I want to share with you what happened when I rented a car in London a few years ago. My wife, Meryl, and I were at the end of our trip to England and we were planning to drive to Wales for five days before the start of a cruise in Dover.
We had actually walked to the nearby Europcar agency to make sure that the car we had arranged for would be big enough to fit all of our luggage. I even mapped out a route to avoid having to drive through downtown London. Even though I’ve had enough experience in other countries where they drive on the left side of the road, I still thought it would be easier to get used to driving on highways rather than local roads.
My rental was a Nissan Qashqai, a model which doesn’t exist in the US.
Within a few minutes after leaving the car rental, Meryl asked me if I smelled something funny. The window was open and in my usual denial mode, I thought it may be some diesel fumes from the street. A few minutes later, a taxi driver rolled down his window and asked me the same thing and pointed out smoke coming from our “bonnet” (what they call the hood). As he told me this, I began to have trouble switching gears. I then realized that we must be having problems with the clutch.
I happen to be very familiar manual transmissions ever since I had to buy a car while out in San Francisco in 1970. I quickly had to learn to drive my new Fiat 128 and on those steep hills, you better be good at it when you’re stuck behind a cable car.
We had only driven about two miles so I was uncomfortable driving the car any further. I called the vehicle recovery line and waited almost two hours for the repair person to arrive. Luckily where we stopped was directly in front of a London police station and they couldn’t have been nicer to us. Policemen came out to ask us if we were OK and if we wanted to use the facilities. I guess they also wanted to make sure that we weren’t terrorists. While we waited, every police car passing us stopped to tell us that we couldn’t park there, but after explaining our situation, they were patient with us.
The first repair person told us that the car was drivable and agreed to let us follow him back to the agency. When we arrived back at the agency, the manager immediately assumed that I had been too heavy on the clutch and nearly burned it out. I reassured them that I was an experienced driver and that it must have been the previous driver who had created a problem. He insisted that they would have to send the car out to be evaluated by a repair person who would be able to determine if I were at fault.
I objected and they presented me with two options: 1) Give me another car so that we could resume our trip, or 2) Cancel the whole reservation. Since we had hotel reservations for the next five days which I thought were non-refundable, I opted to take another Qashqai with manual transmission, the only other car available.
Within three miles, while still in London, the same problem occurred, and my confidence in my driving skills quickly eroded. And even worse, it was on a busy road going uphill and I was unable to get the car into gear. The same acrid smoke was coming from the hood. I managed to turn the car around and went down the hill to a safe spot. But this time, I couldn’t even get the car into gear. The clutch pedal went all the way down to the floor.
I called the recovery line again and they told me that it was probably going to be about three hours to get someone to respond. It would have been dark by then and we weren’t anywhere near any place where we could use a bathroom. I also had to make a decision as to whether or not we’d be able to reach our destination for the night.
I wasn’t able to contact the original agency but I was fortunate to get someone on the line who managed to convince the recovery vehicle to reach us sooner. At this point, my anxiety level was very high and he was able to calm me down. He told me he would wait for us at his location until we arrived.
Still, I was having visions of a very expensive repair, but my wife very patiently reminded me that we have been through so much together and we have survived so far. She kept on repeating that the clutch issue wasn’t my fault and said, “It’s only a car!”
The second tow truck driver was another very friendly guy. He told us that he had seen many Qashqais with burned out clutches. He drove us back to the rental facility after hoisting the car onto his truck. The reassuring manager of that location told me that we were not to blame and that he would attribute the return to “mechanical failure.”
By this point, we had cancelled our plans to drive around England, so we had the opportunity to stay another five days in London where we were able to see another show and return to some of our favorite Chinese restaurants.
So what did I learn from this experience?
First, only rent a car with manual transmission if you really are truly comfortable with this. In England and other countries where it’s enough of an adjustment to be driving on the opposite side of the road, you don’t want to have to worry about not being able to change gears properly (with your left hand).
Second, make sure before you leave the rental facility, you have the phone number of the repair assistance in case you break down. If something does happen, don’t let anyone bully you into accepting responsibility for something which may not be your fault.
Third, make sure that you always have a car adapter for your cellphone if you are going to be doing any car rentals. You don’t want to find yourself with a dead cellphone battery when you have to make all those important phone calls. And make sure that you know how to make local calls within the country you’re visiting. It can be very confusing from one country to another.
Fourth, if you’re going to break down, pray that it happens near a police station. They couldn’t have been nicer. If you’re not lucky enough to be near a police station, don’t be afraid to beg for the mercy of complete strangers to help you. You have to believe that there’s someone who will go out of their way to be nice to you when you’re about to have a complete meltdown. When you do find that guardian angel, make sure to get his or her name and phone number or email so that you can thank them later when you’re not so stressed.
If you’re in a country where English is not the official language, hope that you’ll find someone who understands the situation you’re in. Even in England, it was very difficult to understand the customer assistance people who were located in various parts of England. Their thick regional English accents were tough to understand and as in the US, their customer service is sometimes outsourced to other countries.
The other reassuring thing that my wife reminded me about frequently as I was getting more and more anxious, was that in a week, I would be laughing about this. These minor crises are bound to happen sometime whether you’re at home or in the middle of a trip. If you stay calm, you’ll get through it. I now remember her saying over and over, “It’s not the end of the world.”