There are a lot of reasons why it had do go down like this. One of them is that I started our journey without ever believing our old Lada could make it more than 3,500 miles on a brutal drive from Budapest to the Armenian capital of Yerevan. I couldn’t have been more wrong—but it still never got to go home.
[Full Disclosure and Editor’s Note: A year ago, Jalopnik writer Máté Petrány convinced his bosses, against their better judgment, to let him spend a bunch of Gawker Media’s money to buy an old Lada and run in the Caucasian Challenge. The organizers of the Challenge wanted Jalopnik to try it with a Lada so badly that they waived the entry fee, and got us a few hotel rooms free of charge along the way as well.
Máté did the race with two compatriots, one of whom was hired by Jalopnik to shoot video. After the race ended—and read the story to see how it did—the video guy dropped off the face of the earth. Waiting for video that never materialized, the story held. And held. And held. And was forgotten.
Until now. At long last, for Senior Week, we present the forgotten story of Jalopnik’s run in the Caucasian Challenge.]
Let me first explain that the Caucasian Challenge is a test of mechanical endurance and human spirit that makes even the most hardcore American road rally look like kindergarten field trip.
There’s the aforementioned 3,500 miles, which for us was closer to 3,700. Then there’s the many unpaved roads you’ll come up against. And then there’s the fact that it goes through Turkey, Georgia, Nagorno Karabakh and Armenia.
If you’re not familiar with Nagorno Karabakh, it is a contested territory of Azerbaijan that played host to a brutal war in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union and today still sees hostilities and even death when the occasional skirmish happens.
Basically, everything about the Caucasian Challenge screams “bad idea”, which is why I had to try it.
I had to put together a team complete with a cameraman and gear on a rather short notice, figure out the financials and take care of the biggest question mark: the car itself. Less than two weeks before the start of the rally, we had no wheels.
But I knew we needed a Lada.
Finding The Right Ride
This was only ever going to be a cool story if we picked a vehicle worthy of your attention. Also, Ladas were designed with Soviet roads in mind, and four-wheel drive vehicles were out of our budget anyway. But a 3,700 mile trip in a classic car seemed crazy enough to do.
And a classic she was. None of that squire headlamp ugliness, but a bone stock VAZ 2101-1.
While Lada’s later models might have more power and fewer years on their belt, in my mind, nothing beats Fiat’s original design, so I was determined to find an old one. This way we could also experience what those millions of people went through who got their long-awaited Ladas in the 1970s, since where we were heading, road conditions remained roughly the same since, if not worse.
Ideally, I should have gone for a wagon or a 1500cc car with its dual headlamps and round instruments, but those are more rare and therefore more expensive. It was obvious that I had to settle for the 60 horsepower Zhiguli 1200.
You might think that since my country was occupied by the Soviets for 40 years, it’s still pretty easy to find a decent Lada at a low price. Yes, Hungary indeed had plenty of them. When I was a kid. But it’s been 26 years since capitalism finally took over, and year by year, people got rid of their communist rides. Nobody cared for them anymore. Except for tourists.
Pictured: A Lada next to some rando
Because of their rear-wheel drive setup and lightweight bodies, many Ladas were turned into race cars as well, while those few low-mileage, very original examples change hands for more than $4,500 nowadays. You might still be able to buy a decent one from some old guy in the countryside, but I had to find mine in the Budapest area, and quickly.
This is when the cheating began.
I found one for sale that looked solid enough to qualify as a candidate. It wasn’t cheap, and the seller wasn’t going to give me a better price. She was a proper Lada fan who replaced the aftermarket steering wheel with the old-school thin black plastic one and even put on the original hubcaps to complete the looks. She only sold it to buy a Lada 1500.
The paint was rubbish but at it was least orange instead of something boring, and the car started up nicely, shifted perfectly and even managed to stop, eventually. I didn’t think about it too much.
I paid up, promised her that I wouldn’t turn it into a rally car, and drove home that evening. The next morning, I took it straight to my mechanic.
Getting The Lada Into Shape
Hungarian bureaucracy is almost as complicated as it is expensive, and I was supposed to spend about a third of the car’s purchase price on numerous taxes before it could finally be registered to me. That process also involves taking it through an “origin inspection,” but I didn’t have the time nor the money to do any of that crap.
Instead, I put insurance on it and produced an international “Hey, this guy can borrow my car and drive abroad with it for two weeks!” document to go with my contract of sale. That form only cost 50 cents.
We also had to use a fake international insurance card because although I was entitled to get one, I forgot to apply for it in time. The whole thing was slightly sketchy, but so were the countries we were headed to.
Meanwhile our Lada was getting ready packed with new parts and a disabled thermostat, I ordered a set of new tires to end up with a car that cost twice as much as I originally intended, but at least looked promising enough to cross a border. I threw a few tools in the trunk and went to pick up my two companions.
