And You Thought Your Resto Was A Pain

So I bounced this to Main Man Chris the other day, mainly as a joke, and Chris did his own take on the might Moskvitch. But it got me to thinking about a lot of weird, Soviet related car stuff, and, more importantly, how it relates to being a gearhead in general.

But first, let’s get my take on our Soviet touchstone for this discussion. Behold, from the glorious workers paradise of Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: The Moskvitch-403 sedan.

First, there’s the ride itself, then, we need to look at the restoration (which, you have to admit, is really well done, and any self-respecting car guy would be proud to do work on this level), and then we need to see how (if?) this fits into the wide and beautiful spectrum of car enthusiasms.

Like I said, the Moskvitch-403 sedan. Now, I don’t know this model of Moskvitch firsthand, but the funny thing is, I do have some firsthand experience with Russian cars. And if this thing is like any of those hideous Ladas, Zils and such that I have dealt with, this Moskvitch will probably weigh in closer to an H1 Hummer than you’d think, be made out of steel that most other countries would use to make the hulls of ships from, be “powered” (and I’m using that term as loosely as I possibly can) by an engine that puts out less grunt than a starter-motor, and has all the fit, finish and detail quality of the tractor plant it was made in.

What can be told about the Moskvitch-403 is that it was a “transition model” that slotted into the production line-up between the Moskvitch 407 and Moskvitch 408. Yes. Yes I know. The number 403 does not come between the numbers 407 and 408. As a matter of fact, no numbers come between 407 and 408. Try to ignore that the way your typical Soviet citizen would ignore the headlines that razor blade production was up for the 15th consecutive quarter, but they still were using the same blade from 12 years ago.

Anyway, the stopgap Moskvitch-403 was produced from 1963 to 1965, with a shudder-inducing total 105,000 of them being “assembled”, to use the sources term. The technical innovations to note on the Moskvitch-403 is that it featured ” … hanging pedals, rather than a hole in the floor, a hydraulic clutch and new steering wheel! ”

And oh, that styling. 1963? Hell, it looks like a throw back to 1953, but why point out (again) that Russia has never really been a place known to be on the cutting edge of fashion design. It sort of seems like a cross between a Nash Metropolitan and a Triumph Herald. Not as bad or oddly proportioned as they could have made it. And that is both an achievement and a relief.

So, Soviet oddities aside, it seems that there was a gearhead in Russia that was able to obtain a Moskvitch-403 ” … from his old relative for free.” It was a literal Russian barn find, the mighty Moskvitch-403 was cooling its, er, jets in a shed for decades before the new owner tore into it.

And I really can’t fault the guy’s work at all. I’ve been around more automotive restoration projects than I can literally remember, and this guy has done a top-notch job. Sure, what he started with is a very good base that we all dream about getting. From the photos, it looks like all the pieces were there. All the chrome trim, the pressed alloy dash (or at least it looks like it’s some frighteningly flimsy pressed alloy to me; God knows it could be made out of drop-forged quarter-inch iron that was painted look like alloy), seats, dash bits and pieces, window cranks, it all seemed to be (mostly) there from the get go. Hell, it even had that luxurious rarity of having the windshield wipers still mounted.

What? You don’t know about the Soviets delicate economic balancing act concerning windshield wipers? Okay, this is a tangent, but it’s totally worth getting into. See, if you wanted to get a car in Soviet Union, you had to plunk down a deposit and get on a list. That’s not all that different from, oh, one of us buying the upcoming Ferrari FF. But that’s where the similarity ends. Then rather than waiting some months for your new pride and joy to arrive, you would literally have to wait for years. And I’ve heard of some people waiting for more than a decade to get their car. And let’s just say that almost any car the Soviets produced wasn’t worth waiting a New York minute for, let alone years and years. So if this is what it took to get a car, what do you think getting car parts was like?

It was an hellacious Kafka-esque nightmare, that’s what it was like. Say, for example, you needed to replace your wiper blades. Stand in line all morning to get the paperwork. Take all afternoon to fill out the paperwork. Spend the whole next morning standing in another line in another building to drop off the paperwork, and then wait for years and years and years to get your wiper blades.

So what do you do if you don’t want to go down that rabbit hole? Get out a wrench and steal your neighbor’s wiper blades. That’s what you do. What if you want to keep your wiper blades? Simple: Take them off and keep them in your glove box along with a wrench so you can re attach them when it starts to rain.

No, seriously. I’ve seen people do this with my own eyes. It’s like the starting procedure is: “Turn key, pump gas pedal, engage starter motor, attach wiper blades while car is warming up.” So seeing an old barn-find Moskvitch-403 sedan with a wiper actually attached? That’s pretty damn odd.

Now, extrapolate the windshield wiper thing out to literally every car part you might need for a restoration of a nearly 50-year-old car. And you thought rebuilding the differential and rear end on your Jaguar was a fool’s errand. Hell, when you’re done with all that blood, sweat and tears, you get a Jaguar. This guy had to go through more, and all he got was a Moskvitch-403 sedan.

And yet, here it is. Looking all fetching in its two-tone cream & dark red paint scheme. Same two-tone deal in the interior as well, and all the original plastic bits and bobs in the dash. Just were do you find radio knobs for something like this? I know guys in the Kaiser-Frazer Owners Club who would just shake their heads and walk away at the prospect of it, and these are guys that can find you trim pieces for a 1955 Manhattan by the end of the day (try it, it ain’t easy).

No doubt there is a factory outside of Irkutsk where they made the right hand radio knob (the left-hand knob was manufactured in a different plant outside of Minsk, and has a different fastening I’d bet) and they have 1,345,945 of them sitting in storage right next to the supply of stove knobs and missile targeting gyros.

So this guy had to deal with supply-chain problems that would make a member of the Hudson Hornet Club give up without trying, and this Moskvitch owner made it through.

That’s what really had me shaking my head in amazement. It isn’t so much the oddity of the car (there are plenty of odd and esoteric rides out there), and it wasn’t even what they guy had to go through. What really had me shaking my head was, if you discount the Moskvitch-403 sedan, and that this guy was literally 12 time zones away, he is just like us: A gearhead.

Only that hard to define but easy to recognize gearhead gene would cause someone to do something like fully restore a 1963 – 65 Moskvitch-403 sedan.

You know, you just know, that midway through this the owner was sitting in a bar somewhere outside St. Petersburg, knocking back another vodka with friends and having a conversation like:

“Ivan Antonovich, how goes restoration of Moskvitch?”

“Sergey Piotrvich, it goes well! Today I find heater control cluster from shop located in Chelobynsk-14! Soon I will have car running!”

This conversation continues on while Ivan’s long suffering wife bangs her head on the table before ordering another round.

To quote Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us!”

Source & Photos: English Russia

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