The most temperamental car we ever owned was a red Citroen AX. We bought it in 1995 when we first moved to France. We were in desperate need of a car and it had to be cheap. This car was very cheap.
The first inkling that it had a temperamental side to its personality came the next morning when it refused to start. Then, having started, it decided to stall whenever the opportunity presented itself – like when turning out of a side street onto a major road.
After a while we discerned a pattern. The car never stalled in the afternoons or after five minutes into a journey. It just didn’t like getting up in the mornings.
We also discovered another interesting fact about that time – that drivers in rural South West France only serviced their cars when something fell off. Take a car into a local garage and ask for a car service, and you’re met with astonishment.
“Has something fallen off?”
“Then why are you here?”
“Uh… for a car service?”
“What? Uh… all of it?”
That was met with a shake of the head. “Non. Too expensive.”
We stood in the forecourt, baffled, and struggling to come up with the French for all the important parts of a car, while the mechanic vetted our requests with “non, too expensive” or “peut-etre” and the occasional, begrudging “oui.”
It took a large attitude adjustment, but, after a month or two, we became more philosophical about our car’s failings. One of the front tyres had developed a slow puncture. So what? We bought a manual pump and got into the habit of pumping the tyre up once a week or before any long journeys. And then there was the brake warning light. It kept coming on for a few seconds then going off again.
Now, I like my warning lights to be specific. Either there’s a problem or there isn’t. But our car wasn’t sure. We assumed it was a faulty connection in the warning light as the car was running fine, the brakes worked, and the frequency of the warning light coming on wasn’t increasing.
Then we had to make a long journey from the South of France to the North where we’d booked a gite for a week. To get there meant driving for ten hours through the night. In December. And it was pouring with rain.
Thirty minutes into the journey, we noticed we had two warning lights on. One, our old friend the intermittent brake light, and, two, the battery warning light. Except this latter light wasn’t so much on as glowing faintly.
This totally threw me. What did a faint warning light mean? Was it better than an intermittent one? Did Citroen have an advanced type of warning light that told you the severity of the problem by the brightness of the warning light?
After a while, I noticed a pattern. The battery light glowed brighter every time I braked. Or put the windscreen wipers on.
When you’ve just embarked on a long night time journey in the rain, the last thing you need is the feeling that your car battery doesn’t have enough power to run all your car’s electrics. Would we have to switch off the wipers whenever we wanted to turn left or right? Or brake?
We stopped at a garage. The mechanic was totally thrown by the battery warning light, but he did find what was wrong with the brake warning light. It wasn’t a faulty connection. It was a small leak in the brake line. As the brake fluid sloshed about in the reservoir it would occasionally trigger the ‘brake fluid low’ warning – hence the intermittent light. He topped us up and gave us a bottle for the rest of the journey.
We drove through the night, eyes glued to the warning lights. The brakes behaved themselves but the battery light glowed and dimmed with alarming regularity.
When we arrived in the North, we found it taken over by a mini Ice Age. There was no snow, but there was a biting easterly wind, nighttime temperatures of –15°C and a daytime maximum of –5°C.
That’s when we found out our car hated the cold as much as mornings. It was a Mediterranean car. It didn’t do Tundra.
On the third day there we discovered a new hazard light. We were driving along a country lane when we noticed a lot of cars stopped up ahead. We were on a bend, so thought it best to switch on the hazard lights. I pressed the button and … nothing happened. I tried switching on the left indicator instead. Nothing happened. I tried the other indicator. Nothing. And both had been working fine five minutes earlier!
Obviously pressing the hazard light had thrown the car into a panic. It was neurotic enough without the added pressure of a traffic hazard! It had warned us about the brakes, and it was sure there was something wrong with the battery too.
And it was cold!
We drove back to the gite, with both front windows wound down so we could use hand signals whenever we had to turn. It was freezing, and the car had begun to vibrate – probably with fear.
The next morning, we got in the car hoping the indicators had magically sorted themselves out. They hadn’t. And, as we pulled away, I noticed we had a new problem. The driver’s door wouldn’t close. Well, that’s not quite true. It would close. But it wouldn’t stay closed. It preferred to be open. Our car was turning claustrophobic.
I couldn’t keep the door closed for more than a second. When we turned to the right it was worse – the door flew wide open. I had to drive with my left hand holding onto the door – except when I needed to turn left when I could use the door as a pretty nifty ‘turning left indicator.’
If we hadn’t had a full schedule of meetings arranged with estate agents, we would have turned around and booked the car into a clinic. But we had a very full schedule, and miles to drive all over Normandy.
We changed the car soon after that. I’m sure it’s in a warm Southern field now with others of its kind, away from the stress of traffic and roads and the cold.
What’s your car story.
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