Front-End Repair? Maybe Just Throw It Away
BMW's new techniques and rules restrict what repair shops can do, and
baffled insurers are junking the vehicles. Some critics think manufacturers
are beginning to make throw-away cars.
By Ralph Vartabedian, Times Staff Writer
If you hear talk about things such as rivets, epoxy adhesives and aluminium
structures, you might guess the subject involves airplanes.
But in this case, we are talking about the front ends of recent BMW Series 5
and Series 6 cars, which are constructed with many of the same techniques
you might find at the Northrop Grumman F-18 assembly plant in El Segundo.
BMW touts the vehicles for their remarkable handling, fuel economy and elite
engineering, but critics of the designs say they are impractical, vulnerable
to minor accidents and difficult to repair the way BMW recommends.
The technology is another step in a much broader auto industry trend that is
making collision repairs ever more costly, a kinder way of saying
manufacturers are building throw-away cars. It means that more cars are
totalled when they have relatively modest damage, particularly if they are
more than five years old.
Although BMWs can certainly be repaired, it requires a degree of
sophistication and cost that may be unprecedented.
BMW will certify auto body technicians only if they are employees of BMW
dealerships, using BMW-approved parts, tools, adhesives and rivets. Though
independent shops can buy equipment and get training, they are not allowed
to say they perform certified repairs, BMW's official seal of approval.
"It is a game," said Don Feeley, owner of three independent body shops in
Riverside. "Absolutely, they are shutting auto body shops out of their
Of course, BMW does not see it like that.
The BMW system, code named the Grav 60, was introduced in the 2004 model
year. It features an aluminium firewall, which separates the engine
compartment from the interior, and frame rails that extend forward, all
riveted and glued to the rest of the car's steel structure. When the cars
come out of the factory they are built to a tolerance of 1 millimetre, about
the thickness of a dime.
The entire front structure weighs just 100 pounds, meaning the vehicles have
a nearly perfect 50/50 weight distribution between the front and rear
wheels, said Jeff Kohut, BMW's paint and body business development manager.
"It handles better," Kohut said. "Go drive a car with a steel nose and you
can tell the difference cornering, braking and turning."
But one important question is what happens when your prized BMW gets kissed
in the real world. With steel frame cars that are robotically welded at the
factory, a body expert can put the car on a rack and bend it back into
Under BMW's guidelines, any bending on the front end is verboten. An
accident that deforms the front end by more than 1 millimetre requires the
replacement of the main front-end structures. Because the engine,
transmission, suspension and body are all connected to those structures, it
is a labour-intensive process.
What's more, BMW specifies technicians can use only certain specialized
tools, such as rivet extractors and rivet guns. Kenneth Zion, an auto body
instructor at El Camino College and an independent collision consultant,
says a shop can spend as much as $100,000 to fully outfit itself for BMW
repairs. Zion, who has learned the system and will introduce the technology
at El Camino, said the new system is unprecedented in how tightly the
manufacturer is controlling the repair process.
It is so tight, in fact, that the repair and insurance industries are going
a little nuts.
A claims adjuster for AAA, who has examined damaged BMW cars with the Grav
60 technology, says there is no question the repairs are more costly
compared to those of a steel unibody.
"Certainly, people are alarmed," said the adjuster, who asked not to be
identified because he would be handed his head if he were named. "An
identical car made with steel parts would definitely be cheaper to repair.
On one half of the BMW, you can have no straightening."
Feeley, among others, says BMW is overblowing the difficulty of repairing
the vehicles. "The manufacturers have always said they are building things
that can't be repaired, and we have figured out how to repair them," he
The broader trend is alarming the auto body industry, which is composed of
thousands of mom and pop shops.
"Definitely, some of the auto makers want their certified shops or dealers
to be the only ones approved to do repairs," said David McClune, executive
director of the California Auto Body Assn. "If a shop has properly trained
technicians and equipment, our position is they should have the opportunity
to do those repairs."
Kohut said, however, that about 1,000 technicians have gone through BMW's
two-day training course for Grav 60 repairs, about two-thirds of them from
independent shops. Even though they are not certified, BMW accepts the fact
that they can perform adequate repairs.
Although he rejects the idea that repair costs are higher on the Grav 60
system, Kohut said insurers are struggling to understand the technology.
"We have found the insurers are unsure of what to do with a car, so they
declare it a total loss," he said. "They weren't sure it would be safe, so
they send it to the salvage yard."
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