What’s better than foraging in the nether regions of a newly-purchased vehicle, probing for hints of its past? Absolutely nothing. The longer said car’s been sitting, the better the archaeological dig, of course. And who doesn’t love discovering forgotten treasure, or as sane people call it, “old junk”? Here is an itemized list of what I was able to locate and identify inside of my recently acquired Soviet-come-East German classic:
Item 1: Russian to German quick translation text
Published in 1987 in Berlin, this state-issued press relic seems to be a hangover from the last attempt to understand just what the hell all of these gauges and plaques under the hood said. I love a good former DDR thrift store and these kinds of texts litter the shelves. Why? Beginning in 1949, Russian language was a mandatory East German school subject. I think it will continue to live in the glove box for emergency “Nyet“-to-“Nein“-type translations.
Item 2: Medium Format film negatives
In perusing images from 1960s America, the various bell bottoms, Jesus sandals, vinyl tops, and other context clues can help one estimate the age of an image within a range of approximately 3-5 years. In the Moski’s home environment, all of that guesswork goes right out the window. These lovely folks stand proudly next to their wonderful half-timbered barn and horse and carriage. But is it 1968 or 1868? Faced with the names on the title documents, I’m tempted to seek out some descedants and share some stories over a beer.
Item 3: Roadside kit
In a car with a built-in lamp under the hood, I expect a fantastic roadside emergency kit. I was not disappointed. The safety triangle is built more like a loudly reflective easel than you’d see in the boring plastic markers of today. Next to it is a red flag attached to a stick that had clearly doubled as a hand towel. A newfound motor hand-crank coupled nicely to the nose of the crank and clued me into the fact that the motor wasn’t locked up—my new favorite discovery! In the trunk there was a jack, and I’ve managed to find three lift points on body where the jack slots in and sits on a bit of a pedestal. Apparently there are four of these structural points in total from the factory, each chopped from an entirely different vehicle.
Item 4: Unser Sandmänchen
A sticker of a small, mouthless Claymation character stands in the center of the dash. I found the thing slightly creepy, until a German friend explained: It was not just a character, but a fantastic story of Cold War espionage. OK! In 1959, the East German broadcasting bureau, DFF, had somehow obtained a transcript of a new West German children’s television show, titled “Sandmänchen” or “Little Sandman,” in its East Berlin office. Finding it unacceptable to lose its own audience to a Western show, the order came down to replicate the concept and beat it to market. With nine days to spare before the West German show’s release, the copycat version aired first, titled “Unser Sandmänchen” or “Our little sandman, not yours.” The East German version continues to put kids to bed today. This sticker absolutely rules.
Item 5: Ladies
What adorned the dash and rear-view mirror was a massive motivator for me to go all-in so early with this car. From my first glimpse of the DDR pinups, I was already convinced this would be no one else’s bad idea but mine. After a limited amount of research, it would appear that these stickers are a part of a larger collection with a brief story of what each particular animated character might like to do. Walks on the Baltic. Canning of goods. Reporting of neighbors. I don’t have any of the backgrounds on these nice women in particular but Ingrid, Birgit, and Sandra will ride and surveil wherever we go.
Item 6: Spare Parts that cast suspicion
Some of this car’s scattered parts were not suspicious, partly because I loaded them in there in the first place and they had no first-hand connection to the vehicle. A hood. A trunk lid. A gas tank for a different Moskvich.
But … why are there four ignition coils? Why is there a small pedestal glued to the dash, perfectly sized to fit a distributor rotor, which it currently holds? These findings present a foreshadowed vision of me on the shoulder of the A81 highway, reflective easel and dirty-red-rag-on-a-stick deployed, with a pell-mell of smoldering ignition components underhood. Nevertheless, I appreciate the care and preparation.
Item 7: Extra switches
When walking around the vehicle, I noticed three extra sets of doo-dads that must be switched on. There is a rear fog light dangling from a piece of twine, looped over the bumper guard. Two sets of DDR-approved driving-in-the-fog lights fill the gap between the normal driving lights. There are five accessory switches, and, by the way, no power to the coil. I fear that some manual relay logic must be performed to obtain the right sequence for ignition. Lord only knows about the lights.
Item 8: Superfluous registration paperwork
I expected some degree of mysterious and/or inscrutable documentation, but this is on another level. According to the paperwork, I’ve taken ownership of five different Moskviches and a Berlin Motoroller motorcycle. I cannot tell if this is a windfall or some sort of unshakeable hex. The array of title documents and bills of sale is dizzying. Of equal mind-numbery are notary stamps from the Volkspolizei. As far as the actual vehicles go, unfortunately, only some trim remains and there is no trace of the bike. (Note to self: track down Moskvich 2140, 408, or 412 with a missing grille, all of which are apparently my legal property.)
Item 9: Miscellaneous
What use does one have for three shop lights and a “Jingle Bells” cassette tape, aside from opening up a brick-and-mortar nightmare shop? Well, I also found a fairly large Bakelite emblem that—thanks to my Russian-born German teacher—I now know reads “Generator Brushes” in Cyrillic. With a spare couple of steering wheels and complete dash and instrumentation, I foresee some interesting home décor projects that my wife will really love.
With all of the stories this car has amassed so far, I feel a great duty toward its preservation. The spare parts, the translation text, the accessories—they all show that this was a vehicle that someone truly cherished. Very often I buy a project car and have no idea what direction to take or how far to go with it. The findings from this archaeologic dig through the past give me a clear direction to the future: 1) Keep the history fully intact. 2) What must get touched in some way will be done carefully, as the old custodians would have done themselves. 3) Keep the stories coming.