Travel: I made a U-turn on the autoroute: Continental breakdown insurance? Who needs it? Chris Gill was quite confident he didn't - until he did

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The Independent Travel
Continental breakdown insurance? Hah] Strictly for wimps. That has been my credo since about 1979, when a report in Holiday Which? magazine established that only a small percentage of British motorists travelling on the Continent had a breakdown; that most problems were quickly fixed by resourceful French mechanics; and that hardly anyone required the dramatic provisions that sell breakdown insurance - parts flown out from Britain, cars shipped back for repair at home, accommodation at the scene of the incident, car hire for the holiday to continue.

I should explain that I didn't merely read the Holiday Which? report: I wrote it. I always was keen on following my own advice, once it had the status of national publication. In the course of producing the report I became convinced that breakdown insurance was an anachronism - or, to put it more strongly, a rip-off.

When motoring on the Continent meant having the Rover 90 swung aboard a freighter, it was different. Cars were unreliable, British models were unfamiliar to French mechanics, and a replacement exhaust would indeed have had to be shipped out from Coventry. But by the Seventies, cars were more reliable, British cars were not unknown on the Continent, and in any case most of us were driving cars that were made there. I could see (and I said in the report) that, for some people, breakdown insurance was worth buying for peace of mind: no point in spoiling your holiday by worrying when for a pounds 50 premium you could sleep easily. But I certainly didn't need it. The second-hand Golf I drove at the time didn't miss a beat in the two or three years I owned it. I also knew quite a lot about cars, which always helps.

I had time to reflect on all this a month ago as I strolled in the sunshine along the hard shoulder of the Autoroute du Soleil, half an hour south of Lyon, towards the orange pillar 400 metres back that I took to be an emergency phone. We were on our way home from a week in Provence in our ultra-reliable Saab 9000 Turbo. An hour into the journey the engine had started to falter at high speed.

A few minutes in a rest area had confirmed my suspicions: the sound of high-voltage sparking was coming from the electronic ignition cartridge - the thing that smart motors have these days instead of a distributor and ignition coil. It had been replaced last year at a cost of about pounds 400, to cure a minor starting problem; I knew that if it failed it couldn't be mended, but would have to be replaced again. Still, the motor seemed to be going well enough at 70mph; perhaps we could limp home.

No such luck. Within minutes, the faltering became more serious, then the engine cut out. By this time I was driving in the slow lane, prepared for the worst. I coasted on to the hard shoulder, only to find it tapering to nothing. We came to a halt with the car half-way out into the slow lane. Great. Fortunately, there was a slight backward incline; we were able to freewheel on to the full-width shoulder.

The instructions on the orange pillar were admirably clear, in several languages. My conversation with the emergency services operator went swimmingly at first - you don't even have to tell them where you are. But then we came to the matter of describing the car. 'La voiture. Quelle marque?' 'Saab.' Silence. 'Vous connaissez? Saab. Sab. Saaaaab.' 'C'est un Peugeot?' 'Non, non, non. Ce n'est pas une voiture francaise. C'est fabrique en Suede. Ess, ah, ah, bay - Saab.' 'C'est un Peugeot?'

My heart sank. We were in real trouble. If the emergency services on the Autoroute du Soleil had never heard of Saab, what were the odds against there being a Saab dealer in Lyon - or even in Paris - with the right electronic ignition cartridge in stock?

Back at the car, the children were contentedly munching an improvised early lunch. Well within the estimated half-hour, a breakdown truck arrived. A quick briefing from me persuaded the mechanic that there was nothing to be done at the roadside, and he set about hauling us up on to the truck.

After a 20-minute ride on the back of the truck (a bizarre sensation, especially behind the driving wheel), we were lowered to the floor of a neat Ford garage in Roussillon. Town and garage alike seemed curiously peaceful. Of course; it was lunchtime. Had we eaten, our rescuer, who turned out to be le patron, wanted to know. No, but . . . But nothing. Le patron was going to have his lunch, so we had little choice but to do the same. He pointed us 50 yards up the road, to a bright little place where we passed a civilised hour.

Back at the garage, le patron was on the phone to the Saab dealer in Lyon, who prescribed the tests he should conduct. This he did, between bouts of wrestling with the broken windscreen of an Audi. At about 3.30, le patron picked up the ignition cartridge, put it to his nose and sniffed. He handed it to me, and I sniffed. The smell was of burning - 40 pounds 10 notes burning.

Another phone call to the Saab dealer. The car would have to be taken to Lyon. They wouldn't be able to look at it today. Tomorrow? Tomorrow is Saturday. Did they work on Saturdays? No. It would be Monday. And if, as seemed likely, the cartridge was indeed kaput, a replacement would have to come from Sweden. It was likely to take two days. So the car would be mobile again on Wednesday at the earliest. We couldn't count on being back in Britain before Friday - almost a week late. Merde]

Clearly we had to leave the car. Le patron confirmed that there were trains to Lyon, and offered to take us to the station. He could arrange to transport the car to Lyon the following morning.

It was only 20 minutes' wait for the train, with reserved seats on a connecting TGV to Paris. There were no non-smoking seats left, but who cared? Thanks to the speed of the TGV, we arrived at Euro Disney for our planned overnight stay only an hour later than intended, despite having lost four hours on the breakdown.

The worst part of this kind of adventure comes afterwards, when for a week or more you are greeted by people saying, 'Heard about your little problem in France. You had breakdown insurance, presumably?' No one else, it seems, has heeded the advice given so clearly 15 years ago by Holiday Which?.

Could my advice be wrong? I have just done the sums, and over those 15 years of not buying insurance I reckon I am still in pocket, just. But while I have the Saab, and parts for it have to come from Sweden, it seems clear that to insure would be prudent. And much the same could be said of any high-performance, relatively unusual, 'executive' car. Such cars are increasingly dependent on sophisticated diagnostic equipment and specialised spare parts that are likely to be stocked only by the factory or, at best, the importer.

So I'm doing a U-turn. Next time I'll buy insurance. Which kind? Watch this space.

Next week: Chris Gill's guide to Continental motor insurance.