Against All Oddities: How I became an Albanian mountain village mechanic
Matthew Anderson is an American engineer who relocated to Germany a few years ago for work. He suffers from a baffling obsession with unexceptional cars from Australia and the Eastern Bloc. We don’t ask him too many follow-up questions, especially now that his move back to the Carolinas (with a shipping container housing a Moskvich, among other nonsense, in tow) has been such a tragicomic delight. To welcome him home to the U.S., we’ve decided to bless him with a dedicated column called “Against All Oddities.”–Eric Weiner
Perhaps you remember that at this point in my journey, I am living in a van Fiat Space Camper down by the river Adriatic. Perhaps my most memorable adventure ever, in the van or otherwise, brought my wife (Dana), Romanian street dog (Lukas), and me to the tiny mountain village of Panarit, Albania. We sought out Panarit on the hunt for Dana’s distant blood relatives, armed with a written family tree and stories passed down from generations. Somehow we ended up living the high life, eating directly from a massive bowl of honey (in which several bees were floating) like the Berenstain Bears.
The journey was treacherous. We left the Hobby 600 Wohnmobile back at our hotel, from which we departed in the back seat of the proprietor’s battered 2000 E-Class sedan. Forty-five minutes of rutted gravel, with no guard rails. The village has no WiFi, no 4G, and therefore no way to use the Google Translate app. Even when there is an internet-capable computer nearby, many residents can’t read, or they speak a dialect nobody in Silicon Valley has bothered to decipher. Communication was possible, though slow and simple, consisting of wild gesticulations and universally understood proper nouns. Laughing at tourists, it seems, transcends borders.
“Iveco,” I said upon our arrival, pointing to a battered and heavily rusted short-wheelbase 4WD van in the driveway. Discussing a vehicle I recognize is a reliable icebreaker. “Po (yes), Iveco!” replied a young beekeeper. We wandered over to the hulk. The beekeeper squatted down and pointed, with his still-burning cigarette, to the absence where a CV joint should have been.
I could fix this. We headed up to the end of the driveway to catch a single bar of 2G, which was good for about one translated sentence fragment per five-minute interval. Some time passed.
I’ll spare you the waiting. The CV shaft was blown up somewhere on the mountainside, and a replacement was nowhere to be found. We agreed that I’d look for a replacement in the cities downhill and he’d PayPal me if I found something. My payment: a repurposed plastic liter bottle of glorious Albanian honey. Whole Foods could probably sell it for $47. More hospitality treats awaited us in the village, including sour yogurt water (bad), walnuts (good), and moonshine (outstanding).
We headed back down the mountain in the poor Benzo, planning for one further stop to buy some bootleg hooch for the road. Upon returning to Vithkuj, the larger village in which we were staying, it became clear word had gotten out that I knew how to work on cars. A line of forlorn automobiles was forming outside the hotel. I grabbed a Скопско (a Macedonian beer, pronounced Skopsko) from the fridge behind the bar. I took a sip, then a deep breath.
Vehicle #1: 2005 Iveco Turbo Daily (Tirana–Vithkuj Intercity Bus)
Service Advisor: Customer states that the bus loses power suddenly on mountain passes. Customer also states that vehicle occasionally doesn’t start in the morning.
Buses in Albania are white, mostly old Sprinter and Iveco airport shuttles. They are the default mode of transport from village to city and vice versa. This particular route ran to the capital city of Tirana, a very curvy and steep route about 3 hours away. The Vithkuj–Tirana bus service had been suspended for the past 2 weeks on the grounds of mechanical unreliability. The operator limped it over to me, its rusty and battered body in desperate need. I entered through the side and grabbed a seat for a quick diagnostic ride.
We crawled up the hill outside of town, the driver grabbing second gear and feeding in quick stabs of the throttle. Boost pressure rose sharply and the van motored forward, followed by a massive WHOOOSH! All torque vanished as the driver pumped the gas, vainly hoping for squirts from an accelerator pump that was long-ago digitalized. As speed fell rapidly, us rolling backwards down the mountain cliffs seemed like a real possibility. Right around stall speed, the motor sprung back to life and tore to its modest redline. Interesting. It did this about three more times in the most treacherous sections of the barely-two-line highway—sometimes dramatically under full boost and sometimes just cutting off at idle. We returned to the hotel, my mental gears turning.
I scratched my head in the gravel parking lot. It began to rain. Absent an OBD scanner, I went to check the dash lights. To me, the issue felt like an overboost shutdown by the engine control unit. This thought proved wrong when I noticed the small, red icon of a fuel injector blinking at me from behind the mud-encrusted plexiglas on the instrument cluster.
This looks like a job for … automotive internet forums!
