Rally Leningrad Pits Classic Cars Against The City Of St. Petersburg For The First Time
Photography by Robb Pritchard
Photos without watermark courtesy of Rally Leningrad
Classic car enthusiasts reside in pretty much every corner of the world, and each group tends to have its own culture. With numerous marques such as Lada, Moskvitch, Volga, and UAZ, Russia has a long history of car building (although perhaps not of quality car building), but it doesn’t have a particularly visible classic car scene—usually.
Cars here are either flashy Mercedes, BMWs, or locally-made Ladas and Dacias, with a smattering of dubious Chinese imports that I imagine wouldn’t pass even the most rudimentary EU safety tests. If a car is old enough to be considered a classic though, it is unvaryingly being dragged around on its last legs in a state of disrepair that most scrap yards would turn away. But with potholes deep enough to interest geologists and drivers that seem to have learned their manners from Grand Theft Auto, Russian roads are certainly no place for treasured machines… unless it is a special occasion.
I witnessed one such day last weekend when hundreds of gleaming old-timers came to line up in the sun by the port of St. Petersburg, known as the Venice of the North by those who have never been to Venice. Surrounded by a nihilistic horizon of soulless Soviet-era tower blocks, the once ubiquitous Lada Rivas and gleaming Moskvitchs parked in a row next to a handful of oversized American cruisers, part of a pack of cars with numbers stuck on their doors, sitting at the ready for the inaugural Rally Leningrad. I caught up with an old off-roading friend competing in his affectionately nicknamed Flying Brick, a 1975 Volvo 242.
Alexi Ivanov’s less tongue-twisting nickname is Alvi, and he explained how a regularity rally is much more complicated than it sounds. Each team gets a road book full of tulip diagrams of all of the junctions with information about how far apart they are… mostly. To make it a little harder, some diagrams were missing this information. But that’s the easy part. You have to get to certain points at an exact time or penalties are applied. To make it a little fairer the cars were divided into two classes, young-timers for those made after 1960, and old-timers for those made before.
When you are in charge of the local Volvo museum (someone has to) it has to be a big chunk of Sweden’s finest that you take out. From the Volvo dealer Swedmobil’s collection, Alvi had recently overseen a full engine and interior rebuild on this 242 as well as a respray, so it looks, drives, and feels brand new. Kitted out with a couple of GPS devices to use in conjunction with the road book, and along with a newly-developed fire suppression system that Alvi is working on getting FIA homologation for, it was ready to race around Russia.
With years of experience in rally-raids, desert challenges and hardcore off-road competitions Alvi didn’t have too much trouble navigating his home city, and at the end of the morning’s action he was comfortably in the lead. “I guess I am quite good at translating the tulip diagrams to a normal map and at one complicated junction we stopped so I could do this. It wasn’t too clear, so we opened Google Street View to look at the different options, which is obviously a lot quicker than driving around to do it! It’s also perfectly within the rules. But it seems everybody else was a lot slower to work out the right way and so we got a nice advantage there.”
There was a speed test around the harbor of a sea fort called Kronstadt, which was won, rather unsurprisingly, by a replica 1993 Lancia Delta Integrale. But as stunning as it was to watch a Martini-liveried car slalom through the cones it wasn’t the most impressive of the day. That accolade went to the replica of the 1956 GAZ M20 Pobeda Sport (shown below with the gaggle of girls surrounding it). The originals raced at such notable events as the Mille Miglia and the Monte-Carlo rally, and this is a very accurate replica of those efforts, a well-known participant in the local classic circuit here. Because of its venerable age it also has the advantage of a much lower penalty coefficient than the newer cars it was competing against, so they reached a top-five ranking midway through the competition.
After lunch though, Alvi’s co-driver missed a complicated junction on a big roundabout and they lost about seven minutes trying to work their way back around through the roadworks. “Events like this have been run in Moscow for a long time,” he explained. “But it was the first ever type to be run in St. Petersburg and so we were at a bit of a disadvantage because of that, even though I am familiar with all of the roads.” He came home 6th overall, but he was the first finisher from the group of St. Petersburg natives, and he was also the first foreign car to finish.
The event was won by a Lada, known in Russia as a “Zhiguli” (but not in Western Europe, as that word was too close to “gigolo”), while the gorgeous Pobeda finished a respectable 5th. This was the first Rally Leningrad, but judging by the enthusiastic response I witnessed, it won’t be the last.