cut and shut accident horrors

ban the frankenstein cars potentially lethal repair work could make your cheap second-hand car a death-trap

Thinking of buying an inexpensive second-hand car? Found a really cheap one? Then check it out thoroughly. A back street industry resurrecting cars from written-off wrecks is pumping a steady supply of four-wheeled 'Frankensteins' on to UK streets: you could end up behind the wheel of one.

Despite recent government improvements in the legislation concerning the disposal of written off vehicles, many dangerous reincarnations are still finding their way back onto our roads putting the lives of drivers, passengers and pedestrians at risk.

Like many other industry watchdogs, the AA believes that a code of practice on the disposal of severely damaged vehicles needs to be strengthened with compulsory safety checks of rebuilt write-offs before they are returned to the road. This would hinder the shady rebuilders who, knowing that a car is listed as written off but repairable, readily admit its write-off status to buyers but claim they have restored the vehicle to "as good as new" and offer it at a bargain price.

Write-off rebuilders can make a profit of at least double the value of the scrap sold to them. Sellers who try to hide a car's history will ask for much more. "Like most of the rebuilt write-offs our engineers find, they look superb cosmetically. However, an AA Car Data Check will often show that a car has been consigned to a scrap yard months before but that its body style may have been changed when it was rebuilt," says Kevin Cheadle, manager of AA Car Inspections. The simple fact is that once these monsters are let loose on the road, there is no way of predicting how they will react in dangerous road situations. Millions of pounds worth of safety design is compromised in an act of irresponsible greed."

Vauxhall's top UK engineer David Blair points to two major dangers: "The body is designed to provide a stiff platform to which the major chassis, suspension and steering components are attached. If two body shell sections are welded together this rigid platform is lost. The relative suspension geometry for a given set of conditions may be very different from that originally developed by the designer. Thus the stability of the vehicle may be severely compromised."

He adds: "A motor vehicle is also designed to provide a rigid safety cell for its occupants, but with deformable extremities to give controlled absorption of impact forces in an accident. The cutting and welding of the body shell can stiffen these deformable areas around the welds, and thus reduce performance in an accident. Cutting and joining two body shells to make a single car can also compromise the whole passenger safety cell. The rigidity characteristics of the cell are totally changed and, in extreme instances, cars have been known to 'break their backs', thus totally losing any passenger protection."

Motor insurers will often check a vehicle's history and demand an engineer's report on it before providing cover on an ex-write-off. The AA's own Car Data Check system has revealed that four insurers checked the status of this particular Astra on the same day earlier this year. The AA therefore advises buyers of rebuilt write-offs to check their insurance cover before paying for the car, or they risk ending up with an uninsurable car that can't go on the road.

Current regulations require that, if the car has been de-registered with the DVLA, having been condemned to the crusher as category A or B salvage, or listed as an uneconomically repairable C category, it must undergo a full identity check by the Vehicle Inspectorate before it can be re-registered. However, unless there is a significant defect that should be drawn to the attention of the car owner, there will be no specific safety check. Category D write-offs are not de-registered with the DVLA and no check on the vehicle's identity or safety will be required.

The unregulated practice of rebuilding written-off cars applies to cars of all makes and models. Although cut-and-shut vehicles, which are rebuilt write-offs at their worst, tended to be limited to hot hatches in the early 1990s and four-wheeled vehicles in the mid-1990s, the growing trade in resurrected wrecks has turned to everything from luxury vehicles to inconspicuous runabouts.