Roland, my ex-flatmate, is a veteran traveller who went with me to Albania last year in an old Seat. Also, his uncompromising love for Slavic women meant he’s spent some time learning Russian. I knew that would come in handy, and I also suspected that he was crazy enough to even take some unpaid holidays just to do this shit. Spot on.
Balázs, a former colleague of mine, served as our mechanical expert. He studied engineering and had a Lada Samara as his first car, so he knew more about how to fix our car than Roland and I combined.
With them and the rest of our basic toolkit, canned food, water and about five tees per head onboard, there was nothing left to do but set off. We headed towards Yerevan.
I never felt more unprepared in my life.
The Voyage Begins
We didn’t make it far that day. Late in the evening, just after crossing the Serbian border, a red light on the dash informed us that the alternator stopped charging the battery. We had to call it a night at a gas station.
Although we were pretty close to Szabadka, a town full of Serbian-Hungarians, we didn’t have to leave to highway in the morning to get help as Balázs managed to get out the carbon brush that got stuck, and although he also broke it while attempting to put it back to its impossible location, that still sorted our problem. But we wasted a night right after the start.
To cheer us up, the car was running perfectly through Belgrade all the way to the next border, only for this to happen right after our tires touched the Bulgarian tarmac:
It seemed like our Lada just didn’t like crossing borders. 450 miles into the Caucasian Challenge, we were looking at a hard Sunday evening.
Luckily for us, unlike Hungarians, Bulgarians are allowed to work on Sundays, which meant that after following some very helpful gentlemen to a nearby village, we ended up in a garage where they had actual tools for figuring out what was wrong. And they liked our Lada a lot.
After realizing that Roland’s Russian vocabulary won’t be enough for this conversation, our guy switched to Google Translate on his phone and told us that our voltage regulator was busted. We also figured out that the car is overcharging the battery.
A further phone call revealed that the owner of the parts store was already on the Serbian side getting drunk, so we had no chance of getting a replacement, but it turned out that if we switched on the lights and keep our phones and the 230V converter plugged into the cigarette lighter, we would have enough consumption to keep the voltage at a normal level. Problem solved.
I must admit that the headlights kept reminding us at night that something was terribly wrong in the electric department, but they worked, and although we got a new part two days later, we didn’t intend to fix what wasn’t broken.
The drive towards Sofia from the border was still a gamble, but since we made it without having any issues, we headed for Turkey in order to be there on time for the official start.
Getting through the Turkish border at 2 a.m. with a Lada packed full of our stuff and a Stalin sticker on its back wasn’t what you would call a walk in the park, but after they’re done playing with us, we got through and arrived to Istanbul by sunrise.
Maybe It Can Be Done?
This was only the starting point of the Caucasian Challenge, but having covered 850 miles already without any major issues made it cross my mind that all this could be done with a 1982 Lada 1200 after all.
A great day at the city and quite a few beers later, we jumped back into the car in the morning to meet the rest of the teams at a hotel before driving to the seaside, only to realize that not only did we have a punctured rear tire, but a flat spare as well. That wasn’t the car’s fault.
Driving on pretty much the wheel is not what I wanted to try in Istanbul’s busy center, but luckily enough, we managed to get to the city’s car shop street, and soon found a guy who had inner tubes for a 13-inch Lada tire. These cheerful gentlemen fell in love with our surprisingly rust-free Zhiguli as well.
I can’t say I wasn’t annoyed by all this, but since the tires survived that short flat drive and the tea was very nice at the cafe across the street, I got over it. Then, we simply made it to the Black Sea, as you do.
Not everybody made it. The organizers were two days behind, and an English gentleman who bought a left-hand drive Land Rover Freelander for the occasion had to leave his car at a garage already with a serious gearbox problem. The teams were supposed to all meet in Istanbul, but we only managed to say hi to each other by the sea at the first camp. No matter. Everybody had a detailed road map, so we all knew what to do and where to meet at what time. Low assistance indeed.
We drove almost all the way through Turkey flat out on the highway, and the Lada was perfectly fine. Then, just as we hit the mountains for the first time, we ran into some issues with the engine overheating.
This was a reoccurring problem, but not a major one. The rules turned out to be simple. When were driving up a steep road for an extended period in 95 degrees Fahrenheit, she started to overheat. When we did the same at 70, she didn’t.
You know what? We needed to get out of the car occasionally anyway. There were may good reasons to do so.
Worst. Roads. Ever.
Steaming or not, I was way more worried about our suspension. The roads in Georgia were the worst I’ve ever seen, and there were no other options but to drive through them at a relatively fast pace to make up for the time we wasted shooting video. (Video that, unfortunately, has yet to materialize. Maybe someday.) The Caucasian Challenge can be very tight on time if you happened to drive the slowest car as well.
But the Lada took every kind of beating imaginable. And I mean every. That $35 I spent on our thick skidplate was a very good investment as we were sliding on and off rocks that could have torn the bottom of our engine apart, and I did upgrade for a pair of new shocks at the rear to keep the car from bouncing all over the place, but the amount of punishment those took day after day was unbelievable.
