September and October, 1987
"If you are brave and know what you're doing, buying a used car in Europe and selling it before you leave can give you the cheapest wheels on the continent." We read these words in our travel book, Let's Go Europe.
We may have been brave, but I wouldn't say we really knew what we were doing. We were prepared to pay up to $2000 for a used car when we got to Europe and we figured it would take up to a week to find one that suited us.
At the airport in Amsterdam, we stopped in to see a "duty-free" car dealer. He didn't sell cars, but he referred us to an established dealer downtown. We contacted him and explained what we wanted.
"I have just what you need!" he said excitedly. "It arrived last week—a tourist from England traded it in for one of our campers."
"How much?" asked Dennis.
"500 guilder." (About $250.00.)
It sounded too good to be true! We went to take a look. It was a 1976 Austin Allegro station wagon. Of course, being a British car, the steering wheel was on the right side. It was freshly painted (with a brush) and the interior was immaculate. No radio or other extras, but everything essential worked. The MOT was good until June of 1988. (MOT is a certification that the car is in compliance with strict British safety standards and is required of all cars registered in the U.K.) A compression test and test drive confirmed Dennis' conviction that this was the car for us. Of course, it might break down tomorrow, but that's always a risk with a used car, and we'd only be out $250 if it was too expensive to repair.
The mandatory insurance cost nearly as much as the car, but we'd have to pay that for any vehicle.
As we prepared to drive off, it occurred to me that things were happening awfully fast. Were we forgetting something?
The title and registration were British. "Change that when you get to England," the dealer had said. But what about a receipt? Our names weren't on any paperwork. How could we prove we hadn't stolen the car?
I went back in and was given a receipt written in Dutch. It would have to do.
For the next two months, our lives revolved around the car. It got good mileage (or is it kilometerage), which was important with petrol (gasoline) priced from $2.50 to $4.00 a gallon. It gave us freedom to go wherever we wanted without schedules or timetables. We could carry far more than we could have gotten into backpacks, so were able to live in relative luxury. It provided a place to leave our stuff locked up while we explored (although Dennis discovered before we left Amsterdam that any key, even a suitcase key, would unlock the driver's door). Best of all, it gave us protection from rain and wind, and the heater worked fine.
It had a few disadvantages. The day we left Amsterdam, Dennis was pulled over by a motorcycle cop. He said we were going too slow for the middle lane (about 50 mph in a 60 mph zone) and warned us to stay in the right lane. The policeman was very kind but a bit surprised that we were Americans driving a British car that we purchased in Holland. He told us we should take care not be stopped by German police, who would be unlikely to overlook such discrepancies. The dealer, he told us, had committed a crime by not officially importing the car and paying tax before selling it.
That information made me a bit shy of borders, where all our paperwork could conceivably be checked. As it turned out, we were waved through every border by smiling officials who rarely bothered to look at our passports. They presumably thought we were British, fellow citizens of the European Economic Community.
50 mph was too slow! On German autobahns there is no speed limit. Sporty European cars legally whizzed by at 150 mph. Our little station wagon wouldn't go much faster than 75 mph downhill, and drivers in anything from Ferraris to huge tractor-trailers would race up to within five feet of our rear bumper and wait impatiently for a chance to "overtake" (pass). The problems were compounded in cities where we had to follow a map, read road signs in foreign languages, and get into the correct lane in time to make turnoffs, all with those frustrated race car drivers right behind us. We spent a good deal more time than we'd have liked searching for places to safely turn around and go back for another try.
We joked about locating our destinations by "zeroing in" on them—driving toward them in ever smaller circles until we "hit the target." (Later, in Israel, we came up with a variation on this. It's such a small country that as we drove south toward Eilat, we bounced back and forth off the borders in the general direction of our goal.)
According to one travel book, "Statistically, your chances of being killed on European roads are several hundred times greater than they are in the U.S." Although Dennis' nerves were frayed to the breaking point at times, we didn't have any close calls or see any more accidents than we'd expect in 5000 miles of travel on American roads.
Parking in cities was virtually impossible, and we soon learned to find a campground on the outskirts and use public transportation from there. Most European cities were built before cars were invented. In Belgium, we got caught in what we termed a "minglesection." It was an open area with streets radiating out like spokes of a wheel. Cars would enter from all directions and mingle, with every driver wiggling through the jammed traffic before exiting on another spoke.
By the time we took the ferry to England, Dennis was used to driving on the right side of the car, if not the left side of the road.
We had very little trouble with the car. Dennis treated it to an oil change after one month of use, and we had to replace the shredded spare tire and one that kept going flat. The second week in England, a terrible wobble developed in the steering. As could be expected, it wouldn't wobble for the repairman, and eventually seemed to heal itself. As mornings got colder, the car was less and less inclined to start, but new points and plugs cured that problem.
Selling the car was a challenge. We could post notices, but had no phone number or other way to be reached in those days before cell phones. No message service would take us on for just a week. We washed the car, taped "For Sale" signs in the windows, and left it parked in conspicuous locations. No luck. Finally, we drove it downtown on a Saturday in search of a bridge we'd been told was a gathering place for foreigners buying and selling cars. No one was there.
Thoroughly discouraged, we considered abandoning it with the key in the ignition and a note, "Enjoy your free car." As a last resort, we went to a used car lot. The dealer offered us 125 British pounds, far less than we knew it was worth, but better than nothing.
Just as we decided to sell it to the dealer, a young couple came up. "That's exactly the car we are looking for!" the young man said. "How much do you want for it?"
"250 pounds," answered Dennis. "That includes the camping table, a book on camping in England, some oil, spare parts, tools and other things we won't be needing anymore."
"I only have 150 cash," said the young man. "I could pay you the rest next week, or send it in the mail."
150 pounds was about what we had paid for the car, and although it was worth more than that now that it was back in England, we wouldn't be taking a loss even if he didn't make good on his promise.
"It's a deal!" said Dennis. "It's been a good car for us. I hope it does as well for you."
They were overjoyed. We hitched a ride with them to the nearest Tube station and sadly watched our faithful car disappear down the street.
Go on to Camping
Source: www.SusanCAnthony.com, ©Susan C. Anthony