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The Czech is in the post (or rather it's now been cashed by the dealer) PART 1
The recent motoring experiences of David Wakefield

Ladies & gentlemen, my name is David and I'm a Skoda driver.

There, I've said it.

Nothing to be ashamed of - it's a perfectly good car to drive and marries Volkwagen-levels of quality with Citroen price levels.

A logical, rational and sensible choice.

Oh yes, logical, rational & sensible.

That's me these days.

Yes, it has come to pass that after 19 years of feeding the Italian car addiction - like all good addictions one which becomes ever more expensive and pernicious as time spent in its thrall increases - I have managed to kick the habit, stub it out & take the pledge. No weaning, no sensible Fiat family hatchback methodone to lessen the draw of Alfa Romeo's pleated Momo leather - this is it, cold turkey.

The antidote?

The Skoda Octavia.

Diesel.

But what, I hear my erstwhile imaginary Italian car brethren cry, has prompted such an extreme volte face? What could have possibly shaken him from his latin slumber - sending him hurtling headlong into the embrace of Czech/German heavy-oil-powered Nirvana?

Well - if you're sitting comfortably, allow me to tell you a story...

(cue weird TV 'ripple' transition to the cabin of a strangely-familiar silver Alfa Romeo a month ago).

There we were, enjoying a week away in Portsmouth, house-sitting for my parents, enjoying the luxury of being away from home for a week with minimal outlay.

We'd already enjoyed a few nice days out and about on the coast and its environs and now, here we were, in the aforementioned Alfa heading out for a trip to visit Fort Nelson, a military museum on nearby Portsdown Hill.

Pulling off the driveway and into the main road, I couldn't help but notice a slight 'graunchiness' from the clutch as it engaged - a hint of metallic consternation as the gears meshed in first and second.

With a gentle feeling of disquiet starting to make itself evident, another potentially-confirmatory symptom began to manifest itself as a dull, abrasive-sounding rumbling whine from the transmission as I slowed for a roundabout and engaged a lower gear...

Disquiet starting to turn to a genuine feeling of unease, I began to fire up the mental checklist in my mind - the one that practically every Italian car owner keeps pinned to the back wall of their mental recess and invariably consults on a more regular basis than that, say, of an Audi owner:

  1. The car's just been serviced - it can't be anything serious can it?
  2. It's an Alfa Romeo - chances are, even though it's just been serviced it could almost certainly be something serious, couldn't it?
  3. Oh s##t - this is going to cost me.

After driving around (carefully) and with equal sense of dread & resignation - the potential causes of the mechanical unpleasantness circulated in my increasingly-pounding head.

After much deliberation and a bit of looking around on the Web, the 2 main potential diagnoses of the malady were:

1: Best case - clutch & thrust bearing wear requiring replacement of both items - total cost -approximately £400-£500.

Not cheap, but a better prospect than..

2: Worst case - gearbox failure requiring replacement gearbox, clutch & thrust bearing - total cost - more than the value of the car.

Needless to say then, it was with a sense of impending doom that I dropped the car off at Alfa specialists DTR in Coulsdon and set off for work in their Fiat loaner.

The conversation at the service desk had not been entirely uplifting as the wide-eyed innocent in me sought reassurance from the world-weary Alfa mechanic that all that was needed was a clutch...

..wasn't it..?

(Much sucking of air through teeth had indicated that this might well be wishful thinking on my part..)

A couple of hours later, settling into the day's business I answered the phone with trepidation as I recognised the phone number of the incoming call:

DTR Sportcars.

"Hello?" I answered, with as much optimism as my shaking voice could convey.

"Hello, it's (name obscured - he's shy) here at DTR - about your car"

"Yeeesss...."

"Bad news I'm afraid..the gearbox has done a bearing and there are lots of little bits of metal all over the place"

"S##te"

At this point of the conversation, the floor giving the impression that it had tuned from solid to jelly and my pulse racing, I thought it best to sit down and ascertain the fundamentals.

