Thursday, August 16, 2012


By Francesca Prescott

(Warning: this isn't a horsey-issue, but it's an issue that's affecting my horsey activities big-time this week and potentially for the weeks to come, and it's on my mind, so I hope you don't mind me sharing it with you.)

Saturday morning, lovely sunny day, I’m driving along the motorway looking forward to a lesson with Qrac, singing along to songs on the radio. The traffic is heavy as carloads of people head off on holiday, and trucks rumble along, laden with all sorts of things that need to go to all sorts of places. I’m in the fast lane, overtaking a series of trucks driving far too close to each other, when all of a sudden something in the engine of my car goes kaboom. My car, a BMW X3 with 143’000 kms on it, lurches to the right, jumping dangerously close to the truck I’m overtaking. The steering goes all floppy, my adrenaline surges as I wrestle with the steering wheel to regain control of the car. I feel a sudden loss of power and immediately downshift, trying to regain some forward thrust, but the accelerator doesn’t respond. I flick on my indicator and bully my way between two trucks, then pull over into the emergency lane and slam on the brakes before it comes to a temporary end because of a bridge. I squeeze as close to the barrier as possible, click on the hazard lights and with my heart racing, grab my bag, clamber over the passenger seat and get out of the car.

The traffic is crazy; cars and trucks race by, a mere metre or so from my car. I consider opening the trunk and finding the emergency triangle as I know I’m supposed to walk down the road and put it down to warn oncoming traffic of my predicament, but the intensity of the traffic is such that I just don’t dare. So I climb over the barrier and squeeze along the narrow space between the hedge and the barrier, heading for a small patch of grass just before the bridge where I can see I’ll be less likely to be run over.

I know I need to call the police, or the emergency towing company, but my mind is totally blank. We don’t have 911 in Switzerland; is the police’s number 118 or 117? I can’t remember, my heart is pounding, I’m scared someone is going to slam into my car, I’m scared there’s going to be a big accident. So I call home and my daughter says she thinks it’s 118, so I hang up and call that, but it’s the firemen, who tell me to call 117. I do so, and the policeman is very nice, asks me if there’s been any accident, or whether my car is blocking traffic in any way, and when I tell him it isn’t he tells me to stay put and that he’ll get in touch with the emergency towing company, but that chances are I’ll have to wait half an hour. He asks whether I’ve put the emergency triangle in place further down the road, and I tell him I haven’t, that I’m terrified of going back to my car because there’s so much traffic. I guess he hears the fear in my voice, as well as the vroom-vroom-vroom of the traffic and although putting the triangle in place is mandatory, tells me to stay in my little grassy green zone. I take deep breaths, trying to get my heart to slow down.

It’s boiling hot, but there’s no shade, so I suck it up, and call my husband to tell him what’s happened. He goes to find our emergency towing company membership number and texts it to me so I can give it to the man when he shows up. I call my trainer at the stables to tell her I won’t be coming today and she tells me not to worry, to take care, and that she will ride Qrac for me. The emergency towing man arrives thirty minutes later, slides into the escape lane and reverses close to my car. I squeeze back between the barrier and the hedge and head towards him. He tries repeatedly to start my car, hooking it up to some sort of computer, and putting some sort of magic product in the engine, a product he says never fails to start an engine unless the problem is very serious.

Clearly, the problem is very serious.

Half an hour later he admits defeat. He can’t tow me away as we’re too close to the bridge, there’s not enough space to pick up speed before merging into traffic and because there’s so much traffic attempting this would be far too dangerous. So he calls a colleague who drives the breakdown-truck and asks him to come and load my car and cart us back to the BMW garage where I always have my car serviced. Of course, the truck is an hour away, and I’m going to have to wait, all alone, on the side of the motorway in the heat. Which kind of sucks, but what else can I do?

Finally, the big truck arrives and I have more palpitations when the driver lies down underneath my car, his body inches away from speeding traffic. He attaches the cable, presses a few buttons and my car is dragged onto the lorry. We drive back to the garage and almost have an accident when someone in a little car overtaking us starts drifting towards us, narrowly avoiding slamming into us on the driver’s side! I guess I’m having a dangerous-to-be-on- roads day!

