Is this the only Series II in Moscow? Patrick Cruywagen investigates…
According to travel websites and guide books such as The Lonely Planet, January is not a good month to go to Moscow, the one-of-a-kind capital city of Russia. In fact, local football teams such as CSKA Moscow and Spartak Moscow take a three-month break in the winter (including January) because of the severe cold. Still, I’m not put off by the prospect of extreme temperatures as the chance of taking a tour of an incredible city, in what is possibly the only Series II (or classic Land Rover) in Moscow, will probably only come along once in your life.
It all began last year with an email from Scotsman and lawyer Richard Cowie, who is living the Russian dream. He is married to Eugenia, a beautiful Russian woman, has an apartment in the city centre and works for the biggest law firm in the world. What more could a man possibly want? Well, a Series II to be exact, and now he has one which he uses on his five-mile daily commute in this crazy and colourful city. Would LRM like to come and see it for themselves? Does the proverbial bear poo in the Russian woods? Erm, of course we would.
Back in the USSR
Fast forward a few months and £350 later. Yes that’s how much it costs for a BA flight from Heathrow and two nights in a Holiday Inn. Not bad hey? I had booked one of those overnight flights that land at 4.00 am at the Domodedovo International Airport to save on costs. Obviously Richard is not here to whisk me off to my hotel. I exit the impressive airport building and enter the freezer. It’s dark and snowing and the smell of cheap cigarette smoke fills my nostrils. According to Donald Trump the Russians have embraced the internet and all its charms and so I use an Uber to get to my hotel which is about an hour away. The ride costs me less than £20. Definitely cheaper than London.
After breakfast and freshening up I head out again to meet Richard and his II. Moscow is home to 13 million people and it seems as if they are all up already. Fortunately the city has a cheap yet incredibly grand Metro (just look for the red M signs) so a large portion of them don’t have to take to the roads with the rapid underground system (serving Moscow and the neighbouring cities) a great alternative.
Richard's Series II is perfect city transport
Moscow traffic and driving are legendary but as there is only one classic Land Rover in this city, Richard’s 1961 Series II SWB 88in, he is impossible to miss as he makes his way into the hotel parking. What a privilege and absolute unique experience to be taking a tour of the city in a SII. While I am dressed for a blizzard in the South Pole Richard is wearing several fewer layers than me. He has obviously acclimatised. This is not Richard’s first Land Rover, he comes from a family of Land Rover lovers and he used to own a Ninety about 20 years ago. “It was a bit like a tank and had the 2.5 naturally aspirated engine but it was easy to drive. Dad has owned several Range Rovers and still has one today. He does not do diesel or turbo lag and all of his have had big petrol engines.”
While the city is packed with the latest Land Rovers there are only a handful of Defenders (and one Series Land Rover). The reason for this is that prior to 1990, there were limited vehicle imports into Russia. That does not mean that Russians did not appreciate fine foreign cars during the days of communist rule. Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the 1917 revolution and alleged campaigner for the working class, was the owner of a luxury Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. According to sources he received a 15 per cent discount on it because of a 1922 secret arms deal between the then new Russian government and Rolls-Royce. As there were no Land Rovers about at the time, he got a local coach builder by the name of Adolphe Kégresse, to do a half-track conversion on it. Today the Rolls can be seen in the Gorky-Leninskiye Museum, which is on the southern outskirts of Moscow.
Our plan is to first head to Red Square to try and get some iconic location shots. Richard does not hesitate as we leave the hotel car park and powers into the crazy traffic. I ask Richard about where his Series II story began. “I used to travel to Zurich all the time on business and would scour the local websites looking for a Land Rover. I wanted a daily driver for Moscow. There were lots of bitsers, as I call them, floating about, a Series II body with a Series III chassis. Not really my scene. Then I saw this original and fairly straight-looking Series II only 30 minutes from the centre of Zurich.” For added peace
of mind he forwarded the pictures and the advert to Phil Bashall from Dunsfold Land Rover. Phil agreed and felt that it looked honest with not too much work required.
Richard then planned a weekend getaway to Zurich with Eugenia. She must have wondered why he had packed a torch? “It had been on the seller’s books for a while, the brakes and clutch had both seized up. As it was being sold in this state I made an offer and it was accepted. I was now the proud owner of a former Swiss military Series II.”
It's a head turner
It takes us about 20 minutes in the traffic to get into the touristy part of the city. I ask Richard to park next to the GUM Department Store, which faces the square. This impressive former state department store is now home to all the global big brands such as Paul Smith, Hugo Boss and Louis Vuitton. It’s no different to Oxford Street. People stare at the SII, some even stop to take photos with their phones. I feel like a Russian celebrity. Richard just sits there as if this is the most normal thing in the world. “Random people will come to me in the streets and ask if they can use my SII for a wedding car or photoshoot. Obviously I say no.”
We round the corner and Richard points out the most expensive row of apartments in the world. We are now alongside the famous Red Square. Unfortunately it is all cordoned off with barriers as there is a Christmas fair and market on the square. St Basils, the most photographed and colourful cathedral in the world, takes my breath away. Richard asks a policeman if we can drive onto the square from behind the cathedral to get a photo. He gives us a minute to do it. After snapping away for about 20 seconds a plain clothes policeman tells us to leave. We oblige.
