In 2006, Keith Adams and Mike Duff drove to Chernobyl in a £100 Lada Riva, to mark the 20th anniversary of the nuclear catastrophe that changed the course of history. The journey wasn’t without incident, but that hard work was put into context by the solemnity of the place, and the legacy of Europe’s worst radioactive spill.
Chernobyl – ice cold in Ukraine
Back in November 2005, it seemed like a great idea – buy a Lada Riva and drive it across Europe to the site of the world’s largest peacetime nuclear disaster – Chernobyl. Say it quickly, and it doesn’t seem like a big deal at all. Fast forward three months and masses of preparation later, and I’m just about to head eastwards. All I am worrying about is whether my Lada Riva 1200L will actually make it to Dover, let alone the Wild East of Europe.
Regular readers will already know that I picked the Riva up from fellow classic car writer, Simon Goldsworthy, after I found these things to be as rare as hen’s teeth – and pretty difficult to get hold of. I guess we can blame all those enterprising souls for shipping Ladas back to Russia in the 1990s – because they’re so scarce now, you’d never believe 33,000 were sold here in the company’s best year: 1988.
So why Simon? Well, if anyone can sniff out a Commie bargain, Simon can…
And he duly delivered. The car he turned up was an ’88 model (probably built in 1986 – the year of the Chernobyl disaster), had a scant 24,000 miles on the clock and a smidgeon of MoT left. Sadly, by the time I had picked it up, that had long since gone and I was left with the task of getting it legal. Luckily, Simon knew an accomodating garage so a deal was struck up front to get the welding and other bits sorted and, soon after, the Lada had earned its stripes.
Getting the Lada into shape
With a matter of days left before motoring writer, Mike Duff, and I were due to leave for colder climes, I knuckled down to get a number of last-minute jobs out of the way. Servicing the Lada threw up no horror stories – after my experience of all manner of 1970s and ’80s ‘classics’, working on this object of simplicity was a real breath of fresh air. I managed to set a new personal record for an oil, filter and plug change – 20 minutes all in.
After a spate of rough running on the office commute, I tracked down a potential cause of concern – the carburettor had clogged up and the result was the plugs were fouling within a mile or so. I needn’t have worried about that, though – my air compressor sorted that one. After consulting Simon, and finding out that Ladas don’t have ’em, I decided to fit an inline fuel filter – and then take a spare with us on the trip, just in case…
My last job, with two days to go, was to fill up the cooling system with neat anti-freeze. At the time, downtown Kiev was measuring a distinctly chilly –26 degrees and I really didn’t fancy leaving things to chance. So, I unscrewed the drain plug on the bottom of the radiator, and… PING! It broke. The plug and housing popped out as one – leaving me uttering a few choice words about Russian engineering. I plugged the hole with a similarly sized wheel bolt and refilled anyway. Sadly, it wasn’t quite watertight and, as the engine warmed through, the seepage became a drip. Drat.
On the day before we were due to leave, I went to see my local mechanic, Mike Marlow, and explained the situation. Calmly, he removed the radiator and welded a cover over the hole. Well, I wasn’t keeping the car so it didn’t really matter, did it…
And we’re off…
The next day, and burning up with anticipation, I set off. As I left my drive, I dipped the column stalk to signal my intentions and, nothing… Ah well, it was 7.00am on a Sunday morning and there was little likelihood of needing my indicators. Being so blase would come to haunt me – and it almost wiped us out…
I picked up Mike Duff from his home near Oxford and we headed off to Europe. As I parked up outside his house, I heard the faint ‘snap’ of a fuse popping, and I kissed goodbye to the heater blower. No problem – we’d be on the motorway for the rest of the day, and I could sort it out while we waited for a ferry.
Once rolling on the M40, the Lada’s rarity really began to hit home. Despite how common these cars used to be, we attracted a huge amount of attention – as we travelled towards Dover, other road-users would crane their necks for a closer look. By the time we arrived in Dover, we felt like C-list celebrities…
The wait at Dover proved the perfect time to fix our blower – some hasty rewiring behind the dash got that back in order – but we didn’t realise what I took out in the process until a little later…
Arriving in France is always enjoyable – good road manners, nicely trafficked Autoroutes and drivers that aren’t out to kill you. Hitting our steady 66mph, we headed East. Things weren’t that bad from the driving seat – our Lada trundled along nicely – and, although its pathetically short fuel range of around 200miles irritated us no end, it did mean we got plenty of breaks and the 4000rpm thrash was regularly punctuated.
