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Road trip around eastern europe

A Little of The Goode Life

Richard Goode’s entertaining autobiography - Living The Goode Life, at Full Throttle - covers the many fascinating periods of his life: as a child in Africa, playing with cars while at Cambridge, the varied facets to his business career and the many aspects of his involvement in aviation, including being a member of the British Aerobatic Team. To give a flavour, here is an early extract from the book.

It was during our third term at Cambridge that the idea arose, not for the first time over several pints of beer, of going on a road trip through eastern Europe during the forthcoming long vacation.

Five of us made up the party… Adrian Parker ... undertook the laboriously intricate work of organising all the visas, permits and the carnet de passage that we needed to travel behind the Iron Curtain. There was a great deal of red tape for him to deal with.

road trip through Eastern Europe

This was the summer of 1966, only four years after the building of the Berlin Wall, just a decade after the Hungarian Uprising and a couple of years before the Prague Spring. East-West Cold War tensions were high, at least they were at government level. Down in the everyday world, we found people we met behind the Iron Curtain to be welcoming, friendly and terribly helpful on occasions. But before we could set off to meet any of them, we needed a vehicle, and the one we chose was a London taxi. In principle, there was a lot of sense in this. London taxis were built for endurance and reliability. They were capable of carrying five people in reasonable comfort, with plenty of space for all the kit we would need for two-and-a-half months on the road. And we knew that they left service after 10 years of use.

What we had not really taken into consideration was that those 10 years had been spent on the smooth streets of London, not the rough, pot-holed roads we would encounter once we crossed into Soviet bloc countries. After 10 years our London taxi had also clocked up in the region of half a million miles, which had taken their own toll as we were soon to discover.

It did not take long for problems to emerge with the taxi. Fuel vaporisation was the first to bring us to a halt and it chose to do this in the worst possible place: 100 metres just inside East Germany, surrounded by watchtowers manned by machine-gun-toting guards.

We had just passed through Checkpoint Alpha, at Helmstedt in West Germany. Ahead of us lay the 170 kilometres of the autobahn corridor running through East Germany to Checkpoint Bravo, which was the western entry point to West Berlin. Vehicles had to keep moving between the two checkpoints. Stopping was strictly forbidden, except in a few designated rest areas. So, grinding to a halt almost immediately after entering East German territory was not a smart move. It happened to be my turn to get the engine going and I kept looking over my shoulder while I was pumping the fuel pump to prime the engine with diesel, convinced that at least one of the East German Vopos guarding the border had me in his gunsight and was about to squeeze the trigger.

The gearbox held out somewhat longer than the engine, only finally giving up the ghost in Brno (home of the Bren gun) in Czechoslovakia. Again, I was at the wheel when the taxi got slower and slower as we were driving up a hill, until it reached the point where I had to pull over and it stopped completely. I was sitting in the little driver’s cab, where there was a strong and very disconcerting smell of hot oil. We unscrewed the cover in the top of the gearbox to be greeted by the sight of boiling SAE30 gear oil, rather prettily flecked with masses of shiny brass filings. Gears had been seriously shredded and it was obvious that we would be spending an unscheduled amount of time in Brno with no idea how we were going to get the gearbox repaired. That was when a chap pulled up in a rather nice late-1920s open-top Tatra and asked if we had a problem. When we explained our predicament, he introduced himself as the head of the local technical college and said he would send someone to help us.

After a bit, two tough-looking Czechs turned up on a tractor. They attached a tow-rope to the front of the taxi and then indicated that they did not have the necessary permit to tow it. ‘We can drive, but we can’t tow,’ they explained in sign language. ‘Can one of you drive the tractor?’ That was how I found myself in the absurd situation as a young Cambridge undergraduate driving a Czech state-owned tractor pulling an English taxi three miles through the streets of Brno up to its technical college.

