Saturday, 31 July 2010

Polish mileage cult and other motoring curiosities

No, I didn’t forget to take the camera, the batteries were down and it takes 16 hours to recharge them so I used a crappy camera of my Nokia 3110 Classic.

Now try to guess how old the car whose odometer is shown on the picture above is. Those who read PES carefully and regularly will surely have no problems giving the correct answer.

Now you’ll ask: “How come?”. Normally such a mileage is typical for a two-year-old car. The prescription is simple: do not use a car when it’s not necessary. Firstly – cut down on short journeys – if your destination is less than 3 kilometres / 2 miles away, there’s absolutely no use taking a car, unless there’s a serious justification, such as: something heavy to carry, driving an ailing person to a doctor, doing big, weekly shopping, etc. Secondly – use alternative means of transport – for healthy people bike is an alternative, as long as the distance is below around 20 kilometres, weather is permitting and a cyclist doesn’t have to dress up. Public transport, whenever cheap and reliable makes a good solution. I can see no point in getting around the centre of Warsaw in any other way, mostly given the shortage and cost of parking space there. So the low-mileage car has been used for mid-distance journeys three of four times a week and as I counted it’s had nine long (at least 300 kilometres to a destination and back) trips.

Poles as a nation have a peculiar approach to cars, which are still the symbol and benchmark of social status. Few people buy new cars, the most often quoted for it are financial and utilitarian. The first group includes: high price, depreciation in value of 30% in the first year, high costs of insurance and servicing. A key argument from the second group of reasons is that there’s no point in buying a new car if the roads are bad, an old car can be repaired by any mechanic in any road-side garage and generally if something bad happens it won’t be a pity.

Poles buy used cars, but change them very often. Changing cars is like climbing a ladder of social status – a Pole starts with an 18-year-old Fiat Uno (a model example to the right), a few months later changes it for a 16-year-old Ford Fiesta, after two years buys a 12-year-old Volkswagen Golf and after next three years sells it and purchases a 9-year-old Opel Vectra. The next step is swapping an almost new Vectra for a brand-make German car, such as BMW, Audi or Mercedes, no matter how old and rickety it is – the make matters! It’s very difficult to find Poles, who, in spite of their low income decide to buy a new car once in ten years or more and replace it with a next new one once maintaining the old one is no longer cost-effective. Just compare how well-maintained first-owner cars are and how those which change hands three or four times look.

It goes without saying that if few new cars are sold in Poland and Poles want to buy used cars, the demand much surpasses domestic supply and so we have import used cars from our Western neighbours, who no longer want to drive those clapped-out bangers and sell them for a song to our home-grown car traders. As a result Poland has become a scrap-yard of Western Europe, an average car in my country is 12-year-old…

An average Pole, although cash-strapped, is a picky buyer. What determines technical condition of a vehicle is a mileage. This measurement is actually very imprecise. Compare two cars which covered 30,000 kilometres – one used in town only (traffic jams, etc.), the other driven on motorways. How an owner of a car maintains it and uses it also matters. We all know all vehicles brought to Poland from Germany are first-owner, non-accident cars used by well-off, over-cautious German grandpas who used it once a week to drive to a Church, kept it in a garage and polished its bodywork from dawn to dusk, therefore mileage after twelve years is 100,000 kilometres or less. If the mileage is too high it means a car’s wear and tear disqualifies it as roadworthy, so a natural reaction of a car trader who deals in high-mileage, but well-maintained car is to roll back the odometer. It might be quite natural, as they’re just trying to earn a livelihood by trading in cars, but it looks more absurd when they come into a low-mileage car in showroom condition, whose owner for some reasons wants to dispose of it. Low mileage is dubious, so to make the car more credible traders tamper with the odometer to increase the mileage. After some research I carried out I can tell you the optimum mileage (for a Polish buyer) is between 15,000 and 20,000 kilometres per year…

Changing odometer’s readout is illegal – some of you would argue. Actually not, you can correct the readout to show the mileage you want to see as often as you want and do it legally. It becomes a crime when you do sell a car and do not inform a buyer what the actual mileage is. Every company which provides services of correcting odometers’ readout has on its website a disclaimer or reservation that correction is legal as long as a new owner of a car is informed about the actual mileage.

But isn’t rolling back the odometer a kind of self-delusion? Odometer should truly and fairly show the distance a car has covered…

And don’t ask about buying the 42,243-kilometres car. First-owner, non-accident, low-mileage cars and rarely for sale!

1 comment:

Steve said...

Comparing London and Warsaw, there are both similarities and differences. The tendency to buy second-hand and lower quality cars is the same. People in Warsaw seem to expect to buy newer and new car more than in London, however. Even old cars in Warsaw are much less likely to be rusty and falling to bits than in London. The lower cost garage services are much better in Warsaw than in London, so having an old car is more sensible. People in London use public transport much more, but then driving and parking is much more difficult than in Warsaw so it makes more sense. However, the excellence of Warsaw public transport, which I always used when travelling on my own in preference to driving, was one of the first things that really impressed me when I came here. (So did the 'pirate' cabs, for that matter.)

The reason for the high level of used car imports is that past car ownership levels were very low, while the level is increasing. Anyone who has lived in a Warsaw residential area over the past 10 years will have seen largely unparked roads turn into packed roads, but where people can still park near the block of flats. However, the space cannot accommodate the 2 cars per family which can be expected as Poland catches up with the rest of Europe. The imports are decreasing rapidly for the Polish market: driving into Poland, it is noticeable that the old cars coming into Poland are more likely to be taken by Ukrainians, etc while a few years ago they would be solidly Polish and there were many more of them.