How not to buy a car for a Eurasian road trip: Part 2

VW Golf
VW Golf

Our poor little lemon

The real Mick Jagger may be able to keep on rocking into eternity unscathed, but our own little VW Golf III Rolling Stones edition, Jagger, wasn’t quite such a hard partier. He turned out, in fact, to be quite the crippled old man.

Problems began when we were cruising around in the mountains near Uzice, on the way to our hostel for the night. Mook noticed the coolant light flashing on the dashboard, with the engine temperature gauge rising toward maximum fast. We pulled over straight away and popped the hood. Sure enough, the transparent globe where the coolant is stored was filled below the minimum level. But why was the engine so hot?

Coincidentally enough we had pulled up right outside an auto mechanic, so Mook flagged over one of the dudes and we gestured the problem to him. Another guy came over and they fiddled around under the hood, discovering that the problem was that the fan wasn’t working. On our first night in Guca, a few days prior, we had driven through a field and accidentally scraped the bottom of the car on a cement block that was hidden in the grass, and I wondered if that hadn’t somehow farked the engine a bit.

The mechanics drove the car up to their shop and sat us down in their “waiting room” (a man den of cigarettes and rakija) while they diagnosed the problem. After about 10 minutes one of the mechanics–a tall, thin and slightly weary looking man we’ll call Mr D–explained to us with his best English and gesturing that the thermostat had broken, and he needed to go to town and pick up another one. His colleague, a slightly chubby dude with a beardy grin, brought the broken thermostat over to show us. It would cost us 28€ for the part. We’re no experts in car parts (which is extremely unfortunate, we can say retrospectively) so we shrugged with a grimace and said ok.

Mr D goes to pick up the part, brings it back and they put it in. The beardy dude brings it for a test drive. While we wait, Mr D chats with us as best we can, about rakija and how the Serbian economy is shit, about how his 15-year-old son is shit in school but loves working on cars, and about how my country bombed them in the 90’s (the first bombing site is just a few tens of kilometres away) but he’ll still help us out. Okay, great.

Beardy comes back and he’s got a kind of creepy smile on his face. The two chat in Serbian and then call us over to look at the dashboard, where this time the oil light is blinking furiously. Beardy pops the hood. “Big problem!” he grins. They start taking parts off the top of the engine and check the oil pressure. Beardy holds the gauge towards us while Mr D revs the engine. The needle doesn’t move from zero.

I don’t remember quite how it escalated, but suddenly we’re being told that our entire engine needs to be replaced, and that we fucked it up by driving all the way from Guca to Uzice with no coolant (there was!) and too little oil (there was enough!). We started to panic, with very little common language in between our two parties, and Beardy’s slightly creepy smile setting off warning lights that we are being scammed. We first tried calling our awesome friend David, who not only knows more about cars than we do but is also ace at reading people, but the number we had appeared to be wrong. We then got ahold of our other wonderful friend Miki, who managed to translate over the phone for us with an exasperated Mr D. Mr D said it would take two-to-three days to find a replacement engine and fix the problem. But how much would it cost?? He wasn’t sure but he would find out and call us (actually poor Miki, who would then relay the info to us) to let us know. It was 6pm by that time and we figured they wouldn’t work on it any more that day, so we could try and contact David, get a second opinion, and work things out in the morning.

We were driven to our hostel but some dude in a Merc. Very distressed, when we met our host Andrej we couldn’t help but spill the entire story immediately. Actually, he said, my cousin has a VW scrapyard just a few hundred metres from here, I’m sure he could help you out. We were suspicious about whether or not there actually was a problem that would warrant the entire engine being replaced, so we jumped at the chance for a second opinion. Andrej contacted his cousin who also said he was suspicious, and urged us to bring the car in to him instead.

Strangers in a strange land, we’re always met by kind offers but never sure who we can trust. “My cousin runs a….” is a line we’ve all heard; can this guy be trusted over the other ones? Later that evening after being contacted by Miki, who told us they had found a replacement engine about 100km away from the garage, we called up Mr D. Mr D put his wife on the phone, as she could speak far more English than him, and she dropped the bomb. “They found new engine, it will cost 400€. Four hundred euros for everything. Is it ok?” Auughghghghg, no it’s not ok. “Have they started working on the car already?” She didn’t really seem to understand my question. “Stop, stop the work. No engine change. We will be at the garage tomorrow morning.” She relayed the info to her husband and said goodbye.

The next morning, after some struggle we made the 15km journey back through the mountains to the garage and arrived at 8:30am. As you would expect, it was a tragic scene. Jagger was in the garage with the hood up, his little 1.6-litre engine on the ground nearby. I figured something like this would happen but put on a big show and freaked out anyway, pacing around and swearing. (My preoccupation with overreacting caused me to miss an important photo chance–the engine on the ground!) Mr D was slightly–but not too–flabbergasted.

