Road-Tripping Home Across Europe In A Datsun 280Z
Photography by Alex Bodi
My wife and I drove from Cluj-Napoca, Romania, all the way to Cork, Ireland in our 1976 Datsun 280Z, but let’s rewind just a bit first. Just over one year ago, I somehow managed to get a Datsun 280Z from California to the UK and finally to Ireland; the car was shipped to the port, and I was to drive it home from there. No trailers for this queen!
I remember the first time seeing it, how my heart skipped a few beats and how amazed I was at its small size—I own another Datsun, but it’s a 280ZX that for me at least, seems a lot bigger. So anyway, there we were, my wife and I, about to embark on our first long drive with this new-to-us Z, a car that neither of us had driven before, a car that was never restored and came with no certainty that it could actually make it from Southampton, UK to Cork, Ireland. And this wasn’t even the worst part.
At that particular time I was changing my driver’s license, and that meant I only had a piece of paper on me saying that I do own such a license, and that yes, I am allowed to drive on Irish roads. Just on Irish roads though. This meant that my wife had to drive it for the first bit of the trip, while I would just sit in the passenger seat navigating and fiddle with all the dials (yup, they all worked!).
We made it home though, with no issues on the road, but as soon as we got into our driveway the engine died. If it was to happen anywhere, may as well have been at home. But the best part of the experience with the Datsun so far? The wife enjoyed driving it!
For a few months, this Z was my best friend, my daily driver, and the first thing I’d say hello to each morning. I managed to respray the whole car, replace a few parts here and there, but didn’t rebuild the engine since even after the little hiccups, it felt right. The car was performing well, and in September of 2016 we were supposed to fly to Romania for our wedding (that’s where we’re from). But, instead of flying, we chose to drive the Z there and leave it over with one of my friends to do some refurbishing. That trip was documented here.
Now, the return home. After 7 months of waiting and missing the Z everyday, it was time to head back to Romania to drive it home. The trip took about one week, as this time we wanted to enjoy the journey a bit more, meander a bit more; it was supposed to be all perfect and relaxing this time.
We left Romania on a sunny day, a bit sad for leaving my friends behind, but straight away it felt better than the last trip, plus my drink no longer boiled in the ashtray due to the A/C running. The Romanian roads, since they’ve fixed some of them, are pretty nice to drive on, and if you aren’t in a hurry and can obey the speed limits, you can actually have a nice drive on those twisty roads, through villages and small towns. I know we did.
But then we got onto a wider road, and with that, higher speeds were in order. This was when the car started shaking, badly. Apparently, some of the weights that were used to balance the wheels had fallen off. We had to stop and fix the issue, but unfortunately it was after 5PM when we got to the last major city in Romania, next to the Hungarian border. You would think that a place as populous as Oradea would have a 24/7 tire repair shop, but no, it does not have that. The people of Oradea do not get flat tires after working hours.
All we could do was keep going; it was already late and we didn’t want to repeat the Austrian experience we had last year, with the hotel’s reception closing down before we arrived. So we crossed the border and headed towards Mako, or, how the locals want to call it, “The Town of Onions.” Onion-City was a nice surprise, it was a small but tidy town, the the hotel was nice. The cherry on top? There was enclosed parking! After a good night’s sleep, we set out to find a shop that would accept credit card payments, in a small—very, very small—town. We drove for a bit looking around, but no one would acceptcards. But wait, it gets even better! All of a sudden the car was overheating! So I pulled over, and being a Jedi Master of all mechanics, I decide to open the radiator cap to check how much fluid there is.
If you aren’t mechanically challenged like I am, you can go ahead and skip this part (because I’ll just embarrass myself), but if you are, here’s a piece of advice: don’t, just don’t open the cap all the way up straight away. If you do that you will surely be left with even less coolant in the car, and your clothes will turn a nice green (or orange) color. At least they will feel very soft afterwards.