The troubles begin
We rapidly ticked off Britain and France from our list of countries to cross before hitting Ukraine and were hoping the rest would be just as straightforward – dangerously, we started to think that this little trip would be easy. Alas, it wasn’t to be… the first sign of trouble was our lack of instrument illumination – obviously, the fuse had popped in Dover. We knew our speed thanks to the GPS capability of our satnav, but knowing how much fuel left was another matter entirely.
We could live with that, but what came next wasn’t quite so pleasant… We’d been driving a couple of hours and were beginning to feel confident, electrical issues aside. However, things took a turn for the worse when the car started to splutter on the long climb out of Liege in Belgium. It started as a part-throttle misfire, but this soon developed to a serious judder that had us furiously hunting for a sweet spot on the accelerator…
After a fraught evening on the Autobahn, we made it to Hanover before calling it a night. The main shock for us was the speed of other drivers – even though we were trundling at between 50 and 60mph, we were not the slowest thing out there. Overtaking took on a new significance though; no indicators and, on the derestricted stretches, cars closing on us at well over 100mph. Such good fun – and not stressful at all…
There was no question – we’d need to find a Lada dealer as soon as possible, because a quick inspection under the bonnet revealed the distributor cap was goosed, having suffered a beating from a worn rotor arm.
The next morning, we had our first sighting of snow, but that joy was quickly countered when we found the points were gone – well, I say ‘we’; I really mean the German AA (ADAC) did, after we called them out to our non-starting Lada. With Teutonic efficiency, the young patrolman (who’s eyes lit up when he saw our prime slice of classic car) rolled up his sleeves and found the fault – even though he’d never seen anything like this before. He made a temporary repair and told us we’d need to sort it that day. ‘Kontakt Kaput”, as he put it…
Relief in Berlin
A quick scan of the ‘phone book didn’t bode well. Lada dealers are thin on the ground in this part of Germany and all we could do was head further East and see what would turn up. We were due to pick up the third member of our team, Photographer Tom Salt, from Berlin and rang ahead to see if he could find us a sympathetic dealer.
Within a couple of miles of setting off, the misfire returned, and we hobbled on, Mike and I cursing the stupidity of trusting such a car. As the motorway miles piled on, we again settled into a rhythm that had us cruising at 50-60mph as and when the misfire cleared. It meant progress wasn’t exactly smooth, especially as we got nearer Berlin and the traffic was becoming denser.
About 100km from our destination, and well into what people of our age clearly remember as ‘East Germany’, we found a black VW Golf tailgating us. Given that our pursuer appeared to be driving a stealth-mode TDI 130 version, this seemed more than a little odd – I can’t recall ever seeing a Golf TDI being driven so sedately. Anyway, I thought nothing of it, and carried on. After a couple of miles of this scrutiny, the Golf driver obviously bored of the chase and overtook us.
Except, once past, he slowed down again – and, as I went to re-pass in frustration, a small board in his back window lit up the word, ‘POLIZEI’. Bugger…
We pulled into the services and braced ourselves for a telling off. Except as soon as we saw them, we couldn’t feel threatened anymore – the two officers looked like a couple of leather-clad swingers off for a night on the town. Stifling a giggle, I passed them our papers, and awaited our fate. Except they were friendly, and didn’t really want to do us for anything at all – and probably only stopped us out of curiosity. For us, it was an mildly funny diversion we could have done without – we were already way behind schedule…
Tom was our saviour when we did finally make it to Berlin – he had found someone who could put our ailing Lada right. We picked him up and stuttered to the only Lada service centre in the great city (there were five), which was actually prepared to look at our car without bursting into uncontrolled laughter. Unsurprisingly, it was in the Eastern quarter – and, as we drove towards the dealer, we started to feel more at home as we noticed the Commie car count had risen significantly in this part of town.
When we rolled up, the guys looked genuinely pleased to see us – and piled into the job. A complete rebuild of the distributor, reset of the carburettor, and we were done – three hours labour: £40. Welcome to the East…
Before we left Germany, we took time to explore Frankfurt (Oder) – a small town on the German side of the Polish border, and were amazed to see just how much remained of the Communist (or is that, Democratic Socialist?) era. The town’s suburbs were filled with grim-looking apartment blocks – and there was a distinctly distrusting look in the people we saw out and about. Everywhere we looked, it seemed that Central town planners of the Fifties and Sixties had gone mad with the concerete – and no amount of brightly-coloured paint was going to disguise the oppression of the place. We couldn’t also fail to notice the towers everywhere – most were for communications, but not all…
It truly felt like we had arrived in the former Soviet Bloc – amazing considering we were still well within the European Union…
A short hop down the motorway, and we were at the Polish border. None of us really knew what to expect and, although there were no real formalities at the border, we were soon moved on when we disembarked to start taking photos. A couple more miles down the road, and we stopped at the first services – to pick up snacks and local currency. The Polish services looked pretty much like all the others we’d stopped at on the way – slightly disappointing for anyone looking for a genuine ‘Soviet’ experience, even if it’s good news for the locals.
