Friday, 15 April 2011

Getting up to Speed

It's wonderful having a car – there's the freedom of being able to jump in and drive to see family and friends at a moment's notice, fill the boot with your supermarket shop rather than having to haul it home on the bus and take off to the beach on a sunny day.

But there are hassles too. Such as the fear of being ripped off by car salesmen and dodgy garages. Or the nagging feeling that you don't know enough (or indeed, anything at all) about what goes on under the bonnet and that one day your car might seize up and die because you haven't been sufficiently diligent when it comes to topping up some obscure fluid.

The stock answer to these problems tends to be that girls who don't feel confident when it comes to dealing with the motor trade and to whom doing the grease monkey thing doesn't come naturally should turn to their nearest bloke – whether that's their dad, partner or a friend for support. But there are flaws in this strategy. For starters, many of us like to be as independent as possible. And secondly, not all of us have vast quantities of car-savvy men in our lives that we can draw on at a moment's notice. You might be single, may not have any male family members living nearby and your bloke-mates might be of the metrosexual variety who are great when it comes to finding a companion for arty films but sadly lacking when it comes to anything grimy and mechanical.

'In the past when I've dealt with a garage I've always taken my dad along as I reckon he's less likely to get patronised or leered at. But now he and my mum are retiring to Spain and he won't be able to come over whenever I need him. I haven't got a clue how I'm going to cope!'
Laura, 24

'The car I have at present was bought new from a dealership four years ago when I still had a husband. It's going to have to last forever, largely because I have no intention of braving car showrooms, oily salesmen and strange blokes on the end of private sale newspaper ads by myself. My plan at the moment is to enter every 'win a new car' competition I can find.'
Julia, 55

'I don't know how to do those checks or pump up my tyres so I have to ask my husband. But he's always busy and I have to go on at him a bit before he gets round to it – it's really annoying and makes me feel like some awful stereotype of the sort of wife who's always nagging her husband to put up shelves'.
Katie, 32

Most of the current motoring TV programmes, newspaper supplements and books don't really address these issues. Top Gear is great if you want to compare the respective merits of Porsches, Lamborghinis and Ferraris, but less helpful if you're looking to buy a second-hand Nissan Micra. Mainstream motoring books offer useful advice on changing your brake pads, but blithely assume you'll already know how to top up the windscreen washer fluid.

The Girls' Car Handbook takes a completely fresh and female-friendly approach, providing information and advice from both male and female motoring experts to help you tackle any driving challenge with confidence and style.
And of course, The Girls' Car Handbook will help you get the maximum possible fun out of your driving life, with tips for music on the move, feng-shui-ing your car, and driving with the top down whilst still keeping your hair looking great.

Car culture
When you don't know much about cars, it's easy to find the whole subject completely bewildering. This isn't helped by the fact that most people involved in the world of motoring seem to talk a different language.
Mechanics will warn you of problems with the crankshaft or carburettor. Car salesmen will hold forth about how a particular model has 'excellent residuals' and expect you to be impressed. Even the private sales adverts in local newspapers seem to be written in an impenetrable code, and are packed with cars described as having FDSH and RCL (that's full dealer service history and remote central locking, by the way).

Everyone knows that in lonely-heart ads, GSOH translates as 'good sense of humour' – and initially it can feel as though venturing into the motoring milieu means you're going to need one. But it really needn't be that bad – and over time you may even find the experience enjoyable. It can be helpful to see it as going to a foreign country. Making the effort to learn some of the language and make friends among the locals will make your trips so much more enjoyable.

Many girls will only be interested in flying visits – all you want is to do what's necessary to keep yourself on the road and not get ripped off in the process.
Others might decide they want to spend more time there. This certainly isn't the sort of book which is going to push doing your own repairs and imply that you're letting the Suffragettes down if you're not prepared to get your hands dirty and learn to change your own sparkplugs. It's got a more realistic approach than that, and accepts that for many of us a car is primarily a metal box for getting about quickly and safely. And that whilst we might yearn for a nippy sports car or a VW campervan, what we're after is the fun aspect of driving a vehicle with a distinctive personality rather than an overwhelming urge to learn about how its particular sprockets work.
But if you find you get into it, that's fantastic! Women are sadly under-represented when it comes to anything to do with cars, and it would be great to have some more of you on board.