That was also how I became aware of the smell of overheating machinery for the second time that day. Our new Czech friends were perched on the mudguards beside me and they seemed unconcerned when I gestured to the tractor engine and the smell of burning. Two hundred yards short of the entrance to the technical college, it seized and a quick inspection revealed that the engine and radiator were bone dry! Everyone was very relaxed; the tractor belonged to the state, so it did not really matter. Besides which, another tractor quickly appeared and towed us through the gates where the head of the college was waiting. If we could take the gearbox out of the taxi, he said, his staff would mend it for us.

Three hours later, our gearbox was on a bench in one of their workshops, where it soon became clear that a synchro cone had jumped and the gears had gone into each other creating the shower of brass filings we had seen in the gear oil. The rooms they gave us to stay in left rather a lot to be desired, but they were free, beer was ridiculously cheap and for six days we existed in a very pleasing stupor while supremely competent Czech engineers rebuilt our gearbox with new gears, new spacers and new synchro cones. And they had to do this having converted every single measurement from imperial to metric; it was hugely impressive. What really astonished us was that, after refitting the gearbox and testing that everything worked, they did not charge us a bean for all they had done!

We had found out before leaving home that Beatles’ records and jeans were a universal currency behind the Iron Curtain, and we plied our friends in Brno with some of our stock of both before driving off with our new, silky-smooth gearbox.

A couple of countries later and we were in more trouble thanks to an in-built jacking system used when changing tyres or working under the car. The system essentially featured an oil cylinder fitted with a selector that had four positions, one for each corner of the car. By selecting the appropriate position, and pumping the cylinder with a handle, you could lower a jack from the axle to raise that corner of the vehicle. Once you had finished, you turned a knob to release the hydraulic pressure and the jack was retracted by a spring.

As we had soon discovered, Bulgaria was a heavily-controlled country. We were meant to keep to a very strict itinerary, only driving on prescribed roads and spending the nights in designated places, where the authorities could keep an eye on us.

This was not our idea of fun at all and the incident with the jack occurred after we had taken on board a lot of vodka one evening, taken umbrage at the stupid restrictions placed on us and taken off into the dark to find somewhere of our own choosing to spend the night. A couple of kilometres down a side road looked like a good place to camp, and it may have been if Chris had not left one of the jacks sticking down below the axle when we set off the next morning.

Even by the standards of Bulgarian roads, the track we were driving along was very bumpy and when we struck the first pothole, the jack shaft snagged on the rim and was bent horribly out of shape. The obvious solution was to remove the damned thing and isolate its hydraulics, so that the other three jacks could still be used. But a decade of dank London weather, topped up by occasional winter doses of road salt had corroded all the nuts, while the jack itself was inaccessible to a hacksaw. We had to find a means of straightening the jack shaft. A large telephone pole seemed the obvious anchor point to which we could attach a strong rope, then tie the other end to the jack, using the momentum of the taxi to bend it straight.

I was given the job of driving, slowly reversing the taxi until the rope was taut.

Then I revved the engine and let out the clutch sharply, to give it a good jerk. This caused a loud cracking noise, but not from the axle underneath me. The sight and sound of 30 telephone wires falling across the taxi revealed that while the jack had stayed in place, the telephone pole had not. A number of thoughts ran through our minds, none of them encouraging. We were in the middle of one of the most repressive countries in the Eastern bloc. We were in a place we should not have been in and we had just demolished part of the state communications system.

The sound of high-powered engines less than 10 minutes later triggered a wave of even more troubling thoughts, which grew more troubling still when three tanks appeared at the top of a rise and lumbered towards us. What kind of communications network had we destroyed? How could they have responded so quickly? And, sending tanks to deal with us? Is this the end? The chap standing in the turret of the leading tank looked like the CO, so we waved sheepishly to him. To our amazement, he waved back and all three tanks rumbled past without taking a blind bit of notice. Fortunately, no one in the tanks spotted the havoc we had caused to the local telephone network.

Obviously, we had pitched camp in a tank training area and it was purely coincidental that these three had trundled along soon after we had pulled down the telephone pole. We made sure to give tanks and telephone poles a wide berth after that.




Click the following link for more information on 'Living the Goode Life – at Full Throttle, the Autobiography of Richard Goode'


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