The policeman looks at me suspiciously, sizing up my hairdo. "Are you some kind of a rockabilly kid?" he asks. "Something like that," I reply, my breath hanging in the air in cold puffs.
We're a two-car convoy, and we've just come to a stop behind a police car. Led by a stripped, caged, and rally light-sporting BMW E30 325i coupe, we don't exactly look like dentists headed home after a late shift. We look like the late-night hoons that we are.
The mercury has been steadily dropping since we left the heated confines of Budapest and headed north into the hills. Beyond city limits, it’s a cold, cold world of swirling snow and ever-shrinking visibility. A perfect night, in other words, for impromptu drifting.
Snow drifting is a sport of many names, a pastime that turns local hills into verbs and can be practiced in any car imaginable. The basics are simple: Wait for a night of fresh snow, wait for daytime traffic to subside, and then find a stretch of twisting pavement and hit it with all you can. And one more thing: don't leave home without a sturdy shovel.
Shuffling about in the single-digit cold, I wonder about the relationship between police officer and snow drifter. While the speeds attained are rarely high enough to be illegal, snow drifting takes up most of the road. Even if your midnight run isn't a 100-mph tōuge-fest, it's almost guaranteed to involve speeds far beyond what a casual, clueless winter driver could safely react to.
On the other hand, snow drifters in Hungary have a peculiar ability to self-organize. Packs form on any extended stretch of road, with leading and trailing cars watching for opposing traffic and swiftly pulling snowbound cars out of the embankments. It's an odd mix of illegality and community service.
Our roadside stop turns out to be a case of live and let live. The police go through our papers, check our VINs over the radio, and hold us for about twenty minutes. We spend the next few miles proceeding under ad-hoc police protection.
Budapest is one of Hungary's many snow-drifting hubs. A casual glance at a terrain map will tell you why: Countless hills surround the city, fantastically winding roads snaking about them every which way. And the good people of Hungary have better things to do in the dead of winter than monkey around in the country at midnight. It leaves the roads free for the intrepid and rear-wheel driven.
We're almost there. Our road for the night is a switchback leading up to the castle of Visegrád, the 14th-century headquarters of Hungarian royalty. István, the BMW driver and a laid-back father of two, roars away, while my friend Zoltán, a manic car nut who runs a business selling Japanese RC cars from an air-raid bunker buried beneath Budapest's tourist district, follows in his Ford Sierra, acquired in Austria for $300.
"l'm still very much learning the ropes," Zoltán says, "so I'm only going to do this upslope." We set off into the dark. The road toward the castle runs through a thick forest and is covered in moonlit snow. Zoltán flings the Sierra through the curves, drifting wildly from embankment to embankment. After a short while, we descend and turn around for a second run. Halfway through, we smack into a snowbank and get stuck.
I never cease to marvel at the immediacy with which petrolheads bond. After a few minutes of solitary shoveling, we're greeted by unknown hoon partners who stop to help. István also returns with the BMW. The Sierra is freed in fifteen minutes, but not before I take an ass-and-camera-first dive into the snow. Fingers frozen, I climb into the E30.
"That ice scraper on the floor," István says, "it melted a while ago." The reason is clear: The car's interior is an expanse of bare metal, and the exhaust runs directly under the passenger-side footwell. I can feel the heat through the thick soles of my boots. I squirm my way into the racing bucket, buckle into a four-point harness, and we tear off into the frigid night.
I have had dreams of the E30 325i. This is the first one I have seen up close, but the model always seemed like the type of sort of car that is both very dear to its owners and going extinct faster than Steller’s sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas). The E30 is lithe, tripartite box, a European AE86 with perfect brute looks and an ancient, yowly six up front. Faced with just over a ton of curb weight, BMW's 170-hp M20B25 catapults us forward with a free-breathing wail.
Working the short-throw shifter with winter gloves, István tears down the hill, his rally lights casting long shadows on the trees. Although we occasionally smack into the snow, his driving is focused, relaxed, and smooth. This goes on for a long time. The BMW is running rich, and its fumes saturate the interior. I'm light-headed but alert, and the M20 is a monster. It roars and wallows its way to 6000 rpm; just before bumping into the 6200-rpm rev limiter, it turns into Black Francis of the Pixies, performing Tame from the album Doolittle.
Uphill and downhill we scream, floating on snow and fumes, loud and bright specks burning gasoline and eating the darkness. Before we leave, I get out of the BMW and climb up a hill covered in waist-deep snow. The silence is almost complete — it rolls down the hill, heavy like mercury, occasionally punctuated with the noise of passing drifters. When they disappear around the corner, all they leave behind is silence and disturbed snow.