Chamonix, France, It isn’t every day that a friend offers to sell you a Mercedes for next to nothing. In our case, it was a great looking beige 1992 Mercedes diesel–just the car to take us on a road trip through France and Spain. Our problems began well before we embarked on the trip. In France you need a control technique sticker (the equivalent of the car inspection in the US, or MOT in the UK), a Carte Grise (registration), and insurance. In that order. Failure to produce proof of insurance can result a six month accommodation in a French jail.
The Benz was leaking oil, and both the speedometer and odometer were broken, so we assumed we might have a little bit of trouble getting through the control technique. A problem we were hoping could be solved by buying the mechanic a six pack of beer. As luck would have it, not only were we late to our control technique appointment, but we leaked so much oil in the parking lot the inspector had to put down cat litter to soak up the oil on the pavement. We decide to make an appointment at another location. In France they give you a list of things that are wrong with the car and must be fixed, and another list of things they strongly suggest you fix, but are not mandatory. When we saw the giant list of problems with the car we were sure we were doomed. However it turned out that none of the things that were wrong with the car fell into the mandatory category. Most were classified as minor, like our lights not being bright enough, and of course the leaking oil. There was also something about significant wear to the transmission. We probably should have paid more attention to that one, but more about that later.
Control technique in hand, we went down to the local prefecture to get our Carte Grise. We assumed this would be perfunctory, but we should have known paperwork in France is never a simple procedure. The friend we had bought the car from had realized he couldn’t afford insurance, and sold it to us before he got it registered. We assumed this wouldn’t be a problem since we had the Carte Grise from the owner before him, as well as the transfer papers from that owner to our friend, and from our friend to us. Not so. According to the surly woman at the prefecture without our friend paying to get the car registered in his name for a day, and then reselling it to us, and us paying to get it registered again, the car was “poubelle” (trash).
After toying around with registering the car in Gibraltar or Andorra and very other sketchy plans, a friend directed us to votre-carte-grise.com (your-carte-grise.com), which promised to deliver us a Carte Grise and license plates within 24 hours. It turns out the site was more legit than we realized, and all we received was an email telling us to send in more paper work. However, the act of trying to register granted us a temporary Carte Grise valid for a month. So it was off to purchase insurance. Again, not as easy at we thought. The first place turned us down based on the fact that we had non European Union drivers’ licenses, even though you are allowed to drive on an American license for a year in Europe. However we’d learned not to give up just because the first place says no, so we headed off to another insurance company, which granted us one-month temporary insurance. And here is where we made another critical mistake.
“What kind of insurance do you want?”
“Just the minimum third-party.”
And with that our car was (somewhat) legit, and ready for our roadtrip to Spain, the first of what we hoped would be many European roadtrips. The car had begun to make a strange vibrating noise in higher gears; we collectively decided to ignore it and proceed with our roadtrip.
The day before we left was spent frantically getting the car ready for the trip. This primarily consisted of installing an amazing stereo system and teaching me to drive manual. We did try and change the oil, but ultimately only succeeded in changing the oil filter, since the nut on the oil pan was completely stripped and being after 5PM in France everything was closed for the day. So we loaded the ramps and oil into the car, in hopes we’d be able to buy the part we needed and change to oil along the way.
After cramming most of our possessions into the car (seriously, who brings a bbq on a roadtrip), we were ready to set off at about 1:30AM. The trip began well; we were flying down the autoroute blaring Less Than Jake from our new speakers. But a few hours in trouble struck.
“We’ve lost fifth gear,” Elliott told me.
“What? How?” I replied.
We decided fourth gear would be sufficient and continued. Soon the car started making a horrible noise. We were worried that we would soon burn through all our gears, and pulled off somewhere near Clermont-Ferrand, where we discovered we had also lost reverse. It was dark and raining, hardly ideal conditions for trying to deal with the car. We slept for a few hours. When we awoke it was still raining, but at least no longer dark. We decided the problem was that we were leaking gear oil. The service station didn’t sell gear oil, there was no way to load the gear oil under the hood, and it turns out if you don’t have roadside (the insurance we had failed to buy) tow trucks cost 500 Euros, so we had to get creative.
We bought the thinnest motor oil we could find, and Elliott fashioned an injector out of a Cherry Coke bottle, a straw, and some electric tape. We put the car up on the ramps that we conveniently had in the trunk, added the oil to something near the gear box that looked like it was leaking, and plugged a hole with a piece of gum.
We were under no illusion that we had fixed the problem, but we thought this might at least buy us enough time to find a mechanic nearby and get a realistic assessment of our situation.
It was the day before Bastille Day, so weren’t too optimistic about finding an open mechanic. The first place said they were busy for the day, and directed us somewhere else. It was noon by this point, so naturally they were closed for lunch for the next several hours. When they opened they told use they were also busy and directed us to a third place.
It seemed our luck had taken a turn for the better. They had time to check out our car, and knew something about Mercedes. We chatted with them while they worked on other cars, and when they went to put our car up on some wooden boards we offered them our ramps.
It turned out we weren’t leaking gear oil, and in fact our little car repair project had done nothing. We had snapped a connection for the 5th gear and reverse, and that awful noise wasn’t our car dying, but the muffler breaking. They changed the oil and told us that the dashboard light wasn’t the check engine light, but rather the add coolant light.
“But we just added coolant,” we said pointing to what we thought was the coolant.
