Posted on 14 June 2021 by Jeff Fuge | Reading time 5 mins
What is your experience of courtesy cars? I imagine the answer from many people would be a shrug of indifference. Some car dealers and workshops see courtesy cars a necessary but unwelcome cost. But enlightened garages see them as a potentially wonderful marketing opportunity. And therein lies a lesson for us all.
It’s always a bit of a hassle when your car goes to the garage for servicing or repairs. But from smart-looking main dealerships to back-street mechanics, most make life a little easier by providing a courtesy car.
My own cars have generally been serviced at the main dealer when still in warranty. (Until recently, going elsewhere risked voiding your warranty.) But I always go to a small, trusted, independent garage once the warranty has expired.
This has resulted in driving a whole host of different courtesy cars, including ‘Christmas trees’, ‘boring boxes’ and ‘old-timers’.
I’ve never owned a top-of the range model – the kind of car sometimes referred to as a ‘Christmas tree’ as it has every possible feature and decoration. But some dealerships have given me vehicles akin to this as a courtesy car.
I’m always sceptical of the spiel from salespeople, especially when what is touted as a rarity becomes a frequent occurrence. So, having been told “all the courtesy cars are out but you can have the sales manager’s car for the day” on a surprising number of occasions, my feeling is this is a smart ploy.
When a virtually new high-spec model that is a dream to drive rolls up, it makes your own car feel a bit ordinary.
You figure that perhaps it’s time to trade-up… this car is so much better than yours!
Dealers try to entice people to test drive new cars with ‘exclusive’ invitations to special events, with balloons festooning the forecourt and free nibbles laid on. But using impressive new cars as courtesy vehicles is a simple, effective way of showing off new models and features in a way that is free of sales pressure.
It’s a great approach. And even if I’m not quite tempted to buy a new car, I will be sure to go back, say good things about the dealership to my friends, and actually look forward to the next time my car is in for a service.
I’ve also experienced the other end of the specification scale at dealerships.
One VW dealer gave me a small, entry-level Up! for the day. The Up! had just been launched, so I was interested to drive it. But with a tiny engine, hard-plastic base-level trim and doors that made an echoey clang rather than the familiar, reassuringly solid ‘ka-chunk’ it was a huge disappointment.
I could not wait to get my own car back and I had absolutely no thoughts of trading in or buying a second car.
More commonly, however, dealers have given me something mid-range; something neither offensive or exciting, such as a 1.4-litre Golf. But in every instance, it feels like the dealer is seeing the courtesy car as an expense and is doing their utmost to keep costs down.
With several ‘Christmas trees’ likely to be sat on the forecourt, this is a short-sighted approach.
Small, independent garages can’t compete with dealerships by providing brand new high-spec cars to impress their customers and encourage loyalty.
But they can still use courtesy cars as an incredibly powerful marketing opportunity.
And they can do that by doing something a dealer never would: by providing a really old super-high-mileage vehicle.
Andy at my local garage uses an almost-20-year-old VW Polo one of his small fleet of courtesy cars. Despite its age it’s impressively clean and tidy, and is more than capable of getting me home from the garage and back again.
If you got this as a courtesy car from a dealership and you’d feel insulted. You’d probably never go there again and would be angrily jumping onto Trustpilot to slate them for their miserly approach.
But from a local garage, who’s entire business is the servicing and repair of vehicles that are typically at least 3 years old, this old-timer of a car speaks volumes about their abilities.
If they can keep a motor of this age – that has done way more miles than mine – running smoothly, my car must be in safe hands.
Find your courtesy car!
On some level, most or all businesses are like car dealers selling products, or like garages delivering a service. Somewhere in the mix will be your eqivalent of a courtesy car: something that could be seen as an unwelcome cost, but could actually be a brilliant chance to show off what you do.
Understand what you’re good at and why you’re valued
Dealerships make money primarily by selling (and servicing) new cars. Their forte is showcasing the smart, the shiny and the new. Small, independent garages primarily profit by servicing and repairing older vehicles. Their forte is demonstrating mechanical expertise and excellence.
Turn that unwelcome overhead or costly obligation into an opportunity
Once you understand the value you deliver, you can seek opportunities to show that off. And often those opportunities may exist in places that are currently seen simply as costs. If you run a restaurant, a factory, an accountancy practice or a theatre, you won’t be giving people courtesy cars. But there will be something that provides the chance to delight and impress.