In Soviet Union, Airbag is Your Face
Updated: Jan 6, 2021
When I first came to visit Tbilisi, around Seven years ago, there were still a large number of old soviet vehicles on the road. I fell in love with them immediately. Cheap, mass-produced, no options, no airbags, and no comfort, but they certainly make up for it in character. You might be asking, "Yes, sure, most cars were like that back in the day, but what are they like now?"
I'll sum up that answer with a picture.
Soviet cars don't change. It's half the charm to me.
One day, a fellow ex-pat brought to my attention that there was a Lada Zhiguli for sale. Its owner was leaving the country, and the little car needed a new home.
We agreed to meet the owner, but as most things in life go, it wasn't that simple.
Last-minute, the owner decided to head out to the city of Kutaisi for some unspecified purpose but never made it there. The car snapped an A-arm and currently only had three wheels. Before hitchhiking to the airport, the owner called me and said he had had the car towed to a repair shop. We struck a sort of deal that I could use the car if I paid the bill, and he would be able to drive it again should he return.
This deal was good enough for me, and the repairs weren't extraordinarily costly, considering the damage. But the car had probably never seen an easy life, and it showed. I walked into the work courtyard to find the car. Small business auto repair is vastly different here than in the west. In this part of the world, there are these locations stuffed with many independent shops that all serve different parts of the repair process, but they all share the same parking lot. I walked into the welding shop. The owner seemed bemused by my commitment to fixing the car. I asked him if there was anything else I should be concerned about with the car. He mostly laughed away my questions and said it would be a much better decision not to put any money into the car and get another. Keeping this car together was going to be a serious challenge. Hell, even driving it around was a challenge.
The clutch didn't like to hold pressure. Sometimes you would have to pump the pedal several times to build up enough pressure to get it into gear. The stick-shift itself was also a bit of a mystery, as it was so loose that sometimes 1st gear would be where 3rd should be. On top of all that, there was no power steering, so you had to muscle it around everywhere when driving slow.
It was a lot of work, but the reactions made up for it. Everyone I drove around had some feeling about it, ranging from, "It's so adorable, and it reminds me of my childhood," to "Oh dear God, we are all going to die in this thing!"
It was also fun to play into the reactions a little.
A friend of mine came from America to visit me, and one of my favorite parts of the whole trip was her expression upon seeing me roll up in the bucket of bolts wearing an old Soviet military hat.
"Get in comrade! shit's about to get weird."
My neighbors also seemed to appreciate the little car. I had just gotten back from somewhere; when two neighborhood boys walked up to the car. They loved it, possibly for the same reasons I did.
"Where are you headed?" I asked.
"Up the hill." the one replied.
I was about to ask if either had a drivers license, but realized that there was no way these kids were older than 12 years old.
"Know how to drive with a clutch?" I asked, instead.
"The first one nodded vigorously."
"Cool! Drive us where you need to go," I said, throwing him the keys, and then I jumped into the back seat.
The kid looked at the keys for a second, then excitedly told his friend to get in the passenger seat. I leaned up in the middle between them.
"You got this?" I asked.
The kid certainly did. He was a natural, and other than continually having to tell him to keep it slow, the short drive was splendid. We did a few laps around the block before he drove up to his buddy's house.
There was never a shortage of problems with the car, but the fantastic thing about any car design not changing for 50 years is that everyone knows how they work and how to fix them.
The car got stuck one day in the ally behind my apartment. I popped open the hood to take a look, but within minutes of placing the hood in the upright position, every guy in the neighborhood began drifting over to see if they could help.
It was a beautiful September day, and men of all ages stood around the disgruntled car. They passed around a large container of beer, smoked cigarettes, and chatted amongst themselves. We worked through our language barriers by going from Georgian to Russian and then into German, which I could almost understand. Eventually, one individual suggested that we get a man named Gela to help with the repairs.
"With Zhiguli car, he is the master."
I didn't know who this person was, but a small boy was sent to fetch him. Before too long, an elderly gentleman with a severe limp ambled over to our group. He was wearing an old flannel shit and brought with him an old rusty kitchen knife and a 10mm wrench. Somehow, the guy removed the carburetor in only about a minute. It appeared to me that he didn't do much except bolt it back down again (still without a gasket). However, whatever magic he did, worked. The car started right up after that.
Car culture is different wherever you go in the world. I think if you are any level of gear-head, you should check out the automotive scene of whatever country you may happen to explore. It says a lot about the way people think, the same way a language does.
I took the car to a small repair shop down the street, when I noticed the gas tank had started to leak. The man told me not to worry and to head over to the nearest hardware store and buy all of the two-part epoxy tubes that they had. I returned with a bag of them. The repairman had already removed and drained the gas tank from the car and set it outside the shop.
He took the bag of epoxy bottles and put them in a bowl. Next, he filled the bowl with hot water.
"To make them more liquid." He explained.
After some time, he removed the bottles and dumped the entirety of their contents into a large pie tin. After stirring it for a while, he poured the concoction over the suspect area of the gas tank. We sat for a while, had a cup of instant coffee, and attempted to have a conversation through the language barrier. It amazed me, but the tank never leaked again.
Despite the constant battle to keep the car on the road, sadly, the little car is no longer with me. One day, the car refused to start, and I had to leave it on the street. I came back a few days later to try and start it with a friend, but the car was nowhere to be seen. I never had the proper documents for the car, so there was no way to make a claim to it whether or not it had been towed or stolen. It never really had been mine.
I was upset to lose something that I had put so much work into, but it had all been worth it. I've tried a lot of different and strange things over the years in my constant search for adventure. However, I can't recommend enough the experience of having a vintage car that is specific to the region where you are living. The car may be gone, but the friendships and the knowledge of this culture will remain.