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21st June 1990, Page 48
21st June 1990
Page 48
Page 49
Page 48, 21st June 1990 — RDERLINE w000CASE
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Are you sitting comfortably? Once upon a time there was an Englishman, a Frenchman, a Belgian (and three Germans — so much for fairy tales). One day they all set off for Russia in a pair of MAN artics to visit the MAZ truck plant in Minsk.

This would not be MAN's first foray into Russia; MAZ fits 265kW (360hp) 12-litre charge-cooled MAN engines in its premium tractors. This would be a rare chance for western testers to evaluate the flagship of Russian trucks. Instead of flying to the Soviet Union, we drove through East Germany, Poland and up to Minsk, just to get a feel of driving an HGV on the other side of the rapidlyrusting iron curtain.

It all sounded easy enough, until we set about applying for our visas. The various consulates wanted exact details of the journey with timings down to the last minute: "When will you cross our border? What are the registration numbers of the vehicles? What is the purpose of the trip? The fax lines between CM's Surrey offices and MAN's Munich HQ were buzzing as the details of the trip were hammered out.

Finally the red tape was untangled and we flew out to Munich for the off. Our fellow travellers were CM's Continental roadtester Leo Nuyens of the Belgian truck magazine Transporama, Gerlach Fronemann from the German magazine Fernfahrer, Francois Jahier from the French L'Officief Des Transporteurs and Wolfgang Tschakert and Thomas Arzberger from MAN. And here is where the story really starts.

• It is a warm and sunny day as we first see our little convoy of vehicles waiting on the MAN factory test track. There are two 19.362 tractors, a 4x2 with a tilt trailer and a 6x4 with a triaxle tipper. There's also a VW LT camper which will be our mobile HQ and cafe. As well as our luggage and supplies it's packed with MAN brochures, pens, posters and carrier bags . . all good bribes in case of difficulties along the way.

The Germans have thought of everything. There is food, water, Munich beer (for those odd non-driving moments) film, tools; if it isn't in the camper we're not going to be needing it. Gerlach and Francois take the 4x2 and Leo Nuyens and I grab the 6x4. A quick handshake from the locals and a couple of pictures later and we're away. The streets around MAN's Munich plant are quiet, apart from the last remnants of rush hour traffic on Dachaustrasse.

Leo takes the wheel for the first leg. The plan for the day is to head north past Nurnberg, cross into East Germany near Hof, swing around to the south of Berlin and cross over into Poland at Frankfurt an der Oder.

Within minutes we're outside of Munich on a road that's signposted Dachau three kilometres and straight into a minor traffic jam. The monotony is broken by the first glimpse of an East German IFA truck. We extricate ourselves from the delay and hit the autobahn; 80km/h is the speed limit for trucks in West Germany, although 85km/h is tacitly allowed. Go past 90km/h and its trouble. The Police go in for onthe-spot fines so there is no point in tempting fate. German HGV drivers have their own way of telling you you're going too fast — as you draw level with the cab they raise their thumbs across the first two fingers in the international "plenty money" gesture. In other words You must be loaded (and stupid) to drive so fast".

By 10:45hrs we're heading down the long decline into Eichstatt. The truck traffic has been separated from the cars and everybody seems to be obeying the law, bar the odd manic Italian in a Scania 143. We change over and Leo trys to get to grips with his Polish phrase book. It sounds like a bad attack of cataarh. Finally he gives up amid gales of Belgian laughter. We pull into a service area to allow the others to catch up and as we stand by the trucks all conversation is drowned out by a pair of American F16 fighters playing tag over the nearby autobahn. Gerlach and Francois pull in, greatly excited at spotting the latest 0404 Mercedes-Benz coach on the road.

Aquick coffee and we're back on the road. Climbing up towards Hof the• number of Commecon Jelcz, Liaz and Star trucks gradually increases. They seem to have no problem keeping to the speed limit. By now the rain is pouring down as the first Deutrans truck passes us on the opposite carriageway. Deutrans is the East German state-run haulage operation. Most of their trucks are Volvos or Mercs, so they can't think much of socialist HGVs. Soon after we spot our first Polish Pekaes Volvo and a Czech

CSAD wagon — and soon after that we hit our first snag.

As the cloudburst hits its peak the MAN's wipers call it a day. Leo's driving so I whip off the electrical panel and track down the errant fuse with the help of the wiring diagram. . . only it isn't much help in German. Be fair, do you know the German for windscreen wipers? Fortunately Leo does. Now, what's German for "spare fuse"? Within a minute we've got them working again, and secure the MAN fuse cover with my trusty Pegaso key ring.

Just before the border we pull in for a late lunch. Our MAN licence plate attracts interest and an unsolicited testimonial from another German driver: "Are you from MAN? Well I've got one and you can't see out of the cab at all in the wet." Maybe he doesn't know the German for windscreen wiper either. Leo, Francois and Gerlach are multilingual and the conversation skips from English to French via German quicker than a Twin Splitter.

Stuffed with wurst and sauerkraut we are now ready to tackle the Eastern Bloc.