Once you feel confident doing basic checks and repairs, you might find that you'd like to take things a step further and learn how to service and do more advanced repairs on your car. Car maintenance classes are held via the adult education service in many areas and are a worthwhile investment for teaching you techniques and giving you confidence. And if you're a single girl they also double as a classic strategy for meeting men.

Family, friends, colleages and old blokes down the pub
And then of course, there's that most invaluable source of information – everyone around you.
People who know about cars generally enjoy giving advice, so whether you're planning on buying a car, are looking for a good garage or are worried that you're not providing the necessary care and attention to keep your car thriving, then you'll find plenty of folk around willing to put in their half-pennorth.
Taxi drivers tend to be particularly useful as they drive for a living and will probably know via their work grapevine which local garages are good and which should be avoided. If you take cabs regularly then ask several drivers and if the same garage name keeps cropping up then you know you're potentially onto something good (I say 'potentially' because of cause some garages might deal fairly with experienced drivers and amateur mechanics but be unscrupulous when it comes to anyone they see as a soft touch).

Your friendly motor mechanic
If your car is being serviced and repaired at a main dealership it's unlikely that you'll ever meet the mechanic who works on your car – the protocol there involves coralling you in a plush waiting area, as far away from anything to do with grease-and-sprockets as possible and plying you with free filter coffee in an effort to distract you from how frighteningly expensive they are.

If you're going to an independent garage, then there's a reasonable chance you can meet the guy who will actually work on your car, discuss any problems and talk about how you can keep your car happy and healthy in the future. If your only experience of mechanics so far has involved some oily bloke patronising you whilst also staring at your breasts and ripping you off for large wodges of cash, you may feel this scenario is rather unlikely. But don't be disheartened.

There are some fantastic motor mechanics out there – skilled, honest and happy to explain things. Chapter 3, 'Keep your Motor Running', will help you track one down and when you have value him or her as much as you do your favourite hairstylist, if not more.

Get a range of opinions
But even as you're gleaning all this advice it's important to remember that with the best will in the world, some people might be giving you information that's out-of-date.
Cars have changed dramatically over the past twenty years – they might look pretty much the same on the outside, but the internal workings are far more complex and difficult to get at. Rather than someone opening the bonnet, fiddling about a bit, shaking their head and drawing air in through their teeth to indicate a problem, this is now done by specialist computers which garages plug into your car and perform 'diagnostics' (diagnosing what the fault is). Combine this with the fact that much of the engine of modern cars is now covered-over and inaccessible to the amateur mechanic, and you're looking at a situation where taking mechanical advice from someone who hasn't done hands-on work on a car for while is a bit like learning about secretarial work from someone who retired when they were still using typewriters and taking carbon copies of everything.

This is one of the reasons why it's a good idea to get range of opinions when it comes to anything to do with your car. Another is that you'll realise that even between people who are knowledgeable about motoring matters there can be significant differences of opinion and that The Truth about The Best Way to Buy and Run a Car isn't something that's been carved in tablets of stone, carried down a mountain and then only been revealed to a privileged few. It's something that anyone can learn the basics of, and then it's just a matter of making your own mind up.

'I was interested in buying a Fiat Panda and emailed my friends and family to ask what they think – one cousin who's really into cars raved about his and said they were fun, stylish and economical and that I should get one. But then a mate of mine who's a keen amateur mechanic said I shouldn't touch one with a bargepole and that Fiat stands for Fix It Again Tomorrow. I respect both their opinions so it was difficult to know whose advice to follow. But overall the Fiat got more thumbs downs than ups so in the end I got a Ford Ka instead.'
Salma, 27

The Girls' Guide to Garages

The Big Question in almost every girl's mind when dealing with a garage is – am I going to get hugely ripped off here? And the answer to it is – yes, you might be.

