From across a table crowded with wine bottles, my friend, Mitya Sokolov, announces that he’s flying to the middle of nowhere in less than twelve hours. That is, to a part of Russia bordering Kazakhstan—nearly 1,800 miles from the Saint Petersburg kitchen in which we’re drinking—where he’s “going to buy a Daewoo.”
“A Daewoo?” I ask, needing to hear the words again.
“Yes. A Daewoo Damas.” Mitya replies, reaching for his phone to reveal a blurry used car ad. “This Daewoo,” he says.
The photos—flip phone quality at best—show the car sitting in a patch of mostly dead grass. There’s a film of dust on the roof, suggesting it hasn’t moved in a while. In one of the photos, you can see that some of the panels are silver, the rest are spray-can navy blue. The windshield has enormous cracks in it. And the Daewoo’s round eyes, once seemingly adorable, are forlorn and exhausted, with tragic stories to tell.
Of all the crooked used car lots and Craigslist nightmares, this 1996 Daewoo languishing on the Russian border with Kazakhstan is swinging in the big leagues.
Mitya then says, with a big old smile, that he intends to drive this thing—after purchasing it sight unseen—455 miles. And, by the way, this isn’t 455 miles of Eisenhower Interstates with wide shoulders. This is the Russian Trassa: high-speed, undivided, with primarily one lane in each direction. It’s where the infamous dashcam videos are made. Then, he plans to load the thing onto a freight train for the remaining 1,345 miles of the journey.
Finally, I ask Mitya: “Why?”
“Because I’m going to paint it pink and sell ice cream out of it,” Mitya says, again with that big old smile.
A Damas is not the easiest acquisition for a future Russian ice cream vendor. There were never too many Daewoo Damases in Russia, and importing one—or any old car—to Russia isn’t easy. So, from the outset, Mitya was limited to a small handful of terrible options in various remote pockets of Russia. Which is a shame, because in so many other parts of the world the Damas is very, very available.
In truth, Daewoo Damas is a rebadge of one of the most rebadged cars in history: the eighth-generation Suzuki Super Carry. Originally an export-grade version of a ‘80s kei van meant specifically for the Japanese market, the Super Carry has since spread throughout the world under various aliases. In Australia, it’s known as the “Holden Scurry.” In the UK, it was the “Bedford Rascal.” In India, “Maruti Omni.” Daewoo Damas is just its South Korean name. (Carries get a longer lease on life in China, where the tenth-generation 1999 model is still for sale with some updates as the Changan Star 9.) The Super Carry is also the only car in the history of cars to be badged both “Ford” and “Chevrolet” at the same time.
Of all its travels and exotic badges, however, the Super Carry has a particularly special place in Uzbekistan, a nation that, in 1992, faced the daunting task of building a new country after gaining independence from the USSR. Just the usual stuff, of course: drafting a constitution, figuring out whose faces to put on the new currency and, of course, shaping the nation’s automotive future. That same year, the Uzbek government struck a deal with Daewoo, and by 1996, the first locally-assembled “Uz-Daewoos” rolled off the line.
Since then, the Damas has become a cornerstone of transportation in Uzbekistan. They’re cheap, reliable, easy-to-fix, and always available. Police work, postal service, and pizza delivery. You name it, the Damas does it in Uzbekistan. While the Damas officially fits up to eight passengers at a time, in reality, all bets are off, like that time Uzbek police discovered twenty-two passengers stuffed inside a Damas.
And it was on a visit to Uzbekistan in 2018, where Mitya found himself surrounded by Damas after Damas. “As soon as I saw those tiny little vans driving around, I knew I had to get one,” Mitya reflected in his Drive2 journal.
I should note that, when Mitya says he “has to do” X, he is actually going to do X. Which brings me to the part of the trip where Mitya encounters a soft-serve ice cream machine. Amazed by the its cheapness and simplicity, Mitya thought to himself: Why not pair this with the cheap and simple Damas and make bank back home in Russia?
Less than twelve hours after that dinner party, Mitya found himself in middle-of-nowhere Russia, sitting in that frail Daewoo. And he was, in fact, going to purchase the car.
The seller, Farroukh, was apparently very nice, and invited Mitya into his home for tea and desserts. His kindness could’ve been veiled guilt over the state of the Damas, but let’s not be cynical. Let’s just call it hospitality.
“The car is old, beat-up, and has no seat-belts, not that they really matter. You sit with your legs leaning up against bare metal... so any accident is a life sentence,” Mitya wrote of his first impressions, adding that, twenty minutes into the drive, “the radiator overflow tank, located under my elbow, starts spraying boiling water at my arms like a fountain.” (Yes, the Damas is mid-engined, just like the C8 Corvette).
After limping to the nearest mechanic and tightening up a few hoses here and there, Mitya was “smooth sailing” for the next several hours. Okay, maybe smooth-sailing isn’t the right term. Here’s what Mitya learned about the Daewoo in that time, as noted in his Drive2 journal:
1) The Van has working headlights, which is a pleasant surprise
2) The fuel filter, which keeps swinging around and banging against the engine, can be adjusted on the fly by sticking your hand under the passenger seat.
3) When there’s a truck coming head on, it’s best to ditch into a field
4) There is a glove compartment
5) There is no handbrake
The Daewoo waited until nightfall to break down for the second time. And this time the thing wouldn’t start. Stranded on the side of the road, Mitya signaled other motorists to no avail for an hour-and-a-half, until a local tow truck driver (who follows Mitya’s Instagram and saw his distressing story) pulled up to the rescue.
The Daewoo spent the night getting fixed up by a mechanic (a faulty starter & ignition being the main culprits), while Mitya got some rest. The next day, with the Daewoo tentatively “fixed,” Mitya plowed onward.
After his unpleasant ordeal the previous night, Mitya vowed “to stop for anyone in need on the side of the road.” And he kept that vow when he came across a young man and his grandmother hitchhiking somewhere in Tatarstan.
Eventually—and I mean eventually—Mitya made it to the train station. And, after a few days and some shifting plans, Mitya and the Damas finally arrived in Saint Petersburg.
This journey, however epic and life-threateningly ridiculous, might be the easiest part. The Daewoo needed pretty much a full restoration to see Mitya’s vision through—a process that would take months. But, again, this is Mitya, so he went for it.
This includes the interior as well:
Fast forward to Summer 2019, I arrive at Port Sevkabel—this reclaimed urban-industrial area turned art space with sushi-burrito trucks, techno clubs, and lanky European tourists—all on the western edge of Saint Petersburg, overlooking the Finnish Gulf. It’s an enormously popular place with all kinds of young people in it, from bearded steak aficionados with sleeve tattoos to vegans with septum piercings, and everyone in between.
Just past the rusty entry gate, I peek through the dense crowd, and see this oasis of baby-pink draped in incandescent lightbulbs. It is topped off by a paper-mache ice cream cone. There’s that Daewoo, flanked by a line of young, stylish Russians taking selfies, patiently awaiting their soft serve.
I catch Mitya just as he returns from gathering extra supplies. Business is booming, apparently. He gives me that big old smile, the same one he gave me when he first pitched the idea of doing this.
I admit, I doubted Mitya when he showed me the blurry Daewoo ad on his phone. Moreover, I tried hard to get him to reconsider. And I can tell Mitya remembers this as I scarf down the pink ice cream (the flavor is strawberry, by the way, and it is good) that just materialized out of the Daewoo I said not to buy. There’s definitely an unspoken sense of I told you so.
Nonetheless, there are no hard feelings. Mitya then pulls me to the side and tells me, almost in a whisper:
“I’m getting another Daewoo.”