If you live in a big city, having your car serviced in a small rural town can result in savings of 30%, simply because labour costs per hour are lower. Many French car drivers make a point to have annual services scheduled for part of their holiday breaks.
Within small towns there is not usually much difference between garages with a car company logo on it (most are family owned agencies) and ‘independent’ garages, which include franchise chains like Norauto. Of course, if your car is still under guarantee, it should only be serviced by a garage approved under the guarantee terms.
Building a good relationship with one garage, in most cases, is worth more than small savings on an oil change.
For those with some mechanical knowledge, self-garages are making a comeback with about 150 across the country where owners can work on their own vehicles.
France has a long tradition, especially in rural areas, of people working on their own cars using the lifts, compressed air tools and other professional tools in the local garage. Usually they knew the owner (or mécano) and no visible cash changed hands.
Today, however, most small rural garages are no longer in business, as the owners took retirement.
No-one would take them over as cheap petrol at supermarkets, the need for heavy investment in computer diagnostic machines, called la valise, and increased regulation made rural one-person operations no longer attractive.
But self-garages have returned, helped with the ease of getting spare parts over the internet.
The modern version is found mainly in urban areas, and organised on a distinctly commercial footing. Most departments have at least one, often in the largest town, which can be found with an online search. Clients pay by the hour, typically €25 an hour for the use of the lift and access to a professional quality tool box (servante d’atelier) and the compressed air system.
Just having the tools without the lift brings the cost down to under €10 an hour.
Usually there is a professional mechanic working on cars nearby
– but no guarantee they will be able to stop what they are doing to offer help and advice.
For a simple oil and filter change, a client buying their own oil and filters from a supermarket or car parts shop, costing €30, will end up with a total bill of €55 if they use the lift and do the job in an hour.
This is roughly half the price of a oil, filter and air-conditioning filter change at an agency garage. (Most car companies in France operate through a system of main concessions, often owned by large companies, and smaller agencies, the garages in smaller towns with the car brand on the front but usually family owned.)
However, there is no guarantee you will get help with la valise to reset the car’s computer to reflect the oil change, although la valise should be part of the tools on offer.
Other relatively simple maintenance tasks, like changing brake pads, are made much simpler by having professional tools, but are challenging to do for the first time, so anyone thinking of doing so at a self-garage should either take an experienced friend or establish beforehand that there will be someone with the time and experience to offer help.
Self-garages should not be confused with the Garage Associatif, which are also increasingly present in France – although some combine the two functions – which are run by associations to help people on benefits. If you are receiving French benefits, you may qualify.
They usually offer cut-price work carried out by retired mechanic members, or local garages under a deal with the association. The movement has even received backing from car manufacturers.