Here are some examples of scams used by dishonest garages

Charging two hours labour for a job which really only took them an hour
Using a cheap brand of oil but charging you for the top of the range variety
Spraying oil on your shock absorber and telling you that it's leaking
Telling you that the cost of repairs to your vehicle is more that it's worth and then trying to flog you a car from their forecourt. Driving past a few weeks later you're likely to see your 'unrepairable' car tarted up and for sale at a tidy price.
Saying that your clutch was damaged and they had to replace it but actually not doing anything at all.

Some people will give you strategies for trying to catch out slippery garages – but most are either impractical (unless you stand over someone with a stopwatch you're going to have to take how long a particular job took on trust) or require a level of mechanical knowledge that most of us just don't have.

'A colleague warned me that if a garage was going to replace something on my car I should ask them to keep the old part and show it to me, so I could be sure they'd really done it. But I've also heard that dodgy garages have got wind of this strategy and keep a supply of old parts that they'll wave in front of customers to keep them happy. And I know so little about cars anyway, they could hand me something and say 'this is your clutch' and it could actually be a bit out of an old washing machine and I wouldn't know the difference.'
Kerry, 20

Basically, if a garage is determined to behave dishonestly then it will – and if it's not able to bump up its bill via one method then it'll do it by another. So in much the same way that it's more sensible to dump a cheating boyfriend rather than than waste your time trying to purloin his phone so you can check for incriminating messages, it's also wiser to just avoid garages you suspect might be trying to put one over on you. Far better to channel your energy into finding a garage (and indeed, a man) you can trust.

There are plenty of good garages out there – you just have to be prepared to put in a bit of legwork to track them down.

Personal recommendation
As has been mentioned previously, personal recommendation is the best way to find a good garage. Asking around friends, family, work colleagues and on car-related motoring forums will help point you in the right direction.
It's good not to become over-dependent on a particular garage however.

'I live in Glasgow but I always have my MOT done when I go back home to Peterborough. A friend of my dad's runs a garage and we've always used him – I wouldn't trust anyone else not to rip me off.'
Salma, 27

Such loyalty is touching, but doesn't necessarily make good financial sense. It's important to have someone local you can rely in case you need emergency repairs – so if you move somewhere new start asking around as soon possible.

Membership of a Trade Association
Anyone can open an independent garage and start trading – it's not necessary to have any formal qualifications. So if you use a garage where the mechanics are trained, certificates are displayed and they are member of a recognised body such as The Retail Motor Industry Federation then that is at least a start.

The Motor Vehicles Repairers Association Call 0870 458 3051 for details of member garages in your area
The Retail Motor Industry Federation – has a search facility for local members or you can phone them on 0845 7585350
The Scottish Motor Trade Association – 0131 331 5510

Could this be the start of a beautiful relationship?
Hopefully the various routes outlined above will prove useful and help you narrow down your search to a few potential garages. Once you've done that it's time to investigate further.
Like any relationship, it's best if you can get to know each other gradually rather than plunge in at the deep end. So in an ideal scenario it would be wise to just have a few minor bits of work done first – maybe a headlight bulb change or a service. That way you can get a general feel for the place and suss out how friendly and reliable they are and whether they appear to be dealing fairly with you.
It's a bit like if you were trying out a new hairdresser – you'd probably go in for a trim or maybe a few highlights first and check out the way she worked before asking her to transform your waist-length chestnut hair into a blonde urchin cut.

Hanging on the telephone
It's a good idea to phone a couple of garages on your shortlist and have an initial chat with them.

When talking to different garages always make sure you compare like with like. Services in particular are an area where vagueness can prevail. When garages talk about 'doing a service' they can be referring to a procedure that's as brisk as an an oil and filter change to one that involves a thorough check of the car and replacing loads of important stuff like spark plugs and brake pads. So it's important to clear about what you're actually getting. Services are covered in full in the following chapter.

If you're describing a problem with your car it's important to be as specific as possible about what happens and when the problem occurs. For example - 'there's this scraping noise when I brake' or 'there's this blowing noise when I accelerate'.