Finally, close to three hours after the kaboom, we pull into the BMW garage and deposit my car. Of course, it’s Saturday so there are only sales people there, and nobody in the mechanical field to talk to about what might possibly be wrong.

Monday morning, my husband and I drive over to the BMW garage to explain exactly what happened; they loan me a Mini for Frs 70.- per day (it’s about $ 70.-) and tell us they’ll be in touch within 48 hours to give us an update. It’s now Thursday afternoon, and despite various telephone conversations with the garage and a personal visit to return the Mini (I’m going to London for the weekend), nobody still seems to know what the problem is, but from what we’ve understood it’s not exactly looking good. Neither my husband nor I are knowledgeable in BMW techno-speak, so have a limited understanding of what the lovely young man at the reception was telling us, but from what we’ve gathered, we need to pay vast amounts of money to even begin to determine whether the car is salvageable or not, which totally sucks.  Another issue is that my car’s clutch has been making funny noises for some months whenever I floor it completely, yet whenever I’ve mentioned this problem to the garage they’ve told me there’s nothing wrong. Hmmm…. Also, they haven’t seemed to be too concerned about the rather disturbing clanking sound when I turn the steering wheel fully to the right or to the left. Normal?  Somehow I doubt it. And even if it is, it’s not exactly reassuring, let’s put it that way.

So here I am, carless until at least next Wednesday, which is when the garage can next loan me a car as they don’t have anything to lend me on Tuesday (I return from London on Monday evening), and can’t extend the loan beyond forty-eight hours. However, they’ve kindly told us that they won’t be charging us for the four days with the Mini.

Meanwhile, I’m stuck, and the general vibe I’m getting is that this is going to take some time (two, three, four weeks?), especially if the mechanics still can’t figure out what’s wrong by tomorrow, despite having spent about eight hours scratching their heads. I mean, we don’t want to pay thousands of francs for them to dismantle the engine only to be told that the car needs a new engine! And what about the rattly clutch and the clanky steering? Are they going to fix those problems, too, for a couple of extra hundreds or thousands? Seriously, there comes a point where we’re better off buying another car from them, which we’re happy to consider as long as they treat us fairly, properly and commercially.

I’ll probably go and rent a car from a regular rental agency next week in order to go backwards and forwards to the stables and to generally get around. But I have a dressage competition in early September, and without my car (or a powerful car) I won’t be able to go as I won’t be able to pull my trailer. I was in fact supposed to be competing next weekend but have been humming and hahing over actually taking part or not as my son is having ACL (knee ligament) surgery the day before my show, and as a world class worrier I doubt my head will be screwed on properly while he’s in hospital. Now, with the car kaput, there’s no way I can go, anyway. At least that problem is solved!

I know cars break down all the time, and that worse things happen (and trust me, I shudder to think what it would have been like if the car had gone kaboom while I was hauling the trailer), but it’s just very frustrating to be hanging around, waiting to know what to do for the best. Also, whenever I look back on the moment when the car went kaboom, I get shivers thinking about what could have happened had I not been able to regain control of it when it lurched to the right, the steering went floppy and the accelerator failed.

Have you ever broken down in heavy traffic? Did your car do weird, scary things? Worse, have you ever broken down hauling horses? If so, what did you do?


horsegenes said...

I totally understand your fear and frustration.
I have had a break down with my horse trailer with 4 horses in it on a twisting moutain road. SCARY. The transmission in my truck went out pulling a steep grade and we had to pull off on a blind corner with no shoulder and wait for hours to get rescued. Not only had to have a tow truck for my truck but had to find another truck that had the right hitch and could pull a 4 horse trailer loaded! It was insane. Thankgoodness the road had very little traffic. I drank a whole lot of margaritas that night.
Funny note....I read your whole post and thought??? "you haul your trailer with a car?" (as opposed to a truck) I had to google BMW X3 just to get an idea!

