How to quit worrying, ditch your job, and ramble Europe in a ’90s spacevan: Part 4
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
My time on the road, driving across Europe in a strange 1990s camper van after quitting my job in Germany, was interesting to say the least. Hell, in the last installment of “HtQWDYJaREiaNS,” I accidentally became the local mechanic in a small Albanian mountain village. But as my wife and I inched deep into Southern Spain, our trip started to heat up. I don’t mean that in the figurative sense, or because this story involves me zipping off to investigate a positively excellent junkyard. I mean it literally; summer in this part of the world is beautiful, scorching, breathtaking, positively roasting, relaxing, also definitely hot.
At 112 degrees American Fahrenheit and not a whisper of technologically conditioned air, I baked into an ever-browner salt lick with every waking day inside the Hobby 600 camper. Still, I prefer this slow melting to unexpected mechanical catastrophe. Have I double-fisted a tuna sandwich and a ratchet while sitting on a bench at a rest area? Tensioned a belt in front of Roman ruins? Naturally, but I would classify all of that as good times. Far from torture.
That situation changed as we climbed mountains in temperatures around 110 degrees. After spending three miles in fourth gear at full boost, the gradient increased and our speeds fell. I took an especially long gander at all lamps and gauges. The austere instrumentation in this van consists of a single trusty ol’ coolant temp gauge (usually never gets over the middle) and an oil pressure lamp whose flicker quickly fades on startup. That had been sufficient, seeing as missing needles for oil pressure, oil temperature, boost, etc. would only produce anxiety. I did notice that a previous owner had self-tappered a volt meter into the place where a digital clock wasn’t. The small, warped needle swung wildly from 11 to 15V, mostly in the morning. Its flickering backlighting did little to build rapport with me. Was it the charging system or the gauge? I preferred blissful ignorance.
Pegging at 11 volts up a mountain pass would be abnormal. I looked to my not-so trustworthy companion, the unlit charge warning lamp, which said nothing of the situation. I backed off the throttle, and after a few minutes of lower boost driving the voltage returned to its “normal” area. Hmm …
A few days later, on the Andalusian coast, the opposite phenomena occurred. The charge light cried foul while the volt meter read pegged at 15V. Sigh. I pulled over at a rest area in the middle of nowhere. My multimeter quickly verified that the charge lamp was indeed a dirty, dirty liar. Who can you trust, if not a simple diode and a lightbulb?
At the campsite that night, I dug out the wiring diagrams and tried to make sense of it all while voraciously hydrating my body. Given that the cab wiring is all Fiat (well documented) and the body wiring is all Hobby (utter black box), I was disturbed to find that the relay for the fridge gas ignitor and some other obscure voltage supply were directly spliced in to the charge lamp circuit. My options were, A) Take out the fridge to get to the relay or B) Source a new-to-me alternator and hope the problem went away. I want what’s behind door number 2, Bob!
According to both Google Translate and Google Maps, Desguaces means “junkyard” in Spanish. Busted cars from Northern Europe are regularly exported, and Spain is a common landing zone for a half-decade stopover before a car either dies or lives another life in nearby Morocco or other parts of North Africa. A consequence of this migration pattern is that Spain has really well stocked self-service pick-a-part yards.
As if I needed any additional motivation to get out and explore junkyards, our campsite in Spain was not really a winner. I was keen to spend time away from there. My evidence, your honor: on one side of our plot was a grandmother with a side hustle subleasing about 20 reserved campsites. On our other side was very drunk and recently incarcerated Catalonian fellow (he was thrilled to be a free man), his pit bull, and his stripper girlfriend. Everywhere else, people were watching the Spanish version of American Idol.
My wife said that she needed some time to strip what’s called a “gel coat” off her nails and then redo it. Having some experience with refinishing boats, I assumed this would take time. The spare parts were calling my name.
The junkyard was located about 6 miles away, as the filthy pigeon flies. Call them first? With my rusty high-school Spanish? No way without visible gesticulation. This was obviously a job for my Chinese-made, stick-welded folding clown bicycle. My phone told me the temperature was about 93 degrees and the route to the yard was mostly flat and on country lanes. I spent the next ten minutes thinning down my tool collection to something portable and ratchet-strapping my orange marine box to the back of my bike. In my backpack went some water and spare storage room for souvenirs.
Google said I was projected to arrive about 45 minutes before closing. A tight window, but possible for me to remove an alternator if negotiations went smoothly. Riding through the Spanish orange groves and abandoned farmsteads, I managed to become lost several times before my tires crunched into the driveway of the five-acre scrap yard.
Cars were piled three-high around the perimeter of the facility, many already stripped of their most salable bits for easier access on a warehouse shelf. I walked into the lobby where I was immediately hit with oscillating fans on full blast and a curt “Hola. Dime.” Translation: “Hello. Tell me,” as in, what do you want, clown-bike-man?
(The following exchange was conducted in Spanish, unless otherwise noted.)
Gloria the Counter Lady: Dime.
Matt Anderson (in horrible Spanish): Uhhh. Hello. I am sorry for my bad Spanish. I am searching for an alternator for an old Ducato.
Guy behind the glass in the next room: Where are you from? Are you Russian or Ukrainian or Romanian?
MA: I am an American from the United States of America.
GBG: (in English): Cool, man.
MA: (in English): Do you speak English?
Gloria: He doesn’t speak English. He just knows those two words: “Cool, man.” Do you have a part number?
MA: Uhhh. No. I am sorry.
Gloria: Do you have a picture, or can you get one?
MA: (Thinks better of asking wife to lift hood with “gel coat” nails.) I can find a Google picture.
Gloria: Please, sit down and try to find something.
MA: (Searches for ten minutes)
Gloria: Did you find something yet?
MA: Yes, please moment. I have now a number of part.
MA: (hands phone to Gloria)
Gloria: No, sorry. We do not have it.
GBG #2: What year is Ducato?!
MA: It is from year 9 3 but from 8 1 to 9 3 all is same. The engine is two point five (five accidentally said as “funf,” as in German).
GBG #2: Outside, ask Thomas.
MA: Ok, goodbye everyone!
(Runs out like idiot)
MA: I am searching for an alternator for a Ducato. It is old.
MA: (follows) I like old cars.
Thomas: (very long pause) OK.
Thomas took me into a warehouse with shelves full of lots of things, including (thank god) alternators. The V-belt pulley on all of them was an easy criterion filter, telling me that nothing here in this stash of multi-ribs would work. But then, the fresh white paint marker of the heap on the ground read “IVECO”. My eyes focused on a very dingy V-belt Magnetti Marelli alternator on the plywood floor, laying there as if it were just recently pulled and awaiting stock-in. Was that why it wasn’t yet in Gloria’s system?
Finding an alternator on the floor was a massive relief in terms of overall success of the mission. But a sick little part of me was crushed that I did not get to explore the yard and at least put to use my handy orange tool box.
Sensing that I was here for more than just questionable Italian charging devices and stilted conversation, Thomas turned me loose in the yard until closing time. And what a twenty minutes it was!
The opening act was a failed restoration of a Rolls Royce Silver Spirit, after which came the intermission: a spectacularly preserved Renault R6. And then the showstopper—an Indian Tata Telco Sport! This place had it all! I snagged a badge off the Tata to add to my fridge magnet collection.
More or less retracing my steps, and making sure to also repeat the part where I got lost, I arrived back at the campsite after a brief stop for some paella supplies. My wife’s nails were nearly dry. I had dinner supplies, plus alternator that we may or may not need, and I even got some Spanish language practice. Vacation is such fun!