We had another puncture in the mountains after I hit a sharp rock at 30 mph, but other than that, we just kept eating up those miles in the worst conditions you can throw at a car.
Once we crossed the Armenian border, it didn’t get any better. Most of their asphalt roads were worse than a dirt road full of potholes. But the Lada soldiered on.
The Real End Of The World
Since Nagorno-Karabakh is where the real end of the world starts, there were roads that they literally built while we were drifting our way through the mud, not to mention the bomb craters all over the demilitarized zone.
At some point, we started hearing a strange noise coming from the right front wheel. Turned out, only our mud flap was torn halfway off from all the abuse it had to take. I still have it at home.
I guess the most remarkable thing was that once we hit some clean tarmac again, the Lada became silent again immediately. There were no new alarming sounds coming from the bottom, nor sing of any other damage whatsoever. Our ancient car acted basically like a tank, with much more comfort and better fuel economy.
Deep in the mountains of what’s Azerbaijan on the map but really isn’t if you’re there, our exhaust slid apart in the middle due to a loose fastener and a week’s worth of constant shaking. The guys who fixed that in the town the next day offered $500 for the car without papers. They knew it was worth it.
Unfortunately, we still had a long way to go before handing over the keys to anybody.
The exhaust started to get louder once again as we were approaching Yerevan, some 3,300 miles added to the Lada’s odometer and finally on a highway you could call decent. We managed to fix that after parking the car on a concrete ramp by the side of the road.
At this point, we knew we going to make it as long as we don’t drive head on into one of those ancient American trucks the Iranians use as tankers, and while nobody said it out loud, it was also clear that alcohol won’t be needed anymore just to be able to avoid punching each other in the face straight after we got out of the car at the end of a hard day.
A trip like this might be tough on the car, but the same could be said about the car’s occupants. We were dirty and tired, but heading towards a fancy hotel in the heart of the former Soviet Union. Finally.
Once in Yerevan, we were all smiles thinking this was all the maintenance our 33-year-old Lada needed in order to drive 3,500 miles from Budapest, through roads that made it stall in first gear. Three adults with two large bags at high altitudes in a 60 horsepower car. Talk about pushing it over the limit...
It Was Never Coming Home
But that wasn’t the end of our journey. Since it was cheaper to fly budget from Kutaisi in Georgia, we had less than 300 miles to add to the odometer before jetting out of the Caucasus.
Taking the car home was never the plan. It would have been too expensive to put her on a ship or to drive her back, not to mention I had no time to do that, as I had to go to the UK for a work event just two days after landing. At this point, I really wished there was another way.
But there wasn’t.
We took her to a car wash and drove around town, trying to find a buyer who would give her a new home. But after talking to people at numerous garages, we had to realize that old foreign cars are impossible to sell in Georgia due to the high taxes they put on them. Despite getting more than one $500 offers before, nobody wanted our car in Kutaisi, no matter how good she was.
We tried charity as well, but the priest who came to see us couldn’t take the car from us without its papers, and I had to bring those back to Hungary due to our regulations.
We were going in circles, quickly running out of both time and patience.
I’m not sure at what point did I give up, but as we got tired of getting the same answer everywhere in Russian, it became clear that we’ll have to abandon out beloved Lada somewhere near the airport, with the extra oil and parts in the back that she never asked for.
We spent our last coins on beer and drove to the airport. To make this worse, the car kept puttering along like if it just rolled off the line in 1982.
It was dark by the time we arrived to David the Builder Kutaisi International, where my two teammates got out with our bags. Since it was my car, I drove away, trying to find a spot where I can park her for good.
The red cross marks the spot where I left her, open with the key in place and enough gas to get the hell out of there. Nothing felt right about that 300 yard walk on the side of the road back from that truck stop.
I had my Lada’s rear plate in my backpack and its registration in my pocket as reminders of what I’ve just done, and I knew that that still won’t be enough to get me off the hook on this side of the map.
I expected to have a few headaches back in Hungary, too. The official procedure requires a Georgian paper proving that the car was broken when I left it there, and since I didn’t have that, all I could do is pay the relevant taxes and sort this out in person, writing a statement that the car was destroyed abroad and that’s why I couldn’t register it on my name in Hungary. It took a few rounds, but I got off the hook without paying a fine. Rather surprising knowing our bureaucratic system.
That’s what it took to do this. I wish it were easier, but I had no other choice.
What troubles me still is that we left our toughest team member behind. The car was a perfectly good classic, not a rental or some random piece of junk.
In fact, our old Lada was so clean and original that I don’t know when will I see anything like her under $3,500. It even had its original documents in the glovebox. A new paint job and a few cosmetic touches here and there was all she needed to become somebody’s beloved time machine. That’s what she would’ve deserved, not this treason.
I’m not sure how the Georgian government feels about foreigners abandoning their cars there, but I had to leave her in that parking lot with four giant Jalopnik stickers and our Caucasian Challenge numbers on the side.
If you found her in one piece, we both won.
Top graphic credit Jason Torchinsky