Friday, April 09, 2010

Oh Lord, won't you erase all memory of every interaction with Mercedes-Benz

I'm going to tell you what happened to the car. I'll try and keep it brief, because it's not really the interesting bit, but it's important background.

Summer 1998: M buys Velba, a dark green ex-demo Mercedes A140, from Inchcape, aka Mercedes-Benz of Oxford. It wasn't that he *wanted* a Mercedes, it was more that the ancient Golf he'd driven away from his marriage in got written off by a bus, and the ancient Golf he replaced it with was fading fast. There was something about wanting to have a decent car, something about having the money to buy one (hey, it was 1998 - Things Could Only Get Better), and something about liking the shape of it. There are loads of cars that look like the Mercedes A Class now, but there weren't then. And the early ones were especially pleasing. So he bought one.

Summer 1998 - January 2010: M drives Velba, and, especially after we moved in together in 2001 and I sold my beloved 2cv, so do I. I think it's fair to say that we love Velba, and, the vast majority of the time, she loves us right back. She has a comfortable driving seat, which you can raise and lower and move backwards and forwards, and lovely glowing lights to welcome you back when you press the 'unlock' button from ten metres away across a dark car park. She is warm in the winter and, for a while, cool in the summer, though the air conditioning packed up about five years ago and we never got it fixed. She has an incredible haulage capacity for a small car: you can get a lot in the boot, but if you need more, you can fold the back seats forward in several different ways, and even, in extremis, take them out altogether. She can carry two full size bikes and a week's worth of self-catering supplies, or a whole band's equipment, or a toilet and basin and all the tools, fittings and pipes you need to put them in. She's economical on petrol, starts first time every time, and parks like a dream. They know how to build cars, do Mercedes-Benz.

The only drawback is that when stuff needs doing, and it regularly does, it costs a screaming arm and a screaming leg. The car never actually breaks down, she is designed to fail elegantly, but over the years M spends what, in retrospect, is an eye-watering amount of money on her. Mainly this is because he continues to get her looked after by Mercedes-Benz of Oxford, so various warranties and guarantees and service histories are maintained. After a certain point this becomes economically pointless, as the car is not worth enough to make those warranties and guarantees and service histories anything like worthwhile, but we don't really notice that point passing. And it's hardly in their interest to point out that we could get the same work done tons cheaper elsewhere, so of course they don't.

A bit like when we were briefly members of Esporta, I am faintly ashamed, even once removed, of my association with Mercedes-Benz of Oxford and their Living The Dream, You're Worth It, Finer Things In Life aesthetic. When I go with M to drop off or pick up Velba, we get to sit on shiny chairs and drink coffee from a shiny machine, brought over by a young woman with shiny hair and shiny lips. There are flowers in shiny bowls, of the type you find on the tables at a certain kind of wedding, and a range of Mercedes-Benz merchandise (cufflinks, pens, clothing) in shiny cabinets. Through my head, without fail, plays 'what the hell am I doing here? I don't belong here...'

But the car is not like that. The car has values we share. The car is worth it.

Until the big snow. Actually, until the service just before the big snow, when N, the Human Face of Mercedes-Benz of Oxford (whom I am only annoyed with because if he wasn't actually a nice guy we might have moved on several years ago), pointed out that the clutch was 'on the way out' and that to carry out that scale of repair on a car of Velba's age was possibly not the best decision. So, he advised us, we should think about what we wanted to do when that happened.

And then it snowed. I was the first person to drive Velba after the roads cleared, and there was a strange engine noise. A couple of days later we were taking stuff to the tip, and there was a loud cracking noise as M moved the driving seat from 5'4" to 5'11".

There was no obvious performance impact resulting from either of these things, but the noises were a little alarming, so we booked her in for a check-up. M dropped her off, and caught the bus* back to Oxford. Later that day, they called M and informed him that repairs would cost £1200, including-but-not-limited-to new shock absorbers, tyres and windscreen wipers. This was a shock that needed absorbing in its own right, but for various reasons, including-but-not-limited-to a daughter who wanted to borrow the car that weekend, he agreed to go ahead without much further deliberation.

M's thinking was that this would see the car through until the clutch needed replacing. This would give us the time to think about our options, which, despite N's advice, we had not really done. There was no suggestion whatever that these repairs might not fix the problems he had reported (and indeed he paid over £100 for 'diagnosis').

But they didn't. When Velba was ready, he caught the bus* to collect her, paid the bill of £1196.61, filled in a form saying he was happy with the service he had received, and drove her back to Oxford. By the time he got back, the car was making the same noise as before, so he turned round and drove straight back to the garage.

And from then on it just got worse. M was informed that more diagnosis would involve 'dropping the engine out' (at a cost of more hundreds of pounds), but that the car was 'probably' fine to drive around town. He drove home, and later rang to complain about the service he'd received. There was an offer to diagnose the problem free of charge, but, once the car was returned yet again, this was retracted... the person who had made the offer was over-ruled by the Service Manager.