According to some tradesmen on a U.K. Iveco fan board forum thread from about a decade ago, this was either a complete injection pump failure (rather unlikely) or an ancillary sensor/actuator problem. I reported this grim news to the driver, who returned with a cardboard box full of greasy spare parts. Among the pickins: an injection pump! Replacing the whole pump would be a big, nasty job so why not try the pressure regulator valve first? Three tiny Allen screws cracked loose (rather satisfyingly I might add), and I wiggled the regulator out and swapped in the spare into its new home in the bus’s native pump.
A quick test drive indicated that the high-boost failures were gone and the injector light with it. Success! However, the idle shutoffs were still present. And it was an embarrassing crank-no-start after the test ride. Well, drequin.
I was dreading the next bit of diagnostic work, despite my earlier luck. Did I screw something up? Remembering the morning no-starts, probably not. These seemed to be concurrent, parallel, unrelated problems. I felt around all critical sensors: cam, crank, rail pressure, and so on, and asked the driver to try again. Of course, it started right up. At that moment, I started probing my greasy digits into each electrical connector and shook every wire, waiting for a shutdown.
As I grabbed and twisted the cam sensor wire at the top of the valve cover, the engine idle rose about 100 rpm and the engine note changed. Releasing the wire brought the engine back to normal idle. A clue, dear Watson!
I zip-tied the wire in a way that provided enough strain relief for the bus to make it to the junkyard in search of a spare, and the driver immediately headed off for Tirana. He said he’d make sure to get a new cam sensor, but I’m thinking the guy is still running passengers with my purple zip ties. Job done! Now inside for some snacks …
Vehicle #2: 1996 Mercedes C220
Service Advisor: Customer states high operating temperature up hills.
Immediately after the bus drama was over, I was offered a cold beer at a bar table as payment. At this very moment, a warzone-condition C220 pulled up. The gruff-looking, jean-shorted driver asked if I can look … hey that was pretty good English! I was too shocked at hearing my native tongue in Albania to evaluate the situation much further.
In we hopped for a test ride, up the steep and rocky grades. The owner stated that even after receiving a replacement water pump and fan clutch, the car would overheat while climbing hills. He seemed to not notice that the Benz shimmied laterally across the washboards. I white-knuckle gripped the “Jesus” handle on the passenger door.
Jean-short-guy’s foot was planted mercilessly to the floor as the grade increased, and the poor Benz came all the way down to idle speed without downshifting. Sure enough, the temperature gauge climbed. Extremely relieved to observe a real problem rather than be asked to kneel in a ditch, I suggested that we, pretty please, go home. Back at the hotel, I popped the rattle-canned hood of the forlorn Merc.
Problem number one: No radiator cap seal. The owner said that it had been running for a full two years with no pressure. I certainly wasn’t going to be the dude to insist on re-pressurizing the system and lay waste to several hoses and a heater core. Not while this guy knew where I was staying.
Problem number two: Most of the insulation on the wiring harness was the consistency of a dollar-store birthday candle. Our temperature sensor lead was completely bare and running alongside other bare strands. Suspicious of the sensor’s accuracy, I took out my infrared temp gun (don’t leave home without it, kids) and verified that the thermistor had been coerced into lying because of the shoddy wiring.
In summary, there was no solution for two reasons: 1) There was no real problem, at least by the mechanical standard of this land and 2) To my reckoning, there were so many things wrong that it would have been wholly impractical to fix any of them without causing a real Albanian problem. The only issue I wasn’t too sheepish to fix? Adjusting the kickdown cable to get it to hammer down into first gear and get the fan speed up. Happy to be alive and proving useful, I sat back down at the bar and ordered some mysterious meat dish I spotted at another table. My break would last five seconds.
Vehicle #3: 2010 Skoda Yeti
Service Advisor: Customer states multiple dash lights blinking, reduced power.
Another English-speaking gentleman! This fellow was a very pleasant and well-dressed retired mining engineer out of Tirana. He approached me to inquire about the many, many dash lights illuminating the cluster of his Czech import.
A quick walk down the gravel way. Key on. Sure enough, many colors and lights, which had me immediately on my phone to do research. (You see, I may carry an infrared temperature gun but an OBD II scanner isn’t usually on my person.)
I did notice that the glow plug light was flashing even when the car was running … that’s odd. Apparently, when an active trouble code is paired with overwhelming stimuli (often the case for cars in Albania), the car’s response is to just flash on other lamps. In this case, what was really a diesel particulate filter (DPF) warning was very logically being displayed as a glow plug problem. I suggested that he either bring it to a real shop (to do the unspeakable to the DPF) or simply keep driving it until it gets worse. I have a feeling I know which one he chose.
I returned to the table to finish my meat of unknown origin and beer with unreadable label. My spent energy and greasy fingers testified to a job perhaps not perfectly done, but truly enjoyed.
Later that day, we’d dig into the family tree with some locals. The E-Class driver that took us to and from Panarit? Turns out he’s my wife’s cousin.
Oh, the songs they’ll sing about us.