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Travel Turkeys

The case of the shiftless Zastava

On a European tour, their tiny auto fails them in a clutch situation. Is it a question of nationalism gone awry?

November 24, 2002|Don Whitehead | Special to The Times

"Don't stop!" Katherine shouted. "Don't even slow down! We may not get going again."

We were certainly going now -- ripping along about 60 mph in a Zastava, a tin can of a car, on an Austrian highway, about 50 miles from the Yugoslavian border.

This wasn't our first trip to Europe, but it was our first time renting a car on the Continent. I liberated us from train schedules to give us flexibility.

That, of course, was well before I noticed the clutch pedal resting on the floorboard. It hadn't fallen off, mind you; it was flat against the floor as if I had pushed it in. Had I treated it indelicately, being a less-than-regular driver of stick shifts, or was it just time for a breakdown now that the odometer was registering a whopping 4,000 (miles or kilometers, I wasn't sure)?

More important, what was I to do now?

Levelheaded and in complete control of the situation, I did the logical thing: I asked my wife. Not only is she bright, but she's also an experienced stick shift driver and, most important, the eldest child of a mechanic.

Her advice was simple: Keep going if we wanted to keep going.

And so we did, stuck in fourth gear, speeding through small towns and valleys, up hill and down dale, never above 60 and never below 40.

About 90 minutes from our destination, we wondered aloud whether we should stop at a garage. Having seen few of them along the way, I immediately discarded this idea.

And we immediately passed a garage.

OK. We would continue on to Vienna and have the car repaired during our two-night stay -- a better idea anyway so we wouldn't get stuck some place in between. As we sped along, I occasionally checked the clutch, perhaps out of some deep-seated hope that it might spring back to life. But it just lay there like road kill.

About now, you may be asking why a Zastava. I certainly was. This had been preceded by another question: What is a Zastava?

You probably know the Zastava. A slightly larger version of it came to the United States some years later as the more luxurious Yugo.

But I had no clue. When I asked Janet, our travel agent, to check our rental car options in Yugoslavia, we were offered a Renault or a Zastava.

"You don't want that," she said of choice No. 2. "It's a Russian car." Mind you, this was 1984, the Cold War hadn't thawed and Yugoslavia was still a unified whole.

After arriving in Dubrovnik, we went to get our Renault and were told that only Zastavas were available. Seeing my irritation, the rental agent asked what was wrong.

"I don't want a Russian car," I said.

"It's not a Russian car! It's a Yugoslavian car!" he said with a great deal of national pride.

I apologized for my ignorance of fine Yugoslavian automaking and happily accepted the pocket-sized auto. The exterior was ugly and green. The interior gave new meaning to the idea of minimalism.

We loaded our gear and took off. From Dubrovnik we drove to Sarajevo, then back to the sea and up the beautiful Dalmatian coast. North of Split, our Zastava climbed inland to Plitvice Lakes National Park and north to Zagreb. We visited my wife's Croatian relatives on the family farm and saw the prize of the village: a pig as wide as a Buick. Through all of Yugoslavia the car performed flawlessly. And now that we had crossed into a capitalist country it was rebelling with some misplaced spirit of nationalism.

By midafternoon I was feeling a little more optimistic about our plight until events conspired against us. We were coming down a gentle slope when I realized that our two-lane highway was narrowing to one lane and then, in the equivalent of a block, becoming two lanes again as a one-lane road merged in from the right.

The lanes began to merge. A slow truck ahead made traffic even slower. Cars began to decelerate. This party was over. I had no choice but to stop on a grass-covered strip to the right of the road.

Just before we veered off the highway we passed what appeared to be a call box. It now stood about a hundred yards behind us. What luck!

A setback for the male ego

Being the man, it was my job to seek help. I trudged through the thick grass and approached the beacon of hope: a metal post about 4 feet tall topped by a metal rectangle, about the size of a shoe box. Three sides of the box were solid metal, and one side included a grate at the bottom.

I looked at it. I looked again. I circled it like an animal sizing up its prey. I studied it, tried to open it, looked for directions and found nothing.

I returned to the car and shared my analysis with Katherine. "I don't know what it is," I said, "but it's not a call box."

Unbelieving, she left to check it out. I waited by our car and wondered what we would do next, secure in the knowledge that Katherine's inspection was pointless. Sure, I had deferred to her superior knowledge of clutch pedals, but I was smart enough to know she was wasting our time.

Some time later, she returned.

"Ny eyldil in nit," she hollered as she began to approach.

"What?" I shouted back over the passing traffic.

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