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I didn’t find this car. She found me

Buying a Peugeot 504. In Hungary. In 2012...

27/03/2013 00:43 | Comments: 


Former car restorer, damper designer, rotary-engine guru and also an automotive engineer, but generally doesn’t talk much about his former activities. András is our mag’s Leatherman tool: when there’s a project no-one would poke with a stick, he’s the one usually assigned to carry it through. When he’s in Hungary, he works 16 hours daily, then every once in a while he disappears from the horizon. Last time he’s been seen in Auckland… Has a huge garage, lives with a girlfriend.

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Go, see, buy - purchasing a car can be that easy. Or you go through hell and come back, just to end up with the very same car you never wanted to have. And buy it.

I'm fidgeting in the basement of the multi-storey, starting to be impatient. Where's the owner? Itighten my jacket, but it's too thin for this shivery November night. Inside, however, curiosity releases the butterflies in my stomach. It took me just fifteen minutes to get to the suburbs of Budapest – that's not enough time to obey all the traffic rules on those damp roads. But I have a good excuse: I've come to see a 504. It's not in the ads, they are not even sure if they want to sell it. And I can fully understand that, even though I haven't seen the car yet.

When one is chasing a rare classic car, one must be prepared to open some secret rooms. Holding a candle in the hand, creeping upstairs towards the dust-covered attic, sometimes it happens that the rusty door-handle goes down much too easily. The door swings open, and you must face whatever inside. After weeks of hunting a proper 504 for myself, a friend dropped in a conversation, with a remark that he sees some dusty old Peugeot every morning in their multi-storey. It didn't take long to find out whose it is.

Walking up and down under the twinkling neon-tubes in the multi-storey, I had a weird flashback. Years ago, it was the same unbearable excitement, and – believe it or not - it was the same car. The first 504 I had ever wanted to buy. I went with my old mate, Roland,an obsessed Beetle-freak by the way, all the way to some rural town in Hungary, to check it out.

The Cockroach was our vehicle of choice for the two-hour journey: my old Ford Escort with a justly deserved nickname So this surreal story must have happened at least four years ago, since the Cockroach was crushed in 2008.

Anybody who has ever found an ad of his desired vehicle in the newspapers, knows what a fantastic, detailed picture you can create of it in your mind. One pale, blurred photograph is enough to make you go mad. So as I was sailing on the motorway with Roland, we were raving about a perfectly preserved, proudly croaking, rust-free, baby blue 504, which should have been the successor of the shattered Cockroach and we should live happily ever after together.

As it eventually turned out, we were supposed to meet the proprietor of this fine piece of a Peugeot at an abandoned industrial building. During our first conversation on the phone, he had already praised the automobile in superlatives. When we arrived at the gate, he looked like as some kind of a night watchman, a character straight out of a Kusturica-movie. Nevertheless he restarted the praising as if we had pushed the play button. How many years he lived with this car, how much he always cared for it, how much money he spent on the engine – which they sourced from a Ford Sierra in the scrapyard by the way. No worries, the XD2 diesel engine in the Peugeot 504 is the same as the one in the Sierra - that's something I already knew at that time.

The soft late summer sunrays are falling in flat and we still haven't seen the car. Our man seems never to run out of glorifying words, but eventually we reach a dreadfully huge hangar. The only odd words he drops from time to time is in running order, but our excitement doesn't leave room for suspicion. Our buddy fumbles with the padlock, draws away the rusty steel-door, and in the dim light, coming through the broken windows of the immense empty hall, we finally encounter the baby blue 504.

We are approaching with uncertain steps. The object in that enormous space appears with an air of importance, like it'd be at least a fifty year old Facel Vega, not a bog standard Peugeot in its thirties. The castle we built out of thin air collapses with every step taking us closer to it. First the plastering crumbles, as we discover the cracked home-made paint job, then the tower shakes, as we have a look at the brown interior, taken from a later model, and finally the walls collapse, as our man wakes the old diesel with sparking wires under the dash.

If my memory doesn't betray me, he took us for a quick ride around the building, while Roland and myself were struggling to subdue our laughter, having pity for this poor old car. We expected something else, to be diplomatic. Maybe it was just the sheer disappointment that messed up the rendezvous, but one thing is for sure: seeing these ugly brown seats, the thick paint on the rusty weldings of the underbody and the electrical chaos, our high expectations were destroyed. That was that in 2008, forget the past for now.

