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Disposable Cars?

More repair-friendly vehicles don’t appear to be in our future, equating to fewer vehicles being repairable and those that aren’t totaled costing more to repair.

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Regardless of whether this change is the result of manufacturers wanting control over how their product is repaired (to assure their future market share), the result of consumer-driven demands (improved safety, comfort, amenities) or a combination of these and other factors, repairers can assume that as long as there are vehicles needing repair, they’ll require far more expertise, training and expensive tools than in the past. And if manufacturers have their way, manufacturer “certification” will become an added prerequisite for shops to be allowed to repair vehicles in the near future.

Automotive Evolution: a Brief History
From an historical perspective – though a number of expensive, stylish vehicles cruised America’s roads before the mid-1920s – the vehicles that most folks could afford were Spartan, often unreliable, basic transportation. And these vehicles virtually didn’t change at all from year to year.

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But by the late 1920s, it had dawned on progressive automakers that if yearly improvements were made, they’d sell more vehicles and make more money. From that moment on, the competition for faster, fancier, more futuristic modes of transportation became stuck in overdrive.

And with higher speeds came higher risks, necessitating a new source of revenue for manufacturers – selling safety. And these safety-related devices began making vehicles more costly to purchase, maintain, insure and repair. (We all know that the decrease in repairable wrecks is largely due to the replacement costs of the myriad of safety-related devices on today’s cars.)

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As I recently thumbed through a dealership sales brochure in my collection, I was somewhat surprised to find that a major selling point of the ’32 Plymouth was its safety features. The brochure bragged, “We rolled a Plymouth down a steep hill sideways! It bounced and somersaulted, turning over nine times! And yet the roof held, the body remained intact, the windows could still be raised and lowered, and the car was driven off under its own power.”

The brochure also included the vehicle’s safety features: “A handbrake that operates off of the drive-shaft, independent of the service (foot) brakes, Centrifuse brake drums, self-equalizing weatherproof hydraulic brakes, and a safety-steel body with all joints welded together, making the body a solid, rigid unit.”

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We may laugh, but these were high-tech innovations in automotive design in 1932, especially considering that Ford continued to use flimsy mechanical brakes through its 1938 models and that Chevrolet was still nailing their metal body skins to an all-wood substructure through their 1936 Standard model.

My mother told of owning a 1932 Chevrolet sedan. It’s wooden substructure was so loose from bouncing over the South Dakota prairie that she had to tie the doors shut with rope while transporting kids, some stacked like cordwood inside the car and the rest riding the running-boards.

While the complexity of automobile safety devices has since been engineered almost beyond comprehension, forcing vehicle owners to be more dependent on you and me, they’ve also made our job much more complicated, time consuming and expensive.

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Sometimes we forget that auto manufacturers make their living by designing, assembling and selling amenities that appeal to those in the market for new vehicles. And it was the influence of women that relegated basic transportation to the annals of history, ushering in in its place the age of luxury and improvements.

Beginning roughly in the mid-’20s, progressive automotive ads began chiding those considering an automotive purchase, pointing out that “the little lady” didn’t want a car that mused up her hair in the wind and rain, that sitting on tufted-leather-over-horsehair-and-springs upholstery wasn’t improving her disposition and that she liked being seen in a vehicle with which she could color-coordinate her apparel.

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My 1932 Plymouth brochure brags, “The Plymouth is a FULL SIZE automobile; three people can sit comfortably in that deep, broad seat with plenty of room to stretch their legs and plenty of overhead. Seats are adjustable with a flick of the finger, the wide doors have weather-stripping, the floor is insulated, the steering can be operated with your little finger, and it rides on quiet, limber Oilite springs and small wheels.”

And with each new automotive amenity came new challenges for the collision repair industry. To date, the average collision repairer has always been able to devise a means of repair – but that may not be the case from here on out.

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Market Forces Control OEMs
I have no doubt that today’s automakers would love to be able to build vehicles that, while fully protecting the occupants, would be destroyed sufficiently in an accident to force the consumer to purchase a new vehicle. (I’ll get an earful from them on this.)

But if cars were that un-repairable, insurance coverage would be so high that manufacturers wouldn’t be able to sell them in the first place. For this reason, automakers regularly consult insurers before implementing new vehicle designs.

Keep in mind that the only direct income source automakers have, other than new vehicle sales, is new OEM replacement parts. And they generally make a healthy profit on those parts not imitated by the aftermarket.

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It’s unrealistic to believe that OEMs haven’t noticed the real and potential “negative affectance” (diminishing of manufacturer credibility and future sales brought about through poor-quality parts, repairs and such factors) that the $25 billion insurer-paid collision repair industry has fostered.

Though auto manufacturers no longer own and operate their own dealerships as many did in the past, they have good reason for encouraging vehicle owners to return to dealerships for mechanical and collision repairs: Dealership shops have been the only means manufacturers have of assuring some measure of quality in repairs.

Through dealerships, the automakers wish to establish control over the way their cars are repaired, hopefully positively affecting their future market share. So manufacturers provide their dealerships specific information, training and support on the best approaches for repairing their models.

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The alternative for manufacturers is having absolutely zero influence over how repairs on their cars are performed at the average collision shop. Don’t get me wrong. There are independent shops that perform equal or better repairs than those of some dealership shops. In fact, many non-dealership shops have contracts with certain dealerships, in which the shop is supplied with model-specific repair training, access to critical information and the like – an angle that might be worth looking into as a way of securing additional repair work.

There’s also speculation that some manufacturers are making some of their high-end vehicles so complicated in order to force future repairs of at least these vehicles to be conducted at a select number of shops – at which the OEM has control of the repair process. Toyota, Audi, GM, Ford and others are pushing use of their “certified shops” with good reason.

