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What the garage business can teach us about getting our image into gear

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A recent commission to design a showroom and service centre for bmw emphasised for me the extraordinary changes that continue apace in 'garage' design since I used to take my old Wolsley 4/44 in for service.

Firstly, image: it's now all about management. Smartly dressed, bright young men act as operation front. No 'trade' graduates here: with their suave accents, this well-manicured brigade are talkers, not doers. Their clinically clean environment of plastic desks, stylish female assistants and framed awards listing their various training achievements, is more akin to a city office than a garage. Girlie calendars, oily files and dirty tea mugs are out. Smart decor, computers and automatic cappuccino machines are in.

Designated areas provide for 'consultancy' meetings: today's car salesman has to be more au fait with financing - for example, personal contract purchases (pcps) and buy-back contracts - than with car performance.

And the same applies to service accounts. No more queuing at the counter watching disinterested storemen wandering to and fro: instead, you're steered towards a 'manager's desk' where you browse over lengthy printouts. As the client said rather cynically: 'the typical bmw user is in senior management and will only authorise payment against substantial and persuasive documentation.'

But unlike our profession, the car industry remains strict on credit: all bills are settled before you repossess your vehicle. (Indeed, garages are legally entitled to hold your car in the absence of payment for work done.) Why don't we learn these tricks? Outstanding fees/no practical- completion certificate. Why not? We're far too soft on bad payers.

Turning to the workshop, another revelation. Again, neatly tiled walls and floors, the ambience more akin to a chemist's laboratory than a mechanic's workshop. Sophisticated equipment measures exhaust emissions and issues diagnostic and tuning advice . But it was the monitoring of work and supplies that most surprised me. We were required to design 12 service bays, each self-sufficient in terms of oil, grease etc. , which was all supplied 'on pipe'. Mechanics have identity cards which they swipe into control units, adding the job number. This activates the bay pumps, enabling the mechanics to drain, oil and grease vehicles at will. Meters linked to the front desks automatically reckon client accounts as work proceeds.

Long gone are the days when the mechanic wandered off to find a can of oil in the stores or, worse still, on a shelf at the back of the garage. This is the era of continuous audit.

'So', I asked, 'where do you want us to put the work-bench?' But they didn't need one! 'What if you want to repair a back-axle?' I queried, only to learn that nobody there could strip a differential: they are all 'fitters'. Like the building site, the garage workshop has substantially de-skilled itself.

Armed with this information I was, of course, well prepared to design their new building, but I was even better prepared to cope just a few months later when the automatic transmission of my Mercedes failed. By- passing the 'approved' dealer altogether, I found the outfit that actually repairs and reconditions gearboxes for all the major manufacturers - bmw, Porsche etc. The place had grubby workbenches piled high with half-finished jobs, and it all looked chaotic, but the cost was nearly half and the warranty was unaffected.

Clearly, the 'architecture' of these new dealerships has developed around a pretentious sense of theatre and a strict choreography - one in which both service provider and customer willingly indulge. And, of course, it all makes perfect sense: cars perform better today in terms of reliability and economy than ever before. And they are maintained by skilled teams who service, diagnose and fit, but who do not repair. The reliability and economy are further enhanced by the strategy of that operation - one that is reflected in ruthless efficiency carried out under a sophisticated corporate style.

And, as in so many fields, the building design has and must continue to respond to the changing times.

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