How (not) to buy the perfect vehicle for a Eurasian road trip

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Driving from Europe to southeast Asia sounds like a great, if not ridiculous, idea. The open road, wind in your sails, freedom to go where you want, sticky seats, getting lost, bribery around every turn–it has all the makings of the ultimate road trip.

But when we started getting down to the essentials, there was a lot to sort out. Visas, medical insurance, self employment, banking, buying a six month’s supply of deodorant and contact lenses, blah blah blah. But the most important, the most essential thing we needed to address was the car. What was going to bring us across the continent?

We knew we needed something old (both for the price and the lack of convoluted computer systems) and small (for fuel efficiency). We knew we didn’t want to spend too much money, since the car would only take us to the border of China, where we have to get rid of it and continue our journey by train. According to Caravanistan (which is turning in to our go-to source of information for The Stans), cars older than 20 years old are nearly impossible to sell in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Our main source of information came from the same source as our inspiration for the trip: the Mongol Rally. Their 1.2 litre limit on engine size was a bit harsh, but we’d rather that than a jeep or a Land Rover, and surely we’d blend in with the locals better. After 10 years of rallying, the Adventurists and their cohorts have a lot of information about what little tin cans can get you across the deserts and into Mongolia. Popular rides include a lot of Japanese makes like the Nissan Micra and Suzuki Swift, as well as the Fiat Panda.

For us, the VW Polo seemed a natural choice. In the areas surrounding the German “Motor City”, where Mook is from, we’d have an ample selection of cheap cars that have been well-maintained by old Swabian people.

Manual vs Automatic, Regular Petrol vs Diesel

For most citizens of the world, the first topic is a no-brainer, but for people like me–USA born and bred–or if you’re from Japan, I guess, it’s something of an issue. You can find volumes online about the pros and cons of manual versus automatic transmission, but the fact of the matter is that, believe it or not, the majority of the world still drives manual. Not because they give you that great sporty bro feeling while you zoom around town in your Ford Fiesta, but because they’re cheaper, less likely to break, easier to fix if they do, and they’re (in theory) better when it comes to regulating fuel consumption. So, despite the fact that I have no idea how the hell to drive one, it had to be manual transmission.

With fuel, despite everything your dad or uncle or friend who has travelled a lot says, regular gasoline is, according to all the research we’ve done, the cheapest, most readily available type of fuel for a car out there. Yes, shipping trucks use diesel and truckers are everywhere (or are they??), but if you happen to run out of gas in the middle of nowhere, you’re far more likely to be able to scrape some regular petrol off of a passerby, or rock up to a nearby town and buy some cheap on neighbourhood black market.

The idea of an LPG hybrid was thrown at us by a few friends, but in the end it would have cost nearly the car’s value just to convert the engine, and there’s no guarantee LPG would be available commonly enough to make it worth it.

The Hunt

With the type of vehicle decided and secure in the knowledge that Baden-Württemberg has lots of affluent, Made In Germany-buying old people who take good care of their cars, it was on to the hunt. Again, neither of us know anything about cars and, despite me thinking that everyone has a Middle Eastern mechanic in their family, neither does anyone in Mook’s family or friend circle. So we were kind of on our own.

We scoured online listings and decided to hit up some dealerships in the area, hoping they were reputable and with a reliable stock of used little Polos and Golfs. The cars were there, but the reputability factor of some of the dealerships was a bit questionable.

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Yes, a Pink Floyd car

Yes, a Pink Floyd car

Sunroofs are cool, but not when they're broken and it's raining

Sunroofs are cool, but not when they’re broken and it’s raining

We found this awesome clunker, and while it’s roomy enough to live in, it’s not only a diesel, it’s got a busted engine.

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One thing was clear: For these dudes, the big business is in shipping old clunkers that no longer pass the German TÜV inspection to places in Africa or Central Asia. VWs are popular; at least we’ll definitely be able to find parts.

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At perhaps the safest-looking place we visited, we found a Nissan Micra and a VW Golf, both looking pretty good but at €850 and €999 each, respectively, a smidge out of our price range.

Digging the teal and flower theme

Digging the teal and flower theme

Maybe a bit too nice for our purpose?

Maybe a bit too nice for our purpose?

At another fine dealership, we spotted two VWs that could fit the bill. The first was a little Polo at €500, but when we took it for a test drive it sounded like your lifetime-smoker aunt out at karaoke. The second was a pretty smooth looking black Golf, at only €400. Interior looked well-maintained, which the dealer chalked up to its previous elderly owner, though the faux-aluminum foot pedal covers and sporty floor mats didn’t go quite with the story. Why so cheap? We asked. “Okay then, €600,” the dude smirked.

This, my boy, is an engine

This, my boy, is an engine

Not your grandma's car

Not your grandma’s car

After sleeping on it, we decided to make a move. We could have looked around more, sure, but we want to get this show on the road!

Armed with a printout of Wikihow’s “How to Check Out a Used Car Before Buying It“, we headed back to look at our cheaper options. After taking another look at the dodgy Golf, however, the front of the car looked like it sagged to one side and the condition wasn’t quite as good as we had remembered it. We wanted to take another look at the Polo, but it was locked in the garage and the dude who ran the place was nowhere to be found.

So we headed back to Habakza to look at the €999 Golf, humming and hawing about if we could get the dealer to lower his price to €800. Because, realistically, we know nothing about cars and we’re going to drive this thing all the way to Kazakhstan and we might as well pay for something that at least looks and sounds okay from the get-go, from a dude who seems honest and reliable and not just out for a quick buck because he knows he’ll never see us again.

The car looked good, inside, outside, under the hood, the undercarriage, everything. We took it for a test drive, and it sounded much better than the gravelly Polo. But we couldn’t get Mr Habakza to go any lower than €900. It needed a new TÜV inspection, which he would happily fix up the car for and get done, included in the price. Still, €900… Much higher than what we budgeted for, ouch. Should we really get it?

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Of course we should!! It looks good, sounds good, has a new inspection; we know nothing about cars and would have a hard time identifying a clunker much less fixing it when its discounted price began to show. So we sank the money (let’s call it an investment) and on Monday picked up our new ride, which will hopefully get us all the way to China.

Because it’s an awesome Rolling Stones edition of the Golf, we’ve named it Jagger. Thus far, Jagger’s given us a few spooks in the short time we’ve been together: once when the muffler broke one kilometre from the dealership (that was the one bad mark on the TÜV inspection and Mr Habakza fixed it for free), and once when we made hardware store copies of the ignition key without realising the car has an immobiliser, and won’t start without a proper VW key. For about five minutes we sat in the parking lot, panicking as the engine repeatedly died, before either of us thought to try the original key. Nice.

So watch out Eurasia! Here come two complete car morons, we are coming to check out all your cool shit and are probably going to need some automotive assistance along the way.

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Edit 17.06.2014: Already something else has fallen off the bottom of the car, probably exhaust-related. We are ready to roll!!



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