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It’s anyone’s guess whether or not more complicated vehicles are the direct result of consumer demands for more bells and whistles or of manufacturers’ zeal to sell more units. Regardless, high-end vehicles – built in limited numbers and sold to demanding buyers – result in a class of vehicles that’s harder to total, yet so mechanically and electronically complicated that they’re beyond the repair ability of most shops.

The OEM Perspective
Notes sent to me from a former upper-echelon employee of one of the Big-3 automakers give insight into how poor-quality repairs adversely affect OEMs, who must maintain a good reputation to grow their market share. He states in part:

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“Please understand that the OEMs don’t have direct involvement in final decision-making concerning the repair process, as only the repair shop and insurer have repair contracts with the consumer. It should also be understood that the OEMs are run by new-vehicle sales management people who are myopic in that they don’t yet fully see the very real, negative effect upon their product and market share when third parties negatively affect OEM-designed vehicle appearance, performance, value and safety.

“The fact that a large percent of all collision repairs are performed by non-dealership repair centers means that OEMs are very dependent on highly qualified and ethically minded independent and dealer repair centers, the last-vestige protectors of consumer vehicle investment and safety from poor-quality products and processes, which reduce resale value, void the factory warranty or alter the government-approved OEM-designed vehicle safety systems. We all know that many independent and dealership shops have betrayed consumers’ reasonable financial and safety interests.

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“If an OEM were to design a vehicle that could be properly repaired to pre-accident condition by only a few shops, the average cost of repair and insurance would soar for that vehicle, due to the repair delay or re-repair of those done by poorly qualified shops. The net result of this scenario for OEMs would be more lost market share and customer loyalty.

“Vehicle acquisition and ownership costs are, indeed, so important to the OEMs that most of these confer with major insurance companies during the vehicle design process to avoid repair difficulties and reduce potential repair expenses in order to gain insurance cost advantage.

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“The OEMs must fund facilities and training to protect their product and consumers as they cannot tolerate third-party negative-affectance of their product.”

And because many consumers equate dealership with manufacturer, as vehicles become increasingly more complicated, consumers will likely look more to dealerships for repairs, taking a big bite out of the number of vehicles available to independent repairers.

Market Forces Control Insurers
With all the safety, comfort, suspension and like features built into most vehicles, it’s little wonder that insurers are pushing the “total” button more often. A 50-60 percent threshold is becoming increasingly more common for the simple reason that modern vehicle design leaves so much potential for “surprises,” even after thorough tear down and re-inspection. Insurers would often rather total a vehicle than risk having its final repair bill skyrocket during repairs, plus be left with years of potential liability for repairs performed.

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Contrary to the impression that relentless insurer cost-cutting would seem to suggest, insurers also are concerned about “negative-affectance” of their reputation.

A Scary Preview
At a recent CIC meeting, an excellent power-point presentation was made about what to expect when repairing some of the present to near-future vehicles. It was enough to scare the liver out of the average repairer.

From some quick notes I scribbled down, the vehicle being described was a 2004 high-end, German-built vehicle with steel to aluminum panels. On this vehicle, the repairer is forbidden to “pre-pull anything,” which means all structural parts with any deformity, even minimal, are replaced. Removal and proper replacement of the vehicle’s “earth-straps” and “electro-magnetic conductivity screws” (which assure a working ground throughout the vehicle) are extremely critical.

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The vehicle manufacturer sells the only stud gun, blind rivets and “Pyrosil” kit that are acceptable for use on this vehicle. Only one specific 12-hour-dry chemical adhesive is acceptable, only two specific benches with the exact attachment package will be used and no heat from a welder is allowed.

The newer models of several other vehicle manufacturers use boron-steel panels. Because boron is extremely brittle, it can’t be punched or straightened, and any drilling must be done with a special boron drill bit that sells for $50 and is good for no more than 40 holes.

One model vehicle presently on the road incorporates a boron-steel rear bumper reinforcement in the vehicle’s rear panel. Apparently, a plasma-cutter with selective cutting abilities taking only one layer at a time is acceptable here, and data providers indicate MIG welding is OK on this vehicle, though other manufacturers don’t recommend MIG welding; some even prohibit it.

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At least one U.S. auto manufacturer is using DP600 steel, second only to boron, in some of its vehicle construction. Another manufacturer is using a magnesium shell with an aluminum skin over it. And a growing number of manufacturers specify welding must be done with an “inverter welder.” Some manufacturers even require repairers to perform all welding in sealed rooms dedicated only to that purpose.

The Bottom Line
So what does all this mean to you and me? In short, it means those of us remaining in collision repair will have to be prepared for rapid-fire, serious changes in the way they repair. It would also seem – just from the added expenses of implementing the specific changes that the future of auto construction will hold – that specializing in certain makes and models will become a must.

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The future will include much more control by automakers over who does and doesn’t repair the vehicles they produce, the use of more OEM parts, much more vehicle-specific training by the OEM and more dealerships taking more of the repair pie – which was ours in the past.

It could easily cost in excess of $100,000 to equip and train a shop to repair a certain model of vehicle in the near future.

From all indications, it appears that whereas our history has been one in which the insurance industry has steadily demanded and gained control of the repair game, manufacturers have found a way to wrest some of that control from insurers. But it’s futile for us to speculate about what the Titans will do to each other since it doesn’t change our situation.

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The fact is, the future of the collision industry belongs to those who purchase the right equipment and use it properly, don’t take shortcuts and keep ahead of other shops through equipment training, procedures training and manufacturer training.

Which may just be too much to ask of the majority of repairers.

Writer Dick Strom and wife Bobbi own and operate Modern Collision Rebuild, a 10,000-square-foot shop in Bainbridge Island, Wash. Strom can be reached at [email protected]

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