THE LANTAU POLICE enforce a strict 8am curfew on Tung Chung Road and, in the rush to beat it, I haven't stopped for petrol in Pui O. Now, 25km later, the MX-5's fuel gauge points to 'E'. I'm glad I'm on my own - the Tsing Ma Bridge isn't the best stop in the rain. The petrol had better last, because I'm off to the Hong Kong Automobile Association (HKAA), and I'd rather hear about the group's 88 years of service in its dry offices than in a tow truck. Still, you can stretch your fuel to Kowloon if you crawl at low revs in high gear through the Cheung Tsing Tunnel, accelerate and brake gently among the trucks in Kwai Chung, and then turn the engine off at long-idle lights in Mongkok. When the trusty Mazda reaches Yau Ma Tei without a refill I tell the HKAA's Caterham-loving chief executive, Andrew Windebank, about the morning's excitement. The Tsing Ma is hardly a bridge too far for his recovery vans, he says. 'On the emergency line [2304 4911], our controller would reassure you that, within a short time, the Tsing Ma Bridge recovery team would be with you,' Windebank says. 'In your case, we'd deploy a patrolman with a can of petrol on a Honda 750 or a 250. If you were on a bike, we might carry the machine in a specialist van. Sixty per cent of our work doesn't need towing. And, in 60 per cent of calls, we can get you started or keep you moving.' Based in Nathan Road, and with a depot in Marsh Road, Wan Chai, the 11,000-member HKAA has a predominantly Japanese recovery fleet: two heavy-duty Isuzu trucks for sports utility vehicles; three light-duty Toyotas; a pair of Daewoo and Mazda vans, bikes and a trailer for performance cars or low-slung saloons. That means it's best to tell the emergency line controller as much as you can about your car and breakdown (see sidebar), 'so we can send the right vehicle', says HKAA assistant manager Danny Chung Yiu-bun, who's spent 20 years on the road. Typically, the controller will run through a series of questions to find out as much as possible about what might have gone wrong. If they're still not sure, 'we send one of the tow trucks', Windebank says. Patrolmen say there are two types of motorist in Hong Kong. Those in the New Territories tend to drive longer distances in bigger cars - and they're more likely to have mechanical problems. Nine out of every 10 such calls require a trailer, says patrolman Philip Lee Wai-kim. 'On Hong Kong Island, you get the little things from holiday drivers who take the car out at weekends,' he says. 'They run out of gas or have flat batteries. Drives are usually short runs.' Electrical problems are common in bigger cars, and European cars tend to overheat. The patrolmen wouldn't name any specific make, which is a pity. I bet the older lads still count British Leyland logos in their sleep. Car maintenance is lax here. 'Not many people read their car's handbook,' Lee says. 'About 90 per cent of owners in Hong Kong don't look after their car. They're very clean on the outside, but the engine?' There'd be fewer breakdown calls if Hong Kong drivers were tested on the basics of car care, the patrolmen say. 'When you're tested for a licence in China, you must know how to change a tyre,' says HKAA manager Tony Cheng Chung-kau. 'In Hong Kong there's no need for that.' Hong Kong motorists should learn more about basic road safety, too, says Windebank - 'such as not stepping out of a car into the slow lane of a highway, or blocking traffic after a small ding'. I invite the patrolmen to name the most common offenders on Hong Kong's roads. 'Many motorists leave the car's cleaning to the amah,' says one. 'We've been called in because she's flattened the battery, either by leaving the ignition on, or not shutting the door.' Chung says he came to the aid of a 'disappearing member' 20 years ago. Having called for help, the man fell into a ditch on Repulse Bay Road and couldn't be found for some time. Chung also recalls the time his hands caught fire, tending to a Triumph's carburettors. 'This is one of the reasons we've been having first aid and firefighting training, at St John's Ambulance and the motor-racing schedule,' Windebank says. 'We carry fire-extinguishers and our staff have to give assistance in an accident - even if they're on their way to a call.' The recent typhoon warning kept many drivers off the roads, although Lee says he's been out in far worse weather - including once when floodwater was nearly up to his door windows. Holidays are usually busy, with up to 10 calls during a six-hour shift. Lee and I head out into the wet in an Isuzu. By Choi Hung, the rain is in sheets, hammering the windscreen. The wipers are flat out, revealing fleeting arcs of Sai Kung Road. We stop again to look at the map. It's not the easiest of drives, but it's the perfect storm for a breakdown - as long as it's not your own. Lee's been a patrolman for 14 years, during which time he's tweaked, hoisted and towed virtually every marque on the road. Lean and smart in a pair of black slacks and crisp, bright yellow HKAA polo shirt, he's a calm, smooth driver. He used to drive Mitsubishi 3000s at Zhuhai, and I ask him if he has a highly tuned Nissan Skyline at home. But Lee knows too much about Hong Kong cars to want one. 'I don't have a car,' he says. 'They're too expensive and too much trouble in Hong Kong. And the roads are narrow.' Eventually, we come on a pristine, red 1981 Porsche 924 GT with its bonnet up, and a sheepish owner, by the side of Clear Water Bay Road. The owner points to a snapped rubber drive belt. 'Belts can snap in the heat, or if they haven't been used in a while,' Lee says. He prepares the Porsche for a tow, wary of the low skirts and recent paint job. Only 400 of these cars were built, the owner says. He says he'll source a new part off the internet, and have it fitted by Kwong Hing Motors in Sai Kung, rather than go to the Porsche Centre. 'The dealers have a monopoly, and many charge a lot more for parts than they deserve,' he says. 'You can get a part shipped out in a week, and fitted by a reputable independent garage, for a lot less.' And what does he think of the HKAA service? 'I expected 45 minutes and you came in 25,' he says. The service is well worth the $500 subscription fee - a tow truck would cost between $200 and $600. And off we go, with a wave, into the storm. Back at base, a patrolman returns the MX-5's keys. 'You need petrol,' he says. Who could ignore such advice in this rain?