Part 5 Leading up to the New Millennium

As the new millennium dawned the rate of change has slowed, technology would get fine-tuned and improved, rates would continue to rise, but much slower. Most operators would now purchase rather than build their vehicles. Insurance Companies would look towards buying some of the Motoring Organisations. Most importantly the smaller ‘Mum, Dad and Son’ operators would dwindle and we would see the start of ‘Super Agents’ run as a business and not as a love. The image below shows a small selection of vehicles available at the 2015 Professional Tow Show

The European Tow show Telford 2015

In the years leading up to the New Millennium it was inevitable that those pioneering recovery clubs would eventually be joined by others, both from the UK and abroad. One of the first (and for many years a favourite amongst those agents lucky enough to be appointed by them) was Britannia Rescue. Britannia Rescue was launched on the 1st January 1983 and was initially restricted to members of the Civil Service Motoring Association (CSMA). The following year the service was also made available to the general public, under the brand name Britannia Recovery.

Prior to the launch of Britannia, CSMA members had been covered by National Breakdown and the loss of so much income affected NB for a number of years. There were also suggestions that Britannia had stolen some key control room staff from National Breakdown, to assist in setting up the recovery agents they would need to operate the service. Ernest Smith famously paid Britannia a backhand compliment at an AVRO Trade Show, by saying that "Britannia has the best controller in the business" and then adding "because we bloody trained them all!". It is interesting to note however that Britannia's Tom Johnson and Phil Briercliffe seemed in reality, to have had a lot of help from National Breakdown's Bob Slicer when they were setting up the operation, including helping them find their first premises.

Tom Johnson was also responsible for introducing the compulsory 'Customer Satisfaction Form' into the industry (in the past random ones were sent out by some clubs, but Tom insisted all jobs must be followed up). He however made the mistake of leaving the back of the form blank. This was often taken by their CSMA members to do as Civil Servants do i.e. 'Continue on the back'. Tom says "In the end I had to have the form redesigned to allow Britannia's staff to get on with other things, rather than spend an hour reading the members thoughts". Although other 'new' clubs had been launched prior to Britannia, none 'broke on to the scene' in such a big way, just because of the large number of members they started with.

Another first of these 'later arrivals' was GESA Assistance, who had established a nationwide travel service in 1976 and expanded in to car recovery in 1983. Working with NFU (National Farmers Union Insurance), it offered a "bolt-on" car cover to customer's existing car insurances. It is believed this was the first time that breakdown cover had been offered in this way, although it's something virtually everyone includes as an option today. Due to various mergers this club become Inter Partner Assistance [IPA] in 1998 establishing it as the largest overall assistance network in the world, at that time. Then in 2000 following more mergers, it became AXA Assistance. During 2007 AXA announced it was going to operate a limited number of its own breakdown and recovery vehicles, under the brand name ‘Rescue24

Largely unique amongst these new clubs because they started by targeting car manufactures rather than the public is Mondial Assistance. They had long been established in Europe, offering all forms of insurance for its clients. In July of 1980 a branch was opened in the UK specifically to cover BMW customers, who needed assistance in the UK, during the summer season. The following year a permanent operation was put in place and the company started to grow in the UK. By early in the new millennium the Group under the brands: ELVIA, Mondial Assistance and World Access has nearly 8,000 staff members speaking over 40 languages. They operate throughout the world in collaboration with a network of 400,000 service providers and 240 correspondents. 250 million people, or 4% of the world population, make use of the Group’s services. Like the AA and the RAC in the UK, they operate a number of their own patrol vehicles, to deal mainly with breakdowns.

The relationship between the Motoring Organisations and the Recovery Industry has also changed, especially since 2008. Today it is very unusually to find a recovery operator, who is working for all the 'clubs'. The old system of offering a fixed rate of pay to your agents, has gone. Also having a large number of agents to spread the load, is also disappearing. Today's Motoring Organisation sees things differently, looking for greater efficiency and cost savings. In many cases Agents find themselves bidding for the area, they have traditionally serviced. This lead to a number of recovery operators, greatly increasing the areas they service. Some have become a sort of 'super agent', covering a large area by subcontracting work to the people who did it before. Other long established operators have pulled out of recovery altogether and many large names have been 'swallowed up', or have been forced into receivership.

Many 'Industry Pundits' doubt the wisdom of these changes, saying that as the 'super agents' get bigger, they will be able to hold the clubs to ransom. Others say that if you think that, then you do not know the people in the Recovery Industry! Time will tell who is right. Of one thing we can be sure and that is that between 1970 and 2000 an independent Vehicle Recovery industry was born and despite the 'growing pains' has now reached some sort of maturity. To emphasis the point here is part of National Rescue Group's fleet back in 1977 and again in 2007.

National Rescues Fleet over the years