So there I was, on the side of the road, covered in coolant, the car overheating and wheels unbalanced, in a small town that doesn’t really accept modern forms of payment, where all I could say was “No,” “Yes,” and “Jesus Christ.” This was one of those times when you have to stop whatever you are doing, take a deep breath, cool down (literally) and start thinking. Luckily, I managed to call my mechanic friend and he realized that the thermostat was stuck closed, hence the overheating. I added some distilled water, turned on the heat and started driving again, trying to locate a tire repair shop, still.
I wasn’t worried anymore knowing what the problem was, all I had to do is pay more attention to the temperature and pull over if it started acting up again, and we even managed to find a place that could fix my wheels and deal with our stupid electronic, sci-fi money! It was a nice and tidy place, with an old gentleman being the main guy there.
Leaving Mako, I was in good spirits, the old lady was running fine and the young one on the passenger seat was in a good mood too. We spent another night in Hungary before heading to Austria the following day. Except for the heating problem, Hungary was pretty uneventful. The weather was nice although a bit too hot, but not something to worry about though since the A/C was purring along just fine. The people were welcoming and the food was unbelievable. If you ever find yourself in Hungary, or you are planning to visit, do try the local food, but keep in mind that whatever your diet was supposed to be, it will in no way agree with the huge platters the Hungarians serve.
It was about noon when we crossed into Austria. The air was a lot cooler now since we were not only higher up in the mountains, but the sky was, with it’s dark clouds, warning us that we should get to somewhere dry, soon. That didn’t happen right away though, because we kinda, sorta got lost in the mountains. Again. And again. And it was about 5PM when it started raining. Hard. At this time we were on some very narrow, forested roads, on top of a mountain with not a soul in sight. Curiously enough, this road was marked on Google Maps though (that’s why we kept going along it), but after a while, the constant weird feeling that we were definitely not going in the right direction took control and we decided to head back down the mountain.
This was no easy task. Keep in mind that this was a true Austrian mountain and there was no pavement on the so-called road. When rain water hits a dirt road, it tends to turn everything into mush and cars with road tires do not like it one bit. On top of everything else, the car started making a new, strange, knocking noise, the kind of noise you hear when you have lubrication issues. I did check my oil pressure and it was all good, checked the oil level too, and this was good. Mystery deepens.
The only thing I could do was keep going. I mean there was plenty of oil, good pressure, so yeah, keep going. After a couple hours of “sailing” downhill, we managed to get to the main road again and actually find the place where we were supposed to spend the night. By the time we got there it was almost dark, but I did get a chance to notice that the rain had washed off all the mud from the car at least. There are perks when spending the night at an isolated small hotel on top of a mountain. Not much can beat a good night’s sleep after a tiresome day, in a cool room where the only sound you hear is the rain drops hitting your window.
The next morning we were on our way to Germany. The knocking sound was still there, knocking. Guess it wasn’t fixed over night by mountain goats. The chance to rest lifted my mood though, and I was happy to be on the road again. Filling up with the cheapest petrol ever helped too. Come to think of it, I might want to move there because of that cheap fuel, the fresh air, and those beautiful mountains with awesome twisty roads hidden among them.
When you buy a Z, you automatically join one of the best communities in the world. While the European Z community might not be as large as the US one, it does have enough good people in it, the type that instantly become good friends. A few of those guys are located in Germany and one of them was actually nice enough to invite us over to his house, offering us his guest room a few months back when I told him I’d be driving across Europe again. Having this in mind, and the fact that all old car owners have a good mechanic near by, I was already thinking that I would get the car checked the next day. We were close to the German border anyways, so I didn’t have to drive too far to get to his place.
The Z was running smoothly, there was no shaking at all and nothing fell off. All was well and good other than that constant knocking sound. It didn’t overheat anymore, but that might have been due to the snow and hale outside. Yup, we were driving along in our old sports car with summer tires on a highway while it was snowing outside and hale ringing against the metal body. But that wasn’t even the best part! Apparently, when you turn the heat on in a Z, there is a flap underneath the dash that closes down to stop the cold air from getting inside the car. I suppose it’s no surprise to say that the flap wasn’t working. This meant that I constantly had to pull over, get out of the car (in the rain and snow), bend down under the dash with the back of my head on the carpet and my forehead hitting the the steering wheel each time I would try to get out again.
