BMWI worked for a major car company back when car companies started introducing free roadside assist with the warranty (I think BMW was first off the mark) and the automobile clubs hated it. We were taking a service that people paid them for and giving it to our buyers for free. The clubs could see their memberships nose-diving.

That the automobile clubs survive and prosper even though you get free roadside assist with many used cars as well as newies these days is because they were forced to think up a whole new raft of revenue raisers; their free ride is well and truly over. For example they prefer not to jump-start cars anymore, they simply sell and install new batteries and there’s lots of margin to be made there. They’ve ramped up their travel, they’ve done deals with retailers to offer member discounts and they’re heavily into all forms of insurance. Their free magazines are crowded with stories about everything they sell, with the odd piece of car news thrown in.

Through all of this I remained a steadfast member of one of these clubs. I joined up when I bought my first (considerably second-hand) car and I simply kept paying the renewal every time it came through. Until recently.

roadside assist 2That was when I opened a renewal bill for $99 and got to wondering when the last time was that I actually used any of the services I was paying for. Even with the member discount the club’s insurance was prohibitively expensive, I’ve never once used the travel service and the discounted products on offer have never appealed to me. And as for roadside assist, well cars don’t break down anymore and given I get my car serviced regularly and can change a wheel I haven’t used roadside assist, well, for donkeys years. I do recall however the last time I did. I had to wait four hours for the guy to turn up.

So it was $99 for nothing at all. I let it lapse. And something interesting happened.

roadside assistI fully expected a reminder letter, and I expected it to say something like; ‘Hey, you’ve been a member for yonks and we value that. We’d really like you to continue with us and here’s a reminder of the benefits on offer’. Nope, it was quite blunt. It told me if I was to break down now I’d be up for the $99 annual fee and a $150 on-the spot joining fee, $249 in total. So take that.

And just lately I got another letter. It warned sternly that my car might overheat on the way to an important meeting. Or maybe the battery would be flat on a stormy night when I was on my way to a concert. I could get a flat tyre at any time, it said darkly. Oh my goodness, life is so scary! The world is obviously a disaster just waiting to happen!

It’s interesting that they’re still playing the roadside assist card when there are about a zillion alternatives available – the folk who service my car offer a free tow to their nearest branch if I just put their sticker in its rear window.

I wouldn’t re-join the club now if they gave it to me for free; they’ve turned me right off.

I know it has public relations people. I wonder what they do all day.

Published January 2015