Déjà Phew: Bad luck and a second Moskvich 407
Matthew Anderson is an American engineer who relocated to Germany a few years ago for work. In his spare time, with reckless abandon, he pursues a baffling obsession with unexceptional Eastern Bloc cars. We don’t ask him too many follow-up questions.
Sour memories from past experiences are meant to protect man from his present and future self. Despite this, I find myself forgetting these wounds so I can grab the glowing red sticks in the fire even after I’ve been burned. It’s something like déjà vu but with more lasting consequences.
I saw the ad for a 1958 Moskvich 407 body, listed for the scant sum of 150 Euros. The devil told me I definitely needed another one. At the same time, the angel of learned behavior on my shoulder advised me it would be a waste of time, diesel, and cash.
But we hadn’t been to Dresden yet, I pleaded!
And the solid rear inner fenders that my 407 needs would take a whole weekend to fabricate!
Wouldn’t this be simpler?!?!
It was a classic decision of make or buy. A quick call to the owner yielded even more questions: “Are more parts available, specifically wheel cylinder pistons, a drivers side front fender, and a column shift four-speed?” I asked.
“Hmm, muss mal schauen,” or “Let’s see,” he said.
At a minimum I’d be getting some body cuts for cheap. Despite overwhelming evidence indicating the stupidity of this path … hotel booked, trailer rented, and off we go!
The horrible plan? Friday afternoon I would pick up the trailer. My wife and I would drive it up to a hotel in Dresden specifically chosen for its large street parking spaces, tour the city Friday night and Saturday, pick up the hulk on the way home. (Wait, this is already sounding familiar …) It’s not even as simple as it sounds. Sunday evening I would drop my wife and the dog at the house and continue to the shop. There, a buddy and I would crack beers, back the trailer in, cut the car up with a pair of Fuchsschwanz (Sawzalls) and a “Flex” (angle grinder), chuck the rest in a friend’s dumpster, and return the trailer by the due date on Sunday night.
Optimistic? Well, yeah, sort of. Naturally, everything went off the rails.
From Saturday to Sunday morning, the start of the trip came together beautifully. After getting lights flashed at me no less than 7 times, I looked around my trailer and noted a permanently illuminated (but otherwise working) left blinker. Why the persistent warnings, I wondered. This should have paused me more than it did.
Continuing further, we reached Dresden with enough time to angle the trailer into city spot and feed the meter enough coins to last until Sunday. Saturday afternoon was spent touring the DDR Museum and settling into in a dimly lit pub resembling someone’s grandma’s house but with a painting of Lenin hanging on the wall. A meal of Souljanka—a hearty and sour soup with pickles and meat—and a couple of beers set the mood for the next day.
And it came early. Shortly after sunrise, the rig was on the way through the narrow, one-and-a-half lane roads through the mountains on the Czech border. Snow was building heavily in the trees and pavement. Ideal trailer weather! After several pull-offs to let faster traffic by, we were there at the top of a hill, staring a Moski 407 in the face. The first transaction was completed quickly and I received a packet of all the vehicle’s history, including the East German vehicle title and registration which ended in 1991. Like many Eastern cars after the wall fell, it was left standing six months after German reunification and was in all likelihood promptly replaced with a ten-year-old VW Golf. Finding strange documentation in a Moskvich … why do I feel like I’ve been here before?
Parked next to the 407 was a Moskvich 2140 in the same green on red interior scheme as mine. Also tempting, but alas we have but one trailer. You may remember that earlier I had also enquired about a driver’s side fender an an ultra-rare four-speed gearbox. After this adventure I now know than a non-committal uttering of “muss mal schauen” by a Moskvich sympathizer living in the middle of nowhere really means, “I have the parts but I want to wait until you’re here to dicker in person.” Great. Being already over a barrel, needing the bits, and having famously poor impulse control, I far overpaid for the parts and begrudgingly loaded them up. Driving to the East for a good deal and ending up overpaying at the last minute? Sigh … also sounds familiar.