Eventually, we reached our friend though, and, just like I thought, he knew a good mechanic that we visited straight away and scheduled a checkup for the car at 8AM the next day. When normal people meet, they usually sit down and chat over a coffee or something, what we did was what normal car guys do. We took my Z out for a drive, and since his wasn’t registered at the time, I let him drive mine for a bit. It was funny to see a grown man acting like a kid on Christmas morning just because he was driving an old car. Moments like these are what it’s all about. After that, we spent several hours in his garage, with the cars, talking about… well… cars.
Influenced by German efficiency, we were at the mechanic’s place at 7:45AM the following morning. No coffee, no nothing. Outside it was cold, still snowing a bit, and the mechanic, being German, only let us in at 8AM, as scheduled. He did a valve adjustment and that was it! The noise was gone and the old lady was purring again with not a care in the world. This meant it was about time to say goodbye to my German friend, exchange some gifts (car parts, naturally), and hit the road. Next stop: France.
We made our way through Luxembourg fast, very fast. Luxembourg is even smaller than you would think and, since we were mainly on the highway, we didn’t get a chance to see much of it. Same thing with Belgium. In fact, we didn’t even have to fill up the tank! The sun was back out too, and the drive was overall just very “nice.” A pleasant cruise.
In France we didn’t take the highways like we did last time. Not only did we skip the high tolls, but since another Z guy living there advised us to do so, and since we weren’t in a hurry now, we thought we might as well enjoy the French countryside. Despite this wandering, we reached our destination fairly quickly after a great day of driving with the sun shining, on almost empty roads. It was time to rest now and prepare for the last leg of our trip towards the island of Ireland we now call home.
The drive to the seaside city of Cherbourg-Octeville was uneventful, but as soon as we reached the port, the world’s problems caught up with us. There was a very long waiting line before boarding. The security guys were checking everybody and this was slowing everything down tremendously. All we could do was sit in the car and wait, for hours, for the line to move. And there’s nothing to be done about that, this is the world we live in at the moment and the fear of terrorist attacks affects us, especially when traveling. We did eventually board the ferry though, and we were more tired than we were at the start of the wait, despite the short drive (the day before when we practically drove across Germany and France both). All I wanted was the total isolation that a ferry cabin gives you, a hot shower, and a long sleep. The sea didn’t agree with that plan. For some reason it decided to go wild and show us what a rough sea really feels like and, again, there was nothing to do about it. All I did that night was listen to the waves crashing
on the boat’s hull, thinking that sure, I can swim, and there are plenty of life boats so my wife and I will be ok. But the Z can’t swim! It was made to be driven on the road, not sailed on a rough sea. And I do mean rough. The ferry was constantly shifting underneath us to the point where people couldn’t even stand up. Couldn’t lay down either, not if you ate anything that day.
Eventually it was all over, and we even managed to catch a couple hours of sleep before we landed in Ireland. The first thing we did after landing was stop at a petrol station to wash the salt water off the car. As soon as that was done, the sun came out! Perfectly symbolic for the end of the journey. It was like we were being welcomed back home. It was the most glorious feeling to drive again on Irish roads, with terrific spring weather on the 1st of May, early in the morning on roads we had all to ourselves.
Despite a few setbacks, it was a good trip, and one that I will always remember, and the best part of it was that I made the trip with the two most precious things: my wife and my Z. I learned a few things too; that in some situations worrying too much doesn’t help, that you are not supposed to open the radiator cap as soon as you turned the engine off, that a road on a map isn’t necessarily a good one to drive on, and that some boats are very resilient to being battered for hours by storm waves.
It’s been a couple of months since the car was returned to Irish soil, and since then we’ve been enjoying some of the best scenery Mother Nature’s ever created, plus have met some new car friends! Our family is whole once again, and as for more road trips, who knows, maybe next year we’ll do another one, maybe with a different car while the Z can just stay home and relax. But, maybe that’s cheating.