Zlatni Pyassutsi Rally 1978

This is the story of the first and only rally I have done in a communist country, and it was at the height of the Cold War to boot.  It was also one of the best, certainly the most gruelling, and superbly organised.
Chris Watham from Southampton was the driver, and yours truly occupied the hot seat.  Our car was an ex-works Group 1 Mark 1 Escort prepared by David Sutton and entered by Cal Withers, so at least we had everything going for us so far as the means of propulsion was concerned.
My memories of the event started on board a Balkan Airways Tupelov at Brussels.  I sat with Castrol’s world troubleshooter whose name I regrettably can’t remember; but he was a fine fellow who knew a lot about the world as he went through a ninety-page passport nearly every year! One of his many  briefs was to see that Castrol-sponsored motor sport events reflected well on his company, which was the reason for his trip to Bulgaria.
Take-off seemed to be a ponderous and lumbering affair, and I commented on this. “Well,” said my companion, “They’re not Rolls Royce engines are they?” He also pointed out the general configuration of the ‘plane, which I saw could be converted into a troop carrier very easily.
“Here’s your first dose of communism coming up”. This took the form of what looked like a hatchet-faced discus thrower who asked us if we wanted tea or coffee.  Svelte she was not.  I wanted coffee, my friend wanted tea.  She duly returned with a tea bag and a jar of instant coffee from which she carefully spooned some of the vile stuff into my plastic cup.  She then asked if we wanted sugar or milk, trotted off, and returned with our order.  The punch line came when she once again returned to our seats bearing a kettle of boiling water!  Oh dear.
Customs at Sofia made us feel like we were the advance guard of a British Secret Service sting operation, and the first feelings came upon us that we were in a truly alien land.
Customs at Sofia made us feel like we were the advance guard of a British Secret Service sting operation, and the first feelings came upon us that we were in a truly alien land.
Our hotel had obviously been a town house in the days when Bulgaria had an aristocracy; and the huge rooms, although a bit dowdy, had high ceilings and magnificent panelling and cornices.  When we turned on the ancient valve radio we noticed that the frequency dial was physically jammed on Radio Sofia – so the BBC World Service was right out of the question.  After dinner I went for a wander round the quiet streets near the hotel, and it wasn’t long before I realised I was being followed.  When I stopped, he stopped.  When I crossed the street, he crossed the street.   Not that there was much for me to look at, with the shops looking like they were abandoned Oxfam charity places.
The event had been attempted only once before by a British crew – by Andrew Cowan no less – but for some reason he didn’t finish. Andrew did however provide some useful feedback on what we might expect, and he gave this information to the charming Wendy Jones of The Scotsman who at that time was the leading light in running the Scottish Rally Championship. The last thing I expected from Wendy was a bagfull of Ford keyrings and a pile of old Shell, Glayva and Scottish Rally stickers! “For bribery,” explained Wendy.  “These people over there have nothing, and nonsense like this almost passes for hard currency!”  She was dead right, as we were to discover: from hailing a taxi to being served in a restaurant, the magic keyrings provided the open sesame!
Our Escort arrived a couple of days later towed behind the Range Rover service vehicle, and Chris and I purloined it right away for our recce. This turned out to be almost a rally in itself.
My job was to navigate the route and make pace notes for as many of the special stages as we could in the few days available. One of the troubles was that the road book, fortunately with a Tulip format, also had the place names in English; so I had to give myself a crash course in the Cyrillic alphabet in order to read the road signs.  This was the least of our bothers though. Believe it or not, one couldn’t drive into a filling station, fill up the tank and pay for the stuff with Zloties.  Oh no, – you had to go to the nearby town and find the place that authorised and stamped the official petrol coupons and then return to the station!  It was a time-consuming hassle; although at least we had dozens of the silly bits of paper which had been provided free by the organisers.  And was this the greatest of our trials?   No – it was hunger!
    Bulgaria is a pretty big place and is quite sparsely populated.  The area covered by the rally was extensive and included very few villages; and finding somewhere to eat proved impossible.   After twenty-four hours or so, and starting to hurt with hunger, we heard something rolling about on the back floor of the Range Rover which turned out to be a blessed tin of peaches!  But could we open the bloody thing……?!   We did of course eat cherries – thousands of them!  In communist Bulgaria a traveller was allowed to eat as much as he liked from any field or orchard, provided none was taken away, and the ubiquitous cherries were our only means of having any kind of sustenance.
