Sam Glover

Sam en­joys a bizarre car hire ex­pe­ri­ence in Rus­sia

Practical Classics (UK) - - CONTENTS - SAM GLOVER

Sam has a bizarre Rus­sian hire-car ex­prience with a Dat­sun On-do

Ed Hughes and I re­cently found our­selves with a few days to kill in the Rus­sian city of Yeka­ter­in­burg. We de­cided to hire a car and visit the nearby town of As­best, which, as its name ter­ri­fy­ingly sug­gests, is home to the world’s largest as­bestos mine. Yeka­ter­in­burg’s car hire com­pa­nies mostly of­fered a dis­ap­point­ing range of Euro­pean bland­ness. One, how­ever, stood out as su­pe­rior. I’m dis­in­clined to iden­tify this com­pany by name, for fear that it has mafia con­nec­tions that ex­tend to the South Cotswolds.

This com­pany’s web­site promised real ex­ot­ica. The cheap­est model of­fered was a Lada Sa­mara, ad­ver­tised as hav­ing a ‘con­ve­nient ash­tray’. Next up was an Uz-dae­woo Nexia – a lightly-mu­ti­lated Dae­woo Nexia sa­loon (or Vaux­hall Bel­mont as we more-or-less know it) built in Uzbek­istan un­til 2016. The web­site trum­peted its ‘solid ex­te­rior de­sign’, ‘demo­cratic price’ and ‘ground clear­ance that makes it easy to over­come small ob­sta­cles.’ Then came the ZAZ Chance – a Ukrainian Dae­woo Lanos with a ZAZ Tavria en­gine. This was ‘for mo­torists to whom re­li­a­bil­ity is im­por­tant, rather than dec­o­ra­tion or a lot of devices’. Above this was the Re­nault Lo­gan – a Da­cia Lo­gan MKI built in the for­mer Moskvich factory, which came with ‘an at­trac­tive ap­pear­ance and con­ve­nient gear­box’. Top­ping the range was the Dat­sun On-do… which we’ll come to later.

Our friend Vladimir called on our be­half. The chap who an­swered the phone had an am­biva­lent at­ti­tude to­wards cus­tomers. The Lada, Uz-dae­woo, ZAZ and Re­nault were each de­clared ‘im­pos­si­ble’. He re­lented, how­ever, at the Dat­sun On-do. ‘He says you can meet him at his of­fice at 11am,’ re­ported Vladimir. ‘It is a very strange com­pany.’

A Lada Sa­mara in drag

The com­pany's of­fice was a re­pur­posed ho­tel room. We knocked on the door and, af­ter much fum­bling, it was un­locked and pulled open. The room be­hind it had been painted cor­po­rate grey and the bed had been re­placed with a desk, but it was still com­plete with a funkily-tiled bath­room. Our host was clad in a sim­i­lar shade of cor­po­rate grey and looked like an ap­pren­tice mafia hench­man. He stared blankly at my driv­ing li­cense, then re­quested 2200 rubles (£27) in cash for two days’ hire, plus a 1000 ru­ble (£12) de­posit. ‘I will bring the car in ten min­utes,’ he de­clared. He drew up out­side the ho­tel half-an­hour later look­ing flus­tered. He gave me the keys. ‘Can we re­turn the car at the air­port at 11am on Wed­nes­day?’ we asked. ‘OK,’ he shrugged.

The Dat­sun was bat­tered, filthy and lit­tered with Mcdon­alds pack­ag­ing. It looked sus­pi­ciously like a per­sonal car that had been req­ui­si­tioned in haste.

Sam Glover spends his spare time break­ing down in ex­otic lo­ca­tions around the world. He also tries to main­tain a fleet of 50 ob­scure clas­sics, from Anadol to Žuk.

We could find no way of un­lock­ing the boot, which led us to won­der if the owner was in it.

I was sur­prised to find that I liked it. Its sus­pen­sion was long-travel and softly-sprung, which al­lowed it to step el­e­gantly along cratered roads. Its en­gine was revvy and pleas­antly gut­tural un­der duress. It was de­void of all the elec­tronic ‘driver aids’ that I find make mod­ern cars un­drive­able. It was, in fact, un­like any mod­ern car I’d ever driven.

The rea­son was sim­ple: it wasn’t a mod­ern car. Open­ing the bon­net re­vealed a Lada Sa­mara en­gine. Look­ing be­neath re­vealed Lada Sa­mara sus­pen­sion. It turns out that the 2014 On-do is ba­si­cally a 2011 Lada Granta, which is ba­si­cally a 2005 Lada Kalina, which is a ba­si­cally a re­bod­ied 1984 Lada Sa­mara. We en­joyed thrash­ing it to-and-from As­best.

Two days later, we found the car hire hench­man loi­ter­ing out­side the air­port. We ex­plained that we’d left the Dat­sun in the short-term car park and handed him the keys. He re­turned our de­posit and wan­dered off. The fact that the car might have been dam­aged, stolen or heav­ily con­tam­i­nated with as­bestos dust clearly wasn’t con­sid­ered im­por­tant. The com­pany’s busi­ness in­ter­ests lay else­where. We were, nev­er­the­less, very happy cus­tomers.

ABOVE The town of As­best, where the roads are lit­er­ally paved with as­bestos.

RIGHT The On-do's mod­ern skin cloaks the heart and soul of a 1984 Lada Sa­mara.

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