Tuesday, September 12, 2006


So, I’m driving along one evening in the gathering twilight – it’s becoming clearer that Autumn is approaching and the seemingly endless daylight of Summer is no more. The headlights on my Golf, which are a fancy sort of Xenon construction, are designed to be really bright - enough, not just to show me the way home, but to drill neat little holes in the scenery they illuminate. However, they only work on the dipped beam, and the main beam lights are ordinary halogen.

I like cars with all the gizmos on them (another clue for the budding psychiatrists out there), and this set of lights cost me a cool extra £780 when we bought the car some 5 years ago. Completely illogical I agree, but in my defence, all I can say is they have given me considerable pleasure over the years. And the only thing which has suffered in all this is my Bank Balance.

Except however, tonight, they are not doing their job, and a check at home shows that one of them has suddenly become an “ex-light, it has gone to meet its maker, it is no more …….” – Monty Python fans, fill in the gaps and correct the syntax.

So the next day we head off asymmetrically illuminated, and presumably, from the Police’s viewpoint, a common criminal, to the Volkswagen garage to buy a new bulb. We enter the Parts Department, and start the negotiation ritual with The Parts Man.

“Good evening, I’d like a Xenon bulb for the headlight of a Mark 4 Golf, please.”

The Parts Man’s fingers are immediately a blur on the keyboard of his computer. A drawing appears on the screen, which looks either like the innards of a very expensive mobile phone, or a particularly crucial part of the Space Shuttle. This is not looking good. He turns to me, and his face is suddenly frozen in a rictus of absolutely nothing.

“That’s what you need”, he says, pointing at a bit of the screen. Seeing that it looks for all the world like a Xenon bulb, I can’t help but agree with him. Now, there is clearly some coded message on the screen that tells Mr Parts Man that “This is really going to piss the Punter off in spades, so make no facial expression whatsoever from this point onwards”, because he now seems to be in some suspended state.

"That will be “nidhriejnenhrnh, Sir”.


“Nienirutm sennmrven pocundrsds, Sir”,
he replies.

“What?”, says me. “Speak English, it’s our common language, man?”

“Ninety seven pounds , and a few (number unrecognised) pence, Sir.”

Pause for thought. We now enter the ritual discussion which always occurs now. We all know where the next few minutes are going to end up, but we simply have to go through this stylised verbal fistfight, as if it’s some form of Vehicular Rites of Passage.

“Look, I don’t want to buy the dealership/business/car/headlight assembly, I just want a bulb, please.”

“It’s ninety seven pounds and a few (number unrecognised) pence, Sir.”

“It’s only a bloody bulb, for goodness sake, are you sure you haven’t got the price for Ten of them, or something.”

“No Sir, that’s the price. And with the VAT, that will be £115, Sir.”

I am now jibbering. Our other car, which is a Mercedes, we take to the garage, we tell them a bulb has gone, and they ask for the keys. They take it away, and a few minutes later, they return and nonchalantly throw me the keys, with a carefully off-guarded “No charge, Sir. All part of the service.” Now we all know that the standard Mercedes Hourly rate of around £70 has built into it a few pennies for just this eventuality, but at the time it’s going on, it generates a warm glow of satisfaction – a bit like that porridge you give kids on cold mornings, whose name I can’t remember (the porridge, not the kids).

I think I am now in the middle of the perfect definition of the phrase “Between a rock and a hard place”. If I say “Yes”, I lose £115, and if I say “No”, the Fuzz will be feeling my collar very shortly.

“OK, so if I bring the car in, you can do it tomorrow?”

“Well, no Sir, we don’t have any in stock. We don’t get much call for these.”

Me, calmly – “Well actually, I’m calling for one now.” It turns out they will take two days to get one, so my criminal state will be extended by at least 48 hours.

“I assume that includes the fitting?”

“Oh, No Sir, these things are absolute pigs to fit. It will take about an hour, Sir.”

“An hour, to change a Headlight bulb?,
(John McEnroe voice now) – You cannot be serious!”

He was. Apparrently, the gubbins surrounding the light unit is so tight, that the formal first step to changing the headlight bulb on a Mark 4 Golf is to take off The Front Bumper. Pause for hysterical laughter.
If, however, you know someone with 15” long fingers, each no more than ¼” in diameter, and all universally jointed in six places, you don’t need to do that. That last bit was me extemporising a bit, but the gist is right. It reminds me of the way you apparently land a Boeing 747. I understand, if you do it by the book, at some point during the procedure, the Pilot needs four hands and arms, and three legs. No wonder, I don’t like flying!

It’s at this point that you sneak a glance at your watch, but April 1 was a long time ago.

“And how much will that cost me please?”

“Around £65, Sir.”
Pause. "Plus the VAT, of course, that’s around £75, Sir.”

“So that’s £190 to change a light bulb.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Now, having a slightly jaundiced view of the commercial world, you start to think. Just (hypothetically, of course) you are in the Parts and Service section of a Motor manufacturer, trying to make some money for you company. It is just possible to imagine a discussion along these lines –

“What about arranging for our lights to fail at around 80,000 miles, you know, significantly after our warranty runs out?”

“Hey yes, and what if we made the light design so daft that you needed a limbo dancing keyhole surgeon to replace them?”

“We’d make a fortune!”

“Brilliant! Good day’s work, that!”

Actually, it’s “Reddibrek”, I’ve just remembered!

This is me now.

There have been some 5 million Golfs made. Now I know they are not all Mark 4’s, so lets assume they made around 1½ million of them. Let’s assume around 10% of purchasers were daft enough to put down £780 for this optional extra. Each one has two headlights, so when they pass around 80,000 miles, around 5-6 years after they’ve been built, someone is going to pocket around £57 million in revenue for just this one part.

My mind has just boggled.

The only worrying thing from my point of view is that we’ve just ordered a new car to replace the venerable Mercedes, the hero of our story a few paragraphs above.

And what have we done? Ordered the same option on the new car, except this time, instead of the one bulb each side on the Golf that’s Xenon, the unstoppable march of technology has meant that you can now get both dipped and main beam lights in Xenon form. And all at Mercedes parts rates. Oh Joy!

So, no holiday for us in 2011. We start saving now!


Anonymous said...

While we're on the subject of Monty Python, do you recall the famous Monty Python Papperboks [sic] of many years ago? I recall there were two and I don't recall which, but one of them had a page in colour.

The background of the page was black and the text started with every word in some different but vivid primary color - until there was a fault about halfway down and the text reverted to white on the same black background.

Can you see where I'm going with this?

rogerc said...

Haven't the slightest idea at all. Completely coincidently however , I revised the look of the latest bit - my Jamaican relatives have just gone back home.