Just like in Mission Impossible, our day also had room for a high-speed car chase. Sweating, salt-encrusted and hoarse, we screeched across the border at around 3mph, pushing the overlong heap of metal and fake luxury wood. Then we pushed the extravagantly inconvenient ex-funeral accessory to border guards who searched it. Then we pushed the crippled container of superfluous leg-room through a further two passport checks. Then we pushed it into Uzbekistan.
In between these exhilarating happenings, we also managed to snap a tow eye off another car; the Suzuki Jimney that had decided to stick with us (seemingly out of equal parts of abject pity and good character). They got what was coming to them. The bastards.
In retrospect, it is hard to believe that the following events also occurred on that same day, but the day did actually continue to happen to us.
After driving past an Uzbeki necropolis (and mistaking it for an ornate village for small subterranean people) we swam in a dirty pool of water. At the time, it was a literal oasis at the end of a literal desert. Seven teams celebrating not having had their balls twisted slowly in hydroxidised vices in a Turkmen prison, running for the cool caress of that pungent liquid pit. Someone brought out shampoo and it got weird. But it also got dandruff free! The locals; skinny, underwear-clad teens, seemed perplexed at our joyous reunion with fluid.
Arguably less filthy, we pulled into an Uzbek village. It took only a few seconds for us to get stuck, swarmed by drunk, generous men offering us places to stay (all later to be contradicted by furious wives unseen). It was a step up from the mob upon entry to Turkmenistan, putting the Uzbeks in first place for spontaneous mobbing. We drank cold beers before moving on in search of a place to camp.
For reasons unknown at the time of writing, the Ford Escort team decided at this point that they did not want to tow us any further that night. So they heartlessly left Jack and Dom to defend the defunct death-stalker through the night beside a mosquito-infested, lorry-frequented marsh by a roundabout with a police checkpoint on it. They took Steve and Ollie with them and subjected them to a meatless lentil concoction. The bastards.
In the morning, they awoke Dom and Jack, who had writhed into twisted, cramped wrecks within the hull of the lifeless limo carcass, by driving directly into the side of it.
Keen to fix our beloved Rover we made an early start and headed towards Nukus. Being towed 20km to the outskirts felt like a dream: the inertia switch did not trip, the tow rope didn’t snap and the undercarriage did not bottom-out once. The search was on to find a trusty garage capable of returning our car to its former glory. Or, more realistically, to turn it into a rattling, tattered, dusty box capable, at the very least, of movement under its own power. Fortunately the first back road we took lead us directly to a complex of 20 garages; unbelievable right!? As we pulled into the complex, our tow rope snapped for the last time of trip (touch wood! Though in amongst the faux mahogany of the limo you’d be hard-pressed) and a mob quickly gathered around us.
The shit roads in Turkmenistan had also taken their toll on the other rally cars in the convoy. The Ford Escort had leaked power steering fluid all over the power steering belt, which consequently meant their steering was a bit on the heavy side; making their towing skills the previous day even more admirable. The Skoda Felicia had a knocking sound coming from a loose rear wheel bearing. The Suzuki Jimny’s rear shock absorber had become detached due to a bracket shearing. And finally the BMW R80 had a bit of a birthday with an oil change. Luckily there were plenty of garages for everyone.
One mechanic took an immediate shine to the Rover and ushered us towards his pad. The space in the garage was occupied with a modern car undergoing an engine rebuild, suspended in the air on a large hydraulic car jack. This boosted our confidence in the mechanic’s technical ability somewhat, although, at the same time the distinct lack of tools, his arsenal consisting of only a few spanners and a variety of different sized hammers, left us pondering whether the Rover would make it out alive. No one ever likes talking about Health & Safety, especially with the ridiculously strict regulations that govern in the UK, but it is probably worth a mention in this instance. Firstly, the Health part: every mechanic was seen with a cigarette constantly burning in their mouth, which to begin with off is not good for you anyway, but also meant that their visibility was impaired with smoke; not ideal when considering the Safety part. Additionally they all had what appeared to be tea leafs under their tongue to give them a further nicotine hit, therefore, considering the hot weather, it was no surprise these guys were fairly chilled out. Now the safety part. The car was jacked up in order to take the front driver’s side wheel off to fix the driveshaft, which is perfectly reasonable. However, the fact that the car was on a slope, with a vintage trolley jack, jacked so high that one rear wheel was off the ground and the car was put in neutral, was not safe at all.
With a dodgy handbrake and the herds of people leaning on the car (and the jack), there was no chance any of us were going underneath the 2 ton car, even with Ollie’s eagerness to get involved. Last but not least, putting your whole head into any area that has been thoroughly doused in petrol while your bottom lip supports a lit cigarette is probably, for reasons inexplicable in even our excellent Russian, ill-advised.