“We didn’t tell you to start working on the car! I spoke to your wife last night and said to stop! No engine change! Four hundred euros is too much money! We can’t afford it!” In desperation we called Andrej for help, and Mr D’s tone escalated as they spoke on the phone. In the end we gave him the ultimatum that the engine had to go back in. His eyes spit fire as he told us to come back at 3pm.

We hitched a ride back into town, deflated and confused. The man who picked us up could speak no English, but gleefully pointed out his 10-litre bottle full homemade of rakija, jostling around in the back seat with us. We smiled and laughed like we had never seen the drink before, but were secretly glad he hadn’t offered any to us while he was driving.

Back at the hostel we finally got ahold of David, who called Mr D and began The Negotiation. David expressed the same skepticism we did, and over the course of the morning and early afternoon managed to work the parts and labour of the thermostat change down to local prices instead of foreigner prices, and communicate that we would take our car back and that would be it.

We got a call from David at 2pm saying the car was ready, but that Mr D wanted to call the police because he thought we were endangering ourselves and others by driving it. “You take this 10 kilometres and engine explodes!” he had exclaimed to us, Andrej, and David, in separate exchanges. Yeah, right. Just in case, Andrej coached us about how to drive it the 15km to the hostel while using the engine as little as possible. That the mechanic was located up in the mountains was a pain in the ass, but it worked in our benefit because we could just coast most of the way down.

About an hour later we arrived to a very dark Mr D. He barely acknowledged us as we checked Jagger’s fluids, but a “police officer” in a uniform shirt and track pants milled around nearby to ensure we didn’t make any trouble. We paid the agreed amount, and received a receipt on which Mr D had scrawled in Serbian, “This car has no oil pressure. I am not responsible if anything happens.”

Jagger started with no problem, which was a surprise considering his guts had been all over the floor earlier that morning. We drove back to town just as Andrej had instructed, coasting with the engine off whenever possible. Halfway there we stopped for a domaća kafa, to give the engine a break just in case. But really, it drove as if there had never been a problem at all. No lights illuminated on the dash, temperature gauge hovering at 70, like normal. “I guess it was a scam after all, maybe all it needed was an oil change,” we laughed.

Getting to Andrej’s cousin’s garage was effortless, as Jagger zoomed along at a modest speed like nothing had ever happened. When we arrived, his cousin and a younger mechanic took a look at our little car, revved the engine and performed some checks. Everything was completely normal. We all laughed, satisfied knowing our hunches had been correct, and the mechanics on the mountain had just been trying to scam a couple of easy foreigners.

VW scrap yard

VW scrap yard

Revving the engine to check it out

Andrej’s cousin took the car for a spin and to check the oil pressure, and when he came back the news wasn’t good. Sure enough, there was a problem. We were instructed to come back later, while they checked the car to see if it was just the oil pump or really the engine.

The final diagnostic was that the engine was indeed fucked. The problem may have existed even from the beginning, because, despite having the proper fluids, we noticed even in Germany that Jagger’s oil light illuminated whenever the clutch was depressed. On top of that, Andrej’s cousin explained, the car’s front breaks were extremely warn out, one of the front axels was bent, and the motor’s mount was loose. Our little Jagger was a rolling death trap, and Mr Habakza in Germany is a big dickhead.

Our car’s engine is a rare model, only produced by VW between 1996 and 1998, explained the cousin. Luckily, and coincidentally, he had one in stock, but he wondered what engine the mountain mechanics had wanted to put in for 400€.

We settled on a price of 360€ for all the suggested repairs and an oil change. When we came back the next afternoon our little Jagger was there waiting for us, in one piece, and with a new lease on life. “Now you can drive this car to the moon,” Andrej joked. Since we left our host yesterday we’ve noticed that we were also gifted new windshield wipers and our dashboard clock now displays the correct time (give or take 12 hours).

Good as new!

Good as new!

We expected to break down at least once during this trip, but we certainly didn’t expect it to be so soon. I’m personally glad it happened now in a place where we know a few people and where parts are easily available, and not some place like the middle of nowhere in Azerbaijan. It’s difficult to trust strangers in a situation that involves lots and lots of money, but I hope in this case we’ve made the right decision. We definitely are indebted to our Uzice host Andrej, a cool former goth who let us stay at his guesthouse (Little 15 Guesthouse), cooked for us, showed us around town, and hooked us up with his VW-expert cousin. And had David and Miki not been there for us, our poor little Jagger might have met his end prematurely on a Serbian mountainside.



There is 1 comment

Add yours

Post a new comment