Ask about how long they think the work might take and when they might be able to book you in for it.
Ask them what their hourly labour rate is and what sort of parts they might use on your car

When discussing prices it's important to be aware of whether you're being given an estimate or a quote.
Quotes should be given in writing and cover exactly what the garage plans to do and gives a definite price for the work.
Estimates are a rough idea of what the garage thinks it will cost
Also ask them whether the figures they're quoting include or exclude VAT – you don't want to go for one that sounds like a good deal and then only realise it's because they left VAT off!

If you get the chance to discuss your car problem with family, friends or colleagues beforehand then do so – that way you can say stuff like, 'my friend thinks it might be worn brake pads' or 'my dad thinks there's a problem with the starter motor'. It will at least let them know you've got knowledgeable people in your social circle and that you're not totally a poor defenceless female all alone in the world. That can feel a bit like cheating for those of us who take a 'girls can do anything and we don't need to rely on a bloke' approach to life, but there you go.

Even if you feel a bit out of your depth avoid playing the 'helpless female' card. 'Be confident and don't go on about how little you know,' says Vanessa Guyll of the AA. 'Ask questions and show you're open to learning more about your car.'
This is a time to mention any particular requirements. For example, if they're going to be doing anything to the wheels and you want to be able to change them yourself then ask them not to tighten the nuts too much.

If there's any uncertainty about how much the work might cost agree a price and ask them not to go above it without calling you first.

Post-match analysis
It's best to pick up your car when you're not on a tight schedule as well. That way you'll be able to have a talk with the mechanic or service manager. Ask them to go through the list of what they've done with you. If a tyre was replaced, for example, then ask why. Was it damage or a poor tread? If you're uncomfortable about how this might come across as if you're checking up on them (though this is of course exactly what you're doing) say that you're trying to learn more about your car. Phrasing it that way will make for a more positive vibe.

Many garages hold back the parts they've removed and will show or offer to give them to you. It can feel a bit odd going off with a plastic bag with some dusty brake pads in it, but it is worth doing as it's all part of the learning curve.

Discuss what you had done how much it cost you with family, friends and colleagues and see if they nod approvingly or splutter out their coffee and squawk about how you've been robbed.

Hopefully you've found a fantastic garage and can start settling into a long-term relationship – but if you're not happy with how your initial visit has gone then try another one next time. There are some great, good-value garages out there and you'll find one in the end!

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Daily Telegraph - refresher driver training feature


'There are two things no man will admit he cannot do well: drive and make love', said ex racing driver Stirling Moss. But surely it's time for both men (and women) to rethink at least the first part of this statement and accept that for most of us there's going to be some room for improvement. In our working lives we realise the value of ongoing training to help us adapt to changing circumstances and avoid getting rusty, so surely we should take the same approach to our driving?

The value of immediate post-test training such as the Pass Plus course is widely promoted. But increasingly people who've held a licence for a number of years are realising that they'd benefit from extra tuition and are deciding to take a driver refresher course. A fairly common motivation is in the case of older women who've left most of the driving to their husbands and now because of bereavement or their partner's illness are having to get behind the wheel again. Other reasons include wanting to overcome common motoring fears such as motorways or night driving, getting a job that involves high-mileage driving, needing to regain confidence after an accident, and moving from the country to the city or vice versa. Driving in icy and snowy conditions is a challenge many people won't have tackled as learner but a session with an driving instructor can teach techniques for avoiding skids that can make the experience a lot less hair-raising.

Driving instructor Chris Pope has helped lots of drivers improve or regain their skills. 'Every course I teach is tailored to the individual,' he explains. 'For example, if a confident driver has just passed their test and wants additional motorway training then we will probably spend most of the session on the motorway. But if a pupil is struggling with a fear of motorways then the approach will be more about gradual exposure – assessing their driving on quiet roads then moving onto dual carriageways and eventually the motorway, in a manner which expands their comfort zone but that isn't too challenging or uncomfortable for them. If a new student comes to me with confidence issues I'll normally begin by asking them to drive as they normally would for about 15-20 mins, and I'll observe without commenting. Then I get them to pull over and ask them if they can identify anything about their own driving that might be less than ideal and whether they have any questions for me. Then we'll maybe choose one aspect and work on that together.'
The length of refresher training can range from one session to a long series for especially nervous drivers. 'Some students stay with me until they've reached the level they want,' whilst others take a few lessons to get the ball rolling then go on to practice by themselves.'

