Hey look, my Citroën has finally made it to Hollywood! A year after I bought it in France. And, eleven months after it was delivered to my parents’ place in Connecticut, it finally made it across another continent to sunny Southern California. Some of this story was posted here as part of a post I did for Live and Let Diecast, but this is the full tale of how it got here.
The reason it spent so long in Connecticut is because that’s where I registered it since it’s not old enough to be smog exempt in California. Connecticut has no such concerns apparently. But, that doesn’t mean they’re not strict about other things. Like working brake lights and windshield washers.
Last December I went back to New England to take care of the registration. I knew that was going to involve a VIN inspection, so I had to get a temporary registration in order to drive it an hour away to the DMV that does the VIN thing. After an eternity in the DMV, they decided they didn’t like my paperwork and I had to go back to customs to get a goddam stamp proving that it had actually gone through customs. Which didn’t make sense to me since I couldn’t be in possession of it if it hadn’t cleared customs. This wasn’t going to be the first such snafu.
DMV 1 was then satisfied with the new stamp on customs form 1501 and gave me a temporary registration. At this point I figured I was in the clear, but never count your government bureaucracy chickens. A few days later, my father and I made the trek to New Haven to get the VIN inspection done. It was 25 degrees and the tiny air-cooled 36 horsepower Citroën flat twin took most of the morning to get up to running temp. Despite this, it trundled up the Merritt Parkway like a champ. We even passed a few cars much to the amazement of my dad.
When we got to the inspection station, they told us it was going to have to have a “courtesy” inspection which is a safety check. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that they would want to make sure the car was “safe,” but it didn’t. I mean, it’s a teeny little French tin can, it’s already unsafe. But, sure enough, they checked all the lights, the horn, the wipers, etc. And that’s when I found out my washer pump didn’t work. And my brake lights didn’t always come on. Uh oh!
Then they went and checked my paperwork again, the bastards. They really earn their pay at the Connecticut DMV. My nice, newly stamped customs form 1501 didn’t actually have the car’s VIN on it. And now they wanted letters from the Department of Transportation, and the EPA stating the car was legal to import. Which, again, it wouldn’t have passed through customs and got into my possession if it wasn’t legal to import, I thought. But, I guess illegal cars get through somehow all the time or they wouldn’t be confiscating all those GT-R’s and Defenders. Except those cars are literally worth 50 times what a Citroën LNA is. Arrggh. I understood about the VIN and failing the courtesy inspection, but the DOT and EPA things weren’t mentioned on the DMV website, so I was in a pretty sour mood on the drive home. My father was more concerned about finding a Starbucks. “Just forget about registering it,” he told me. He doesn’t usually give up so easy, and I wasn’t about to.
So, the car went back in the barn, and I got to calling the customs broker I used when it it first got to America. The DOT and EPA don’t write “letters” about specific cars, but they do have forms you can get off their website with many legal sounding words on them. I’m not sure quite how the system is supposed to work, but the customs broker downloaded them, filled them out for me, and had them stamped by someone at Customs. I don’t think the original agencies were involved in this at all except for the one time I called the EPA and the guy told me about the form. He seemed surprised I was even asking like no one ever really needs that form. He didn’t tell me what I was really supposed to do with it. Anyway, the customs broker also put the VIN number on the other paper and mailed me everything. But, there was no way to fix the brake lights and windshield washer without ordering parts from France, so I had to return to L.A.
Since the LNA shared a lot of parts with other Citroëns and the Peugeot 104 on which it’s based, I didn’t think it would be too hard to find parts overseas. The washer pump, however, is the one thing they seemingly made out of unicorn tears. The button there is a combination wiper switch and manual washer pump. It twists to activate the wipers, and you push it to pump a tiny spritz of water onto the windshield. 37 years of water going through it has locked up the pump part, but the switch still worked. That whole button isn’t made any more and neither is just the pump part. I guess it was such a shitty design they abandoned it. So, I could install an electric pump and a switch, but that sounded like a pain in the ass. I was ready to just go the spray bottle route when I found that the Mehari used a solo pump button just like mine, but without the wiper part. And they make those.
Cool. And a brake light switch was easy to find. So, I was ready. I had to wait until May to go back to Connecticut once again, but this time would be the last. At least when it came to the LNA. I’ll still go visit my parents.
The weather was warm, I had a folder of stamped paperwork, a windshield washer pump, and a brake light switch. Let’s do this thing.
