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Car hire excess fees? They all started when Mel Smith and I wrecked our Opel in Tuscany

"The vehicle very nearly got through the 13th-century donkey gate, but not quite" Credit: GETTY

I guessed the car rental people would fight back. It was bound to come. I blame myself.

In 1983 I rented an Opel in Italy. Nice car and, for one reason or another, Mel Smith and I utterly trashed it on back roads in the Tuscan woods. The castle we were staying in (to write a flop) was three miles from any tarmac. So there were little upsets. I didn’t even drive. I was the back seat crasher.

First off, Smith slithered into another car coming the other way. This was forgivable. We had never before seen another car coming the other way. It was a minor crunch. Less forgivable, perhaps, but fun, was taking the exit out of a mountain hamlet on the way to Grosseto and the trotting races. The vehicle very nearly got through the 13th-century donkey gate, but not quite. There was a squeal of metal, like a sardine tin banged into a hole. The thing was now very crumpled, but still went.

Dust flew in the August haze like an advert, but cars are not supposed to do this in real life

A day or so later, I should not have suggested to Mrs Jones (who had now joined us) that she try a short cut down a hill round the back. It was a byroad on the map. I didn’t expect the road to completely disappear, after it had become too steep to turn back. We bounced a league or so down a pine-clad cliff, slalomed around trees, and came out in a quarry past a startled truck driver. Dust flew in the August haze like an advert, but cars are not supposed to do this in real life. A few dents on the underneath. They hardly showed.

Smith left and Mrs Jones and I had to hand this wreck back in Rome. A saintly, boiler-suited mechanic came on three separate visits to the counter to mark the vehicle diagram with extra Biro crosses indicating damage.

“You have a little accident?” Credit: © 2015 Bloomberg Finance LP./Matthew Lloyd

“You have a little accident?” The Audrey Hepburn lookalike at the desk stared at me placidly. She checked the rest of her paper work. “But you have full insurance.”

Nothing! Nothing to pay! No pained recrimination. Not even a blink of a mascara’d eyelid. I skipped off down the Via Veneto. 

I was away now. I drove a Suzuki four-wheel drive backwards into a palm tree on St Lucia. I was given a second, brand-new Mercedes limousine in the South of France, after the first one failed to avoid a tiny tufa wall in the villa entrance and gained a small indentation the length of four panels. They just handed me another one. I was fully insured.

Then, in the Nineties, along came “excess” – the ridiculous lump sum they can take for any damage before the insurance kicks in. Suddenly, when my side window got smashed by a rapscallion, I paid.

Nowadays, Mrs Jones and I take any hire car into our care with the zeal of Harley Street dermatologists. We get out our torches and inspect every inch of the carapace, looking for unreported scratches. And we take photos. Others may have their last fish meal in Playa da Costalotta on their mobiles; I have mysterious side panels and bumped door edges.

But it didn’t work last year. Coming home, we parked in Toulouse airport, stood back and watched a lynch posse swagger out of their Perspex hut, clutching magnifying glasses. I went off to get a trolley. When I got back, Mrs Jones was peering at a minuscule nick on the rear bumper, triumphantly identified by a spotty 17-year-old in a badly fitting suit.

“C’est rien,” Mrs Jones protested. He produced an object like a protractor from a fourth-form pencil case. He laid it over the mark. He pointed to the statutory length. He loudly uttered the French word for “behold”. I loudly uttered the English word for testicles. It was so unfair. We had ushered this pathetic excuse for a motor car along the motorway system and parked it in a friend’s drive, virtually unused.

A bit of spit and a rub with a thumb would clear that up. But I didn’t get the chance. The posse swarmed protectively in front of their car, in case we further damaged it by breathing on it. They were after my excess by any means necessary. I guessed they were on an incentive share of the dubious bounty. They had to be. No hire-car wage slave had ever been this hard-working. 

But I won’t be joining in the rush to regain my cash through legal redress. In truth, I feel slightly to blame for the whole development in the first place. I took advantage. Now, naturally, they all try harder.