Monday, 30 November 2015

A lesson learned

Tomorrow Fiona, my Volvo XC60 car, has her auto gearbox transplant surgery. She'll be in the workshop for two days. She'll have a transfusion of new gearbox fluid. The computerised transmission management software will be rebooted and checked, and she'll be test-driven. Then I can gently take her home.

I admit to great relief that this is going to happen. It was just a bit too nerve-racking, driving around in her and not knowing whether this would be the day that the gearbox failed entirely. And I do know what it's like to lose drive in a car that has an automatic gearbox.

It happened to me, for instance, in 1999, when overtaking a car at 70 mph on a country road - fortunately a straight road, and it was in daylight. I was driving an elderly (but still game) Nissan Micra. Scary! And embarrassing! It was the sudden end of the Micra, which instantly became scrap metal, far beyond economic repair.

It happened to me in late 2008, on the M11 motorway, in the dark, when driving a Honda CR-V (with the caravan in tow) back home from Norfolk. I had M--- with me. We had to huddle shivering on the grassy bank above car and caravan until rescued, expecting at any moment to see a juggernaut plough into the stricken Honda and our lovely caravan, left there on the hard shoulder. Fortunately the Honda recovered, and the local village garage fixed the problem. I rewarded them with my custom thenceforth.

These are memories that stay with you.

So I've been nursing Fiona along, avoiding any roads, or traffic conditions, that might put pressure on her dodgy gearbox. I've dreaded getting stuck on hills, or in stop-go traffic snarl-ups. And I've been driving her with a degree of TLC that goes beyond anything achieved before. But failure has loomed, and every journey made has been weighed up for possible difficulties, and possible consequences. You can't go on like this. And I need a fit and able Fiona for a series of long-distance trips during December, to see family and friends, in every week from next week in fact, and of course over Christmas and the New Year also.

Ideally I ought to have hawked Fiona around all the gearbox specialists within easy reach, but that would have taken time - two weeks, say - that I did not have. And in any case, I was left unimpressed by these firms' websites, whatever the recommendation. Really, the only way to assess whether someone is any good is to try them out on a small job and see how well they perform. But a gearbox replacement or rebuild is not a small job, and I felt very disinclined to place Fiona in a stranger's hands and hope for the best. I do at least have long acquaintance with the official Volvo dealer, who know my car well - and know me as a fussy customer who asks questions, and is persistent. I feel they won't mess me around, knowing that I will be back if all isn't well.

As to the price, £5,015, it's horrendous. I have no doubt at all that an independent specialist would charge less. I suspect that (a) everyone in the official Volvo supply chain is taking a nice cut; and (b) the high price covers any comeback on the work done, preserving a degree of profit regardless: in effect I'd be buying the guarantee on the work done, and not really getting it free. Nevertheless, I am happier dealing at arm's-length with a big outfit where cars are concerned, so that if the job isn't done right I have full scope to hound them. I can't do the same with a small firm, nor a one-man band - the relationship is too personal. (And yet I have a network of people just like this to keep my house in good order, all of them local, all of them on first-name terms with me)

I got my £5,000 bank loan with ridiculous ease, as if I had a Triple-A rating. It's there in my account right now, ready to cover the next credit card repayment, which will of course include that £5,015 dealer's bill. Then I have thirty months of loan repayments - although I may pay the balance off after twenty-four months, which I can do without penalty, to get the loan out of the way and save a little interest (about £58).

So in a few days time, Fiona will, hopefully, be restored and ready to convey me here and there in the way she used to.

If the job is a success, I will have a quieter car with a new heart. I intend to drive more gently in the future. Not that I ever thrashed Fiona in the past, but I can recall many a time when I pressed her hard on motorways and other fast roads, on my way north with the caravan in tow, sometimes against a headwind. I believed she could take the strain, whatever it might be; but she is but a machine - tireless, uncomplaining, but subject to gradual wear and tear that relentless driving will inevitably accelerate. Had I gone 10 mph less when towing, I might have put off that £5,015 bill for another 100,000 miles. Lesson learned!

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