Another tale of woe

Sir,

Your correspondence columns have long been open to aggrieved car owners, and a very useful service you have done them by your courage in giving names and publishing facts when their vehicles have given unnecessary trouble. My own recent experience seems to show that the inspection system of one of the "Big Five" has fallen to new depths.

On May 23 of this year I took delivery of a new Sunbeam Alpine Series 3 Sports tourer, one of the first of the new model, but by no means so different from its predecessors as to give rise to excusable teething troubles. My supplier was a large and reputable distributor of Rootes cars. At their request, I left my car in their hands for nearly a week after they received it, so that they could get a tonneau cover made and carry out a thorough pre-delivery inspection, as I explained that I was shortly leaving for Le Mans and for a French and Swiss holiday of some 2,000 miles.

Within a mile of taking delivery (it was pouring with rain), I discovered that one wiper blade was slopping over the screen frame and fouling the body, the screenwasher jets were out of kilter, neither petrol nor temperature gauges was working, the bonnet catch allowed the bonnet to beat a tattoo up and down at the corners, and over the first bump it flew open. Finally, a loud grating and rumbling noise, which should have been audible to a deaf mechanic with ear plugs, issued from the right rear wheel.

Back went the car next morning, and later came a statement that the noise had been traced to the hand brake cable grating against the wall of the tyre; the cable had been "re-routed," i.e., run through the clip where it should have been all the time. The other points had been attended to, except for the bonnet which continued to hammer up and down when I left London on Friday evening for a running-in session in the West Country.

I had gone only a couple of miles when, on Hendon Way, in the thick of the traffic, the engine petered out. It would start, run for a few moments and then stop again—an obvious case of fuel starvation. An hour was spent getting an A.A. garage van sent out, and contacting the main Rootes service depot at Ladbroke Grove. The A.A. people gave a plausible (but wrong) diagnosis, charged £1, and went off. The engine stopped again, but a few minutes later a Rootes van drove up, with a briskly efficient Scots mechanic at the wheel. He diagnosed the trouble in a moment, with skilled fingers unscrewed the petrol tap and filter, and produced a wad of fluff, completely blocking the fuel line. "That looks verra familiar," he said, " it's the stuff they use to clean out the tanks. The only trouble is they leave it in." Having got rid of the fuzz, he deftly fitted everything together again in the fading light, and said he would follow me round the N. Circular Road in case of further trouble. Within a mile, my hand had shot up; the overdrive refused to disconnect, and the Scotsman drew up behind. "Sorry," he said, "that's no the sort of trouble you can cure by the roadside at night. Maybe it'll hold together till you get there. But remember, don't use reverse!" So, already two hours late, I had to drive 200 miles with four overdrive gears, an alarming smell of burning, and no possibility of getting out of trouble if I took the wrong turning in a Devon lane.

Eight o'clock Saturday morning saw me far off course at the main Exeter Rootes agent. Everyone was immensely helpful. The whole electrical harness for the overdrive had burnt out, there was no replacement, and the mechanic had to make another one, as well as putting in a new solenoid. In four hours—a morning wasted—all was done, save for the strange quirk, discovered only some days later, that when the car's lights were on, the overdrive wouldn't disconnect. Can no mechanic do anything right first time?

But this was only the beginning of the troubles of the first fortnight. The petrol gauge needle fluttered like a sick butterfly, the windows rattled, the driver's door sprang open onto the safety catch on every bad bump, the mats didn't fit, the driver's seat jammed, the doors grated as they opened and closed. In repeated visits to the agent some of these defects would be corrected, others would persist.

Then, spending Whitsun in the Lake District, it was discovered that the engine would refuse to idle on any gradient steeper than 1 in 6, and was almost impossible to restart. Twice, on visits to the agent, the car was badly damaged while in the hands of testers (testing for what?), and spent days in the coachworks being hurriedly repaired. And all this is the story of barely three weeks in the life of a new car, almost half of which has been spent in garages, while I have wasted precious hours ferrying it to and fro.

The following points are worth emphasis in this sad but characteristic story.

All the complaints noted have been admitted. The agents have been both apologetic and helpful, but appear to think that my troubles are due to "the law of coincidence"—whatever that may mean. Secondly, those who have helped to get my car going have without exception been generous of their time and efforts; a good British garage still sets a very high standard of service.

But, thirdly, all these things happened, and happened to a brand-new car. There should be no blurring over the incompetence of Rootes' inspection system, and the appalling level of mechanical work, both before and after delivery, at their agents.

My car appears to be fundamentally a sound one—I have covered nearly 2,000 miles in the intervals of the repair sessions—but, thanks to these experiences my likelihood of buying a second Rootes' car has fallen from virtual certainty to pretty near zero. Maybe Rootes should supply all their cars as kits of parts, and put the onus of trouble on the buyer. That would spare them embarrassments like George Brown's tirade in the House of Commons. Or maybe they should just get taken over by a more efficient firm, as happened with Standard-Triumph And Leyland Motors. I wish them luck.

R.J. Spottiswoode.
London, N.W.3.