Those bitter memories bring me back from the trip to the chilly multi-storey of the present, where my girlfriend pokes me in the ribs to turn my attention to a strange vision. A Citroën DS is floating towards us gracefully, cutting through the fog with its headlights turning with the wheels. The driver probably waves to us, but it's too dark to be sure. However, if both of us can see the car, it can't be a vision: the owner has arrived.

The dim lights are in favour of the Peugeot. The headlights' hammered glass covers give it a bizarre cartoon-character's face. I'm mad about the atmosphere of the coarse-grained, matte metallic green paint job before me, and also about what I hear about the history of the car. A film-guy had bought it new in Vienna, and he alone put the 70 thousand kilometres on the clock that we can see now. It must have been a beauty when he put it to rest about ten years ago, but standing in the open air had taken its toll.

The rust is kicking off the paint in some areas, but it's not a hopeless case by far. In the engine bay, there's still the original grey paint, which is specific for all the Peugeots of that era, and under the greasy dust I see mostly original parts. It takes a shot of the brake cleaner to get the four-cylinder running, but its sound is stupendous. I can't believe that after so many years of searching I'm standing here, in the suburbs of Budapest, listening to the fabulous sound of an idling 504, which is quite all right.

In the previous weeks, my search for a proper 504 had been gearing up to insane levels. After determining that there was no such car for sale in Hungary, I naturally turned to the big European sites: mobile and autoscout. I had to discover that there are very few left of this once very common car in Europe - most of them were hoarded by Africans. You can get nicely kept specimens for about 5000 euros, which is not much for a practical classic car, but I wanted to spend much less. And the next step down are the corpses for 1000 euros, much more to my taste, but the import tax in Hungary – roughly the same amount – made the whole search pointless.

I was so desperate that I focused my night research on some Serbian second-hand car sites. I found out that Peugeot was one of the few western brands officially imported to the former Yugoslavia, so the 504 population down there was much healthier. First, a dark red diesel drew my attention, a car originally purchased in Belgrade. At first glance, it was looking more or less fit, but Google Translate uncovered that it had about 800 000 kilometres on the clock. Yeah, I know it's a tough car, but even my craziness knows its boundaries.

The next one on the Serbian market was a metallic blue one with a petrol engine, an antique grill with the golden lion, and an autogas tank in the boot. If you happen to know that Serbia is not part of the European Union yet, you might well wonder how I schemed to import such a wrinkled old Peugeot which had no chance of being classified as a classic car. You're right, there's no legal way. Don't ask why I called Attila, a friend of mine who's fluent in Serbian, to squeeze out some more pictures, before we start off to the Bulgarian border of Serbia. Thank God, the photographs arrived in time, and I was freed from another fantasy.

Not long after the Serbian affair, as my nerves started to recover, my dear colleague, Zsolt Csikós passed on the phone number of a fella who was supposed to be in possession of several 504's, some of them for sale. My fever meter exploded. This gentleman was kind enough to show me all of them, and guess what: I already knew one of his Peugeots. The white diesel with Austrian papers had been for sale half a year earlier, but not now. He's already started the renovation.

He had three more 504's, though, but at closer inspection all of them turned out to be problematic. The blue one didn't have any documents at all, and to be perfectly honest, it was dead meat. There was a silver automatic, too, but the fuel injected engine wasn't really promising, since the fuel lines had been opened, and were starting to rust away. The green one looked interesting, but the engine was missing. What horror, with one foot in heaven, I had to leave without a 504.

So what shall I do with you, dear old scoundrel in the multi-storey? You're the first one over the last few months who would be worth saving. The owner is hesitating, too. I make him an offer which would bankrupt me, considering the parts and work still needed to resurrect the car, but he's asking for some time, until he makes up his mind. God, I hope it won't be long.

There's a good chance that it was the very same evening, when aunt Katie wrote a letter from a small, remote farm in the south of Hungary. A letter which was addressed to the host of the most famous morning show in our little country, asking him to forward it to one of the best-known car persons around here, my chief editor. And he was more than happy to pump my blood pressure up to the red zone with this hand-written piece of paper.

