A Rover to Russia

The Russians may now be embracing the West with open arms, but it hasn´t always been like that. A quarter of a century ago there was no such thing as “glasnost”, and any Westerner venturing behind the Iron Curtain was very much on his own. In January 1964 Maxwell Boyd covered the Monte Carlo Rally from Minsk in the then brand-new Rover 2000 and found it a fascinating experience.

It was on my return home from the luncheon party in the City last April, held to launch what was (to me, anyway) the motoring book of 1987, that I got the surprise of my life. The book was the Pirelli album of motoring sport called Flying colours, the kind of handsome, weighty, landscape-shaped tome that would put the strongest coffee table under severe strain, and the great Juan Manuel Fangio himself had been enticed over from his home in Argentina to help give it a memorable send-off.

The book was crammed full of photographs of the immortals of motor racing and rallying through the years. As I leafed through the pages, I found Jenatzy, Lautenschlager, Nuvolari, Caracciola, Jackie Stewart, Hannu Mikola, Niki Lauda, you name them, they were all there. But so also, to my utter amazement, in the middle of all these illustrious names, on page 186, there was this whopping great picture of two absolute unknowns, M. Boyd and M. Frostick, sitting in a P6 Rover, rather glumly awaiting the start of the 1966 Monte Carlo Rally. It was very flattering to find oneself in such company, I must say, and it was probably the nicest, but certainly the least deserved compliment I have ever been paid.

I remember that rally well but, in fact, it wasn´t my first Monte Carlo outing in a P6. That had happened two years earlier, in 1964, only three months after the car had been launched, and some time before it got into general circulation. In those far-off days, British manufacturers had a habbit, which contributed greatly in their undoing, of announcing new models long before any were ready for delivery, thus getting almost irretrievably up their customers´ noses. Not that some of them have changed all that much since....But I digress.

The P6, or Rover 2000 as it was known to the public, had been launched at the Earls Court Motor Show in October 1963. It was the star of the show, a brand-new design from stem to stern, with eyecatchingly elegant styling by David Bache that has proved unusually timeless. You quite often see P6s motoring around today and they look not in the least out of place in modern traffic. At the time, I see I wrote of the car in The Sunday Times Magazine: “...it successfully sets a new standard and a new image for its manufacturers”. Naturally, the 2000 caused a great stir and anybody who got his hands on one was to be envied.

The following January, the Monte Carlo Rally had one of its many starting points in Russia, the first in that country since the St. Petersburg start in 1911, only the second year of the rally´s existence. Whether or not this was to mark the fact that modern Monte Carlo had been more or less founded on the gambling losses of the Imperial Russian aristocracy at the turn of the century, I wouldn´t know. But the fact was that although the Russians of 1964 wanted their rally start in Moscow the organisers picked Minsk, the capital of what used to be known as White Russians, about 200 miles west of the capital.

As usual, I was down to cover the rally for The Sunday Times, and the then managing editor, a Scot with a permanent twinkle in his eye, thought it would be a bit of fun and make a great story if he sent me to cover it from Minsk. In mid-Russian winter, mark you. Ha, ha, very humorous. Maybe he recalled that Napoleon had retreated that way before, in 1812, at much the same time of year, and nourished faint hopes of me ending up well out of the paper´s way on a frozen steppe.

Anyway, at much the same time, I discovered that Autocar magazine was sending its Midlands Editor, Edward Eves, to cover the rally from Minsk. So it seemed like a good idea for us to team up, especially as Ted, with excellent contacts at the Rover factory at Solihull, had managed to talk their engineering department into lending him a Rover 2000 for the trip. It would, he told them, enable the department to assess the new car´s behaviour, not only in rally conditions, but sub-Arctic rally conditions at that. Fortunately for us, the engineers agreed and the deal was on.

