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The time-stopping moment

A leap back to the old days behind the Iron Curtain

20/03/2013 00:20 | Comments: 


The guy behind the idea of the English-language Totalcar site, the, also serving as an editor at the Hungarian , our mother site. Serial collector of sorry old things that have internal combustion engines in them, as a newfound religion, Zsolt is keeping a family under the terror of rust. Being in the business for the best part of the last 19 years, he landed at Totalcar after serving at a huge round of printed automotive magazines. Has a wife, two small(ish) children and a pet rabbit.

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Come, dear reader, take a ride with us to the place where even the best travel agencies will be unable to sell you holiday tickets - to the gloomy world behind the Iron Curtain where you could always catch a glimpse of sunlight. If you had the imagination and a tarted-up old motor.

This is a post about nothing in particular. Or maybe everything, whatever.

One thing is certain: Dire Straits plays a role in it.

But I should stop being too emotional.

At a certain and rather early age driving your own real road car is as much important as your first kiss. Or maybe more. It is possibly the first moment when you feel the world around you has just opened up. From that point on, life seems to be just a case of walking the red carpet rolled out to the horizon. Freedom of speed, freedom of movement, freedom of travel – the keywords of those heated moments when a young boy turns into a man if you get what I mean.

All the things I am to tell you about have happened a long time ago, in a long-gone gloomy year when – let me remind you, that is still the Hungary of the Communist era - you needed a special passport to hop over to the West. And not too many people got those passports. When I'm writing this story, it's Sunday night, the grandfather clock I inherited from my grandmother has just hit midnight on the wall. Ten minutes ago I was still in the middle of an absolutely different article – about some plasticky new test car – and to get my brain working I dug out this old cassette with a Dire Straits album on it, called Making Movies. A cassette... what am I talking about? I opened a directory on the computer and clicked on the mp3 file. Does that sound better?

And I had to stop writing because the flashback nearly knocked me off my chair. It's impossible to work under such heavy impressions. I can tell you, I was completely unprepared for such an impact. I hadn't listened to that album for years.

Listening to the music now, in 2012, brings back the same, chilly feeling again, starting from the middle of my back, crawling up my spine and giving me goosebumps all along my forearm. Listening to that music I feel as if I was entering a tumble-dryer – just like tens of years ago. Nothing is able to bring back special memories better than tunes that you haven't heard for a long time. And there is a special taste to this Making Movies album. It reminds me of my first car, which was much more than just a simple first car of someone's life. And it was much less than a real car – telling the truth.

Actually it was a piece of crap.

Still we had some unforgettable moments together in the summer of '86, when I freshly bought it I just graduated from high school just like my friend, Tibi. We had been hanging out together since being toddlers. We grew up together on a series of books called Car Types. In the 60's and the 70's these were published every 3-5 years, and they were the only motoring books in Hungary that had pictures, data and technical descriptions of cars in them. They were the automotive bibles of the age edited by a man called György Liener who was one of the leading journalists of the only Hungarian car magazine, Autó-Motor at that time. Rumor says he never had a driver's license. It's not unfair to call him a quack – but what a quack he was...

Our adolescence years revolved around dreaming about cars we had hardly any chance to spot on the streets of Budapest, because: 1) there weren't many cars to be seen the city at that time, 2) what could be seen were all derelict pieces of scrap iron, or unbelievably boring mutations of Western cars from the Eastern Block. By the time we turned sixteen, each Saturday we hopped on our bikes and visited all kinds of rusty car wrecks slowly decaying in the outskirts of Budapest. Remember, we are in the early 80's, the Iron Curtain was still a very real object and all the goodies that came with it.

Those decomposed cars, we were looking at, originally arrived as presents to Hungarians from those relatives who had fled the country earlier and now were living in Western Europe. Naturally they were used cars, and as such they were not in top shape when they arrived in the country. At the time those cars entered the country – we are speaking of the early 60's – you were already allowed to own a private car, but it was almost close to the impossible to buy a new one, so this present-scheme was the only chance to become a car owner for most of the citizens. And without parts supply and proper servicing these cars turned to scrap in a matter of years, sometimes months. Just think of Cuba and you start to understand what I'm talking about.

