Murphy’s Law and the Citroen C4

The Murphy from “Murphy’s Law” was either a US Navy cartoon character (as remembered by astronaut John Glenn) or a US Air Force engineer, who found that G-force sensors had been installed incorrectly during a test.

Dr Karl explains in “Great Moments in Science” that the engineer said “if there are two or more ways to do something and one of those results in a catastrophe, then someone will do it that way”.

He says that the often-quoted “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” is actually “Finagle’s Law”. Plus, you can add in to this mix of mishaps “Sod’s Law” and even “Reilly’s Law”.

I became acquainted with all of them one day, after buying a Citroen C4.

The car itself was a great buy: it had been a $36,000 luxury pack when new in 2006. Now it was 5 years old, with just over 100,000 kms on the clock. When I came along to a dealer yard in 2011, looking for a lower-kilometre car to replace my VW New Beetle for a daily highway run to a new job, it was the car with the style and features that lured me away from the new car purchase of a runout Kia Rio at the same dealer – and saved me $2,000. For around $12,000 I had an all-leather, glass-roofed feast of technology.

I’d gone to a dealer to get a car with no worries for my new job – and this Citroen came with a basic warranty: 2 years with up to $1,000 worth of work for each claim. The day I bought it, the salesman offered me the chance to upgrade to higher repair coverage, for quite a few hundred dollars more. I didn’t think a car in such good condition would be having any claims, let alone a large one. Murphy would prove me wrong.

This C4 was a manual VTR spec with a bigger 2-litre engine. It had cruise control, climate control, power driver’s seat (with memory), a large central LCD speedo and a suite of safety measures. The design feature I admired most was the fixed centre hub of the steering wheel.

The central area of the wheel – with the horn, buttons and Citroen logo – stayed in place, while the wheel itself rotated behind that setup – so you always knew where the cruise or stereo buttons were. Sadly, Citroen deleted this from later C4s. Maybe it was just too weird for some, but I loved that feature.

Being a manual, and with throws between gears that were a little slow, it was a bit of a chore to get it up to highway speed – but once there, it cruised very well. The 2-litre engine was reasonably thrifty, averaging just under 8 litres/100km in our ownership.

It was a joy to own, even though it did have some minor work under warranty: a new temperature sensor was the biggest job.

Then, driving home one day in early 2013, I was doing 100 km/h in the right lane of the highway when the engine stopped. Thankfully, traffic was light and I coasted over to a handily-placed breakdown bay. I used the starter motor to bring the car back behind the guardrail, and waited for a tow.

There was one tow off the highway to an underpass, then – a while later – another tow by my auto club, straight to the dealer who’d been looking after the warranty items. They put it on a code reader, while my auto club paid for me to have a rental car for the next day. Then word came back, that the problem was most likely the timing belt.

Repair work would cost many thousands, as the engine would need to be rebuilt. They asked, with my $1,000 limit on repair coverage, did I want to proceed? I said no, of course. Then (with the car still in their yard) I set about looking for an exchange engine.

Ebay told me that a company based in Brisbane could source and fit a 2-litre engine from a wrecked C4, which had lower kilometres than mine. The engine was on a pallet in Sydney – the total cost (with a new clutch and timing belt) would be under $1,800. I gave the go-ahead right away and had the car towed to their yard.

Around a week later, the 150,000 km Citroen was back on the road, with an engine that had done just 70,000 kms. I went to the Citroen dealer, whose early service stamps were in the book, and they claimed the timing belt had been changed at 100,000 kms, as required. So Murphy’s Law meant that it broke at just over 150,000 kms.

After a couple of years I was back working from home, so my wife drove it daily after selling the family truckster. Eventually, it became just a household runaround and sometimes-learner-car. By early 2021, it had over 260,000 kms on the clock and had received another new clutch and timing belt.

It went up for sale, and a buyer from way out in the country contacted me, asking questions about the car over the phone. He said it was difficult to find a nice car out their way, and this would suit his wife. He asked to meet at Gympie in a week, for the handover of cash and keys.

I wasn’t sure if this transaction would actually happen, so I had other buyers lined up behind him, just in case. However, true to his word, he and his family were there to take delivery of the car, and hand over just a few thousand for it. It all went without a hitch, and without any evidence of Murphy’s Law.

Watch my YouTube goodbye to the Citroen here

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