Ted was in charge of the Rover´s pre-rally preparation, not that it amounted to much. Even 24 years ago the firmly believed that any modern car worth its salt should be able, in standard form, to cope with harsh winter conditions. He fitted  fog lamp and a Lucas “flamethrower”, a lamp with a pencil beam like a searchlight, and increased the mixture in the radiator to 50 per cent anti-freeze. He also managed to talk Pirelli into letting us have a set of winter-tread, tungsten-carbide-studded tyres for the ice and packed snow. They were to prove invaluable.

The weeks before the rally I remember as being filled not so much with things like Christmas and New Year celebrations, as with the lengthy and frustrating business of getting my passport filled with visas, not only for Russia and Poland, but Czechoslovakia as well, since the rally route led that way. There was no such thing as glasnost in 1964, and the grey men of the various Iron Curtain embassies in London seemed highly suspicious of these capitalists buccaneers invading their lands with their bourgeois motor cars.

Visa country on our trip actually started at Helmstedt, the point where the Hannover-Berlin autobahn enters East Germany. We had crossed from Harwich to the Hook of Holland, and on reaching Helmstedt, on the western side of the frontier, we stocked up in a local store with a number of cheap ballpoint pens and lipsticks. These, we had been reliably informed, were very acceptable in Russia, instead of money as a token of gratitude for services rendered. Tips, we understood, were not on. Good comrades didn´t accept such decadent capitalist symbols as coins.

The frontier post at Helmstedt, all depp snow and pine trees under a sombre, slate grey sky, was as bleak and depressing a place as I have ever seen. Just to cheer us up, maybe, as he waved us on our way out of the western world, the British Army NCO on duty this side of the barrier showed us a notice which warned darkly that, once inside the German Democratic Republic, we were on our own. If we got into trouble, there would be no friendly British consul, or anyone like that, we could go running to. And no AA or RAC man to ring up if we broke down, we thought. If things went wrong it could all get a bit lonely.

We drove a couple of hundred yards across no man´s land and stopped on the East German side of the frontier. Here we had to get a transit visa to see us through to Frankfurt on Oder, on the border with Poland. The road was autobahn all the way, about 160 miles of it, bypassing Berlin, and we noticed that our visas had been marked with the time at which we left the frontier between the two Germanys. They had warned us at Helmstedt not to stop anywhere on route, or divert from the main road. Now we saw why. We would obviously be timed out at Frankfurt. If we got there too soon, we must have been speeding. If we took too long, we must have been up to some mischief or other, and no doubt there would be awkward questions to answer.

We decided to try to average 50 mph, which we felt would give rise to no suspicious either way. The autobahn was pretty well traffic-free, but the surface was fairly grotty, so you really wouldn´t want to go much faster. As it turned out, our chosen speed proved just about spot on. I see from my old passport that we were timed in at Marienborn (the East German equivalent to Helmstedt) at 11 am, and out in Frankfurt at 2.30 pm. No questions were asked.

Two nights´ stay was mandatory for visitors to Poland in those days, so that the authorities could collect as much hard currency from you as possible. We stayed the first night in Poznan, where the house speciality of the hotel restaurant turned out to be sardines served with great ceremony straight from the tin, and the second in Warsaw. We drove across the country on untreated sheet ice all the way, causing us to bless our studded Pirellis.

A minor desaster struck in Warsaw, though, when a bottle of whisky broke in my suitcase in the hotel. I had to spend much of the evening wringing Scotch out of my socks and drying them on the heated towel rail in the bathroom. The air in the very much overheated bedroom was thick with vapourised whisky, and I couldn´t open the window because the outside temperature was far below zero. It was the only time I ever remember getting drunk merely by breathing.

The following day we drove into the Soviet Union at Brest-Litowsk, but not until the border guards had been through all our belongings with a fine-toothed comb and checked the underside of the Rover with a mirror on the end of a long handle. That evening we checked into the Intourist hotel in Minsk, where all the foreign Monte competitors who had chosen the Russian starting point were also staying.