The latest East German border joke is that the guys in the towers with the Zeiss binoculars are no longer guards looking for escapees, but local hunters looking for game. We don't put the theory to the test. On the West German side near Rudolphstein we are passed through with a cursory glance at our papers from the Border Police. The East Germans take it all a bit more seriously. Kilometres of fencing and wire; watchtowers; TV cameras on poles suddenly there are far fewer smiles. Dogs are barking somewhere in the distance and the man in the booth takes his time going over each visa, telephoning someone to check a possible discrepency. What's that line about "even paranoids have enemies"?

Even East German red tape has its limits, however. Another changeover and Leo has a go in the camper while Wolfgang joins me in the 6x4. Next stop the Berlin ring road.

The East German autobahn must have been a good road once. Like the early bits of the Al its surface is made up of slabs of concrete linked by tar joints.

Unfortunately, the slabs have moved since they were laid and the joints have worn out so at the 80km/h limit the drive becomes a painful and monotonous thump . . . thump. . . thump, interspersed by the frequent thump-bang as the wheels make friends with a massive pothole that has been inadequately filled with tar. We've been warned by the MAN guys that to exceed it is to risk really heavy fines and trouble. The East German Police are really hot on enforcement, but their attempts at concealment are comical. Battered Trabant police cars are hidden under pine branches to make an enormous woodpile by the side of the road, complete with an aerial sticking out of the top. Further down the road there's an unmarked Trabi parked on the verge with a huge teddy bear in the back seat. As we go past we see a Policeman hunched down in front of it with his binoculars at the ready.

Every once in a while the poor dual carriageway mysteriously changes to one enormously wide single road where the centre section is filled in and the surface is much smoother. Leo and I speculate that it's an emergency runway

for Warsaw Pact military aircraft.

The interminable drag towards Berlin is only punctuated by a number of large buzzards wheeling over the carriageway and the ever-present smell from distant factories — like rusty iron filings cooked in week-old chip fat, interspersed by strong whiffs of rotten eggs. The Communist Bloc countries are said to have the worst atmospheric pollution in Europe. It shows.

After a quick stop for re-grouping it's onto the ring road. For some reason the other artic decides to turn off towards Potsdam. When you're in transit on the Berlin road you're not supposed to stray off it. Thomas goes hareing after it in the camper, only to see it reappear on the other side of the road at a service area.

Back together again we all head towards the Polish border, reaching Frankfurt an der Oder at 22:10hrs to join the queue of trucks waiting to enter Poland.

A good natured East German guard walks up and down the lines collecting passports. Will we ever see them again? One of the West German trucks that flew past us earlier has the cab up with starting problems. Not the best of places to break down.

While we wait there's time to look around at some of the trucks from the East They look a mess. Ancient bodywork; bulging, bald tyres. Spray flaps? • What spray flaps? How do you think we cool the brakes? There's not much else to do except stand around and gab with other drivers until it's our turn to trundle into the transit shed.

It's amazing how a border can change the language in 200 metres. One minute we're hearing German, the next a soldier is asking us where we're going in Polish. He finally gets the message and waves us out into the night.

It's now close to midnight and we have to make the Russian border by the following evening, so it's back on the road. The East German aroma becomes the Polish pong; a thick, almost liquid smell of sulphurous coal fires in the darkness. At last we pull into the small town of Pniewy not far from Poznan and turn in for what's left of the night, two to a cab with two in the camper. Some time around 04:00hrs there's a hammering on the door! "Leo, there's somebody at the door!" "Aarghurr mumph" is the only reply from the bottom bunk. [lean down and open up to reveal a well-dressed blonde lady addressing me, as you'd expect, in Polish.

Dredging up long forgotten German I ask her to either speak in German or English. This throws her completely but not enough to completely release her vice-like grip on the door. Eventually she gives up and goes away. In the morning, I mention it to Gerlach_ "She knocked on our door too, he says. "So what did she want?" He smiles pitying and assures me that she wasn't delivering the milk.

Pausing only to check the wheels, and watch a local school carnival, we get back to the road on a misty foggy monochrome sort of morning. The single-carriageway Polish roads don't exactly help progress and most of the time we're fighting to get past tractors and buses. By now we're mixing it with Polish Jelcz trucks and our • first Kamazs. Then it's motorway, or dual carriageway (or at least everything's going the same direction).

poznan is a pretty hard-boiled sort of place rather like Newcastle or Glasgow with plenty of high-rise blocks, and all EC trucks attract friendly waves.

Heading through the industrial part of Poznan we pass the biggest building in the area — it's a Pepsi Cola plant — and blunder straight into a speed trap. Luckily, we're not exceeding the 40km/h limit but Thomas gets stopped in the camper. He gets off without a fine, but is lighter by a couple of bottles of Munich beer.

Some 250km from Warsaw we hit another one of those strange motorway/ landing strips. The road is deserted, like those old photographs of the original Ml. On the motorway bridges groups of kids wave to us with spontaneous bonhomie (at least that's what it looks like from behind the wheel). Back to two-lane again and slow-moving local traffic. They don't appear to like trucks here. When we stop we discover someone's thrown an egg at the 4x2 and hit the trailer. Maybe it was those kids?

Next week it's off to Minsk.

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