Of course, all this happened years before we were born. By the time we started dreaming about owning a car, times had already changed a great deal. From the end of the 60's a trickling, but consistent stream of new cars from the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland and Rumania started to fill up the streets in the country. In a few years these new cars pushed out the thousands of squeaky motorized carriages that somehow survived the war, the darkest years of Communism and the 1956 revolution, and a bit later they also wiped out those overused cars that arrived from the West as presents just a few years earlier. Not all of them however.

Those that survived a bit longer were kept in motion on a shoestring budget by their owners, often without any kind of real backup, until they could barely turn a crankshaft. Even as kids, we could see that some of them had really interesting lives even though we were far from being a repairman. The original designers would have had hard times to recognize some of those cars. They were much worse than anything you could possibly pick up from Western Europe's deepest junkyards at that time.

DKW Juniors, BMW 1500 Neue Klasse-s, early Renault R16-s, Dauphines, Fiat Topolinos, Goggomobil Isar T700-s, Ponton Mercs, Fiat 1800-s, Messerschmitt Kabinrollers, Lloyds, Opel P1 Rekords, Citroen Amis, Alfa Giuliettas – rotting away slowly, often having hearts transplanted from other, Eastern Block vehicles, frequently mounted on bricks instead of wheels. These were the cars the sharp-eyed car-spotter could see in quiet suburban streets by the dozens. We had grand visions for them, planning to buy one and put it back on the road with the use of some mechanical fettling and a generous dose of plaster and cheap paint. We mastered our craftsmanship by bodging Russian-made Verhovina and Polish-made Romet mopeds – a really useful experience.

And the ultimate goal? Travelling abroad with our car, which may be rusty on the underside, matt in the paint, smoky at the tip of the exhaust, but still it is our car, still it is moving and was made in the West. My, how naïve we were! Trips across Europe, travelling to India and China... we had all the important destinations on our list. Dreaming costs nothing, you know, you just need a high-school atlas, a couch and a pencil.

One thing we knew for certain: we weren't having any of the dead-dull crap the streets were filled with: oceans of Ladas, shit-brown Wartburgs, three year-old Dacias that never worked, polished, but already rusty underneath the coat of paint, stinky Trabants that always work, but reek of poverty – no way, man. We wanted something that was real, that we could spot in the Persuaders, in Alain Delon movies, in Bud Spencer-Terence Hill comedies. A real car. Did we have any money? Driving licence? Are you kidding? None of those.

I made a decision at the end of my last high-school year. I will buy a car – a Western car. I wanted it so badly I was ready to die for it. By that time I already had some savings from after school jobs and some earlier summer jobs. For an acceptable sum I managed to sell a Sony reporter deck for which I had worked my arse out earlier and also my prized Japanese road bicycle.

In the spring of 1986, despite my parents' forbiddance , I bought one of the rustiest and least reliable Fiat 500s in the country. These were brought new to Hungary in two waves by the only car importing company of the time, called Merkur – the first wave of about a thousand cars arrived to the country in 1969, then another batch in 1971. In 1986 you could still see many of them parking around the streets of Budapest. Most of them wrecks, mind you. Just like mine. But this one had a subtle advantage – it had a running license and the engine could be started.

I perfectly knew that for that amount of money mine is an impossible dream, and I was also certain that unfathomable amounts of knuckle bruising await me. But I couldn't have cared less. I needed that car. And since I knew it would be utterly unusable from the first day, at least it had to be nice, full of character, easy on the eyes. Anything that could give me wings to fly away from the grey, boring, depressing, uniform-clothed, uniform-dirty, uniform-reeking world they used to call socialism. At least I should have my dreams for a while.

Imagine the moment. For years we had been preparing for the high school graduating exams, then for the ever harder entrance exams for the university. By the end of June we were pretty sure we passed both exams successfully. By that time I had the Fiat.

We had two months of seemingly endless summer vacation stretching lazily before us. At the end there lurked the feared obligatory service in the army service – a massive concrete wall. We had no money in our pockets, nevertheless we kept on making plans about having parties, meeting chicks, taking trips to Lake Balaton (an emblematic holiday site for Hungarians). And no more studying, obviously. Plus, of course, I had a car. Don't you understand? A Car. The CarA Veee-Hicle of my own.

