ON A WING AND A PRAYER

Meeting the Mercedes 300SL Gull­wing that de­fected to Cold War Rus­sia

Classic Sports Car - - Contents - WORDS JAMES PAGE PHO­TOG­RA­PHY TONY BAKER

Not of­ten do you find a car that has ru­mours of KGB in­volve­ment, high-stakes card games, movie star­dom and even a ten­u­ous link to Vladimir Putin in its his­tory. But this Mercedes 300SL spent the first three decades of its life in the Soviet Union – a tech­no­log­i­cal won­der of the West­ern world that ar­rived be­hind the Iron Curtain at a time when Nikita Khrushchev was cham­pi­oning what he saw as the im­pend­ing vic­tory of Com­mu­nism over cap­i­tal­ism.

Its mere pres­ence there at the height of the Cold War is a story in it­self. So is the fact that it was even­tu­ally brought back to Ger­many and re­stored, and is now kept in pris­tine con­di­tion by its cur­rent owner, Ana­toly Ev­doki­mov. A young Rus­sian who speaks quickly and pas­sion­ately about clas­sic cars, Ev­doki­mov has en­thu­si­as­ti­cally em­braced the chal­lenge of sep­a­rat­ing fact from fic­tion when it comes to this par­tic­u­lar 300SL. He’s also liv­ing proof of how much Rus­sia has changed over the past few decades.

“My dad was a keen driver,” he ex­plains. “A re­ally good one. He put me be­hind the wheel – of a Lada – when I was six years old. It not only gave me a proper shot of adrenalin, but it also taught me how to drive, with no power steer­ing. This is how Rus­sians be­come Rus­sians! I was sit­ting on his lap, he was chang­ing gears and I was steer­ing. From that mo­ment on, we would do lots of road trips. I was be­sot­ted with cars.

“I got my driv­ing li­cence aged 18, but I didn’t ap­pre­ci­ate cars the way I do now. I didn’t go into their his­tory and see their sig­nif­i­cance in that way. I had a Porsche 911 turbo, which was my ob­ses­sion from the age of 13. I started adding a bit of power to it, and that’s when some­body said, ‘You re­ally ought to think about buy­ing a proper car, a car that’s a won­der­ful ma­chine but also a good in­vest­ment.’ I’d never re­ally thought about cars in that way.

“I bought a Porsche Car­rera GT for crazys­tupid money, and was blown away by it. Then James [Cot­ting­ham] called me and said, ‘I know you’ve been con­sid­er­ing a Gull­wing, but there are a few things we should re­ally look into be­cause there’s some­thing about the car’s pa­pers.’ I thought it could be anything, but when he gave me the pass­port, the USSR doc­u­ment of own­er­ship, that’s when my eyes opened…”

Pri­vate own­er­ship of a car dur­ing the Soviet era was a com­pli­cated busi­ness. You had to ap­ply for a per­mit and the gov­ern­ment put quo­tas in place. If you worked for a par­tic­u­lar com­pany, it might be given a cer­tain num­ber of cars, which in turn were al­lo­cated to lucky work­ers. Hav­ing gone through all of that, people tended to hang onto their prized pos­ses­sions, so there wasn’t even a sec­ond­hand mar­ket as such. There were ways around it, of course, most of which cen­tred on two con­sid­er­a­tions: money and power. But even then, we’re still talk­ing about home­grown cars here. For­eign ma­chin­ery was even rarer, and ex­otic for­eign ma­chin­ery – such as a Mercedes-benz 300SL – was prac­ti­cally un­heard of.

“It wasn’t pos­si­ble at that time in the USSR,” says Ev­doki­mov. “It’s so sur­real. Un­less you were at the very, very top of the hi­er­ar­chy – Mikhail Gor­bachev or who­ever – or you were a Ga­garin or sim­i­lar, there’s just no way you could have owned a car such as that. And even if you did, driv­ing it around would not have been a good idea at all. You couldn’t show off wealth in that way.”

The first thing Ev­doki­mov did was look up the name of the per­son on the SL’S doc­u­ment of own­er­ship. “Quickly it be­came ob­vi­ous that this guy was in­deed a very spe­cial gentle­man,” he says. “He was an air­craft en­gi­neer with mul­ti­ple awards of the high­est order for ex­tra­or­di­nary achieve­ment.”