In East Germany we had seen virtually to other traffic. In Poland it had been all horses and carts, outside the cities at least, and in the 220 miles between Brest and Minsk, with only two petrol stations on the way, we had passed six bicycles, a handful of cars and perhaps a dozen lorries. So, a gaggle of modern cars from the west were of more than passing interest to the local population.

If the Rover 2000 had been the star of the show at Earls Court, it was even more so at Minsk. Although the vehicles lined up outside the hotel included cars like Paddy Hopkirk´s works Mini Cooper (the eventual rally winner), Gerry Burgess´s works-entered Hillman Imp and the Russian´s own teams of Volgas and Moskvitches, it was our P6 that was the real magnet. It drew a constant crowd of intrigued, admiring, fur-hatted Russians, who minutely examined every inch of it, peered in through the windows, and even crouched down to look underneath. It was probably the most modern, most sophisticated car any of them had ever seen.

The fact that the Rover had to been parked overnight in the open air, the temperature of which slumped to about 26 degrees below zero, caused the only hiccup in the car´s behaviour throughout the trip. Understandably, one morning, along with almost all the other cars, it refused to start without a tow. Washing it clean of all the dirt it had accumulated crossing Europe was another problem, until we found an Intourist garage with a hot water hose, and a strapping Russian wench to wield it. We rewarded her with one of the lipsticks, I recall.

On the rally itself, we had to work quite hard to keep up with the competitors, especially as there was to be no diverting from the official route in the Iron Curtain countries, and thus no leapfrogging in order to catch up. At first, we retraced out steps back to Brest-Litovsk, driving fast at night along the dead-straight road through the pine forests. At one point, we passed a huge blaze of light, well off the main road and miles from anywhere. A factory, we wondered, or something more sinister?

Certainly the only living souls we saw were the armed sentries, muffled up to the eyebrows against the crippling cold, patrolling each and every railway bridge on the way. Even if this was the main line to Moscow, we couldn´t imagine anyone trying to blow it up in the middle of a sub-zero January night, but there you are, if you´ve git a huge army I suppose you´ve got to do something with it. By breakfast time we were back in Warsaw at the rally control in the Palace of Culture, or whatever they called it, where the crowds were, if anything, even more enthusiastic about the Rover than at Minsk. Even though the car was so new they knew all about it, technical details and all, which surprised us.

From Warsaw the rally headed south-west into Czechoslovakia, through Madla Boleslav, where they used to make Skodas at that time, to Prague and Pilsen, home of the original Pilsener beer. It was on the way to Prague, after dark and in thick fog, that one of rallying´s luckier escapes occurred. Driving a works-entered Ford Cortina, Sydney Allard, Monte winner in 1952, failed to see a level-crossing barrier across the road until too late. He crashed into it and before he could gather his thoughts the train crashed into him. The car was an instant write-off but somehow both Allard and his co-driver, Tom Lush, escaped without a scratch.

As for Ted Eves and I in our Rover, it was with a sense of relief, after nearly a week behind the Iron Curtain, that we made our way out of the oppressive atmosphere of eastern Europe and entered West Germany near Nuremburg. Near the Czech frontier we passed the tall, timber-built watchtowers tucked in amongst the pine trees, from which we knew armed lookouts would be observing us over every yard. The towers stood, we noticed, alongside a wide swathe cut in the forest, bordered by a high barbed-wire fence and undoubtedly mined. Things may have changed now, but then it was all very sinister.

From that point onwards, everything improved and the rally had one of its easier runs down to Monte Carlo. The Rover never missed a beat and nor did it all the way back home again, either. There was a protest from Lancia over the rally results, I remember, which put Paddy Hopkirk´s Mini victory in doubt for a while, but in the end everything was settled fairly amicably. Things were probably just warming up for the really big row a couples of years later, when the headlamps of the Minis and Cortinas got them thrown out in favour of the Citroens. The British were winning nearly everything in rallying in those days, and the Continentals didn´t like it a bit.

Maxwell Boyd

UK 1987