Life on the mean streets

Cars026_4964fe28e0c0c-lightboxSo the Alfa got the shock of its short life. Relocation to Moscow. How did it cope? Well, the answer is, remarkably well. Ok, so the stiff suspension and negligible ride height didn’t perfectly suit the highways and byways of the Russian capital but the style, speed and handling were very much appreciated after the rented Renault Clio saloon I’d had before.

Initially it had to live on the street outside my flat in central Moscow where it attracted enormous attention from passers-by since any foreign licence-plate is rare in Moscow, let alone a British one. I was quite happy when I finally got a permanent parking place under my office, where the car was able to be snug, warm and secure 3 stories underground. When it’s -20 degrees outside, this is important for the poor machine’s general wellbeing. And with the office only 5 mins walk away, it was a convenient solution.

Winter comes early in Russia and I came back from a holiday in October 2007 to find snow blanketing the city and the car still on normal tyres – cue one very slippery drive across the city to Major Auto, Moscow’s excellent Alfa main dealer, to purchase a set of Nokian Hakkipellita RSI winter tyres at rather vast expense. Since studded tyres are illegal in Europe, it seemed sensible to go for non-studded snow tyres and it must be said that they were brilliant in snow and ice – I never once got the car stuck despite epic snowfalls. The Nokians are not that good in normal driving though, particularly in very wet weather when they could be decidedly lairy. Once fitted with proper winter boots, the Alfa proved totally unfussed by the Antarctic weather conditions although the second winter did eventually murder the original battery after a week left outside.

A curious thing was the car’s apparent invisibility to Russian traffic cops. In the little Renault (on Russian plates), I used to get stopped at least weekly for a shake-down by the police. But in the Alfa I was stopped a grand total of 4 times in 18 months and each time for some merited transgression or other. I can only surmise that the obviously foreign plates were somehow a deterrent to them (too much like effort dealing with a non-tourist foreigner presumably).

During its sojourn in Russia, the car reached the grand old age of three years and therefore needed an MoT for the first time. Needless to say, it transpires that an MoT can only be done in the UK so I drove the car back through Scandinavia to the UK in Spring¬†2008¬†(with a month’s layover at Helsinki airport – owing to work I had to abandon it there and fly on to London) for that. This coincided with the need for a service so the GTA was entrusted to the tender ministrations of Black & White, a well-known specialist. B&W also rectified a clonking noise from the suspension through fitment of a new front ARB and drop-links. It was not a cheap exercise.

Freshly serviced and MoT’d for another year, I then drove the Alfa back to Russia in July 2008, only this time through Germany, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia – the latter two are now in the Schengen zone, meaning no border crossings until you reach Russia at Veliki Luki. This was very picturesque – the Polish countryside in particular is stunning. However, there are really no motorways to speak of once you get east of the German/Polish border and Latvian roads are particularly primitive in places. Quite something to be driving along in Europe behind a couple of heavy horses pulling a wooden dray laden with women going to market – this sort of sight is surely dying out.

This was my third trans-European jaunt in the GTA and I have to say it excels at comfortable, swift and entertaining long distance motoring.

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Jonathan Malim