I knew the dream wouldn't last long, not the least because the license (call it MoT, Pickerl., TÜV, whatever) was to be expired in a six weeks time. And after closer acquaintance with the car I got a poignant but pretty certain feeling that there would be no power in the world to push it through the next inspection. I had to use it, quickly, while it was still usable.

Having had no money left, it was Tibi's turn to pay for petrol. His parents had a firm conviction that their kids shouldn't run around with empty pockets, but they didn't want them to spend all their money at once. So they had this secret family game of hiding some 20, 50 forint bills atop their old toys' boxes. Tibi never knew how much he would find, but there was always some money there by the afternoon. Earlier we spent that money on chocolate bars, Pepsi (you could rarely find Coke in the shops), chewing gum. From then on we spent it on fuel – 2 liters was the minimum you could buy at the pumps, so that was the regular amount for us, but occasionally we could fill up the tank with as much as 5 liters.

He already had a license, I spent the money given to me by my parents for getting a license on tires, a camshaft, a muffler – well, somebody had to keep that wreck in motion. So I drove the Fiat illegally, and when we had to venture to some distant part of Budapest, Tibi took the wheel.

Not many cars had installed radios at the time and radio programs were boring anyway: news, communist party speeches, classical music, quiz programs - nothing interesting to us. But a cassette player was something one could only dream of. We found the obvious solution: we took Tibi's Polish-made Unitra portable cassette player which luckily had some batteries in it. We stuffed it in the footwell – not much treble left this way, but we were compensated by a pretty good bass.

That mono Unitra, with a sound akin to noise made by zombies rising from the grave, meant more to us than a Dolby Surround Bose system would mean today. Make it two sets. There was actually music coming from it. This was the most important piece in our Lego set, it made us look like we were in a proper film. . Thanks to its existence we were riding around in a fiery-red Italian two-door in the proper way. Welcome Nice, hello Monte-Carlo, here comes stardom. Oh, the music? Most often it was Dire Straits.

I came late to that band. Although the group already released its first two albums by the end of 1978 and it was still pretty much on top a bit later too, I didn't even know about it during my formative music-listening years. In the early 80's, as a new wave-fan, I used to listen to Devo, Human League, Gary Numan, Haircut 100, and then, bored with the fashion of the day , I stepped over to Doors, Joplin, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin. Dire Straits was somewhere in between these extremes. It just didn't trigger my senses.

And then a classmate came to me one day with four albums. “Could you copy these for me?”, he asked. “Here, two cassettes, this ought to be enough.” This pal was from the sports magazine -reading bunch of the class, so we never talked much, since I was in the camp of the dirty-fingered nerds with unfunctional albeit promising mopeds.

But since I was the guy with a proper record player and a cassette deck, everybody used to find me with this sort of copying stuff. Those four records he gave me were Dire Straits albums. In those years, if we could lay our hands on any contemporary rock record, we would always make a copy for ourselves too, no matter who the performer was. Even if we didn't like th songs, still such a cassette always proved valuable when trying to haggle for something really important. On that day I got not one, but four, valuable albums. Frankly, I couldn't have cared less- I didn't even get to listening to them.

Only a year later, on a lazy afternoon would I pick one of these cassettes from the shelf. Being tired of all my old music, I put a Knopfler (the band's lead guitar, composer and singer) tape in the stereo. Surprise. After all the Hendrix, Oldfield, Jethro Tull and my favorite, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young hits, those songs still touched something deep inside.. Within hours I fell for it, hook, line and sinker.

For the next few weeks I was drowning in Dire Straits. I hardly stopped the deck that was playing the tapes. This time exactly collided with my graduation period, but it was also the moment when I was starting the Big Life Not to mention the beginning of one of the best summers in my life, and, naturally, the honeymoon weeks with my Fiat.

Knopfler really, really carved himself a special place in my memories. This was probably due to his talent, maybe due to coincidence - probably both. Or it was just written in my book of fate that Tibi had batteries in his Unitra and that the Making Movies cassette was in it when we set off for one of the longest early trips with the old Fiat.

We had to cross Budapest from one end to the other, because a friend of mine, a fellow Fiat 500 owner had an accelerator pedal to give me, so that I could replace the bent piece in my car. Engine-wise my Fiat had probably 12 of its original 17.5 bhp left, but the faulty accelerator pedal halved even that. It proved unbelievably tricky just to set off with it at green lights, never mind keeping up with traffic. But we had the canvas roof open, the quarterlights ajar, sunshine pouring in ... and there was Knopfler playing his guitar from the zombie Unitra in the footwell.

