No longer do cars with a ding or scratches on them have to go to the bodyshop for days.
Techniques now exist that can return dented panels, dull paintwork or kerbed alloys to showroom condition in hours.
But as with any newly-blossoming industry, there is little regulation or standards for firms offering smart repair.
This has led to widespread concerns about cowboy operators seeking to make a fast buck by offering a sub-standard service.
The larger firms, anxious to protect the reputation of smart repair, feel something should be done.
“It’s a very immature industry,” says Phil Newstead, national franchise manager for Dent Wizard, a division of auction giant Manheim.
“There are people out there with very limited training.”
David Mercer, managing director of Manheim Defleet Services, says: “There is no standard for smart repair, but we think there should be and we’re talking to the industry about creating one. There’s a good chance we will have standards next year – the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association is driving it forward.”
Mr Newstead says Dent Wizard’s repairers have to go through two years of training before they get to the company’s required standard. They each specialise in their own field – those that fix dents only fix dents, alloy wheel refurbishers don’t do anything else, and so on.
“Our guys go through six weeks of residential training, two weeks in the field and even then they can’t do repairs on their own,” Mr Newstead says.
“It takes a good two years of experience.”
HOW HARD CAN IT BE?
But surely it can’t be that difficult to hit out a dent or polish out a scratch? To find out, I had a go at a couple of smart repair jobs myself.
First up was the machine operated polish. If you’ve ever tried to remove a scratch from your own car using a bottle of T-Cut and some elbow grease, you’ll have a good idea of how this works. Or should work, anyway – despite many attempts, I never managed to get more than the faintest of scratches out of my old Ford Escort.
At Dent Wizard, I was presented with a slightly-battered blue Volkswagen Golf Mark III with a huge scratch down the left rear quarter. The challenge was to apply the cutting paste with a mechanical buffer and get the scratch to disappear. At first, all seemed to be going well. The scratch was definitely getting less visible, although as I wiped away the paste, mixed in with blue paint, it was conspicuously still there. Maybe just a bit more…
Suddenly, the blue paint turned white. I had overdone it and gone through to the primer. An unsightly scratch had turned into what looked like a monster bird dropping. Time for a respray.
Okay then, so scratch removal requires a deft hand but dent removal must be easier – after all, there are plenty of 17-year-old panel beaters in garages around the country. Right?
The criteria for smart dent removal is that the paint remains unbroken, but that still leaves a lot of room for manoeuvre. During my visit to Dent Wizard’s headquarters near Nuneaton, one dent repair specialist was taking an exam.
A Vauxhall Vectra sat in the workshop with a huge crease across the rear wing, going straight through the swage line. To my untrained eye it needed a whole new panel, but to pass his exam the repairer had to leave no trace that there had ever been any damage. If there was any sign that the panel wasn’t untouched, it was an instant fail.
My challenge was less dramatic – a metal plate was put in front of me and a small dent put into it using a hammer with a baseball attached to the end. It was fairly microscopic, the kind of damage you might get from a door in a supermarket car park.
I was given a long metal pole with a rounded end and told to gently ease the dent out from underneath. Getting the plate approximately flat wasn’t difficult – the devil was in the detail. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get it completely smooth. There’s no doubt that the man working on the Vectra had his work cut out. But by the time I left, three hours later, he seemed to have done a pretty good job.
A GROWING INDUSTRY
With the potential savings available by using smart repair, it seems the industry can only grow in the future.
David Mercer believes the smart repair market will grow, and not only at remarketing time but in the middle of a vehicle’s life as well.
“For rental and leasing firms, it will represent a way to make themselves different from ABC or XYZ leasing,” he says.
“Mobile valeting, mid-life repair, inspections two days before defleeting and so on – that’s something some firms will want to do. It will always be cheaper to get the work done yourself, rather than wait for someone else to do it and then charge you for the inconvenience.”
But that work needs to be of a quality worth the investment, which is why fleets need the assurance of a standard that repairers can work towards.
“It’s definitely something that’s needed when there are so many one-man-band sole traders,” says Mr Newstead. Smart repair is here to stay, but it has some growing up to do. As David Mercer says: “If this is a journey then we’re only 25% of the way through it.”