www . Drive to Mongolia . org

10,000 miles · one under-powered car

Our car is a 1991 Vauxhall Nova 1.0. If you are interested in the details of our car, the repairs, and the performance, this is the page for you.

Want to complete a journey like this? See http://www.mongoliarally.com/ for full details.

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History of the car

The car was kindly donated to us by Cannock Road Garages, in Wolverhampton. The car had a great low mileage of 33,000miles, a 997cc engine and lots of simple mechanical controls.

Unfortunately, we only got the car 10 days before we left, so there was little time to make modifications

Repairs before leaving

We changed the oil, bought new spark plugs (although the old ones were probably ok), a new distributer cap, rotor arm, HT leads, and a coil. The old coil had become damaged as the HT lead had not been securely pushed and sparking had eroded the socket. The leads were split in places and caused problems in damp weather.

Goodyear donated a new set of tyres.

We also fitted a power inverter to give us 240v for charging electrical items.

Repairs during the trip


Leaving the motorway in Austria to drive to Feberbrunn we stopped at a Garage to buy a carnet. The car was firing erratically and as we switched the engine off it ran on. Fortunately there was a mechanic watching us and he got out his strobes, adjusted the timing, and the car ran smoothly with much more power!

Leaving Feberbrunn we drove towards Vienna and camped in a field overnight. The car was once again firing erratically and no adjustment to the timing seemed to improve the timing. The following morning we struggled into Austria to find a garage where they could have a look at the car. Unfortunately, the garage we stopped at was pretty useless. The sole mechanic seemed to know less about the car than we did. After he looked at it, it wouldn't even start at all. Several passing Austrians came to look at the car, neither they, nor we, could work out why there was no voltage across the HT lead going into the coil. Very quickly they all lost interest: "driving to Mongolia? You need a Hummer!".

We were stranded, with a car that wouldn't start, at a garage with a mechanic who knew nothing, on a Saturday afternoon, in one of the most expensive cities in Europe and with a thunderstorm passing over! We pushed the car under the cover of the garage and consulted the Haines manual with little success: 1)one of the circuit tests didn't make sense (you can't get a voltage across a component when you have disconnected it), 2) the distributor seemed different to ours and the contact breaker adjustment didn't make sense. We spent about 2 hours trying to fix it until we appeared to have discovered a loose connection on the LT lead going into the coil. The car started and we were off.


We stayed overnight across the border in Hungary and headed to a petrol station. We filled the car, and it wouldn't start. We worked through the tests and couldn't work it out. Working through it logically we looked at the contact breaker (didn't really understand what it did) but figured there should be a gap. Adjusting the points to create a small gap did the trick and we were off!


The rough roads soon shook the speedometer to bits! We still have the odometer for the total miles but no speed. Fortunately the GPS can give you your speed so no great loss

The rough roads must have also shaken the brake system and our brakes failed in the middle of Romania. After a short time they were back but since then they have failed about 5 times, requiring repeated pumping to get the brakes back. When the brakes fail you are left with only weak braking on the front right and back left, greatly increasing your stopping distance and giving the tendency to veer to the right when braking. We tried to get them fixed in Georgia (after their 2nd fail) but the mechanic seemed to think there was no problem. When we had the car repaired in Samarkand (see below) they should have been bled but they are still failing! Maybe we can try another garage!

Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Driving out of Georgia we noticed that the car exhaust was getting a little smokier than usual. We put this down to the lower grade fuel and the car aging quickly! Arriving in Ashgabat we noticed that the car was smoking a lot, although it had been running fine. We had been adding oil for most of the journey and by now had added over 3 litres to the engine over the trip. However, we also had to add water to the cooling system, no surprise considering the high temperatures driving through Turmenistan. We continued on and escaped Turkmenistan (see our diary) for Bukhara in Uzbekistan. The car was still smoking heavily and the cooling system had used a lot of water and another liter or so of oil.

We drove on to Samarkand, but the car felt very sluggish, we put this down to the Turkmenistan petrol which we knew was an (unknown) low grade. Arriving in Samarkand the engine was running hot. We parked at the hotel and arranged to take it into a garage the next morning to have the brakes and this problem checked. We topped up the water and oil once the engine had cooled.

The next morning we couldn't start the engine. Turning the starter motor resulted in a clunk and the engine felt solid. Push starting the car was impossible, it was as though the engine was jammed. We got a tow to the garage.

Arriving at the garage, the mechanic got the car going but with water coming out of the exhaust. A split head gasket! Opening the car we discovered that all of the piston heads had been damaged by the low octane fuel and also needed replacing. Within 3 days, new parts had been sourced and the car was fixed. The new head gasket was an older part from an Opel Kadette 1.2 litre from the 1970s but the design was close enough. New pistons had to be shipped in from Tashkent. The pistons were expensive at 250USD for the set. Some of the mechanics briefly considered machining the cylinders to fit 76mm pistons from the common Daewoo cars in Uzbekistan (our Nova is 72mm). Fortunately, this slightly extreme option was impossible due to the vertical height of the piston!

Bishkek, Krygyzstan

The saga of our intermittently failing brakes came to an end with an amazing mechanic in Bishkek. Mechanics in Georgia and Samarkand had looked at them and failed to find the problem (or, it would appear, even bleed the brakes as we suggested). The problem was quite complicated, but out man in Bishkek was like a detective, hunting down the problem. The problem was two fold:
1) The hand brake cable to the rear right wheel was worn, frayed, and the channel it ran through was a bit rusty. Consequently, the cable had stuck and the brake block was rubbing on the inside of the drum and getting very hot. The heat had caused bubbling and hence air in the brake fluid running to this wheel.
2) The heated brake fluid appeared to have damaged a small rubber seal in the master brake cyclinder in the engine compartment. The seal had grown slightly and was not letting the air escape the system. He machined off a thin (0.5mm) slice from one of the components to allow the breather holes to function again.
After 4 hours work, the brakes were working again and they functioned perfectly all the way from Bishkek into Mongolia. If you have a mechanical problems in Bishkek, the man to see is Lyova. He is clearly the master of cars by the way so many other mechanics came to him for advice whilst he was fixing our car! He also spoke English and described how he is a fan of Benny Hill!

Russian troubles

Our scepticism of our Russian mechanic in Samarkand was well founded. On our last day in Russia we started to experience engine hesitation.We initially blamed this on bad fuel but when the problem didnít clear, Stephen spent a few hours under the bonnet on our first morning in Mongolia. In the middle of a vast open valley, in cold air but bright sun, we checked over the engine. We had already noticed that they had not refitted the support brackets for the HT leads, we now noticed that another bracket had not been correctly fixed and was hanging loose. It had been knocking one of the spark plug and this had loosened the connector end of the plug! We checked all of the spark plugs, gaps, leads, contact breaker points, and refitted the carbon bush to the distributor cap (it had somehow come loose and was lying in the bottom of the distributor).

So, if you have trouble with your car in Samarkand, donít use a mechanic called Orif.

©2005 Stephen Edwards & Will Dodsworth