For people wanting to improve their driving, a sympathetic driving instructor is usually a good first port of call. Local councils and police forces often offer inexpensive training, so it's worth investigating if this is available in your area. Lots of driving centres offer skid prevention and control courses – especially relevant given the severity of recent winters.

The Institute of Advanced Motorists course is another good option. 'We're not an elitist organisation,' says their Chief Examiner Peter Rodger. 'Some people take the course because they enjoy driving and want to get even better, others because they've become rusty and want to improve their skills and confidence levels.' The IAM courses are run by local volunteers who will go out with you in your own car and offer feedback on how you can improve your driving. Typically people have about 8 sessions and are then ready to take the IAM exam, which has an 85% pass rate. The 'advanced driving package' currently costs £139 and covers the membership fee, IAM manual and test fee.

'We highly encourage all drivers to avoid complacency and make the effort to improve,' says Peter Rodger, 'whether that's taking the IAM course, booking a motorway lesson – or even just spending an evening re-reading the Highway Code.'

Patricia Jackman, 77, retired
Drives – Peugeot 207 Automatic
Passed test – 1972
Refresher course with – Peter Skelton of Newbury Driving School
I passed my test and drove in London and then later in Cornwall. Then in 2005 we moved to Newbury which is very busy. I lost my nerve and went for years without driving and relied on my husband Norman, 76, to ferry me about. Earlier this year I decided I wanted to be more independent and booked three lessons with Peter. The first one we just went around quiet local lanes. Afterwards I said I wanted him to be totally honest with me if he felt I ought not to be behind the wheel but he was very supportive. We had two more lessons which involved town driving to places such as the supermarket and hospital. I'd forgotten about how lane discipline worked on roundabouts and Peter was able to show me how to handle them. I am now happy to drive locally and would thoroughly recommend that anyone who lacks confidence behind the wheel takes a refresher course. I wish I'd done it years ago.

Helen Kara, 46
Drives – Toyota Yaris Verso
Passed test – 1996
Refesher with – Staffordshire County Council and Police Partnership
It took me four attempts to get my driving licence but after some initial nerves I was quite confident. Then in 2000 I took the Institute of Advanced Motorists test, which I found really useful. But gradually I lost a lot of the good habits I'd learned and became a bit blase about my driving. It was after writing off two BMWs in six months that my partner suggested I take a refresher course. The one I attended lasted a day, with driving in the morning and discussions on road safety in the afternoon. I realised that one of my driving problems was that when I had passengers in the car, I sometimes gave more attention to them than watching the road, and the course also improved my motorway skills. That was in 2005 and I haven't had an accident since, so it was certainly a worthwhile investment.

William Frawley, 26, administrator
Drives – Ford Focus
Passed test - 2003
Refresher with – Andy Heath of the AA Driving School
I couldn't afford to run a car after I passed my test and and didn't really need one as I went to a campus University and then got a job where I could walk to work. Earlier this year I was able to buy a car but hadn't driven for the 7 years since I passed my test. I didn't want to go to a dealership feeling so inexperienced, so when I heard about the free AA Drive Confident course I was keen to take it. We had a 2 hour session in which my instructor, Andy offered advice on skills that had become a bit rusty such as clutch control and also took me out on a major A road. It was good to know I still had the ability to drive and to have any potential bad habits ironed out.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

The Girls' Car Handbook

Maria McCarthy

Published 20th August 2009 by Simon and Schuster price £7.99

Fresh, lively and informative, The Girls' Car Handbook is an essential read for every woman who loves her car but hates the hassles that can come with it – such as delving under the bonnet, dealing with dodgy garages or sorting out car insurance.
Packed with advice from experts including Steve Fowler, editor of What Car? Vanessa Guyll, technical expert at The AA and top breakdown patrolman Adam Ashmore, it will help women:

Haggle with dealers in car showrooms and come out on top.
Find a garage they can trust.
Motor through the credit-crunch, getting the best deal on everything from fuel to insurance.
Cope with driving disasters such as breakdowns and accidents.
Get up to speed on the various options for greener motoring, without feeling as though they've accidentally wandered into an A-level chemistry lecture.
Stay sane on the school run.