The man in ques­tion seemed to be Alexan­der Mikulin, who de­signed Rus­sia’s first liq­uid-cooled, pis­ton aero en­gine, as well as the

en­gine for its first jet air­liner, the Tupolev Tu-104: “But there was one thing that didn’t fit the story – the guy was too old. When I looked up the name, his age made the whole thing lose any sense. Then I found out that he had a son, and the son was also named Alexan­der. He was a skilled driver who was of­ten called on to per­form stunts in movies. It was his name that was on the doc­u­ment. But, even be­ing a stunt­man, hav­ing a car like this in your own name wouldn’t make much sense. It’s just a crazy story.”

It didn’t get any less crazy the more Ev­doki­mov looked into it. The doc­u­ment of own­er­ship placed the 300SL in the Soviet Union dur­ing the 1980s, but it had ap­par­ently been there for al­most its en­tire life. The 300SL Reg­is­ter noted only that it was com­pleted on 30 July 1956 – there was no in­for­ma­tion listed about its early own­ers or sub­se­quent life – but it’s thought that it went straight to Rus­sia, mak­ing it surely the only Gull­wing to do so.

One the­ory is that the KGB ar­ranged for it to be im­ported, and it ended up at a fuel re­search in­sti­tute in Len­ingrad – now St Peters­burg. In its his­tory file are notes made much later sug­gest­ing that its en­gine was re­moved in order to study Mercedes’ in­no­va­tive fuel-in­jec­tion sys­tem, and re­placed with one from a 300 Li­mou­sine. By the time it was re­stored in Ger­many in the late 1990s and early 2000s, how­ever, the orig­i­nal en­gine was back with the car, and it seems far more likely that the re­search in­sti­tute sim­ply re­moved the in­jec­tion sys­tem it­self.

How long the 300SL stayed in Len­ingrad is un­clear, but in those early years it’s thought that it was looked af­ter by Boris Zna­men­ski, as Ev­doki­mov ex­plains: “He was the guy who ac­tu­ally dealt with the im­port of the car. The KGB is an or­gan­i­sa­tion; there still has to be some­body who deals with it. His name wouldn’t be men­tioned any­where for ob­vi­ous rea­sons, but he seemed to have the car.”

In 1968 it turned up in My­ortvyy Se­zon (Dead Sea­son), a mood­ily shot, black-and-white Rus­sian film star­ring Donatas Ban­io­nis. He plays a Soviet spy, Ladeynikov, tasked with track­ing down Dr Hass, a Ger­man war crim­i­nal who’s work­ing on a poi­son gas that he’d tested dur­ing WW2. Ladeynikov hooks up with Ivan Savushkin – a pris­oner in the camp where Hass used to carry out his ex­per­i­ments – in order to stop him. It’s a typ­i­cal spy thriller of the time – hep­cat sound­track, lots of smok­ing, laugh­able fight se­quences – and opens with a warning from a very se­ri­ous-look­ing old man about how evil cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries such as the UK and Amer­ica were work­ing on chem­i­cal weapons.

The film uses var­i­ous lo­ca­tions and is a carspot­ter’s de­light, with ev­ery­thing from Ford Taunus to Hud­son Hor­net and GAZ Chaika mak­ing an ap­pear­ance. By far the best en­trance is re­served for the SL, though, which comes roar­ing through the coun­try­side to the ac­com­pa­ni­ment of badly dubbed en­gine noises, then ar­rives on a beach, where it per­forms a per­fectly ex­e­cuted pow­er­slide around a 1932 Lin­coln.

Whether do­ing that, glid­ing over cob­bled back-streets or just sit­ting in a car park, the Mercedes is an other-worldly pres­ence in oth­er­wise dour sur­round­ings. An in­ter­est­ing foot­note to its ap­pear­ance is that Ban­io­nis – who starred in a num­ber of high­brow films dur­ing the 1960s and 1970s – met Vladimir Putin in 2004. The Pres­i­dent ap­par­ently con­firmed that Ban­io­nis’

‘Vladimir Putin re­vealed that Dead Sea­son, in which this SL starred, in­spired him to be­come an in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer’

per­for­mance in Dead Sea­son had in­spired him to be­come an in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer.

