Car clocking - what is it and how to avoid buying a clocked car

Many people assume that the unscrupulous practice of clocking is dead. Yet the number of cars that have had their mileage altered has risen by 25% in the past three years. We find out why...

Car clocking - what is it and how to avoid buying a clocked car

Think of clocking and you’ll probably conjure up a not-so-nostalgic image of a man in oily overalls in a backstreet garage manually winding back a chunky 1990s car odometer with a screwdriver.

You’ll also be forgiven for thinking that the practice of turning back the clock on a car died with the demise of the analogue odometer. However, far from being the modern, secure solution to this shady practice, digital odometers have made it easier than ever for a car’s apparent mileage to be altered.

Car clocking - how much of a problem is it?

According to vehicle history check provider Cap HPI, one in 16 cars in the UK has a discrepancy between its actual and apparent mileage. That’s an increase of 25% since 2014. Cap HPI states that more than 40% of car dealers have bought a second-hand car that they’ve later discovered has been clocked.

It estimates the potential cost to motorists at more than £800 million every year, because the value of an average second-hand family car will increase by £2000-£4000 if 60,000 miles are wiped off its odometer.

There’s also concern from both the car industry and those concerned with consumer rights. The National Franchised Dealer Association (NFDA) and the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) both recently wrote open letters to the Government urging it to take action to address the rising tide of clocking after what they describe as many years of inaction.

How does mileage affect value?

The traditional reason for a dodgy dealer to clock a car was to get a higher price for it on the second-hand market. The temptation to clock a car is clear: a 2015 Ford Focus 1.0 Ecoboost that has done 50,000 miles will fetch around £2700 more on a used car forecourt than the same car with 100,000 miles. Below we look at how mileage affects the value of some popular three-year-old models.

Model with 30,00 miles with 60,00 miles with 90,00 miles
Audi A4 3.0 TDI quattro SE £18,150 £15,995 £14,100
BMW 520d SE £16,850 £14,750 £13,200
Mazda MX-5 2.0 Sport Tech Nav £13,600 £11,195 £9625
Seat Leon 1.2 TSI SE 5dr £8425 £7375 £6525
Skoda Fabia 1.2 TSI 90 SE £6150 £5195 £4575
Volkswagen Tiguan 2.0 TSI Tech SE £15,200 £13,250 £11,650

Why is clocking on the increase?

There are still instances of second-hand traders clocking cars on a massive scale. In June 2017, a man from Bedford was jailed for 32 months after making £190,000 from selling clocked cars. However, many in the industry believe it’s car owners rather than traders who are pushing the current increase in clocking.

“There are many factors that could be driving a rise in clocking,” says Barry Shorto, head of industry relations at Cap HPI. “One issue is the popularity of personal contract purchase (PCP) and personal contract hire (PCH) finance deals that often come with strict mileage limits, where each additional mile can prove costly. This has led some to turn to ‘mileage correction’ firms that offer to dial back the odometer to dodge the financial penalties.”

These days, most new cars are bought using PCP deals, which require the buyer to state how many miles they’ll cover in the car during the term of the contract. A car’s mileage has a big effect on its value, so there’s a penalty fee of an average of 10p for every mile that exceeds the agreed limit. So, if you say you’re going to do only 5000 miles per year on a three-year deal but end up racking up twice that much, you’re likely to be hit with a fee of £1500.

The NFDA also cites the lack of official recording of a car’s mileage for the first three years of its life as a contributory factor.

“Cars may need servicing each year, with the car’s mileage recorded in the service book, but a consumer can easily get a car clocked before it goes to the garage,” explains Louise Wallis, the NFDA’s head of business management.

Car clocking - what is it and how to avoid buying a clocked car

How are cars clocked?

Although it’s illegal to alter a car’s odometer and then sell it on without telling the buyer that its mileage has been changed, the actual act of turning back the odometer isn’t illegal.

And it’s easy to alter a car’s mileage nowadays, as the CTSI’s Gerald Taylor explains: “All new vehicles have digital systems – usually under the driver’s seat or in the engine bay – and it is simple to connect a laptop up to them and use software to alter the mileage.”

You don’t have to buy the software, either; search online and you’ll find a number of companies that will come to you and change your car’s mileage for a fee of around £100.

The CTSI has been campaigning for years to have these companies and the act of altering a vehicle’s mileage outlawed. The RAC agrees that the current situation isn’t acceptable. Williams says: “It’s absolutely ludicrous that shady operators are able to advertise their services, putting motorists at risk of buying a car with a tampered mileage, disguising its true history and likely level of wear and tear.”

Could a clocked car be dangerous?

As well as the potential to be left hundreds of pounds out of pocket if you buy a clocked car, consumers are being put in danger.

“A vehicle’s ongoing safety will correlate to its mileage,” says the CTSI, “so clocking can present a significant injury risk to consumers.”

For example, if you buy a car thinking it has covered just 5000 miles, you won’t expect major wear and tear items, such as tyres or brake components, to be nearing the end of their lives. However, if that car has actually covered 20,000 miles, these items might be worn out and could contribute to your car being involved in an accident.

There’s also a concern about major components failing because they’ve not been replaced at the right time. One prime example is a car’s timing belt: if this isn’t replaced at the correct mileage, it could break, resulting in hugely expensive engine failure.

What Car? says…

Many in the car industry believe that the Government should make it illegal for anyone other than franchised dealers to be allowed to alter a car’s odometer, and even then it should only be done in certain restricted circumstances, such as when the odometer has broken and needs to be replaced.

What Car agrees that the Government should do something to stop the scourge of car clocking. At present, consumers face the possibility of ending up thousands of pounds out of pocket if they unknowingly buy a clocked car. Worse still, they could be put at risk of being involved in a car accident if they’re driving a car that has covered more miles than they realise.

Next: How to spot a clocked car >