Al's worst breakdowns (of the non-nervous variety)


Author: Alastair ClementsPublished:

Our e-mail inboxes are constantly bombarded with irrelevant press releases, trying to persuade C&SC to publicise everything from classic-themed coasters to (for some obscure reason) great advances in photocopier technology.

I was intrigued, however, by one that popped up last week, under the headline: ‘REVEALED: the worst places to break down in Britain!’ Now, I’m not sure that I had ever considered the idea of a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ place to break down, it seems pretty depressing whenever – and wherever – it happens to me, but my interest was sufficiently piqued for me to read on.

The PR was the result of some slightly spurious-sounding research conducted and disseminated to promote the breakdown cover provided by, and – rather obviously – it concluded that areas that are ‘most difficult to reach’ are particularly undesirable.

These were headed by remote parts of Aberdeenshire and, bizarrely, the M40 due to the long stretches between junctions.

I had a blowout on the M40 in my Suzuki Whizzkid a few years ago and I don’t remember it being so bad. A bit scary changing a wheel beside 70mph juggernauts, certainly, but not a huge amount more so than driving alongside them in a spam-tin such as the SC100.

This did get me thinking, and prompts me to ask the question: where is the worst place that you have broken down?

I’ve got two to kick things off, both stressful but for very different reasons. The first follows the majority of the press release theme, in that it took place on a motorway. Actually, to be more precise, it took place between two motorways, and was probably made more memorable by the fact that it was the eighth – yes, you read that right –  time my newly purchased 1957 MG Magnette had let me down on its maiden voyage to my home.

Having finally got the ignition system sorted – or so it seemed – I had managed to negotiate the entire M4 stretch from Bristol to the M25 with just the one pitstop. But as I peeled off on to the southbound sliproad, the engine died, the ignition light came on and there was silence.

I don't know if you know this particular junction, but it's a rather enticing long, fast right-hander, and I was stranded on the outside of the corner about level with the apex, in the pitch black of a late – and very cold – January evening.

Thank goodness I had my mate and ace mechanic Tim Smith behind in a support car with functioning hazard lights, because even my warning triangle (a must in my view - those continentals have the right idea making it law) was doing nothing to slow the late-night commuters.

My second breakdown horror was even worse, in spite of the fact that it took place in a low-speed, built-up area less than a mile from my home. I have to fess up here: I was winging it. My '73 Volvo 1800ES had been playing up for some time, so I should have expected it to conk out again - and perhaps it was the wrong car to take when I knew I'd have my two-year-old with me.

As I neared home, however, I was feeling rather smug. Then there was a slight incline and the car's dicky fuel injection – and the car itself – began to falter. It came to a halt perfectly astride a pedestrian crossing, on a single carriageway, in heavy rush hour traffic.

Simple, I hear you cry, you were on an incline, so surely you just rolled it back out to somewhere safe then called for help? That was certainly the obvious course of action, but would my furiously beeping, road-raging fellow man help? Of course not.

There was a full 10 minutes of lethal, illegal overtaking manoeuvres and abuse before a good Samaritan was kind enough to block the raid and give me a hand. My daughter certainly had her vocabulary extended on that journey.

Just in case you were wondering, apparently the best places you can break down are the M621 or the M61 – so presumably routine maintenance be damned if you happen to live southwest of Leeds or northwest of Manchester...



I think the worst one must have been nursing an old Land Rover on a 300 mile journey from the Sahara to Fes in Morocco. It turned out to have no heater, and after a while the drivers window fell into the door. By the early hours of the morning it was snowing in the Middle Atlas, and with the ice on the roads two trucks hit each other and blocked the route. Frozen by this time, it seemed a good idea to bump round the obstruction. Surprisingly my off road excursion parallel to the line of trucks and buses worked, but only until I was faced with a steep bank to get onto the road again. Best slip it into low ratio... but there was no low. Hmm. Back into high... and high ratio has disappeared too.

I presumed something had fallen apart on the linkage, so pulled the cover off (hands getting very shaky with the cold); nothing visible. So, take a light and crawl underneath in the freezing slush... still nothing apparently wrong.

I start up again, try every combination of gear, ratio, engine speed, diff locks, you name it. It won't move.

So, with a few choice words I bid it goodbye, and have to walk back down the road to the accident (rather embarrassingly). Eventually, as freezing fog joins the party, I find a bus. They've no seats, but take pity on me and allow me to sit on the floor. I'm really, really cold by this point, in wet clothing, and as I climb onto the bus I'm anticipating the heaters roaring. I then notice that the driver is wearing a woolly hat and a scarf. There is no heating.

After waiting for hours on the freezing bus, they dropped me in the little town of Azou and a combination of country buses and taxi's eventually got me back to Fes.

Disgusted with the Land Rover, I sent a truck to bring it back. Imagine, for a moment, how I felt when the truck driver gliby reversed it off the flatbed... whatever had happened to the transfer box had miraculously fixed itself.

This episode just, narrowly, beats running out of petrol on Belgrave Square in a Silver Shadow. I can tell that they are extremely difficult to push, steer, or stop without the power assistance for everything.

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