NEUSS, Germany - Technician Dave Schaulet leans over the side of a used Ford Mondeo. He shuts one eye as he concentrates on a parking-lot dent in the door. He gently taps at the dent with a plastic hammer and chisel.
Then he sticks a long metal tool between the side window glass and the door panel. Almost imperceptibly, he moves the tool back and forth until the dent magically disappears.
PAINTLESS DENT REMOVAL
The process is called paintless dent removal, and Schaulet works for a U.S. company called Dent Wizard.
While the technique has been used widely at auto auctions in the United States for some time, the process only recently has gained popularity in Europe.
Paintless dent removal was invented in assembly plants during the 1930s to iron out small dents that new cars routinely sustained in factories. But it did not come into the wholesale used-car market until the early 1990s.
After the explosive growth of used-car superstores and used-car certification programs, such reconditioning services have become highly valued in the United States.
Paintless dent removal has the advantage of taking out minor dents without damaging the original paint. That means the repair does not affect the warranty.
Paintless dent removal is part of a suite of services collectively called Smart Prepared being launched by Blackbushe, England-based British Car Auctions. Smart Prepared will start in January at 23 United Kingdom auctions and six European locations.
Two hundred German Ford dealers, attending the opening of British Car Auctions' auction here in September, received a preview of the services.
The company has hired American Ron Hope as its European director of vehicle preparation services.
It also has brought in a group of U.S. companies to provide the Smart Prepared services. Hope worked for nine years developing such services at ADT Automotive, British Car Auctions' former sister company and now the second largest U.S. auto auction chain.
Among the companies providing the reconditioning services is Sherwin-Williams, which electronically matches paint colors and performs minor paint repairs. This is a difficult job, because there are up to 50,000 different paint formulas and colors.
Another company, Dupli Color, matches and repairs damaged upholstery. Car Brite cleans used cars so they look new. That includes steam-cleaning the engine bay.
The Smart Prepared process can take from 45 minutes to a half day, depending on the condition of the car.
British Car Auctions has not decided what it will charge per car, Hope said. That will be resolved between now and January launch time.
The idea behind the service is to prepare cars for resale in a matter of hours, as opposed to days.
USED-CAR ASSEMBLY LINE
In the United States, manufacturers employ auctions to provide these kinds of services on a large scale. It could be called a used-car assembly line.
Cars that have been given this sort of treatment fetch higher prices at the wholesale auction. They ultimately bring the dealer a higher sticker price on the retail lot.
Higher wholesale prices mean higher residual values, and higher residual values help support strong, healthy new-car prices.
Hope said studies done by U.S. auction companies showed sellers received about $300 back for every $100 they invested in reconditioning. That would mean a substantial amount of money to a company selling large numbers of fleet rental or company cars.
The reconditioning trend is catching on in Europe.
Hans Frenger, director of sales for Ford of Germany, said Ford supports a strong auction network providing such services.
'It is also an instrument to get profit into our dealer organization,' he said. 'It (the auction) is also a communication center between dealers.'
Ford, which was one of the early supporters of the auction system in America, also is on the leading edge in Europe. Tom Gibson, chairman and chief executive of British Car Auctions, said it is important to sell good used cars in the best possible condition.
'Condition determines value,' he said. 'We're putting value back into the vehicle at minimum cost. It's good to spend $262 to get back $500.'