Break-down in Europe - what happened next

Most of us carry a selection of common spares and a few tools, and can reasonably expect to fix the odd snag at the roadside.  But there is always the possibility that something major will occur that is simply too big to manage.  That's one reason why we take advantage of the breakdown and recovery service associated with the RH insurance policies available to us.

Having had that experience when the crankshaft broke whilst on holiday in Brittany,  I thought I would set out what happens, what you need to do and what you can expect next.  Provided that you have a few essential bits of information, paperwork and a mobile phone, the support service is excellent.  So much so that you need never be afraid to venture further afield in your Austin Seven. 

BEFORE YOU SET OFF, make sure that you have your RH policy number WITH YOU - in the drawer at home simply isn't good enough.  Write it down on the card with the contact details and put it in your wallet.  Whilst a UK breakdown might be managed with just the registration number, if you're travelling further afield you will be stuck without it.  Oh, and make sure your mobile phone is both charged and (if PAYG) has credit in it.  A pen and paper is also a good bet.

Now go off on your travels with confidence, having prepared your safety net.

Should you have a major problem, firstly move the car and any passengers to somewhere safe.  If you have one, put on your high visibility jacket - simply to alert other road users that you're not in full control of the situation!  These are a legal requirement in most countries in Europe that we are likely to visit (see note below).  (Confession time, in the panic following a huge under the bonnet noise, I forgot!).  Now, spend a few minutes just checking over what might have occurred.  Three reasons; it will help no end to have calmed down a bit before you call for assistance; you will need to give the recovery company some information so that they can help you and you avoid calling them out for something you can deal with yourself.  The last one is important: for the sake of all of us, we need to avoid unnecessary callouts where a call to a local expert / bit of tinkering / few basic checks can get the car running again. 

It’s essential to do a bit of basic diagnosis, even if you can't fix the problem.  What has broken?  Are any major castings broken, bits sticking out where they shouldn’t?  If you have a back axle or gearbox problem, you will need to tell the recovery company that the car needs a trailer - a "spectacle lift" won't do because the car can't be moved on its own wheels.  If, as I had, a major engine failure has occurred, check this out by trying to turn it over BY THE HANDLE - if it's completely solid then they won't waste time sending someone to try to get it going at the side of the road but will send a trailer first go.  Can the car be rolled by hand or will it have to be lifted on to the recovery vehicle? 

When you ring the helpline, you will need:

  1. Your location - so find out just where you are before calling.
  2. The location of your accommodation if far from home.
  3. Your policy number - hence the need to have it to hand.
  4. A brief summary of the circumstances, what has broken, whether the car can be moved etc.
  5. Your mobile phone number, (inc the 44 if you are abroad - and remember that there is no leading zero with the code, so that your number is stated as "44 for the UK, 7706 .....).
  6. The helpline number.

If you are abroad, then the number you will ring is a control centre in Holland - irrespective of where you are on the continent.  The people that answer are call centre operatives, not mechanics or old-car buffs, so you will need to answer their questions simply and clearly, even if they might seem a bit odd. 

Firstly you will be asked for your policy details.  This is necessary for them to ensure that you are a legitimate customer - and that they will get paid for their help!  Next, you will be asked for some details about the nature of your problem.  One question that they have to ask is whether you have been in an accident, (i.e. hit another car, been hit or so on).  This isn't just for fun, they legally have to know if a third party has been involved.
They will ask for the make and model of the car.  Now you will need a bit of patience.  They have a database of dozens of marques and thousands of associated garages.  The usual first priority is to see if they can get your car to a main dealer to get it fixed.  Right now they don't know that you are driving a historic vehicle; it might be a Renault Clio that needs a cam belt for all they know.  So, stick with them.  When you get as far as “Austin”, they will ask if it is a Montego, Metro or similar - that is just because they are what is on the database.  Respond by saying "it is a historic, 1934 saloon" or in similar vein.  I found it helped clarify things to use the expression "old timer" to the call centre in Holland.  My operator immediately realised that getting a few bits from a main dealer wasn't going to be an option.  It isn't a daft question when they ask the colour - the recovery driver will want to know what to look out for. 

