By Dick Williams

It was the winter of 1974, and I was headed to Spain to propose to my bride and spend 6-8 months touring Europe. Having owned a scooter and motorcycle previously, I had my heart set on a motorcycle to tour Europe.  Hitchhiking from Idaho to NYC in December, and attempting to do the same from Luxemburg to Spain, convinced me of the folly of that plan. 

So I was interested in a car on a motorcycle budget. We took one of my fiancée, Linda’s, Basque professors with us on a car-buying tour in Spain.  I can vouch for the fact that used car salesmen are similar all over the world, or at least in Spain. He started showing us the most expensive cars he could, with all the “necessary” extras, such as a radio. A radio was not on the top of my list, especially since my high school Spanish was long gone.

So we kept saying “menos, menos” (less, less) and finally ended up in the dirt-floor basement of the building. The salesman was still doing his best to sell me the most expensive car among the cobwebs, but a little green Seat 600 caught my eye. A Seat is the Spanish version of the Italian Fiat. This little beauty sat covered in dust and grime, and the salesman kept dismissing it with a wave, but I persisted and he finally located a battery to put in it, and voila, coche started right up! The monstrous 600cc motor purred on all four cylinders, the suicide doors opened and closed, and the lights worked.

We made a deal on the spot, with the professor’s help, and bought the little car for $800 US, leaving the poor salesman in shock and disbelief over all he had probably heard about rich American tourists.

There was one immediate hitch, however. It was illegal for a foreigner to own a Spanish-registered car in Spain, but Linda had a fix for that. One of her fellow students was dating a nice Basque kid, Jesus, who was 18. We asked Jesus if we could put our car in his name, and he said of course and was VERY proud to tell all his friends in the small town of Onati that he was the owner of an automobile!

For a shakedown cruise, we headed out on a two-week cruise through Spain and Portugal. Coche burned no oil and only had one glitch on the trip — the starter failed. This was not a big deal, however, as the car was very light and had a manual transmission (although first gear was not synchromesh). One simply had to park on a downhill slope or have the passenger give a little push, have it in second, the key on, and pop the clutch.  Started every time.  Every time, that is, that we remembered to turn the key. One afternoon, after a lunch of wine, cheese and bread (one had only to roll the windows down going through a village and sniff for the aroma of fresh bread), the driver (me) forgot to turn the key. The passenger (Linda) was exhausted by the time I realized my error and sneakily turned the key and begged for “just one more” little push.

Traveling on the mini-ferry to Portugal, we had to use this technique on the short down ramp off the ferry to start up, amidst all the foot traffic. The officer in charge saw us push into position and inquired, “no motor”  The other challenge, of course, was with the suicide (backward opening) doors, the “pusher” had to run around in front of the door to get in.  Luckily, El Coche was never interested in accelerating quickly.

Upon our return to Onati, the astonished car salesman installed a rebuilt starter for nothing. He couldn’t believe we had taken it all over Spain and Portugal, but we were just getting started. It was not his last astonishment over El Coche.

El Coche had the pleasure of serving several visiting family members during his tenure.  First were Uncle Bob and Aunt Minna. They packed lightly and endured the cramped quarters with smiles and light-heartedness. Then were Linda’s parents, Joe and Marilyn.  Likewise, no real issues. The only scary times were when Franco’s Guardia Civil, anti-Basque military police with machine guns, would stop us at roadblocks. Linda could not understand their guttural illiterate Spanish, but we would always get the third degree because the owner of the car was Basque, and Linda had a Basque name on her passport. One time an officer was trying to tell me to fasten my shoulder harness, and when we couldn’t understand him he took the barrel of his loaded machine gun and drew it across my chest. I got the idea pretty quickly.

The more interesting times came when my folks, Ed and Phyllis, came to visit.  I had told mom to pack light (El Coche was about 2/3 the size of a VW Beetle), but when we drove to Madrid to pick them up, there was more baggage than the poor little beast of burden could carry. We repacked and ended up leaving a suitcase in Madrid, and tying another on the roof.

 

Later, as we travelled through France in the rain, we stopped at a hardware store to buy some plastic to protect the roof luggage. The folks tried their limited French, and Linda tried her Spanish, all in vain, so I, with my tremendous drawing skills, drew a picture of the car with a suitcase on top and raindrops falling. A look of “Eureka!” overcame the Frenchman as he exclaimed, “Ah, plastique!”

