Life with the top down: Cayman Autos

With the weather warming up, Aftermarket felt it was time to visit Redhill's convertible roof specialist to find out how they roll

Published:  18 May, 2018

Driving along with the wind in your hair – having a convertible is wonderful isn't it? Well, until there's a noise, or a leak, or the roof seizes up completely. At that point, to coin a phrase, who you gonna call?

If you are in the leafy commuter belt of Surrey, or perhaps much further away if you like what they do, Cayman Autos might be a good bet.

"Our customers are fresh air fanatics" says founder and owner Adam Davey. "They love having their cabriolet roof down and it does come down, come hell or high water. You might see vehicles that have bald tyres but that doesn't matter – the roof’s got to work. They travel massive distances to us as well to get here. The spread is enormous. We've had someone over from Portugal; we've had people over from the Channel Islands, and from all over the UK.” The company recently moved from a smaller site in nearby Dorking, where their success was making things a bit cosy: "Where we are now is about four times the size of our old facility. On an average busy day in the summer we had 15 cars a day. Now with bigger premises we can take more on. We were turning people away and we had a two week waiting list. You get through the work but you have to work hard and make hay while the sun shines."

The company started life in 2005 as a general garage specialising in higher-end marques, but Adam soon spotted his niche-within-a-niche:
"I was working for Porsche and they were just bringing out the Porsche Cayman, hence the name but  I always wanted to start my own garage. A premises came up in Dorking so I left and set up as doing Porsche/BMW/Mercedes-Benz, servicing and general repairs.

"From working on those cars, I quickly realised there was a gap in the market on convertible roof repairs, so I focused on that. As the roof repairs built up, the servicing work we had accumulated over the years slowly dwindled so we knocked that completely on the head and dedicated the business entirely to convertible roof repairs."

Along with Adam, there are two technicians on the team, ably supported by two office staff, including Adam's partner Jenny Adamthwaite. "Obviously convertible roofs are fairly seasonal," observes Jenny. "Our busy period is from March to September. It was whether or not we took that big leap of just going for it. We took the risk and it's worked.  We still get a large amount of customers in the winter months though. Obviously they have water ingress problems, so we do it 365 days a year. We had someone in from Lanarkshire in January, coming down to get their roof fixed. They were here by 8am, and they were back on the road by 11am. If they are coming a distance you don't want the customer to think 'I'm going to get there and they are going say I have to come back another day.'"

    The UK is one of Europe's biggest markets for convertibles and this has that helped the business.

"It's crazy the amount of people we see with the roof down,“ says Adam. "Even when it's not a full summer's day leave here with the roof down to make sure that it is working."

While being a convertible specialist might seem like you are casting a very wide net, the reality is that there are a number of vehicles the company sees very often:
"The Volkswagen Eos is the main culprit" says Adam. "We always have at least two or three in the workshop, either dealing with water leaks or roof issues because they are not working properly.  They have incorporated a sunroof in it as well now, so it's a sunroof that opens and then the full convertible opens. That's its Achilles Heel as such. If it didn't have that it wouldn't be as unreliable. They suffer from water leaks as well."

The shift from fabric roofs to mechanical hard-tops has been handy for the company: "The Vauxhall Astra has gone from a fabric roof to a hard top. While VW Group has kept the Golf and the Audi A3 with a fabric roof, there's a lot more Mercedes-Benz and Peugeots all with hard-top folding roofs." As you might expect, while Cayman Autos does actively market itself to motorists, much of its work is referrals from other businesses, who upon seeing a roof problem throw down their tools in despair, then pick up the phone: "80% of our work is from other garages. Either they book it in and do brakes and servicing on it but for the roof they bring it straight to us, or they say to the customer 'just take it to them – it's not our field.' Cars are so complicated and you can't be expected to know everything. If it had an engine warning light on we wouldn't even lift the bonnet
on the car because it's just not our field really."

Adam knows how it can be in a garage. Prior to his years in the franchised dealer world, he did his apprenticeship in an independent garage: “I really enjoyed it. It gave me a really good insight on how to run a business and also dealing with the public, because when you are a technician in a main dealer it is rare that you interact with customers." The customer relationship is a little different now: "When we were doing servicing and MOTs you would build up a relationship with your customer, as you would see them once a year for their MOT and the same for their servicing, and then any bits between. But now we might see the same car with a different customer or different fault, or the customer has gone away and bought another car."

Access to training on an ongoing basis is generally considered essential, but with something as niche as roof systems, this can be tricky: "Training is a really difficult area. Manufacturers don't really invite you through the door to get training – we have to be self-taught as a result."

Self-taught, and armed to the teeth, diagnostically speaking: "We have dealer diagnostic equipment for every manufacturer that does a convertible roof.  If we fit a new control unit and it needs programming we are able to do that. Anything to do with a convertible roof we can fix."

On the other hand, why would they want manufacturer training, when their own dealer partners get a bit confused by convertible roof systems? "In fairness," Jenny says, "we do see a lot of cars that come from main dealers, especially the Eos, where they don't have the equipment or the know-how." Adam continues: "We had a video from Ford recently, showing a Ford Focus CC with a hard-top folding roof. The customer had taken it to a Ford dealership, and they did a video report on what they found. They sent it to the customer, who then forwarded it onto us. On the video they didn't have the tools to work on it, and suggested they take it to a specialist. So that was perfect for us."

Convertible roof systems tend to get overlooked by franchised dealers as a general rule according to Adam: "On the car, the engine, brakes and suspension are the same across the board, but with Ford and Volkswagen with their Eos, they haven't done any other convertible with a hard-top roof.  There is a bit of a lack of training for it on their side, but that's good for us as we get it in, and there isn't anyone else we can call for help. It's here to be fixed. That's what you do.

"Because we are just doing convertible roofs, we charge a flat rate of a maximum £120 to diagnose a convertible roof fault. That's because if it is a new one, a new fault we've not seen we want to get to the bottom of it. Normally it's just £60 to diagnose those, plus VAT. We get the car in tell the customer what the fault is, and they decide if they want it done or not basically. It seems to work quite well."

    Everything seems to be working quite well, but despite their success, Adam keeps things in perspective: “A convertible is a luxury item. It is not essential that your roof works to get you from A to B. If you work on a bus or a van or a taxi the customer may end up screaming at you because they need their vehicle back.”

Adam concludes with a smile: "Generally with a convertible, if it is shut and it is water-tight the vehicle can be usable, not that the customer always sees that."

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