The fact that the SL stayed in Rus­sia meant that its sub­se­quent cus­to­di­ans must have been very well con­nected. At some point, it was ac­quired by Gen­nady Gru­shevsky, a suc­cess­ful power­boat racer. Af­ter Gru­shevsky came Mikulin – the name that ap­peared on the own­er­ship doc­u­ment – but there are dif­fer­ing the­o­ries about how he came to get his hands on it. By far the most ap­peal­ing is that Mikulin – who’d staked a Chevro­let Im­pala that was ap­par­ently reg­is­tered to production com­pany Mos­film – won the Mercedes in a marathon game of cards that took place in the exclusive Nikolina Gora dis­trict west of Moscow. The more pro­saic ver­sion is that the car spent a while off the road dur­ing the 1970s be­cause of prob­lems main­tain­ing the in­jec­tion sys­tem, and that Gru­shevsky even­tu­ally traded it for Mikulin’s Audi.

“The end of it all was that the car was shipped out of the USSR to Ger­many,” ex­plains Ev­doki­mov. “There’s a lit­tle stamp that ba­si­cally says the car was sold through a com­mis­sion store.”

This was dur­ing the 1990s, af­ter the Cold War had thawed and the Com­mu­nist regime had crum­bled, and in fact there had been ru­mours that the Mercedes had per­ished in a fire. While those proved to be wide of the mark, it was clearly a lit­tle tired – its 2004 DEKRA re­port goes fur­ther and says that it was in ‘a ter­ri­ble state’ when it ar­rived from Rus­sia – be­cause its file doc­u­ments a thor­ough restora­tion process. The re­build of the en­gine and gear­box alone to­talled DM41,897, but the DEKRA as­sess­ment went on to praise its over­all con­di­tion and orig­i­nal spec­i­fi­ca­tion. Shortly af­ter­wards, it ar­rived in the UK, which is where Ev­doki­mov keeps it, point­ing out that, in Rus­sia: “The sea­son changes are not nice at all.”

Mikulin once said in an in­ter­view that he found the 300SL not to be the ideal every­day companion, and Ev­doki­mov’s early im­pres­sions were along the same lines: “When I drove it for the first time, my friend and I took it through Lon­don and I thought we were go­ing to cook in there! It was so un­bear­ably hot – I felt like one of those chick­ens turn­ing in an oven. It was not a par­tic­u­larly warm evening, ei­ther.”

He none­the­less de­scribes be­ing “in­fat­u­ated” with the 300SL: “Even if some­one had put me in it and told me to close my eyes, I’d have known it was a Mercedes-benz. The DNA is 100% there. It’s amaz­ing that they’ve man­aged to carry that through over the years.

“My favourite de­tail is ac­tu­ally the di­als. I love watches and when I look at them, the crafts­man­ship is on the level of Swiss watch­mak­ers. It’s so beau­ti­fully made – it’s so fine in ev­ery way.”

The Rus­sia of 2018 is very dif­fer­ent from the Rus­sia into which the SL was im­ported in 1956. Its free­dom and wealth have led to a bur­geon­ing clas­sic-car scene: “First people get money and then they start spend­ing it on all the things that are fash­ion­able. They then start to look deeper and have the abil­ity to ap­pre­ci­ate other things. That’s what’s hap­pen­ing. The coun­try is open­ing up and it’s be­com­ing more pop­u­lar.

“Cars are a very spe­cial topic be­cause people have al­ways ap­pre­ci­ated the arts – ar­chi­tects, po­ets, painters. But very few were able to view a car as a work of art. That’s def­i­nitely chang­ing. There are prob­a­bly more clas­sic cars in Rus­sia than I or any­one else knows about.”

Dur­ing the Cold War, the rhetoric was based around ‘them and us’, East vs West. As a mu­si­cian who spends much of his life trav­el­ling, Ev­doki­mov is part of a new gen­er­a­tion of en­thu­si­asts – the lat­est Rus­sian cus­to­dian of this charis­matic and quite pos­si­bly unique 300SL, but dif­fer­ent in ev­ery other way from those who came be­fore.

“A car breaks the ice be­tween people,” he says. “In ev­ery man there’s a boy. We talk about cars and our dif­fer­ences fade. We con­nect.”

The his­tory file sug­gests parts of the en­gine were swapped for those from a 300 Li­mou­sine, but it was later re­built. Below: Ei­nari Kop­pel in Dead Sea­son

From top: cur­rent owner Ev­doki­mov is in­fat­u­ated with the SL; stylish fit­ted lug­gage strapped to rear shelf; iconic name from a leg­endary mar­que

Clockwise from left: ex­quis­ite in­stru­ments in painted dash; Merc in the shadow of a mis­sile silo at Green­ham Com­mon; Dead Sea­son beach­side li­ai­son

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