Richard at home on the Moscow streets
Richard has been living and working in Moscow for well over a decade now and now calls the place home. His kids Sofia (5) and Alexander (2) were born here. I ask him about his work as we drive past the University of Moscow. “I help people do deals here. You don’t have the same confidence in the legal system here as you would have in say the UK or the USA. They would rather use the English system. That is what I have been selling for the past years.” A cop pulls us over, Richard whips out the necessary documents and chats to him in Russian. In less than a minute he waves us on. I suppose the local police are still getting used to his British plates. I check my pocket to make sure my passport is there.
While the city is packed with the latest Land Rovers, there are only a handful of Defenders, and only one Series II
As we park the Series II in the city’s ever-growing financial district a few new Land Rovers fly past. There is a Rover Sport, new Discovery and an Evoque. None are as cool as Richard’s leaf-sprung beauty.
There are 155 million people living in Russia. It’s certainly an economy and place on the move. Yes the world might have cried foul when they recently annexed Crimea but they are about to host a World Cup and the new Land Rovers are flying out of the local dealerships. Gone are the days where only Lenin could own a luxury car. “They are everywhere. Russians love buying German and British cars,” explains Richard.
New front and rear leather-covered foam seats comfier than originals
Swiss keyring for a former swiss military Land Rover
Richard stops at a local deli for lunch. I go with what I know – chunky pieces of beef, stuck onto a skewer and cooked on the coals, known locally as shashlik. It’s delicious and I ask Richard what happened after he purchased the SII in Zurich. “It was basically original and unmolested. There were no patches or signs of welding on the chassis. I then arranged for it to be taken on a low loader to the UK so that Dunsfold Land Rover could get it into tip-top shape for its duties in Moscow. When Phil saw it for the first time he declared it a bloody good car.”
Richard’s wife disagreed as she could not find any signs of an auto box or airbags. Phil then started to work on it. The Swiss military lights were changed back to originals. As darkness comes early during the Russian winter, Richard opted for halogen headlights instead. The driver’s door had creases so it was re-skinned. It still carried signs that it was a former military vehicle. It had a gun bracket against the rear bulkhead and an axe in the footwell, which were removed.
As it was well over half a century old Richard decided that now was a good time to replace the wiring loom. The brakes, clutch and other mechanical or electrical issues were also taken care of. Phil did not have to do anything to the engine, bulkhead or gearbox. Everything was taken apart and once the prep work was done, it was given a full respray. Phil admits that there were a few minor holes that needed patching but nothing dramatic. According to the Heritage document its original colour was grey and so Richard decided to go with a period-correct hue rather than the Swiss military grey.
The Series II was not designed with comfort or families in mind and so Richard allowed himself a few modern-day essentials. “The original spring-loaded seats were shot and the quote to redo them was extortionate so I just replaced them with leather-trimmed foam ones. The canvas comes off in the summer and the kids are put into the new forward-facing back seats.” While hoodsticks might look correct Richard instead opted for a roll cage to keep the kids safe, this also served as a good place to secure their seat belts. “It’s going to be a great summer cruiser and the wife has started to fall for it.”
Being old and British the Land Rover gets a lot of attention
All of the above happened pretty quickly. The car was purchased in June of last year and sent to Phil. By August it was ready to paint and a month later it was registered and road legal. Then in October it arrived in Moscow, just in time for the winter.
Richard then takes us for a drive along the Moskva River; despite its semi-frozen state there are many large tourist boats on the river. It’s a popular way to see the city’s landmarks. I prefer a recently-restored SII. I ask Richard why a Series II?
“I love its simplicity,” he says. “When the breather pipe recently broke I just ordered a £6 replacement online and fixed it myself. Not so with my wife’s Porsche Cayenne. There is always some light on or sensor that needs attention. The Land Rover is easy to fix and that makes it an attractive mode of transport to own.”
Moscow's suburbs tell a lot of stories
It takes Richard about 25 minutes to cover the five miles from his apartment to the office. “I would not like to do a long journey as it’s a four-speed gearbox and does not have an overdrive. Also, if you look at the way Russians drive on the motorways, I’m not sure you would want to go in my Series II. Still, I drive it every day at least. It will never be perfect, there are always little niggles, but I love it. The wiper motor is currently being rebuilt.” Thank Stalin it never rained heavily on our tour of the city.
By now the late afternoon traffic has started to pick up but Richard’s SII is the perfect way to get about this sprawling metropolis. It’s instantly recognisable so other drivers are a little wary of it. Plus it’s small enough to take even the narrowest of gaps. “There are a lot of crazy guys on the roads taking risks and you do get to see some rather spectacular accidents. Despite this there is no road rage here. It helps that there are lots of police in the city centre.”
It’s nearly dark when Richard drops me back off at my hotel at 3.00 pm. I’m a little sad that my tour of Moscow in Richard’s tidy and practical SII has come to an end. I cannot think of a better way to experience Russia’s cosmopolitan capital, that’s for sure.
If you’re ever in the city and you do happen to see a classic Land Rover then the chances are it is Richard’s II. A good enough reason to come to Moscow? We certainly think so. Well, that, and its well-known sights, bars, shopping centres, performing arts and, lest I forget, the kebabs.
Tips for visiting Moscow
Moscow is an expensive city but if you live like a local it can be cheaper than London! Use the Metro, Uber and local supermarkets. British Citizens need to get a Russian visa before flying out. I flew with British Airways from Heathrow and stayed in the Sokolniki Holiday Inn. Flights and hotels only cost £350.