This same man would not come and talk to us when we both caught the bus* to the garage to try and resolve things. We drove the rattly car home again knowing nothing more than it might be something to do with the alternator, or it might be something to do with the air conditioner. It was probably the latter, said the Service Manager, when he finally did return M's calls, and it would probably 'last longer than the clutch'. (Subtext: stop making a fuss, and go away).

It wasn't, and it didn't. Less than a week later the alternator went bang while M was driving me to work. We have had a dead car parked outside the house ever since, and two more calls to the Service Manager have gone unreturned. I feel he may be the kind of man who is rude to his wife in company.

It's all been very, very stressful. M has been wounded, and not just financially, because he still puts value on loyalty, and doing the right thing, and it pains him when in fact there's nothing behind the facade of 'service' beyond naked capitalism. I am less surprised and more angry, because when it comes down to it, naked capitalism is breaking the world, and makes decent people, who have to work in it, miserable.

But maybe my car days are over. I am exploring my thoughts about this, but gently, as they were formed over 20 years ago when the car keys in my pocket ignited a whole lot more than petrol.

Meanwhile I stroke Velba's flank gently as I pass her, and tell her that we know it's not her fault. And maybe as car doors close, other doors open. To be continued.


* Technically, two buses - Mercedes-Benz of Oxford is actually in Kidlington. But Mercedes-Benz of Kidlington would not sound so Finer Things in Life, would it.



Blogger Andy said...

So good to hear the full story behind the tweets. What a sorry saga; to get all legal, couldn't you argue that you had a verbal contract for the free diagnosis? And if Evil Supervisor feels he can override a decision and then be an a**hole, is there a way of then speaking to his potentially-Angelic Super-supervisor and getting the overriden decision overriden?

Or contact Guardian Money consumer section?

Sounds like a nightmare situation. Is this a good time to plug Xtracycle again? I took two kids, one pushchair, spare clothes and a picnic around Oxford on it at the weekend!

9:17 am  
Blogger Spine said...

Why "Velba"?

I returned to car ownership last summer after more than ten years without. Our Opel -- "The Axis of Diesel" -- is so far problem-free in herself. But she's exposed me to a whole new side of Turkey.

I used to get by here believing that my hosts were generally good, warm-hearted, helpful and decent folk. Little that happened to me changed that perception. And quite few things confirmed it.

But it turns out that real life had been going past me all those 10 years. Out on the roads, my hosts are actually selfish, dangerous, egotistical bloody-minded morons, I now learn.

Thanks car, for the insight.

12:17 pm  
Blogger Jo said...

Andy... have thought about legal options. But they are none of them painless, might well be fruitless, and there's something to be said for cutting emotional losses, if not financial ones. We all get fucked over sometimes, and when it happens, some people need to fight, and will otherwise dwell on injustice forever, while others just want it all to be over so they can work on forgetting about it. I know which kind of person M is, and it's his call. He has written them a rather marvellous letter though.

Spine - when I was a kid we named cars after the letters in their registration. Vicky, Katie, Walter, Becky and Vicky 2 were named this way. M didn't have a naming convention, so I called V554ELB Velba. (This didn't apply to Cherry the 2cv, she was just always going to be Cherry).

I like the Axis of Diesel very much. And I think it's fair to say that a lot of people are selfish, dangerous, egotistical bloody minded morons on the road. There are a lot of things about driving that I am not missing at all.

11:25 pm  
Anonymous jonathan said...

We went through the process of becoming car-free a couple of years ago and found it equally agonising- I started out being all matter-of-fact and logical about the whole thing but found that in fact I was terribly emotionally connected to Pietri the Punto - when the time came it felt like giving away a much-loved family dog. Worst of all (even though we sold the car to someone who lived in the wilds of Lancashire) Pietri went through a spell, a couple of months later, of turning up in the town where I work, being driven by people I didn't recognise. I think (being hopeless at the practice of capitalism) we by mistake sold Pietri for a knockdown price to someone who knew a bargain when they saw one and quickly bagged a profit.

Anyway having said all that I am sure you will feel much better when the mechanics bills stop coming in and there is suddenly extra money for holidays etc. Just keep thinking of that!

11:25 pm  
Anonymous Helen said...

You see, that's where all this emphasis on 'service' gets us. They make us believe that they like us, and they want us to be happy. Even, sometimes, that they are our friends. But, really, they just want our money. Those of us who are nasty and cynical understand this. My mother, along with other innocents, believes it's a reciprocal friendship. They are nice to her, so she is nice to them. Sometimes she even buys things she doesn't really want to make them happy. Clever.

And cars are particularly annoying. When I was 19, alongside my driving lessons, I did a car maintenance course. I didn't emerge a mechanic but I did understand a bit of what happened in a car engine and I could put some of the (very minor) wrong things right. But that was in the simplicity of the 1980s. Not any more. Oh no. Sealed boxes and technology. Even in our bottom of the range Skoda.

10:50 pm  
Blogger tomato said...

'she is designed to fail elegantly'

this is my aspiration.

8:45 pm  

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