Aunt Katie wanted to sell a 504. Her son left to Sweden four years ago, but he left his beloved car, the Peugeot behind. Every time he came home, he would start the engine and drive a bit to preserve the fine condition of the car. But now it has to go, so aunt Katie was looking for a caring new owner. You can't imagine the infinite excitement I felt in the two seconds between reading the letter and dialling the number.

Aunt Katie had a voice straight out of a fairytale and was probably even more astonished than myself that her letter had been such an instant success. It'd be the event of the year, if I bought the “P-joe”. Boy, what should I say, on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It's in running order she assures me, it has license plates and is street legal. 504D is in the documents, it's from the 1971 model year and it's light blue. That's what I managed to find out during five minutes of excited conversation. And I've left my number so her son could contact me from Sweden in order to discuss the details.

First date? Zen state of mind compared to my excitement as I was awaiting the call. When the +46 number appeared on my mobile it seemed as if the chatter in the press office had stopped all of a sudden, the world seemed to have stopped rotating. I prepared myself for the beautiful words of the owner.

Her name is Rocinante. I mean the car's. The owner has had it for about ten years and has always taken good care of it. The ignition switch has a minor problem, therefore it's tricky to get it running, but engine-wise it's first class. He had installed a used engine of a Ford Sierra, which has the same motor as the Peugeot. The new engine number hasn't been recorded in the documents yet, but he also has the original block. Of course, the car is in running order. It will need some attention, but what do you expect from a forty year-old car?

There is a barely ponderable smell of déja-vu in the air, but it's just a lurking suspicion. The voice I hear, the glorifying words, everything sounds so familiar. Too bad that my memory is useless, I can't connect the symptoms with a story from times gone by.

Meanwhile our friend is getting sentimental, how much he loved the P-joe, and starts telling stories about the nightlife in his rural town, where Rocinante was well-known for having a bouncer as an owner. When I ask him about the colour of the interior, I already have a shrewd idea, but I need certainty. Yes, it's brown and he put in the dash of a newer model. Silence. Long silence. I close my eyes and the baby blue monster appears.

I know that car! – it pops out of my head because of the sudden recognition. Then both of us feel a bit awkward: he doesn't know if he should be happy about that or not, and I'm remembering the sour disappointment. How could I walk into the same trap again? For courtesy's sake I ask him about the price - today, after five years, it's not even unrealistic. But after the stumbling disappointment, all I can say is I'll call aunt Katie, if I'm interested.

Were I a man of reason, obviously I wouldn't chase 504s wasting considerable amounts of my spare-time. I'd much rather compare the columns of the Suzuki Swift and the Opel Astra in Excel. Moreover, it's clear that the indeterminable mood factor is decisive when purchasing such an old car - and this story is absolutely incredible. But I had my reasons for not buying this Peugeot. I wish I could remember more precisely what it was like five years ago. Because now I can't get rid of it, as it seems.

I meet up with Roland, with whom we checked out the car at that time a few years earlier. He's the only person who can help me. “Jesus, that's a wreck! ,“ he starts. Don't I remember, how we were struggling to hide our laughter? The ugly brown interior? The sparking wires? He shows me the pictures he made with his phone, hoping it would bring me back to reality. “Was it really such a shithole?,” I ask. He doesn't remember the details either, but reminds me that both of us were sure to cross it off our list with a thick black line.

But I also remember that I had a completely different objective with the 504 at that time. I needed a successor for the Cockroach, which meant that the car of my dreams was a battle-ready fighter for little money. Not that I was ever afraid of getting my hands dirty, but I couldn't afford a long-term project with endless parts searches and an uncertain ending. And we shouldn't forget that this was the first Peugeot 504 I've ever wanted to buy, so the disease was only in its infant stage.

Now it's gotten out of control, and I know only one way to cure it: to buy one. It's been around for so many years, I've checked so many 504s with a true urge to buy, that by now it's clear – either I linger on forever or I finally do what I have to do. Now, having another daily driver, there was much less pressure. Maybe the time is not right, but on the other hand, it never is.

Aunt Katie saved me from my agony. She called to ask if I wanted the car and I had to say yes. Now it's standing under my window, battle-ready, more or less. I call her Rosie. But trust me it wasn't as straightforward as it sounds now.

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