Poland: an adventure…
The Polish road system initially flattered to deceive. As we pressed into Poland, we found ourselves on the main three-lane highway to Warsaw, and an amazing landscape revealed itself. To either side, dense forest as far as the eye could see; and we got the impression this was going to be a scaled-up experience, with wide open roads, and larger-than-life scenery. Sadly, this grandiose motorway petered out after a few miles and we were unceremoniously dumped onto a tiny, pothole-riddled road, that passed through identikit village after identikit village. The only part of this dreary run to the Polish capital were the bright signs (with naked ladies depicted on them) for the ‘night clubs’ by the road side, their true function obvious.
This amusement was short lived. As the traffic became heavier, the mood of the drivers around us seemed to get increasingly resolute. In short, the roads are a true ‘Mad Max’ experience – trucks go side-by-side on single carriageway roads and local car drivers take great pleasure from their balls-out, do-or-die overtaking manoeuvres to get past the rapid moving convoys of HGVs. Our Lada was now running strong, but not enough for us to brave joining the death race competition – we settled at 35mph behind locally-registered lorries – the ones pumping out the most noxious fumes…
Poland passed by in a grey and white blur and boredom kicked in quite early. By the time we reached Ukraine, we were tired but anticipating an exciting time ahead. After all, I’d never been anywhere near this point on the globe before and I really didn’t know what to expect in the coming days. One thing was clear, we were all relieved the Lada had performed relatively well to this point, but we were worried by the random electrical failures we’d been suffering – most notably, the lack of indicators.
At our stop-over at the Polish border town of Przemsyl, I considered the indicators and gave my mate and East European car expert John Capon a call. As usual, his conclusions were reassuring – they all do this because the hazard switch works loose from its socket. Sure enough, when Mike pulled it apart and put it back together, they started working again.
The wait at the border into Ukraine was nerve-wracking. We lined up early fearing it would take hours to get into a country that, 15 years ago, was still in the Soviet Union and ended up queuing in freezing temperatures in order to show our papers to armed guards – but, when it came to the crunch, they let us straight in and didn’t even bother searching the boot – a good thing, considering the value of Tom’s cameras.
Because no one would insure us to drive in Ukraine, I needed to buy cover at the border. This was quite a daunting experience – the collection of huts and bureaus lining the road on the Ukrainian side of the border looked dodgy to say the least, and finding someone to understand my Russian was tough. Considering it was 6.00am, the place was absolutely teeming with activity and it seemed as though I had the plumb choice of insurance agents to choose from. Except it wasn’t quite that simple, as administrator after administrator rejected me, passing me from one office to the next.
After what seemed a real song and a dance, I headed into the last one there and wearily waved my green card at the genial Ukrainian behind the desk. During the next 30 minutes, we managed to fill out a proposal form using a combination of shouting, sign language and sheer bloody repetition, and I think we ended up being covered.
Outside, the queue to leave Ukraine stretched as far as the eye could see – people on foot and packed cars waited patiently in line. Volgas mixed with Ladas mixed with Volkswagens – and no-one it seemed had priority in this sad line of humanity.
While I was occupied getting car insurance, Tom had nipped out to get some pictures, but was caught unawares by a soldier who popped out of nowhere and tried to take his £10,000 camera away. Tom struggled, the soldier struggled and, in the end, he got away by deleting the contents of his camera’s memory card.
We were relieved to get away from the teeming border crossing – grateful our British passports allowed us freedom. The 400-mile drive through Ukraine ended up being uneventful, but the roads were rutted and in dreadful condition and gave our Lada a stern test of its suspension and tyres. Unlike Poland, there was plenty of dual carriageway to play with – and most of it was lightly trafficked. The thing that struck us most was how vast and empty Ukraine is – the roads are wide, the roundabouts off-the-scale huge and the villages few and far between.
A sad, solemn past
At random intervals, we’d spot reminders of the country’s bloody past – solemn memorials, even the odd T34 tank here and there.
Kiev came sooner than we expected and, as the last remnants of daylight left us, we picked up our local contact. Julian Nowill, the great man behind the Unloved Soviet & Socialist Register (USSR), a club for those with a passion for East European vehicles, had put me in touch with Boris, a petrolhead ex-military avionics engineer, with a penchant for scratch-building his own cars, who lives in the capital. Before we left England, I’d got in touch with him and promised to let him have the Lada if he put us up in his apartment and showed us round the great city.
