17 Jul 2024
The voice of the independent garage sector

The West is (now officially) the best

We last visited Erme Valley Autos in Ermington, just outside Ivybridge in deepest Devon in 2018, after Andrew West had been a semi-finalist in Top Technician that year. Fast-forward to 2022, after a few more semi-final and final appearances, and he is now the reigning champion. Perseverance pays off you see. While he has appeared in six finals overall, even he could not tell you exactly how many times he has entered Top Technician.
You might expect things to have not changed much in this rural corner of the country, and in many ways you are right. Erme Valley Autos and its small team of four, including Andrew and his son Joe and apprentice David are in the workshop, and they still see a lot of 4x4s in general, and Land Rovers in particular. Andrew’s wife Sarah is still dealing with the business side of things, and they are still on the same site, which includes their home and the garage, that they have been on since 1993.

However, there has been a slight shift. The yard outside was full on the day we dropped by, and while there was a fair amount of Land Rovers, covering original to almost-new, it was not all typical country garage fodder: “I had two EVs in today,” said Andrew, “both Nissan Leafs. There was one that was in for a service and one on the four post that had a fault, which had been to the main dealer already before being brought here. Out of 25 cars in the yard, three today are full-electric.” While three out of 25 is probably a representative ratio in the overall car parc right now, bear in mind, this is not a town centre location. The times are changing in rural Devon as much as everywhere else, and Andrew made sure he has been changing too, by keeping up with new tech, and continuing to train. Part of this process for him was participating in Top Garage.
To be the winner in Top Technician 2022, you needed to have a lot of experience working with EVs, as well as a solid grounding on the more traditional side of automotive. Luckily for him, Andrew was well-placed to win on both fronts. “We tend to be a bit delayed down here with developments,” he observed, “but with EVs it has really kept moving forward.” Ironically, country-dwellers are in many ways better set up for EV take-up than the townies: “Obviously, almost everybody here can charge at home,” noted Andrew, “so the lack of public charge points is not going to be a drawback. We are even looking at getting one for ourselves.”
While Andrew is moving with the times, his son Joe is keeping it real, by which we mean keeping it internally combusted. His current passion project is a Peugeot 205 1.8 diesel, which he is upgrading to a 2.0 litre through an engine swap-out. Back to Andrew though.

So, the business continues to develop, and we wondered if winning Top Technician has led to Andrew promoting the diagnostic side more: “We’ve been here for nearly 30 years now, so I already promote what we do, quite a bit on Facebook for example.” The business has a local reputation for being the garage where problems will get solved. As the best diagnostic experts and trainers will tell you, getting to the heart of an issue is often simply a matter of paying attention to the details, and following the process. Andrew had an example of that on the day we visited: “This morning, we had a vehicle in for an MOT, and Joe made an advisory note on the fact that there was play in the offside upper inner rear arm bush. It turned out that the customer had recently taken the car to three other garages in an attempt to establish where a knocking noise was coming from, but none of them could work out what the source of the noise was. After receiving the MOT, the customer then asked if the inner rear arm bush issue could be the cause of the knocking, which it was. That’s where it was coming from, and the other three garages had missed this.”
Being known as the place that will find the problem has its downsides: “We have a reputation for doing what we do, but people end up coming to us last. Some say we are expensive, but usually it’s because we end up doing complex repairs when they have already spent a fortune somewhere else before they called us.” He ruefully added: “But if they brought it here first, it wouldn’t cost as much.”

This reputation is partly a result of the skills Andrew has accrued over decades, that have led him to win the Top Technician trophy. One of the reasons Andrew participated in Top Technician in the first place was to test his existing skills, and to see what he could learn. This was part of an overall approach, which included undertaking training with the likes of James Dillon and Frank Massey. While winning in Top Technician rules him out from competing again, Andrew will still be looking to keep his skills up to date, but also pass them along: “I’m hoping to step back a bit and let the son take on more of the more challenging work. He doesn’t get the chance to do a lot of the diagnostics, because I’m doing it all.”

Will we see another West taking on the Top Technician challenge? Only time will tell.