TBDancer said...

My car has broken down in heavy traffic, and I have done what you did. Headed to the breakdown lane as quickly and safely as possible, turned on the emergency flashers and dialed 911 (I'm in California).

For horse hauling, I have a motor plan with USRider, which is staffed by people who understand horses, trailers, and that unloading on the roadside is NEVER A GOOD IDEA. They have information about veterinary services, should there be equine injuries to handle, and they know of stables or fairgrounds that will take overnighters (or two-to-three-weekers) if the repairs to vehicle and/or trailer require such a thing.

I've never had to use my USRider plan--been a member for two years now--but I've got my card and my keytag and am confident things will be handled from the "vehicle" end of things should anything happen.

I hope your Beemer is just being "difficult" and the problem is something obscure but minor.

Anonymous said...

My Chevy Tahoe did the same thing a couple weeks ago. It had about 170,000 miles on it, & had some other problems that we knew we'd have to sink money into, but we were trying to squeeze another year or two out of it! Then, BAM... Engine blows up. (not literally, but it would no longer go forward with any power.) :/

So rather than sinking money into it when we were just going to replace it in a year or 2 anyway, we bit the bullet & bought a new (used) car, & sold my poor Tahoe..

I had the same thought about hauling a horse trailer with a car, I just thought you must have a Brenderup!

Good luck with the car deal, it's such a pain in the rear to be without wheels! (I ended up having to drive our Chevy Silverado 3500 crew cab dually until we got the new car, that thing is a BEAST to drive as a commuter!)


Laura Crum said...

Cesca--So glad you are Ok, but sorry to hear about all the bother. The worst breakdown I had was a flat tire on a two horse trailer on the LA freeways at rush hour. We were able to pull over on the shoulder, but our jack would not jack up the trailer with the horses in it. (This was many years ago--I now have one of those ramps.) We could not get the horses out obviously--especially since one was a very green two year old. I was panicking. Just the traffic all around me was scaring me (as you describe). And then a trucker in a bobtail pulled in behind us, got out his truck jack, jacked the trailer and horses up and we changed the tire in ten minutes and were on our way. I will be forever grateful.

jenj said...

It's SO scary to be broken-down anywhere alone, but in heavy traffic it's truly terrifying. I'm glad you and your car made it to safety in one piece!

Although I have no idea what could be wrong with the car, for the clanking noise, you might have them check the CV boot and joints. That's the connection point between the axle and wheel. When the joint starts to go, it makes a clunking sound when you turn the wheel hard over (sometimes not so hard). I had this happen to a car of mine, and I believe it was over $1000 US to have it repaired, and that was 15 years ago.

Also, perhaps I'm just used to American mechanics, but having the car for a week and having no idea what's wrong seems odd. And I'd be a bit leery of purchasing a new car from someone who can't find the problem with my old one, since I'm pretty sure they'll make more money if you buy a new one than if you fix the old one. I'm probably being cynical though!

I do hope they find the problem soon and that it's not too expensive to fix!

Francesca Prescott said...

Horsegenes: four horses on a twisty mountain road sounds terrifying, especially if you had to wait for hours. Nightare!

I never thought anyone would bat an eyelid at the idea of hauling a trailer with a car; over here, people do it all the time. Of course, you need a big car with a powerful engine (my BMW is a diesel 3.0 litre engine and can pull a trailer with two horses in it providing the trailer (or horsebox/van, whatever you want to call it) isn't too heavy (there are strict regulations and you do not want to get caught pulling something too heavy!). I think that in America your trailers tend to be bigger and heavier, but then again, your cars tend to be bigger too (although maybe they're shrinking in recent years and becoming more ecologically correct!). I know that one of my trainers broke down twice in one night hauling two horses back from a show. Worse, the second time she broke down in a tunnel! I'd have had no hair left if that had happened to me. And like you I'd definitely have drunk a whole lot of margaritas, or something or other!

Francesca Prescott said...