Our Rover 827 Haynes Service and Repair Manual outlined that driveshaft removal was a 3 out of 5 spanner difficulty rating, which detailed that it was “fairly difficult – suitable for a competent DIY mechanic”.
Although useless to the mechanics it enabled us to gain a bit of knowledge and supervise their every move. Surprisingly, the three mechanics worked on the car following each step flawlessly; it was as if they had an Uzbek copy in the back or had worked on Rover’s for years. The ABS speed sensor didn’t faze them, they didn’t even require specialist tools such as a ball joint splitting tool; these guys were obviously pro’s. Using a combination of pin-point accuracy and sheer power, the hammering skills of these Uzbek mechanics dismantled the complex mechanisms responsible for steering, breaking and suspending the car; who needs all the tools huh! It was like Ollie had travelled to meet the wizened Central Asian Shaolin master mechanic, the man who forces you to look within the car and cast away all of the extraneous distractions.
In no time at all, the driveshaft was removed and laid out on the floor. The three of us studying Mechanical Engineering had already thought about how to fix the driveshaft and it required a welder, an example of which was nowhere to be seen. Fortunately at this point the mechanic’s son, Karalpak, turned up and despite only being 14 years old was able to translate our thoughts to his father. It was unclear whether or not the father fully understood, or took any notice of us at all, but he began searching for a solution. After a short walk around the garage kicking bits of scrap metal, he picked up a rusty old tube, quickly checked that it fit over the driveshaft and turned to us to give a nod of approval. Once he had instructed another mechanic on the master plan, the boss went for a well-deserved lie down in the back. The other chap scuttled away and soon returned with a grinder to cut a section of the tube off to be used to couple the two parts of the driveshaft back together.
Despite it appearing as if the complex of garages were all in competition with one another, it turned out that they did in fact all work in union, like a symbiotic mechanical hive of hives. Each owned a specialised tool or piece of equipment that they could offer to each other to complete the huge variety of challenges they faced on aggregate. Our guy had a suspension clamping tool that allowed us to dismantle the driver’s side front suspension strut (that we had replaced on the side of the road in Turkmenistan) and insert the aluminium spacer above the spring to raise the car back up. A job Ollie couldn’t do without crawling underneath the 2 ton human trap.
Meanwhile the mechanic had scuttled off again to a mate’s garage with the driveshaft and the tube to get it welded together. Half an hour later he returned and the driveshaft was in one piece. The two beaded welds were questionable! Nevertheless the mechanics reassembled the front of the car around the bandaged shaft and she was back to her former glory. It was as if she had just rolled off the Rover production line back in 1994… This might be a slight exaggeration but at the time our hallucinations were most likely caused by severe dehydration. Anyhow, after all of the pain, after hours of waiting in the draining sunlight, the car was fixed. Thumbs up were given and Ollie stepped up to test drive the car. He made it 10 feet before stopping. The bloody driveshaft had snapped!
Round 2 – the speed fix. The mechanics stepped up their game ten-fold. Miraculously, the driveshaft was out in a record time of 5 minutes; setting a new PB compared to his debut run of 50 minutes. Keen to restore his street credit amongst his fellow mechanics the boss dealt with the fix himself this time.
A quick visit to his mates and the driveshaft once again returned in one piece. However, this time the welds have extra beef added and two countersunk holes either side of the fracture had been drilled in order to add reinforcement pins. Not a bad idea and it looked far more promising this time round. Two random bolts were painstakingly selected from the floor somewhere nearby where the mechanic was squatting and tapped into place. BUT rather than returning to his mate’s place to weld the bolts into place (a sensible option), he decided to create his own rivets. It was as if he was a psychopathic serial killer hitting his victim (in this case our driveshaft) with a hammer to weaken them (or in this case to weaken the welds) and continuing to hit them an abnormal number of times well beyond the required limit (further weakening the welds).
That was the sole piece of metal that stood between us and motion, and here were two mechanics taking it in turns to hit it with homemade hammers with all their strength. Anyhow, after spectating (what felt like) the exaggerated fury-killing of a motionless innocent, the driveshaft repair was finished and once again the car was reassembled back to former glory.
Standing over the gleaming (read: filthy) machine, the mechanic stared Ollie confidently in the eyes as if to say “go on then asshole, try your best to break it now”. So he did. Ollie jumped in the car, reversed her out and then throttled it, spinning the wheels on the spot and racing off into the distance. The logic here was that we didn’t want to drive 20km down the road and have it snap on us, so best to rev the bollocks off it now to see whether the repair holds. It seemed to be ok. The mechanic also had a drive and drove her hard; this eagerness to use all the horses was probably fuelled by his frustration of us bragging to him and all of his mates for the last 5 hours about how quick it could go. The car returned to the garage still in a driveable state. Even though we were still feeling fairly sceptical about the fix, we were very thankful to Karalpak, his father and team of mechanics for giving it their best in fixing our steed.
The Rover was back on the road! Great success!