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

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