Even some girls took notice of us. For example at the red lights, two blondes waved to us from the rear window of the bus - laughing. What a hit we made! Other kids could barely lay their hands on bicycles, let alone motorbikes, but here we were behind the bus in a cute Fiat that – as could be seen from its shabby looks – must have been ours. The light turned green, the bus jerked away, Tibi hit the accelerator, got off the clutch... and stalled the car.. Well, that was the end of the story – with the girls at least.

But we did not give up without a fight – those chicks really looked good. We tried to keep up with the bus racing towards Moscow square - "she gets the sun in the daytime..." – mumbled Knopfler through teeth apparently broken, and we could almost see the two girls again, standing at the back of the bus. They were unbelievably pretty – "because she smells just like a rose, and she tastes like a peach..." – and we, the chasers felt like rockstars in LA, with dangling arms out the window of our own Ferrari's Italian car, banging down the street. Life seemed to be a piece of cherry pie to be devoured with zest.

"...and she comes out in the nighttime..." – pinched and boomed Knopfler's guitar threateningly, and from behind the begging wail of the two-cylinder's air-cooling fan, the rattling of broken piston rings, the frenetic hammering of valve lifters, we could hardly hear, rather suspect that the moment would come soon when the drum would step in... and we knew that it would be the exact moment to snatch fourth gear. We knew, because a a gentle slope started exactly at that point and we presumed that the dying engine might just be able to take the load of the rusty chassis in top gear.

From then on we just had to keep our momentum and sail elegantly around Moscow square, dicing in the traffic with the most boring cars history has thrown at the world: graveyard-blue Volgas, irrigation canal-green Moskvitches and beige Zaporozhetses painted in coloures of artifical limbs.

The good old Moscow square – recently renamed after a Hungarian prime minister before the First World War, well, that tells something about the turn of fortune in Hungary - was the point of the journey where we expcetd our most enthusiastic audience, as the square was a major junction for buses, trams and the subway. As we rolled in from the west end of the place, we just couldn't help thinking how immeasurably cool we must look. Delon in a Facel-Vega? Connery in a DB5? Gassman in a Lancia Aurelia B24 Spider? They couldn't have held a candle to us. Oh, facts didn't matter to us.

Many people were smiling, some even laughing at us from the sidewalk, and to tell the truth, we must have made a funny sight. In the early 80's Hungarians seemed to be equal, everybody had similar wishes: freedom from the Communism, independence from the Russians.

The picture of two kids in a cheery old, two-door Fiat was like a breeze of fresh air from the colorful world existing on the other side of the Curtain. In that moment everybody watching us on Moscow square got a minor spasm of well-mannered jealousy, and for another brief second they all wished they had a rusty, old, wheezing little Fiat like ours. But the one in sight was already ours. And – by the way - Dire Straits and Knopfler was painting the sky blue for us all the while. Clearly this was a perfect moment, possibly one of the best you can ever get from the combination of a car and some fine music. See, that much for the saying that hardware doesn't always matter.

The accelerator was mended in no time, but the Fiat's engine gave its struggle for life a few weeks later, the Unitra was lost by one of my ex-classmates and not much later Tibi bought an MZ motorbike, which was so good it could leave the borders of Budapest easily, so our common trips ended.

But on that afternoon, in July of'86, on the cobblestone street leading to Moscow square, in the little Italian car struggling to make our day with its last reserves of power, fighting the thinning engine oil, the ever-bending accelerator pedal, and above all, conquering boredom and grayness that seemed to hang as a thick blanket over everything in Hungary at that time, the Dante Giacosa-designed Cinque' was king, Knopfler was a god and together they made us look glamorous beyond belief.

We were poor. Maybe outright ridiculous. But believe me, it seemed a perfectly perfect moment at that time and it bloody much seems right now as well. . It would be nearly impossible to replicate today, because Budapest has turned more colorful, the people habiting the city are more hostile towards each other, but the song is still the same - "...and she was made in heaven, heaven is the world – is this just expresso love, you know, I'm crazy for the girl..."

Mark, Dante, thanks, really.

And you know what? I still have that very Dire Straits cassette on the shelf...

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