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Motor Mouth articles 2007

The down side of the car insurance war

Brian Chant: warning

CAR insurance has become truly gigantic business in the modern world and, even if the premiums sometimes seem astronomical, there is no doubt that it is a fiercely competitive business.

It’s impossible to switch on the TV, log on to the internet or pick up a newspaper without being implored to go to one firm or another for a fantastic value deal on your car insurance.

And that’s all well and good. Competition is one of the lubricants of a successful capitalist society and virtually everyone benefits. But there can often be another side to things.

In the cut-throat world of car insurance, that can sometimes mean that the big companies, their profit margins squeezed by bargain-basement premiums, demand big discounts and extras from the firms they employ to repair damaged vehicles.

While that may help contain costs, it can and does sometimes lead to second-rate work – and inflict grievous financial harm on small, reputable garage businesses who cannot compete on price and will not compromise on quality.

Brian Chant’s long-established Unicorn Motor Company business at Stalbridge is a classic example. He’s been in business on the site since 1969 and Unicorn is recognised as one of the top body repair shops in the region.

Because of what he sees as excessive demands of the big insurance companies, the accident repair side of his business has shrivelled in recent years and the number of workers in his body shop has dropped from seven to two.

He is particularly unhappy at what he regards as a penny-pinching attitude from insurance companies, whom he accuses of ‘brainwashing’ their customers into using cut-price repair firms, where standards are sometimes poor.

“In the old days we were the recommended body repairers for many of the major insurance companies by virtue of our consistently high-quality work,” he says. “Now, though, insurance companies expect us to work for virtually nothing – slashed rates, massive discounts on labour and parts, free courtesy cars, free collection of damaged vehicles.”

Too many motorists simply take their cars where their insurers suggest, not realising that they do have a say in the decision. “Once people would come to us, get an estimate and then the insurance engineers would check it out and either give us the go-ahead or not.

“But people have been brainwashed into thinking they have no say in where their cars are repaired. This is not the case and people should be aware of it.”

Fortunately Unicorn has a large contract to look after vehicles for a major employer so, for the time being, the future looks secure enough. But Brian adds: “If I did not have that contract I would have to close down the body shop tomorrow. It just wouldn’t be viable to carry on.”

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