repair of modern and complex but ageing cars.
Cars are a lot more durable today than they were 30 years ago – rust rarely causes a premature death – and the greater rigidity of today’s crash-test-honed bodies ensures that cars feel robust and rattle-free for far longer than a Ford Escort or Rover 800 ever did. Modern cars are also pretty reliable (although there are a few exceptions), but the thought of taking on an out-of-warranty V10 Audi RS6 or Jaguar XKR-S, an ageing Porsche or even a well-used Renault Mégane RS can be daunting.
So we decided to talk to a few of the specialists who cater for fast, interesting and complicated models. Do they have the equipment to interrogate these cars’ computer-controlled brains? Are these models actually reliable? And can you afford to service them?
Fontain Motors is a well-established Audi specialist in Buckinghamshire that sells, services and repairs the high-performance S and RS models, although it can work on any Audi, according to service manager Sunny Bhamra. Fontain offers menu pricing for them all, including the RS6 V10, for which a major service costs a not unreasonable £679.
Its 5.2-litre engine “is okay if maintained correctly,” says Bhamra, but beware an RS6 that has been mapped to yield 700bhp rather than the standard 552bhp, because the gearbox struggles to cope. “The newer RS6 is fairly reliable,” he adds. “We see cars with 40,000 to 60,000 miles that have had no issues.”
The more desirable RS4 is also largely trouble-free, although it needs regular use to prevent the crankcase ventilation system gathering oil, which in turn can cause carbon build-up.
A major service for the R8 V8 is £649, while for the B7 RS4 it’s £549. As with all Fontain servicing, it’s carried out using a web-based diagnostic system that covers all the Volkswagen Group brands. But it’s not cheap to subscribe, a Toughbook digital service PC costs £4000 and dialing into the system costs about £22 a day.
It means Fontain isn’t vastly cheaper than a main dealer, but it does mean it has all the latest software updates and diagnostic tools, while offering what Bhamra says is a friendlier, more personal service.
Gary Woollatt has been running his one-man-band Autobahn Services for 25 years, and he worked at BMW garages for 14 years before that. The result is a huge knowledge of BMWs and a reputation that prompts some owners to bring their cars to him even if they’re still under warranty.
“All cars are going the same way with electronics,” Woollatt says. “A lot of them go to the dealer repeatedly with small issues.” Woollatt solves these with a methodical A-Z approach rather than jumping to conclusions. He’s a subscriber to the BMW diagnostic system and notes that “it’s not always the same cars having the same problems”.
He admits there’s now less of a price difference between a specialist and a main dealer because the parts discount is less. “It used to be 35-40% 15 years ago, now it’s 10%.” But what you get with Woollatt is the application of 39 years’ worth of experience applied directly to your car, and a more personal service.
“These days I prefer restoration,” he says, an original Alpina six-pot M3-bodied E30 on the ramp. “People can see something for their money compared with spending £3000- 4000 on an M5 V10 with problems.”
Kevin Brackley is Jaguar specialist Chiltern of Bovingdon’s aftersales director. Chiltern has sold, serviced and repaired used Jags for years, and Brackley has acquired a vast knowledge.
“From around 2006, it’s very difficult to use second-hand electrical parts on Jaguars because they are particular to the car,” he says. “When you programme a new module into the car it will lock to the VIN number.”
That eliminates the possibility of using a second-hand part (although there are some people who can wipe the memory). The car’s mileage is also stored in every part, and a generalist garage he knows of used a second-hand module “causing 40,000 miles to be instantly added to the car’s odometer”. For these reasons Chiltern only uses new parts, and its technicians attend official training courses.
It has been doing this since the new Block Exemption Regulation ended the manufacturer and franchised dealer monopoly of specialist diagnostic equipment. “There’s little you can do without the equipment,” says Brackley. So, like the other specialists featured here, Chiltern subscribes to a manufacturer technical website. Jaguar’s costs around £1500. “You pay around £500 annually for updates,” says Brackley. “A lot of things are cured now by programming.” An example is the poor shift quality between first and second gears on the 2004 XK, which was sorted with new software.
And your specialist subject is...
For almost every car with a following, there will some kind of specialist, be it one man and a car lift or a well-staffed multi-bay garage — and they’re not limited to high-end machines. Dorset-based KTR started as a tuning company but now sells, services and repairs Renault Sport models, claiming to be the UK’s leading specialist. It has diagnostic equipment, factory-trained technicians and a rolling road. It also sells used RS cars.
RS Méganes are good for big mileages, although sometimes with minor issues. One is knocking or creaking front suspension, which Derby’s Aaron Autos can rebuild for £175 per side inclusive, comparedwith more than £1000 for a Renault dealer’s hub unit change.
Smart lovers, meanwhile, can head to Watford-based S2 Smarts, which has the latest diagnostic capability, years of experience and menu pricing — a service starts at £99 — and provides free clutch adjustment for the Fortwo and Roadster. Smarts are notorious for water leaks, so S2 will do a check for £25 (there are well- known pathways to your footwells), plus realignment of cabriolet roofs for £30 and door handle replacement (a weakness) for £55.
S2 also offers power-boosting remaps from as little as £150. Their most expensive remap takes the Smart Roadster to 113bhp for £245.
A useful thing to know about Porsches, says Robert Pickering, is that they can be electronically interrogated to reveal not only their mileage, but also whether they have been over-revved (crucial, not least because it affects their resale value) and what history of operating errors there has been. Pickering is showing us the way to the workshops of JZM Porsche, a specialist that retails some of the most desirable used models out there – 911 GT3s are a staple – as well as running a workshop with decades of collective Porsche experience.
JZM claims to be the only non-franchised garage in the UK equipped with the Porsche Integrated Workshop Information System, plus it has all the previous generations of official Porsche diagnostic tool and it’s also linked directly to the factory via an external network, enabling it to perform the latest reprogramming updates.
Senior technician Andy David has worked at JZM for 15 years and specialises in rebuilding engines, from regular flat sixes to RSR motors and even, quite recently, a 1968 2.2. “It takes about 40 or 50 hours to overhaul an engine,” he says. “I do one every two weeks, and have three or four on the go.”
David has worked on Porsches long enough to know what robust, high-quality machines the pre-996 911s were, to see the quality dip with the 1998-2004 models and climb again with the 997 and 991.
Of the infamous 996 intermediate shaft (IMS) bearing failures, his colleague Ricky Nash reckons “most have either gone or been repaired”. And there’s now a solution to the problem anyway. Cylinder bore scuffing is still a problem with 997s, but there are no problems with the latest engines. “Although it’s early days,” adds Nash.
Worth the risk?
￼￼AUDI RS4 B7 2006-08 - Reliable but needs regular use to prevent the crankcase vent system gathering oil and coking up the heads. Quattro system and transmission are tough; DRC dampers are a weakness.
BMW M5 V10 2005-10 - Sadly one to avoid unless you’re willing to gamble. “If the engine blows you can’t really rebuild them,” says Gary Woollatt. “Great cars but can be troublesome.”
JAGUAR XK 2006-14 - The aluminium-bodied XK can suffer from a bit of blistering under the paint but no holes in the body. “Good, reliable cars,” says Chiltern’s Kevin Brackley.
PORSCHE 911 1994-98 - JZM technician Andy David reckons that, overall, the 993 911s are very strong and well- engineered. Valve guides are a common issue, though.
RENAULT MEGANE RS 2008-16 - Vastly more durable than Renaults of the late 1990. The creaky suspension issue is a good example of specialists making repairs more affordable.