"So, how much are we looking at then..?"

(please don't be a lot, please don't be a lot, please don't be a lot)

"A gearbox from Alfa, off the shelf, re-conditioned is..hang on, let me look...

...one thousand and four pounds..

..plus a new clutch and thrust bearing, labour & VAT, er, you're looking at about..

...eighteen hundred pounds.."

Now, the sitting down idea proved to have been a wise decision as I felt the colour drain from my face and the room sway slightly.

"Sorry, you did say EIGHTEEN HUNDRED didn't you?"

(well, it was worth a try)

"I'm afraid I did, yes"

Oh. F###ing Hell.

"Right - so, what are my options?" I remember croaking.

In fact, given that the car was only worth about £1800 in mint condition I already knew that my options consisted of -

1: retrieving the damaged goods from Coulsdon

2: buying a 5 litre can of unleaded

3: removing any traces of identification from the vehicle

and,

4: applying aforementioned petroleum product to it along with a match and calling Privilege Insurance.

This approach however had its drawbacks, not least the fact that most insurance fraud is nigh on impossible to get away with these days (and joking aside, I wouldn't ever undertake such a course of action, Your Honour) but also the fact that the way things were going I probably couldn't afford the 5 litres of fuel..

So, after thanking the kind gentleman and informing him that I'd give him a call once the room had ceased spinning and I'd worked out just what the Hell I was going to do I turned to the one real option open to me apart from selling the thing for scrap on Ebay (things weren't quite that desperate - yet..).

t'Internet.

Now, the Internet has been a great friend to me in the past - it has helped me find addresses, get interviews for jobs and allowed me access to a whole world of information unthinkable even 5 or 6 years ago.

Today however it was going to have to go that extra mile and help me to not spend eighteen hundred quid on mending a car that wasn't really worth that much.

A quick search on Google turned up a couple of transmission specialists who could sell me a reconditioned 'box for about £500 - half the price of the Alfa-supplied item and guaranteed for anything up to 12 months, depending on who was selling it.

This was undoubtedly an improvement on the grand I was currently staring down both barrels at but still more than I wanted to shell out, so I summoned Google's immense power and directed it at the search phrase "Alfa 156 2.0 TS gearbox breaker".

And there, to the accompaniment of the Hallelujah Chorus (in my head at least) was the listing for an online car dismantler site which promised to find me the bits I needed from a network of breakers yards -sorry, "dismantlers' facilities" - nationwide as soon as I'd told them what I needed.

My fingers practically dancing across the keyboard as I entered the relevant information - name, car model, age of vehicle, part required & contact details before clicking on 'send', I sat back to await developments..

And developments there came as within no more than 2 minutes I had 4 texts and 2 phone calls from people who had gearboxes for the Alfa - ranging in price from £160 to about £300.

This, I decided was much more like it and plumped for the transmission offfered by a nice-sounding chap in Peterborough.

To be honest, given my mental state at that precise moment anybody with the particular part I needed for less than a grand would have been nice-sounding - indeed, the bloke I spoke to on the phone could very well have been an axe-wielding psychopath whose sterotypical junkyard dog was running around with previous customers' limbs in its frothing, rabid jaws for all I knew but I didn't care - he had The Box and would supply it, with a 30 day guarantee, for £180, delivered to the garage in Surrey.

Never mind the dog, I practically bit his arm off..

Anyway, after a nervous couple of days tooling around in the DTR Stilo the car was ready - my nightmarish visions of the replacement transmission being in an even more parlous state than that which had detonated itself proving it seemed, unfounded.

Remembering a throwaway comment I had made when dropping off the car what now seemed an age ago I raised a sardonic eyebrow and muttered 'wasn't the clutch then..' as I handed over my card, listening for the sounds of melting plastic as £800-odd pounds evaporated from my bank account..

Outside, the silver 156 seemed to eye me with disdain..

(to be continued)

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