I used to be a big fan of Avis car rentals. Seven years ago in Los Angeles I was involved in a fairly major car accident, and fortunately in a substantial car, a large Cadillac. I was in Santa Monica on Olympic Boulevard, a multiple-lane dual carriageway, dashing to a meeting, when my mobile phone, which had fallen into the passenger footwell, suddenly rang. I glanced down to see where it was and when I looked up, to my horror, everything in front of me had stopped dead. I slammed into the back of a large Lincoln Continental, shunted that into a large Ford SUV, which in turn was shunted into the back of a small truck, which in turn when into the back of a Lexus. With airbags exploding at me in all directions, it felt like being inside a large bouncy castle.

The guy in the front truck leapt out and started yelling that it was all the fault of some asshole who had made a sharp right turn in front of everyone. I was not going to disagree with him! Luckily no one was hurt, but none of the vehicles were driveable. Twenty minutes later a low-loader arrived, driven by a guy who looked straight out of the A Team, with a big smile on his face and a brand new Cadillac for me, and five minutes later, red as a beetroot with embarrassment, but very, very relieved that I would still get to my important meeting on the far side of LA, I drove off, leaving behind the four other drivers, now stranded, gloomily filling out insurance forms. I could not have praised Avis higher. (There was an interesting postscript — about ten months later I got a call from a lawyer telling me not to worry, I had been fully insured, but he needed a statement as four different drivers had made claims against Avis totally over $10m dollars, two of them saying they had not worked since the accident. Good old USA kompensation kulture…) .

I do have to say the accident really shook me up. If I had been in a small car, I might have been very seriously injured — and conversely if it had been a small car, or, say, a motorcycle in front of me, I could have caused serious injury or even killed someone. I can fully see just how dangerous the distractions of mobile phones can be to any driver. I use one a lot in the car — always on hands free now — but I know my concentration is less good when I’m on it. On a lighter note, a couple of years ago, I was my Aston Martin Vanquish on an almost deserted German autobahn (on one of the rare occasions the car was actually working) trying to see how fast it would go. I watched the speedometer needle climb past 180mph, then 185mph, and suddenly my phone rang. “Don’t answer it!” a very white-faced Helen sitting beside me said, remarkably calmly. I didn’t!!!

Back to Avis, who undid all their LA goodwill and got a big black mark from me two years ago in Perth, when I rented a Toyota Landcruiser, which had a very old roof-rack. Helen very slightly dented the front of this roof-rack when she drove into an underground car park (no one had warned us the car would be too high) and despite having full insurance, Avis stung me for £400, debiting it from my credit cards and ignoring my letters of protest afterwards.

Now, in Mallorca a few weeks ago, Avis have made me so mad I am going to return my “Preferred Customer” card to the CEO: I was there for a few days for research, and rented an Opel thing ( I call it a thing, because it was one of my pet hate cars — a people carrier — a class of vehicle that Jeremy Clarkson once rather aptly named “vans with windows”. He also said that as MPVs were mostly bought by people to transport their children in, the initials “MPV” clearly stood for “My Penis Verks”).

When I returned it to Avis at Palma Airport, the rude slimeball employee of Avis insisted that the car was scratched and wanted to dock me several hundred Euros. I pointed out that the car was not scratched, this was dust that had been brushed by stiff grass and to prove my point wiped the “scratches” off with my finger. He then pointed at another. I did the same. This farce went on for about five minutes and he was adamant that some of them, at least, were scratches. I was so angry I was prepared to miss my flight and demanded he call the police. He finally backed off, but it left me with a very bad taste about Avis.

Avis alleged car scratches
Car returned up to scratch…

This was not improved when the next day I rang Avis’s customer service department and told them I wanted a full explanation and apology. I’ve never heard back from them. They used to have a motto – “We try harder”. Clearly they should add on to the end the words “to upset our customers.” So beware, if you rent a car from Avis and think you have a bargain, wait until you return it to them…