Auto Service World
Feature   April 1, 2010   by Jim Anderton, Technical Editor

Service, Eurostyle

"European" has for years been the marketer's way of making the most mundane product seem exotic or sophisticated. Switzerland is still regarded as a great place to find watches, chocolate and knives; ...

“European” has for years been the marketer’s way of making the most mundane product seem exotic or sophisticated. Switzerland is still regarded as a great place to find watches, chocolate and knives; the French for wines, cheese and other gastronomic delights; the Italians for clothing, shoes…you get the picture. In automotive technology, whether it’s Bugatti or Smart, we still look to Europe.

What’s my point? In much of Europe they do auto service differently too, but “better” is an open question. I’ve visited garages in several European countries and the major difference that’s immediately apparent is the relationship between techs and management. I’ve seen large shops where the business owns all but the simplest hand tools, with larger operations assigning a man or woman as a tool crib manager to keep things in order. Small-and medium-sized operations also have some surprises for visitors from this side of the Atlantic. I’ve seen hanging plants in bays as well as ceramic tile on both floors and walls.

My most recent experience was Barcelona at Christmas and there things are pretty much like the rest of the continent. Four-post lifts were popular, and a surprising amount of tire work happens with a simple floor jack, often in the forecourt. The mild climate helps. Customer waiting areas were generally small and when asked, staff revealed that customers prefer to develop long-term relationships with their service providers. Overalls were preferred to the two-piece uniform of most Canadian shops and in Barcelona, at least, safety glasses and steel toe shoes were uncommon.

On the other hand, fire extinguishers and clearly marked emergency exits were more prominent than in the average shop I see in Southern Ontario, for instance. I saw little in the way of major engine work, not surprising in a continent where a 10-year-old car might have 30,000 kilometres of total use. I also saw $18 per litre synthetic oil which nobody seemed to find too expensive, again perhaps because of low overall driving mileages. Despite the low driving distances, there were fewer old vehicles than I expected. In Barcelona, as in many European cities with moderate climates, scooters and motorcycles are the preferred way to go, and elaborate scooter dealerships were in every upscale neighbourhood. Scooters are serious over there, as I noted while being passed at high speed by an expensively dressed businessman on a 650cc machine, briefcase clipped to the side like a pannier.

“Backyarders” or grey market shops were hard to find in the city. Many European nations have stringent laws about who can and can’t work on vehicles. Ever notice how better European cars come with a small toolkit? In Spain, drivers carry two reflector triangles and a reflector jacket and are expected to use them all if they need to change a tire at the side of the road. Tire companies were the most popular form of banner advertising with Michelin being most notable, at least where we stayed in west Barcelona. Contrary to my expectation, cars were not dinged and dented any more than any other European city, and I didn’t see many cars in obvious disrepair, so owners seem to be taking care of the machinery. In most ways, however, they sounded, smelled and looked similar to our repair businesses… and even at my level of tourist Spanish a good joke works well in a Barcelona bay.

If there’s a notable difference, it’s probably age. I saw few old techs, but lots of twenty-somethings, giving a feeling of energy and dynamism to the operations. And diesels, lots of diesels which is no surprise given the scary price of fuel in Europe. The local brand is Seat, (pronounced “say-at”) and they look and drive about the same as the French, German or Italian small hatchbacks, so forget any notion that Spain is an automotive backwater. Is it better? Frankly, it looks about the same and since I didn’t enquire about wages it’s hard to tell if repair is a good career in Spain. If your old bones like sunny, warm days however, it’s hard to argue with a place where you rarely close the bay doors. But remember, no Tim Horton’s, NHL, or Sleeman’s, so the price is high.


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