When they ask for your location or the location of your accommodation, try to be precise. Best of all, give them a post code.  The better your description, the sooner you will be picked up.  I was lucky as I was only 400 yards from my hotel, and as it was safe to do so I moved the car to the hotel car park.  That way, the driver had a complete address with postcode, plus a landmark that he could spot. 

The agency aim to get a recovery vehicle to you within an hour.  In my experience this is easily met as my Box Saloon was being loaded within 40 minutes of the first call.  It pays to keep an eye on the loading; not all recovery operators realise that the chassis isn’t a good place to put a tie down strap on to, and you need to check that the strap isn’t at risk of holing the fuel tank.  But, within the hour, the car is on its way.  If you are abroad, this is a “repatriation service”, so it’ll be off to a secure holding compound. 

At this point I did something stupid; I left the RH card in the car!  No way to contact the agency again!  Thankfully, I still had access to the numbers.  Note that you will need to leave the copy of the V5 Registration Documents in the car, as the driver of the recovery wagon has to be able to show that he’s not importing it into the UK, but that it legally exists here.  So, before you wave it goodbye, remember to take out everything you are likely to need for the rest of your trip. 

After collection the car will be held awaiting a transporter load of vehicles to be returned to the UK.  There is an agreement between the agency and the recovery companies that they have 10 working days to get the car back to you.  In practice, this means that a car transporter trolls around Europe during the first week, collecting all the breakdowns, and then travels across the channel with a full load.  These cars are delivered back to their owners on the second week, whilst European cars that have broken down or been in accidents in the UK are loaded for the return trip. 



KEEP YOUR MOBILE PHONE ON!  This number, that they collect by Caller ID when you first ring, is the number they will call you on to arrange delivery.  Soon after I arrived home I was called and told that my car had been moved from France, was now in Holland with several other casualties, and was booked onto a cross channel ferry for the Monday and was due to be delivered to my home on the Wednesday.  I didn’t have to pester or ring up for this information; the agency were very good at calling to keep me informed. 

But what about you and your holiday?  Again, assuming you are abroad, you are allocated a hire car from one of the major companies and transport to get you back home.  Depending on the time of day, (i.e. whether the hire car companies offices are open at the time), a hire car will be arranged for you either immediately or on the following morning.  You’ll need to get to the desk, but these are in every major town and the agency will have booked you a car nearby.  For me, I had to get just 8km to the nearest mainline station, where a Hertz Opel Corsa was waiting for me.  You will need your licence, the booking reference that the agency calls you with, your passport and a valid credit card.  You aren’t going to be charged for the car, but you are liable for fuel, fines, damage.....against which they will take a deposit.  At the end of your trip, simply drop off the car (fuelled) at the agreed place.  The agency offered to get me a car from Brittany to Calais, where I would swap it for a British hire car to take through the tunnel.  However, it was easy to rearrange this (before I got to Hertz) so that I could just drop the car at Roscoff and go aboard the ferry as a foot passenger.  (You will need to swap your tickets at the ferry terminal, but that’s just a matter of asking at the ticket desk.)  Even easier, there is a Hertz desk inside the ferry terminal to take the keys from you.

Again, all this was painless.  The agency called me to check that the arrangement for the car was convenient, called again when it was organised, and called again that afternoon to check that I had got my hire car and was back on the road.
FINALLY, if the car is to be delivered to your home address, you will need to be present to take delivery of it.  Mention this at the time and they will call you sometime before you need to be back.
I hope you never need to know any of this, but, having experienced it first hand, I know that I can venture abroad secure in the knowledge of first class backup, if it all goes horribly wrong.

This article, written by Geoff Hardman, originally appeared in CA7C Seven Focus in Oct 2009 pp13-15.


NOTE: When planning your trip to Europe do find out about the driving laws (speed limits, alcohol limits etc) and the legal requirements for documents and equipment that you are required to carry in the car.  They differ from the UK and many websites provide the information about the requirements of each country.