Over dinner that evening, we contemplated our trip to Chernobyl the following day and wondered if we’d ever be the same again – thoughts of radiation and bureaucracy constantly nagged us and I kept wondering why I’d not made a will before I left the UK. However, our collective mood was lifted by Boris’ recollections of his ‘holiday’ in the UK in 1962 (the height of the Cold War, remember) and his intimate familiarity with British air bases…
When we trundled away the following day, the snow was already falling heavily as we emerged from the shadow of the ugly apartment block that Boris calls home. It was at this time that our heater fan stopped blowing and we wondered again whether entrusting our lives to a car like this in one of the emptiest, coldest places you would imagine was really a good idea. We would be okay if we kept up the speed and relied on the system’s ram capability, but how often would we be able to pick up speed in such heavy falling snow?
Into the disaster zone…
I suspected it would end up being a long and cold day inside one of the world’s worst peacetime disaster sites. We picked up our guide to Chernobyl, who we called ‘Maxim A’ (thanks Julian), and headed north. As the day wore on, our mood became increasingly tense. At the first checkpoint – the 30km exclusion zone – we were thoroughly checked out by soldiers and it was down to Maxim to explain why we were there. If the guard wondered why on Earth three Englishmen were heading into the irradiated zone in such an inappropriate car, he didn’t show any outward sign. Once through the unfriendly looking outpost, we were off to see the sights.
We visited the huge vehicle graveyard, which was packed full of irradiated fire engines, cars, lorries and even helicopters – all abandoned since 1986. It was a spooky place – a huge field full of cars, fire tenders and helicopters – all there at ground zero and thoroughly lethal now. And yet, there were plenty of vehicles stripped of parts… Does that mean there are scores of Ladas and Volgas roaming around Kiev with particularly ‘hot’ engines? That’s something we don’t want to think about.
After a thoughtful contemplation of the fates of the brave people driving these vehicles in the complete desolate silence of the place, we decided to move on…
The next stop was Pripyat – the abandoned city located next door to the Chernobyl power station, built in 1970, when the future for such installations looked a whole lot brighter. Driving into the city along the tree-lined Broadway was like stepping into a 1986 Soviet-era time capsule – abeit one locked in a post-apocalyptic nightmare. When we were all children, we all heard about the effects of a neutron bomb going off – all the people would die, leaving only buildings and the possessions located inside. Well, here, in Pripyat – it felt like we had stepped into that doomsday scenario…
Not a soul was to be seen – and the only sounds we could hear was the gentle wintery breeze cutting a path through the Brutalist architecture of the place.
Twenty years ago, Pripyat was a city bursting at the seams with life – it had a young population and the location was idyllic. Then it all changed suddenly – as though a light had been switched off. On the night of 26 April 1986, its 49,000 residents were awoken by the sound of a terrifying explosion. Those living in the high-rise apartment buildings will have seen the fire at Chernobyl Reactor Number 4 and wondered at the beautiful blue-green light emanating from it.
We climbed to the top of one of these apartment buildings and recreated the view for ourselves – and were shocked to see just how close Chernobyl-4 was…
The day culminated with a visit to the crippled reactor. Following the disaster, a clean-up operation ensued and then a concrete sarcophagus was erected to cover the exposed reactor core – it remains a radiation hot spot to this day and provides minimal protection from the elements. Add reports that it is crumbling to the fact that we were receiving elevated doses of radiation, and you can understand why we were more than a little tense. As we drove up and saw it looming large ahead of us, we knew we’d not be hanging around – even though Mike was joking as usual and Tom was making himself busy taking the perfect photograph to mark the occasion.
Me? I just stood around, drank in the atmosphere, and considered the past.
In the end, we got our shot and left.
The day spent at Chernobyl will stay with me forever and it was a sober reminder of how the effects a monstrous series of mistakes could affect thousands of lives in the region. The empty villages, the biting wind, the desolate nature of the place – but, most of all, the sheer lack of colour made visiting Chernobyl depressingly drab and thought-provoking experience…
After the tension of the exclusion zone, returning to Kiev was a relief – it was a real pleasure for me to hand Boris the Lada at the end of our stay. Not because I disliked the car – far from it – I actually ended up growing fond of the thing. I was relieved because I realised Boris would make far better use of the Lada than I ever could.
He told me it’s worth about £700 in Ukraine – not bad when you think the average monthly income is less than £400. As we boarded the plane to fly home, I contemplated the Lada’s fate and came to the conclusion that we did the old girl proud. She had served us well and now she’d come home…
Please click on the thumbnails below – all images open in a new window (1024px wide). This feature was originally published in CAR Magazine in May 2006.