Is it safe to use aftermarket parts?

Well now there’s a question. Back in the day, when cars were simpler, warranties were non-existent and we all did our own oil changes, using ‘aftermarket’ parts was pretty much de rigeur. Off we’d go down to the motor factor’s, pick up one of those oil-filter wrenches made out of an old bicycle chain, a can of Castrol and some spanners and off we’d go to spend an hour or two under the Cortina, getting greasy. Happy days.
Sorry, drifted from the point a bit there, but it is still something of a romantic notion that we might occasionally get into or under our own cars for a poke about with some screwdrivers. These days it’s all but impossible and car makers put physical and mental blockages in our way. Open the bonnet of most modern cars and you will struggle to find an intake plenum, an oil line or even so much as a HT lead – everything’s covered up with big, plastic panels which bear both a badge and an unmistakeable message – keep out… In some cases – the Audi A2 and Porsche Boxster come to mind – the engine is effectively a sealed unit, only meant to be inspected by professionals bearing proper tools, and you just get some inlets for major fluids that you can top up yourself.

Does technology inhibit the owner?

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There are some compelling reasons to do this. Cars are so much more complicated, and rely on components with much finer tolerances than before, so really, do you actually want to be messing around with a system that is designed to spray atomised diesel particles at 4,500-times atmospheric pressure? Besides, the first thing you actually need to do is to plug a laptop with the right software into the diagnostic port…
There has been an issue in the past though, whereby some car makers have tried to block claims made against a warranty if a car has been independently serviced, using aftermarket parts. The car makers gave the ‘fine tolerances’ argument, but the EU stepped in and ruled that aftermarket and unofficial servicing was fine as long as the servicing was done to the same schedule as demanded by the car maker, the oil used was of the same grade specified by the maker and the aftermarket parts were built and manufactured to the same specification as original parts.

Classes of aftermarket parts

And there’s the rub – essentially there are now two classes of pattern or aftermarket parts. There’s a good grade, often made by the same suppliers that make the badged, original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts (the likes of Bosch, Denso and Delphi all sell basically the same parts as sent to the original factory, but in their own boxes and at a slight discount) and then there are the second-string parts, usually cobbled together in a nameless, windowless factory in the far east, and frankly not really conforming to any major standard. These are the ones to avoid, obviously. Not only will they definitely invalidate your warranty (and with warranties now stretching out to four, five, seven and even eight years that’s becoming a significant factor in the second hand market) but if they’re components such as brakes, throttle assemblies or tyres, they could be putting your life and the lives other road users at risk.
Consumer Reports, the august American journal of good purchasing habits, puts it like this: “Where things can get sticky is when the work or parts are associated with a problem are deemed by a dealership as not performing correctly or are otherwise defective. You have the right to seek alternatives to the dealer for repairs or parts, but remember that good work and good parts are key to a good ownership experience.”

Cost of non standard parts

aftermarket parts 5The savings made by using non-standard parts can be hugely tempting though. Recently, the BBC in Belfast uncovered the fact that a well-known insurer was instructing the garages it was using for repairs to use pattern parts to save money. According to the BBC report, “the use of copied or 'non-OEM parts' (original equipment manufacture) is one way of doing it, and the potential savings can be substantial. A replica wing for a Volkswagen Golf costs about £40. A wing made by Volkswagen will set the insurance company back about £136. A Mercedes Benz C Class wing will cost just over £300, a replica around £100. The independents claim there is a difference in the build quality of replica parts. They claim they are lighter and have a shorter lifespan.”
So, clearly the message here is to know what’s being put into your car just as much as you know what kind of food you’re eating – only go for quality. Too much ‘junk food’ can just be harmful.
Besides, when it comes to resale time, it’ll be much more impressive if you can show a stack of receipts for at least high-quality, branded aftermarket parts, if not the full-on, original car maker stuff.
Just don’t try and service it yourself anymore. Cars have just become too complicated for us mere mortals to tinker with them. Maybe it’s time to buy an old Cortina, just to have something to fettle at the weekend…