The parts were easy to install and fit perfectly in my “if it takes more than 10 minutes to fix, it ain’t worth fixin’” rule. When I went to pull it out of the barn, I realized I may have to put that rule to the test. The brakes were frozen. Ugh. Nothing is worse for an old car than sitting and 5 months in a barn weren’t kind to the poor LNA. The front calipers were pretty filthy and not being used for that long made them give up the ghost. Or, not give up on clamping the rotors. I was only going to be back east for a week. Where the hell was I going to find new calipers in that time for a 37 year old French car that was never sold here? “You’re fucked,” my dad said. Again with the encouragement.
Fortunately, the car world is smaller than the real world, and I remembered a guy who owned a Visa that I had met at a car show in Massachusetts once.
He had since moved to Tuscon, but he had a friend in New Jersey that was a Citroën expert who had worked on the Visa. Specifically, the brakes, and there was a spare pair of calipers at his place. The same ones the LNA used. An hour and a half away from my parents’ place. Incredible.
Citroën man lived way out in the sticks. My father told me practically his whole life story on the way including a hilarious tale about how his Hebrew teacher at the yeshiva once put a lit cigarette in his pocket to hide it from the school’s principal. A lot of people don’t realize how much of New Jersey is rural. And, as you can see, this guy’s filled his country yard with Citroëns of all kinds (that green S-Cargo belonged to a friend). He had a nice workshop full of parts including a newly rebuilt pair of brake calipers for Citroëns LNA and Visa. I presented them triumphantly to Dad. I traded my old ones for the new ones, and now just had to figure out how to get them installed.
Once more, my father was dubious. I don’t do brakes myself, but I had seen some old cars at a shop around the corner, so I figured I’d ask them. Replacing calipers on a car as basic as this should be easy for anyone who knows what they’re doing, and Frankie up there barely batted an eye when I asked him if he would work on a Citroën. So, in like two days, I went from being fucked to having working brakes.
We set out on one more trip to New Haven with the old man squeezed into the passenger seat, this time equipped with working brakes, brake lights, windshield washer pump, and a fistful of properly filled out and stamped forms from various government agencies, our stomachs filled with butterflies. It felt like our last shot at this. This time the guy in the inspection station was less a suspicious stickler and more an amused happy go lucky sort. He asked about the car and laughed at how hard it was for my dad to get out. He watched the brake lights light, watched the pump spritz, and gave a thumbs up. He barely glanced at the paperwork. It seemed like he was more counting how many there were rather than examining what they were. It was a big enough pile, so we got approved.
We then went into the main DMV building and were handed a pair of Classic Vehicle plates. Success! Now all I had to do was get it to California.
Cross country shipping can be a real pain in the ass. I went through like four brokers. All said they could do it for a certain price and then disappeared. Which is par for the course since they’re just bidding with other brokers to a limited pool of actual truckers. Shipping would be cheaper than doing it myself, though. Renting the truck and trailer and then gas, food, and lodging are twice what a carrier can do it for. And, driving it would have taken 10 days and probably lots of spare parts.
As it turned out, the calipers that came off my car originally were slightly different than the ones I got. The new ones have a dust shield that wasn’t on the old ones. So, the guy with the Visa didn’t want my old ones, and instead of buying him a dust shield equipped pair, I bought myself a new pair and swapped them with the ones I got from him. Only my mother burned the car’s clutch out driving back to the shop. Hahahahahaha!
So, then I had to order a clutch from France and mom, god bless her, paid to have it replaced. I don’t know if the clutch was on its last legs anyway, or my mother forgot how to drive stick, but whatever. Now it has a nice new clutch. And a third pair of calipers. But, now it’s all good, right? Except for the noisy wheel bearings, but I’ll worry about those when it gets here.
I ended up going with a broker who had some of the worst reviews online. After dealing with so many other lousy shipping companies, how bad could these guys be. He promised it would be picked up in a week. He hired a trucking company that also had the worst online reviews. Somehow, that combo worked because they picked it up right when they said they would and the trucker who got it called ahead of time and everything. Someone on Instagram happened to spot it on its way to the depot where it got on the big truck.
Four days later, it arrived here in L.A. Amazing. Either I was lucky, or you really can’t trust online reviews because people only post the bad ones.
It was no worse for wear and I couldn’t wait to start driving it. So I didn’t. And, that’s when I noticed the brakes were still acting funny. After driving around, they would start to drag. Huh. That would suck if these new calipers were bad. I was kind of stumped because everything was new. Hoses, calipers, even the master cylinder. Fortunately, with the help of a friend, we figured out that the new brake light switch was a little longer than the old one and didn’t let the pedal come all the way back. Pressure would build up in the master cylinder and the brakes would grab. So, a little adjusting and now they’re perfect. Finally. And I finally am cruisin’ Cali in a sweet Citroën.