We all fear it, those of us who take to motoring.
That time when you are stuck in a traffic jam or worse, car full of kids, outside temperature rising – or raining cats and dogs – and the engine starts to falter – putter, putter, putter … silence. This happened to us a few years ago in Greece in the middle of absolutely nowhere on the way back from a great holiday in Halkidiki to Sofia in Bulgaria in a borrowed car. Warning lights came on, the engine stopped pulling completely. Oh ****. And it was a pretty new BMW 1 series as well.
Having been there on older cars (one of the advantages of having had cars to pieces), I reckoned it was a cooling problem so I coasted to a stop and switched off. 30 minutes later, the car had cooled while we had heated so I tried it and it started. Phew. I drove gingerly back to Sofia with the windows open and the aircon off.
Or I put my foot down to find that the auto gearbox won’t change up – it was stuck in first. And with a completely broken gearbox, you really don’t get anywhere fast, certainly not the 200 miles home. Again, oh **** and this was in a pretty prestigious and fully maintained vehicle – a Saab 9000 Turbo.
Going back some years, I was bombing up a hill near Manchester in an old Morris Minor van (pictured) when, literally the front offside (ie right hand) wheel fell off. Now the Moggie (as they were affectionately known) had a torsion bar front suspension where the steering leg, the bit attached to the wheel and brake, was connected by screw threads at top to the damper and at the bottom to the torsion bar arm. A simple and elegantly neat solution but forget to lubricate the lower part in particular which was permanently in tension and guess what – dirt enters, eventually the screw thread strips, the torsion bar pulls the nut off and the wheel splays out like a new-born calf. Splat, and you are skidding along on the sump panel, hopefully not leaving an engine load of oil in your wake (which fortunately I didn’t).
Coming forwards in time, I once had a BMW 528i series 2 – white, beautiful car, boy-racer body kit (not installed by me, I hasten to add!), smooth as silk, seriously fast and probably the finest car that I have owned – so far. Driving down a busy highway in south Manchester one dark, rainy December evening, heavy traffic, two additional lanes joining from the left and everyone – but everyone – on the 50mph speed limit, I spotted something in my lane with no lights the best part of 100 yards ahead. I braked as heavily as I dared – no anti-lock and a wet road – thought briefly about trying to change lanes but considered the risk of spinning too high and a multiple pile-up would occur. As I got closer it was a dirty black Lada. I ended up hitting it at about 5 mph. This caused a mighty tail-back and the police were quickly there. It turned out that the electrics had failed on the Lada and it had just stopped. The police considered that I had done everything right in the circumstances and took no action against me – it’s been my only accident to date – but of course the car had to be recovered and I phoned a friend to give me a lift back home.
OK – four scenarios, some with possibly disastrous consequences although happily none such occured although I think the young lady in the Lada got a bit of whiplash.
In the first case we were really lucky. No, I mean really, really lucky. The failure could have occurred anywhere, the car would have had to have been recovered at enormous cost or we could have been kidnapped! During that time we were stopped, no one passed us either way and it was getting a little warm, to say the least. Luckier still because I had managed to leave my UK driving licence at home in Manchester so if the police had come along, how could I have explained why I was driving a Bulgarian registered car, albeit with the appropriate insurance documents and the permission of the owner? Other than that, although none of us spoke a word of Greek, I am sure some kind Greek person would have helped but let’s keep to the dramatic!
In the second case I was fortunate enough to have budgeted for breakdown cover and was recovered at no cost to our home in Manchester. The fact that Saab UK refused to discount a £2000 repair bill on a fully maintained vehicle is another issue.
In the third case, I ended up having to pay for a breakdown truck to get the car recovered and repaired. I was lucky because at 40mph that could have been fatal to me or a passing pedestrian. The failure occurred on a gentle right hand bend and the car just bumped along on the engine sump until it mounted the kerb and stopped. I hadn’t long had the car so it was the previous owner who had not maintained it properly. You bet I was out with the grease gun pretty regularly after that!
In the fourth case, the sad fact was that the insurers wrote off the BMW, I compounded their error by buying the Saab with the dodgy auto box and I kick myself for not having the Beemer rebuilt, even though it would have had a black mark when it came to reselling it. I was lucky and every time I pass the spot, I am reminded of a close shave.
You see, stuff happens and while accidents and the like tend to be near your home, this is because most of your driving is there. If you drive a lot, it could be anywhere. So having some comfort that you can get home without emptying your bank account is I think an essential part of motoring these days. If you have some trusting parent, child or friend or large credit card to bail you out, fine, otherwise get some cover.