Another time, in the desert outside of Barcelona on a Saturday morning, the steering became wobbly, then looser and looser. It appeared the entire front axle was failing. We were limping along slowly wondering what in the world to do, when suddenly around the corner loomed a huge Seat factory! As we turned into the parking lot the front end collapsed and we were done. As we waited for the quick repair (it was 11 and they closed at noon) the 4 of us wondered at El Coche’s wonderful timing and his ability to come through in the clinch. Thus El Coche became DON Coche, giving him the title of respect he deserved.

One time, as Linda and I were traveling alone through the Italian/Swiss Alps, Don Coche became desperate with the high altitude and his 600ccs were probably putting out about 200.  It was raining, and a tour bus pulled up on our tail as we lost power and slowed to a crawl. The problem was, if I came to a stop I wasn’t sure we could get going again, due to a burr or warp on the clutch plate. With no synchromesh in first gear, you had to come to a complete stop to put it in first, and then with the steep incline and the clutch problem the car would buck and pitch and just refuse to go.

There was only one thing to do.  Linda would have to get out and push to help Don Coche get going in first gear. I’m surprised she married me after this episode (not to mention some others), but she somehow managed to get out the suicide door, respond to my urgent “push, Linda, push” commands, get Don Coche going in first, and then again respond to my command “run, Linda, run” to get around the suicide door and back inside. Well, it all worked out. We got some strange looks from the tourists as the bus eventually passed, and I do remember a look or two from Linda with her rain-drenched hair, but hey, we made it over the Alps.

Another time, on the Italian Riviera, a $40 repair for a wheel bearing caused us to go panhandling and penniless for several days, but it wasn’t Coche’s fault. Once again he pulled through and got us to a safe place. The ensuing survival story is a tale in and of its own, but Coche’s good gas mileage enabled us to travel to and from town until we could obtain funds (this was before the days of credit cards, kids).

Driving Don Coche in Great Britain was a real thrill, because the steering wheel was on the left, as in the U.S. So when the driver wanted to pull out to pass, the passenger had to clear the way. It kept Linda awake and alert the entire trip. At one point, though, she complained that her seat seemed to be tilting. I ignored the comment until it was my turn to ride shotgun, and realized immediately that she was right. Suddenly, with me in the seat, it seemed to matter.  I lifted the rubber floor mat and saw the highway going rapidly by between the large rust holes in the floor. Don Coche had a uni-chassis, where the frame and chassis were more or less one.  As the floorboards rusted through, the seat (which was attached to them) sank closer and closer to the pavement.

Once again, it was an easy and miraculous fix. We stopped at a little machine shop where the mechanic welded a bar across the frame under the seat for about $10. Good as new, just as long as you didn’t lift the mat and see the space between you and the road.

We drove Don Coche 17000 miles in 8 months. He went to Great Britain 3 times. He saved us at customs once when Linda was coming over to visit (with no money) and told the agent her fiancé was working (illegally!) but owned a car. We were put in separate rooms to test our stories, and I was lectured not to work anymore, but Don Coche saved the day.

We went through France numerous times, as you had to in order to go anywhere from Spain. He took us along the coasts, to southern Italy and back up, through the Alps, and into Germany, as well as through Spain a couple of times.

He never let us down, and gave us some tremendous memories, both with our families and alone as young lovers.

When it was time to leave Spain, I thought, what the hell. I’m taking him back to the car dealer. When we drove in the salesman could not believe his eyes. He was rattling away in Spanish or Basque to his cohorts in amazement. We told him what a great car it was and he bought it back from us for $600, and that was after they had put the new starter in it! I just hope they gave him a place of honor after we left, instead of his lonely dusty home in the basement.

We’ve owned some wonderful vehicles, but Don Coche has a special place in our hearts. It was a wonderful time in our lives, and he was the center of it in many ways.

As an interesting addendum to the story, Jesus married that girlfriend and moved to Boise. He was here many years owning and operating a variety of restaurants before going back to Spain. After a few more years he returned to Boise where he currently resides as a Basque chef. We still laugh and tell stories about Don Coche.

 

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