TBdancer: I've no idea whether there is anything equivalent to your USrider over here, which sounds like a really good idea. I heard a horror story a few months ago where a truck pulling a trailer with three horses in it overturned on the motorway...and they had to wait for ages to get help. By some miracle the horses stayed calm and when help finally came and they managed to get the van upright again, they later unloaded the horses and reloaded them into another van. Those angelic horses loaded without making a fuss and escaped with minor injuries. But I bet the driver still has nightmares about it.

I also hope by car is being "difficult" but my intuition is telling me it's finito. I guess we'll find out soon enough (or asap!!!! argh!)

Thank you for commenting.

Francesca Prescott said...

Anon: what's a Brenderup??!!

Major bummer about your Chevy Tahoe; sounds like a similar problem to my BMW. Like you, I was planning on squeezing a few more years into it, but it looks like that car has decided it wants to take a break, or go to the scrapyard, or find another owner.

Oh, and I'll have to look up Chevy Silverado thingy, but I'm sure it's absolutely enormous!

Francesca Prescott said...

Laura: your comment reminded me that I actually did break down coming back from a show years ago, but it wasn't my car and and they weren't my horses, and I wasn't driving. I remember it was a Land Rover, and I remember the engine started smoking, and that the tow-truck company came and unhooked us from the trailer, and rehooked themselves to it, and all was well that ended well. But it was a hairy moment, and my friend who was driving was already tired from a day of showing, and it was the last thing she needed!

Thanks for commenting :)

Francesca Prescott said...

Jenj: thanks for the input on the clanking noise. I'll have to look up the French translation for CV boot and joints!! But what you describe sounds pretty accurate.

I know what you mean about whether or not to trust the garage. They are an official BMW and Mini dealer, and have quite a few outlets in this area and are supposed to be reputable. The company my husband works for buys company cars from them (lots of cars) so they should be honest as they stand to lose a lot of business if they try to take us for a ride! I think that part of the problem these days is that our cars are incresingly run with electronics and computers, and are more and more complex. So when a problem can't be checked out electronically, it takes hours and hours to disassemble all the complex bits and pieces. But then what do I know about cars?! All I know is that I want a nice big one that runs well and that can pull my trailer, and that I want it asap!

Anonymous said...

Here is a link to Brenderup, I'm surprised you haven't heard of them as they are mostly in Europe! They are few & far between here in the States!

They are really lightweight & durable, as well as really safe to haul horses in.


Anonymous said...

And yes, the Silverado is enormous, and to cap it off, we'd just put our camper on it, so that added another 4 feet to limo-like length!


White Horse Pilgrim said...

We lost the coolant on my old truck, luckily on a minor road. It wasn't repairable on the spot. The towing company refused to handle a loaded trailer, though it was well within their capability. That was on a summer morning. I decided to ride the horse back to the barn, which took almost until nightfall. Probably I could have found someone to trailer her back, but I thought "sod that, the repair will cost enough". A couple of weeks later I changed the truck for a 3yo Mitsubishi which is great.

The previous breakdown I had to deal with involved brake failure on a livestock lorry in the mountains. It ended up on its side. I had to cut ties of horses suspended from the side that was uppermost, which was the day that I decided always to carry a cutting implement when I travelled horses. Only one was dead, however we had to drag a number free that were too shocked to move. On reflection that was safer than if they had panicked. It was a most unpleasant day.

Alison said...

What a miserable day and not a horse in it (which is why it was so miserable.) Let us know what the prognosis is on your BMW.

Francesca Prescott said...

Well, ding dong the wicked BMW is would cost an insane amount of money to fix it so we're trying to figure out where to go from here. Right now I'm carless, which is a real drag. I was in London over the weekend, which wasn't a drag at all; Olivia and I had a wonderful horses involved but I may have to post about making a pilgrimage to the Olympic Equestrian centre and soaking up all the amazing vibes!

I went out test driving cars today for the first time in my life, which was more fun than I thought it would be. No clue what car I'm going to end up with; it depends on which garage make the best offer.

Thank you for reading and commenting :)