Car Clocking – Don’t trust a car’s mileage

A good friend of mine got in touch this week for the AA’s advice on buying a second hand car. He had seen a gorgeous BMW for sale on line, low mileage, full service history and a price that looked too good to be true.

Now you can get excellent value in the second hand market and I would not necessarily warn people against it but you have to be very, very careful. Far too often all is not what it seems.

To begin with, mileages on second hand cars just cannot be trusted. The practice of ‘clocking’ – winding back the mileage displayed – is absolutely rampant. Sadly this is particularly true of cars that are imported from the UK.

The AA has done research that suggests that as many as 18% of UK imports have false mileages. The figure for cars here in Ireland is high as well. That might seem amazingly high but there is good reason for believing that it is true.

It is easier to doctor a car’s mileage now than it ever was before. In years gone by it actually took a lot of skill. You had to take apart the speedometer unit and physically wind back the tumblers. If not done well it showed up immediately.

These days with modern digital displays it can be done with a laptop and is effectively untraceable. Even AA engineers have to use all of their experience. They look for inconsistencies in things like wear on the rubber of the pedals, on the seat runners or on certain engine parts. They will spot it for sure but even then it is hard for them to be certain.

One key problem is that it is not even an offence to falsify a mileage reading. Irish law takes the view that when you own the car you can do anything that you please with it. You can sell it as it is provided that you do not actually lie about the mileage.

As a piece of consumer protection this is basically useless. The law needs to be strengthened.

In the meantime if you are thinking of a second hand car there are a few things that you really should do.

Firstly, get a proper engineer’s inspection carried out. It can be a little costly but if you are about to spend €10,000 or more it is a worthwhile investment. No responsible seller will object and if they do then walk away.

Secondly, do an online data check using the car’s registration number. The AA provides this on our website but you can get it in other places as well. Depending on how much you want to know it will cost between €15 and €35. It will tell you whether the car has ever been written off, what its mileage should be and whether there is any hire purchase finance owed on it.

Thirdly, you normally are better off going to an SIMI registered dealer rather than a private sale. Not just to avoid rogues and conmen; even an honest seller will not be able to offer the sort of after sales support for minor issues that you will get from a dealer.

Beware of dealers in disguise. If you see a car for sale with a mobile number, ring it and ask about ‘the car’. If he has to ask which car, he’s a dealer.

In my friend’s case, the shiny BMW turned out have a very dodgy past. The mere mention of the AA had the seller hanging up the phone. My pal dodged a bullet that could have cost him thousands.


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