Until now motoring handbooks aimed at women have fallen into two categories. The frivolous gift-book variety, full of tips about how to top up your lipstick at traffic lights or the more feisty 'girls' can be grease monkeys too' approach which urges us to don overalls and change our own sparkplugs. And then in motoring programmes such as Top Gear 'the women's angle' is usually dealt with by wheeling on a female racing driver to show that girls can burn rubber with the best of them. But the fact is that most women aren't remotely interested in how their car's sprockets work or racing teenage boys at traffic lights. What they want are clear guidelines for carrying out basic maintenance checks, tried-and-tested tips to spot a dishonest mechanic or car dealer, and advice about staying safe on the road. The Girls' Car Handbook delivers on all these fronts, cutting through the jargon of the often male-dominated world of motoring and explaining everything a girl could possibly need to know in a clear, practical, and entertaining way.

About the author
Maria McCarthy is a member of The Guild of Motoring Writers and has contributed to Cosmopolitan, The Independent, The Guardian, The Sunday Express and MSN Cars. She's also a popular media commentator on motoring matters and has appeared on BBC Breakfast News and Radio 5 Live. She is the author of The Girls' Guide to Losing Your L Plates: How to Pass Your Driving Test and teaches freelance journalism at Bristol University. For more information see

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Reviews of The Girls' Car Handbook

My second book, The Girls' Car Handbook published by Simon and Schuster came out in August 2009. Here's a collection of reviews.

The Evening Standard, motoring editor David Williams
It's a guide to pretty much everything the novice female – or male, come to that – will ever need to know about motoring. Written in a clear, commonsense but very readable style it is crammed with useful information and really rather good.

Ian Collins, Talksport, 'The Car Guys' programme
Very informative and funny!

What Car? editor Steve Fowler
The Girls' Car Handbook is a handy book for blokes too!

Honest John, The Daily Telegraph
I thought it was very good!

Southern Daily Echo, motoring writer Alyson Marlow
The Girls' Car Handbook is easy to dip in and out of, depending on what you need to learn. With a stylish chicklit cover, it wouldn't look out of place being read by the pool – but instead of promising Mr Right, it offers a new route to female independence on the road! This could be the best £7.99 you spend on motoring.

Chester Standard, motoring editor Terry Davies
The Girls' Car Handbook is an absolute MUST for the glove compartment of a lady's car because it's crammed with everything they need to know about it. It's jolly good advice and money well spent!

Tired of getting ripped off by mechanics and car dealers? Sick of phoning your dad for something as simple as changing a tyre? It's time for us girls to take control and this little gem of a book is the solution. Buy copies for your friends too!

Drawing on expert advice Guild of Motoring Writers member Maria McCarthy reveals everything there is to know about cars and driving. It includes tips on everything from how to avoid getting ripped off at the garage to what to do when your car breaks down.

All about me

I'm a member of The Guild of Motoring Writers and author of The Girls' Car Handbook and The Girls' Guide to Losing Your L Plates, published by Simon and Schuster. My books and articles have featured in a wide range of national newspapers, magazines and websites including The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Daily Mail, The Daily Mirror, The Sunday Express, The Evening Standard, Metro, MSN Cars,, Closer, Company, Look, Woman and Home, Good Housekeeping, Prima, Star, and OK!.
I'm a regular commentator on motoring matters on BBC Breakfast News, Radio 5 Live and Jeremy Vine's lunchtime show. I've also appeared on Chris Evans' drivetime and Stuart Maconie's afternoon shows on Radio 2, 'The Car Guys' slot on Ian Collins' Talksport Show, Robert Elms' and Vanessa Feltz's BBC London radio shows and carried out over 150 interviews on local BBC stations.