Sam enjoys a bizarre car hire experience in Russia
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.