I hereby crown myself the Patina Czar
Long story short, my Skoda Favorit project is heading to the scrap pile after some massive, ahem, structural surprises. When the guy with a field of derelict Ladas said, “Du musst schweissen”—meaning “you must weld”—I trusted there would be something to which I could weld. My mistake!
Perhaps I should be more willing to lay in mud puddles to facilitate actually looking underneath a car rather than hoping for the best. (That’s a growth area for me.) I had nightmares of spending dozens of hours getting a MIG tan, only to receive a firm “Nein” at the German roadworthiness inspection station. When it was clear the Skoda would never be right again, I hung up the angle grinder. The silver lining to this highly oxidized misstep: I have a free spot in the garage.
After the Great Favorit Abandonment of 2020, I moved on rather quickly. Back to my old standby, eBay Kleinanzeigen, I was flipping through all sorts of offers. Search criteria? A build date of pre-1964 (Citröens up to 1990), less than €3000 (which is just under $3400), sufficient metal compared to the Skoda, all within an unspecified distance from my house. Who doesn’t love a road trip?
The car that halted my search: a 1960 Moskvich 407, located in the former Deutsche Demokratik Republik. The East German buying public could purchase any car it wanted, provided it was communist in nature and the buyer had sagacious parents who applied for ownership upon birth. I decided that I must go have a gander, and maybe even peek underneath this time.
A series of complex logistical arrangements later, the posited workflow looked like this: 1) My wife and I depart in our Fiat Panda to a friend’s house located far out in the country. 2) Due to my Lada tow pig needing a cam chain tensioner, we utilize Germany’s version of the F-150: a BMW 5 Series wagon. 3) I rent a trailer from a jolly, shirtless hog farmer. In his shockingly professional home office, he guides me through the paperwork, takes my money, hitches up the trailer, and sends me on my way, all while minimally clothed. 4) We drive to a tiny crossroads in the former East to inspect and (hopefully) load up. 5) We leave the trailer there overnight to avoid maneuvering a flatbed into our hotel parking garage. Outside of incessant begging, there is be no contingency plan for trailer storage if I walk away from the car. 6) We then stay the night in Leipzig and celebrate the purchase at the Ratskeller if it all goes according to plan. 7) On the way back, everything is performed in reverse order with added steps for refilling and cleaning up the 5 Series for its return. Easy, right?
Now, for the execution part. After five hours of driving, we hone in on the small village in which the Moski had resided for the past 60 years. For better or worse, neither had developed much in the intervening decades. The seller—much younger than I imagined—lets us through the gate to his property: a quaint but chaotic farm complex. As we walk, accompanied by a pack of mastiffs, past the pigs and cows and deep into the dark, timbered barn, the seller explains how he came by the Moski; an old farmer in town passed away and left this collection of motorcycles, cars, and racks of spare parts, which the seller bought.
Now beside the car, which is caked in bat droppings and dust, I start to squirm with excitement. Upon inspection via dual camera phone flashlights, my guano-encrusted eyes discern that this is not just any old Soviet sedan. To me, this car is a piece of European history that had slept through German reunification in the back of an implement shed. Still wearing its DDR license plates, the East German title was last stamped in 1966. Stickers of young Eastern pinup girls adorned the ornate dash, which anyone would be imprisoned for suggesting looked American.
The underbody looks solid—everything but the brake fluid had leaked all over everything, fortifying the steel. The pale lime green on dark green body wears the marks of newly-approved drivers, herding swine, or both. I decide right then that I would claim my birthright as the Czar of Patina. I make an offer under asking price, which—given my level of preparation—is appropriately laughed at. We shake on the listed price and I hand him €1030 ($1164), the extra €30 earning me a massive collection of NOS spares: body metal, trim, and a transaxle from a totally unrelated two-stroke Barkas van. Who knows? Maybe I’ll have one of those someday too.
Moments after the cash changes hands, the Moski is already 10 feet in the air, dangling from a pair of bailing forks. I’m always nervous about people picking up cars with powerful, sharp objects. Not so much that they could fall off, rather that the operators rarely understand that you wish to preserve all of the parts of the car, even that now-crunched door trim and flattened handbrake cable bracket. With a bit of jostling, the heap migrates onto the trailer (with zero damage!) and we are off to celebrate in Leipzig. A round of Märzen, bitte!
The next morning arrives and we are back at the farm, trailer all hitched up. After some brief chit-chat about plans for the car, we depart. We make it about 20 miles and stop to check the straps again while eating surprisingly delicious gas station sandwiches. Over my left shoulder, I see the Polizei rolling our way at a snail’s pace. I’m considering all the imaginary laws I have broken—mismatched tiedown strap colors could be a large fine, no? The cops hit the lights and get out of the car, walking slowly around my new acquisition. As they approach, I expect to be queried for a stack of impossible-to-produce documentation. One of the two officers reaches into his pocket and asks, “Ein Foto bitte?” as he pulls out his cellphone, not a ticket book. This is good. After photos and 20 minutes of gesticulation and conversation about old Eastern cars, the Polizei wish me a good day and continue their patrol of the truck stop.
While my wife is patiently reading, I am silently planning out which pieces I will dismount and powder coat first and how I will find whitewalls and Astro Supreme wheels to fit a Moskvich in Germany. Finally, back at the shop after a hellaciously long day, I am greeted by my friend, a shop owner who promptly assures me of my insanity. We carefully roll the brakeless sedan into place and hoist it up above his RUF 911 BTR. Just as the Cold War leaders would have wanted, the mighty Moskvich stands proudly on top of the Porsche.
Let the journey begin!