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The rogues driving us to distraction...

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Katy R | 11:52 UK time, Thursday, 28 October 2010

Think second hand car dealer and you might imagine an Arthur Daley or a Swiss Tony. Traditionally, they don't enjoy the best of reputations, and for some it seems that reputation isn't entirely undeserved. According to complaints service Consumer Direct, complaints about second-hand cars bought from independent traders top the list of things that wind us up most....

This week, we're on the trail of dealers who keep their customers in the dark. Get their cars home and you could be in for a nasty shock. We're talking about Dargate Motors Ltd (AKA East Kent Cars) and The Small Car Company (Kent) Ltd. Based in the heart of the Kent countryside near Faversham. They specialise in small cars, many of them with serious history.

We've had lots of complaints from people who'd unknowingly bought cars that turned out to have been written-off - because insurers have deemed them too expensive to repair.

But what is a write-off? They come in four different flavours - category A, B, C and D. Category A and B are so badly damaged that they must be crushed. C and D though, can be repaired, sold and put back on the road as long as they are fixed properly and as long as the dealer tells customers exactly what they're getting.

However, we'd heard from some East Kent Cars customers who told us they'd bought cars and hadn't been told about their write-off history. Jayne Sauntson paid £4000 for her Peugeot, and all seemed fine until she dented it and took it to a body shop to get it fixed. They looked the car over and found it had previously been in a serious accident.

"The assessor from the garage called me and he just basically said if you'd had a more severe accident in it you wouldn't have been sat here talking to me today," she said.

We asked independent car expert, Barry Wheeler, to take a look at Jayne's car. He found it had been in a major crash and that cheap, bodged repairs had left the car weaker than it should be. Not only that, the airbag system - one of the car's key safety features - was not working, and the bulb that would warn you of that wasn't there.

Barry was in no doubt as to what this would mean to Jayne if the car was in another serious collision.

"The car is going to crush more than it should. The airbag's not going to help her. She's looking at serious injuries," he said.

Jayne is now left with a dangerous and practically worthless car. Having spent nearly £4000 on it, she'd be lucky to get £200 for scrap. She did try to get her money back from East Kent Cars but she found they had shut up shop and another company had opened on the same site with a different name and a different director. Called the Small Car Company (Kent) Ltd., on paper they're a completely different company, but strangely their online ads have 'East Kent Cars' written at the top.

So, were The Small Car Company operating in the same way as East Kent Cars? We aimed to find out. Although we knew they sometimes told the truth, it wasn't long before we started getting fresh complaints. So, what would they tell us?

We chose a car from their Website and did a quick and easy online history check on it. Simply entering the registration number of the vehicle into a Website and paying around £20 revealed the car had been recorded by an insurance company as a total loss. A 'category C' extensively damaged vehicle. Like many of their cars that we checked, it had been a write-off and there was no mention of that in their online advert. But, would they tell us in person?

We sent in a stooge bristling with secret cameras and asked about the car's history. The saleswoman did tell us it had had slight damage in the past, but only that "It would have been fairly slight because we don't take them in if they've had very bad damage or anything like that". At no point did she tell was what she's required to by law - that the car had previously been written-off.

How do they think they can get away with it? Well, when you buy a car from them you're given a used car invoice and on the back in the terms and conditions it says "I the buyer acknowledge and agree the vehicle has been previously accident damaged and is either category C or category D." They think that covers them, but it doesn't. They must point this out to their customers and they didn't. It also makes it absolutely clear they know what they're selling.

We did some digging and found the car had been in a front and rear collision. Not only would the car be worth a lot less than the asking price, we'd probably have difficulty selling it on. We had paid a deposit on the car and we wanted it back, so our undercover team went in to ask them some searching questions. They met a man that had called himself Darren and Colin on separate occasions. He said we couldn't have the deposit back because the boss was away. Strangely - because we knew his real name is Carl Clark, and that he is the boss of The Small Car Company (Kent) Ltd.

Carl Clark actually admitted to us that 10% of his customers complained. We asked, what's the most common reason?

"Just the usual sort of thing. I've bought a car or I've paid a deposit. I've now found out that it's accident damaged I want my money back" he said.

He admitted they leave it up to the customer to find out whether the car has been a previous write-off. That's against the law.

Even worse, we've heard their cars can be really badly repaired. To prove that, we had to buy one. So, we sent in another stooge to buy a Renault Clio. Carl Clark (this time calling himself Darren) did tell us the car had previously had "slight damage". He said "it probably had the bumper replaced - it might have had a little knock and a crack or something". Again we weren't told the car had previously been a category C write-off.

Independent car expert, Barry Wheeler, examined our Renault. He found the car had been in a big crash at the front and that it had been poorly repaired. "They've basically just pulled it out in order to hide the damage" he said. But it was what Barry found behind the front bumper that he found most shocking. There should be impact absorbers behind the bumper. Instead, blade-like metal plates had been welded on. In an accident they'd slice straight through the thin plastic bumper not to mention the object, or person the car hit. "You hit a pedestrian the blades will come straight into the leg. This is really frightening" he said.

We asked Carl Clark for an interview but he declined and sent us a letter instead. In his response he said they believe the law should be changed so that motor dealers have to include in the advert if a car is category C or D write-off. We couldn't agree more, but they didn't do that themselves. So, we went along to The Small Car Company forecourt to help them transform their marketing strategy.

Armed with a list of cars we knew were previous write-offs, we went to the busy industrial estate where the small car company is based and placed helpful labels on car windscreens so that customers would know what they were buying. We had hoped that Carl Clark might come over and talk to us, but he ran off to hide in his office instead.

The Small Car Company (Kent) Ltd. argue that their cars have all been MOT'd and are therefore roadworthy. However, an MOT is not a stand-alone measure of roadworthiness as it only covers certain things.

Advice on buying second hand cars / written-off cars:

If you are purchasing a second hand car it is a good idea to do a simple check on the history of the car. This costs around £20 and can be done online or over the telephone. A history check can tell you whether a car has been stolen, has outstanding finance on it, whether there is a mileage discrepancy, as well as whether the car has previously been written-off.

Remember, there is nothing wrong with selling previously written-off category C and D cars, as long as the dealer is completely up front about the car's history and as long as is has been properly repaired.

Likewise, there is nothing wrong with buying a category C or D write-off if you do so with your eyes wide open. You may get yourself a bargain. However, it is vital to remember that apart from an MOT, there are no mandatory checks required on the quality of repairs done to previous write-offs. It is therefore important, that if you are considering purchasing a previously written-off vehicle, you satisfy yourself that the repairs have been correctly carried out and that the car is safe and of good quality. It may be a good idea to get the car examined before you buy.

You can also get more information on the DVLA's website

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