To the Volga in a Volga
The heat belted out of the uninsulated engine compartment; the steering wheel had about 20 degrees of free play making straight-line progress more a matter of luck than judgement, and corners an adventure; the brakes did not work until you exerted your full strength pushing the pedal down, and then they pulled savagely to the right; the gear-box lacked syncromesh; the oil consumption was fierce; the indicators did not work; and there were no seatbelts. But that was not the worst part of going rallying in a 1962 Volga with Старое Время, or the Old-Time Car Club, of Moscow.
The serious fact was that amongst the crowds that lined our routes into Uglich, Rostov and Pereslavl-Zalesky, hardly any of the spectators who pointed cameras at the cars—and there were many of them— bothered to photograph my friend Ilya and I in our GAZ Mk 3. For some reason their preference was for the Lincolns and the Buicks, the Mercedes sports models, the two Rolls-Royces, the Covette Stingray, the pink Dodge and even, most humiliatingly of all, an MG Midget.
For the first time in a long life of not bothering to be cool, I learned what special level of coruscating uncoolness must have been suffered by those who were forced by Soviet reality not just to ignore cool but to have to choose between being uncool in the serious Soviet meaning of the word, or walking. No wonder Communism collapsed. I learned more about political history in two days of bouncing around the back-roads north-east of Moscow in an old Volga than I had in twenty years of studying the ineffectiveness of anti-consumerist propaganda. When young boys laugh at your car, then you know it is time to change political systems.
But still, my two days in the Volga were one of the most enjoyable I have spent in four years in Russia. There were many reasons for this, starting with my companion Ilya and the others on the rally—tour would be a better word—and going on with the amazing hospitality of the authorities in the various towns, where the police stopped the traffic so that we could parade in like visiting celebrities. I suppose that, as pink Dodges and Rolls-Royce Silver Ghosts are rare in Uglich, we were something like that.
But the nicest aspect of the event was discovering that rare thing in Moscow, an association of Russians devoted purely to quiet enjoyment, in this case cruising around country roads in ancient cars until evening falls and the party starts. The members of the Old-Time Car Club are straight-forward lovers of old time cars, nothing more or less.
The moving spirit behind this wonderful organisation is Alexander (“Sasha”) Smirnov, who runs a small restoration and repair business for classic cars in an unpretentious garage near Tushinskaya Metro station. He came with his wife and two children in a Lincoln that used to belong to the Governor of Delaware, and which had in its boot two boxes for high-tech communication devices and another for automatic weapons storage. He said to me, “This is not sport, it is for socialising.” How unusual is that in modern Russia!
Unfortunately, I could stay only for two of the four days of the trip, which went on to Suzdal, Vladimir, Bogolyubovo, Veles and Kirzhach—a total distance of just over 900 kms. Last year they all went to Kaliningrad oblast. Next year will be somewhere else.
For readers interested in going touring in this area independently, I should say that you will not be disappointed. The roads were better than I had expected— most of the time. All the towns had hotels where you could spend the night. At Rostov, the recently-restored Kremlin was one of the most magnificent I have seen. But Uglich on the Volga, where Ivan the Terrible’s son was murdered, and Perslavl- Zalesky, where Peter the Great learned to sail, were also fascinating. I would happily have put up with searing heat, the sloppy steering, weird brakes and other discomforts to have seen all the other towns the Rally visited. From a tourist point of view, central Russia is one of the least-known jewels in Europe.
The event was sponsored by the Oil- Trade company and Old Time.