“That’s the place for the windshield washer fluid.”
Things were looking up. The rain stopped, we walked around the small town, chatted with two women at the local church about the church history, their memories of war, etc. We bought a bottle of wine for the folks at the garage and headed back. We were expecting the job would run us a few hundred Euro, but in the end they only charged us 80 Euro. We thanked them profusely and headed back for the open road. A few kilometers later something snapped. We headed back. It was the muffler. We’d need to get it soldered on at some later point, but for now we could make do without it. We were off.
About 100 kilometers later fifth gear went again. Then the vibration started. Horrible, car-shaking vibration seemingly coming from the gearbox. Then we realized our other problems– the gears snapping, the muffler, etc.– had probably been caused by the vibration we had noticed ages ago in the higher gears, and which had transformed into the violent vibrations we were now experiencing.
After about 100 kilometers of wilderness, we were fortunately only about 8 km from the next service station. We pulled over and tried to google our problem. Our best guess was that the center support bearing for the drive shaft was bad. It looked like it might not be that hard to fix if we could get the part. Of course it was now after 5pm the day before Bastille Day, so it would be days before the problem could be dealt with.
Hoping to salvage some of our trip, we decided to leave the car and go the Biarritz for Bastille Day. After packing up most of our possessions (minus the bbq and ramps), we fashioned as sign (“Notre voiture est morte ici” — “Our car is dead here” and set off hitching. We got a ride to near Bordeaux, but that was as far as we could get. Of course I hadn’t brought a sleeping mat. We unrolled Elliott’s sleeping mat and went to sleep in the grass somewhere near a tollbooth. I awoke to my face feeling swollen and itchy.
“Elliott, I think something bit me in the night.”
“I’m sure it’s fine… Oh, shit, your eye is swollen shut.”
Turns out we’d been sleeping next to a bunch of ants and one had bitten my face sometime during the night. I took some Benadryl and put on sunglasses, and we set off in search of a ride. Eventually we got a ride to downtown Bordeaux, and decided to take the train to Biarritz. Clearly neither of us had entirely trusted the car, since it turned out we had both brought our train discount passes.
We had planned to camp in Biarritz, but now we had to find a place to leave our stuff. Many train stations in France still let you leave stuff in lockers, but it turned out the Biarritz station wasn’t one. The station attendant directed us to the youth hostel.
Being Bastille Day weekend the youth hostel was naturally full. As we were waiting for the staff to return, some of the other people in the rec room explained that the hostel was open during the day, and a lot of people were just leaving their stuff in the lockers and sleeping in the park across the street. That sounded fine to us. We stashed our things, and set off for the beach and fireworks, since this was supposed to be beach holiday after all. We spent the next two days in the Biarritz running, searching for Mercedes parts, and trying to learn to surf (it’s harder than it looks!). Then it was time to head back and deal with the inevitable.
By this point we had decided that even if we could find the bearing, it was very unlikely that we could fix the car ourselves. Not wanting to waste any more money on the car, we decided to get back to it, save the stereo, and ditch the car.
Around mid-day Saturday we headed for the bus that would take us near the autoroute. After waiting about an hour for the ‘C’ bus, we learned that it didn’t run on Saturdays. About half an hour later an ‘A1′ bus (also going towards the autorute) arrived. We asked the driver if he was going to our stop. It was the next stop. We got on, and as soon as the bus began to move pushed to red button demanding a stop. About 20 minutes later we started to wonder when our stop was going to come. Elliott asked the driver, who claimed he had stopped and we hadn’t gotten off. He then proceeded to tell us that we aren’t kids and he can’t be responsible for us. There was nothing we could do but wait for him to loop back.
Finally we got to the autoroute. Where we waited. And waited some more. We met a Belgium couple hitching to San Sebastian, and two Estonian girls hitching to Barcelona. Nice breaks in an otherwise monotonous afternoon.
A few hours later we were starting to worry. Our whole plan was based on us getting to the car before 6AM the next morning, so we could get a nearby train back to Chamonix (it only runs once a day). The sun was getting low in the sky, and things were not looking good for us. Eventually a woman stopped for us, and offered us a ride to near Bordeaux. Perfect, with any luck we could get a ride to the car from there. She was friendly, and talked to us about her family and her life in France, and seemed worried about us when she left us at a small service station with night quickly approaching. A little while a man gave us a ride a few stops down the autoroute, and then we got another ride a few more stops. It was around 11PM by this time, and it was starting to look like we might end up spending the night at the service station. It was cold and raining. We propped our sign against our bags, and made dinner on Elliott’s camping stove. We must have looked pretty miserable huddled in our sleeping bags outside the service station entrance.
The next morning it was still raining, and things weren’t exactly looking good for us. We weren’t going to make the train, which meant we’d have to hitch back to Chamonix. It was the end of a holiday weekend, and every car that passed us was jammed full of bags and kids. No room for us.
As the morning continued more people started to pour into the rest area, and eventually we got a ride a few stops down the autoroute, and from there to our car.
We took out the stereo and got rid of the car. We quickly found a ride to Chambery. From there we were hoping we could get a train back to Chamonix, but again it ended up being too late for the last train. As luck would have it, Elliott’s godmother lived near there, and came and picked us up. After days of sleeping outside, and being covered in motor oil, dirt, and salt it was amazing to take a shower and sleep in a bed. In the morning we got on the train to Chamonix. Two days after leaving Biarritz, we were almost home.