In any case, the dudes were nice guys and helpful in loading the car. I was out a grand total of 600 Euro for a body, gearbox, and fender which I thought should be part of the body anyway. I tried to retroactively rationalize the scope creep with a convincing internal monologue: “The body you knew would be 150€ and now you have an extra title in case you find a nice VIN-less 407 prototype one day. Plus most muscle car guys would be pretty stoked to get a four-speed for under a grand, let alone 200 bucks. And a fender for 300€? Well, there’s a rotten one on eBay for 90€ if you want to bring your average cost down. Plus the carpet squares they gave us to protect the body against the ratchet straps were nice vintage DDR stuff. A Berlin hipster would pay out mega for that.”
There! Sufficiently justified. We headed off.
The ride back started out as expected: another round of coffees and plenty of digging into our prepared road snacks. We headed through Chemnitz and down into the hills of Franconia without incident. That’s where it all went pear-shaped.
Seeing a police car merging on to the highway, I shifted over a lane. Limited in my possible actions due to an 80-kph speed limit on the trailer, I simply waited for the pair of officers to accelerate in the right lane so I could scoot back in as traffic built up behind me. But being both the law-enforcing AND abiding types, the cops refused to pass on my right. I sped to 90 kph—still within the realm of not really speeding—and signaled to come right. Looking surprised, they sped around my left side and lit me up. Wunderbar. Wait … pulled over with a Moskvich 407 on the back of a BMW wagon? Déjà vu all over again.
What started as a simple inquiry as to why now all but one of my lights were working turned into a full inspection of vehicle titles, trailer rental contract, and driver’s license. End verdict: Due to some fine print that I did not read, my towing allowance of 26,000 pounds GVW was not entered into my German license when I moved here. Therefore, I am basically only permitted to tow a garden trailer. The officers grounded my rig; not another meter could it move.
The senior officer hopped in my car with my wife and dog, drove it up to the next exit, and parked it at a truck stop. I, riding in the police car, got a review of my charges which equated to driving without a license. Wife and dog: unimpressed. I pled the fifth, officially, unhooked the trailer, locked it up, and got on the phone to start begging for help. All of this took place during Sunday dinner time, so I was very much tail-between-legs.
Miraculously, help was on the way! I sped—trailerless—the 100 miles back home to drop off the family and pick up a new friend, Patrick, who just moments before was a stranger introduced to me by my friend Mario. Patrick didn’t really know what to expect and was quite shocked when I picked him up in Stuttgart with 1 hour and 42 minutes to destination showing on Google Maps. I gave him an out that he refused. Despite having company at home, he was still game. Unbelievable. Patrick and I got along great and about 1.5 hours later, we were staring at a nearly lightless trailer well after dark. No amount of wire harness wiggling would bring its shorted leads back from the dead, so we ran into the truck stop to see what we else I could overpay for. Initially on the hunt for my old standby—keychain lights clicked on and then plopped into the taillight housings—we instead found some reflective tape at an absolute bargain price of 24€. You already had my dignity, Franconia, and now my money, too.
The clock struck 10:30 p.m., with work the next morning coming rapidly into mental view. Soon after we were stealthily cruising at 80 kph down a speed-limitless section of the Autobahn as Audi A6s whipped past at easily 200+ kph. The kilometers wore away slowly but the conversation was lively, and we finally ended up in Stuttgart. I detached the trailer and what was left of me ended up in bed around midnight.
The next morning, my alarm went off at six, so I could make it to my buddy Mario’s to unload the trailer, via his lift and some dollies, all before work. Patrick once again helped me drop off the trailer. Maximum humility! Finally we were ready for the Ausschlachtung (part-out) that was supposed to happen the night before. All of it had to wait, because I needed to go to work to pay for all the parts, tape rolls, and inevitable court costs.
One of my better adventures? Most assuredly not. Will I look back on it and laugh? Considering I was just at the local DMV with a printed South Carolina Driver’s Ed Teacher’s Manual showing that my license class in South Carolina was equivalent to a German CDL, it’s already funny. Silver linings? Yes, three. One: After my physical on Monday, I’ll have no charges and become the proud owner of a German truck driver’s license. Two: Looking at the thick steel body and my limited supply of Sawzall batteries and cutoff wheels, the original plan to chop everything up on the trailer in a parking lot would’ve never worked anyway. Three: It’s remarkable the lengths car people will go to help each other out, even those you’ve just met. I am a lucky guy, thanks to no fewer than three of my buddies who were there to help me out in a pinch.
In the end, that’s what I will remember.