    We did think once that we were about to have a proper meal, but it didn’t turn out that way.  We were at a filling station manned by a friendly old couple, and through sign language managed to indicate we were starving and needed a place to sleep.  Via their sign language in return, we understood they would be off their shift at nine o’clock and would show us the way.  This they duly did, and with a farewell wave to our new-found friends entered a tourist site that had dozens of little round two-bed huts – and a restaurant!  We rushed into the place and straight up to the counter. “ Food!” we cried, accompanied by the universal signs of being famished!  The chef shrugged his shoulders and beckoned us round the counter to show us a row of completely empty pots.  We were in despair until Chris pointed to a table with plates of leftovers which we dived on and scoffed!   I kid you not.
  As the Escort had just completed a full service, we decided it best to drive the four hundred miles from Sofia to Zlatni – just to see if any bits fell off!   We were on our way out of Sofia when it started to rain, and then the weirdest thing happened. The traffic came to halt and every driver got out of their cars to fit their windscreen wipers!   Ah, the joys of communism!
    Once out of Sofia we headed for Varna on the Black Sea.  This was the country’s main artery, and was an ordinary two-lane road without markings, and with more than its fair share of potholes.   After Varna we headed north up the Black Sea coast for Zlatni and encountered yet another feature of life in a totalitarian state.  We passed a few cars on the fairly quiet road then came up behind a convoy of eight black Zils.  The convoy was going at a reasonable speed, and we noticed as it sped through villages the people either scarpered or turned their backs on the passing entourage.  It was all a bit sinister.
    Chris thought we should try and pass the whole convoy in one go if and when we came upon a straight which was long enough – as we didn’t feel we should ‘cut them up’. A suitable straight came up quite quickly and Chris dropped into third and ‘sank the welly’.   We had barely pulled out to pass tail-end-Charlie when the driver pulled out sharply to cut us off and held up a machine pistol!   You would be quite right, dear reader, in guessing we made no further attempts to pass!   When the convoy eventually turned off, we were given a cheery smile by the rearguard driver and waved on our way. ( We learned later that the convoy contained the high officials of the Soviet embassy in Sofia who were en route to their exclusive dachas on the Black Sea – and I bet that lot didn’t have to stop and fit their wipers when it rained.  Truly, some were more equal than others).
The rally began with a race round the streets of Zlatni Pyassutsi. This was for four cars at a time, and was primarily so that the local people could see some of the fun.   It was interesting to note that there were reckoned to be over a hundred thousand spectators in a town that boasted a population of around twenty thousand.
The event proper started in the evening after the road race and was a flat-out affair from the word go.  The average speed for the road sections between the special stages I calculated as being about fifty-five miles an hour, and was just manageable on the twisty hill roads.  There were no worries about oncoming traffic, as the public roads were closed to all except competitors, (but not to local horses, carts and donkeys!).   Apart from meal stops at main controls there was absolutely no let-up for the first forty-eight hours, and we were indescribably exhausted.  The heat during the day was unbearable, and we were reduced to our underwear and crash hats for a time until our bare chests and shoulders were being rubbed raw on our Willins full harness seat belts.  The start of every stage saw throngs of people, including many pretty girls who scrabbled to kiss us and give us bunches of roses. ( Ah, would that we had had more time!)
Aching and exhausted, and with our eyeballs hanging out of our heads, we collapsed, still in our flamies, on top of our beds and slept the sleep of the dead for five blessed hours.   We came to, soaking wet, as the service boys had to drench us with cold water to wake us up!
So, it was up and at it again, and Chris was flying.  We were lying in a creditable fourth place, when, during a night section, mugsy here wrong-slotted which dropped us back into about twentieth place by the time we were back on the right route.  It was perhaps Chris’s fury that made him drive like a fiend possessed and we made up quite a few places, although I think we only managed about a notional eigth or so as we were out of time at the final control because of my mistake.  We rally folk are a forgiving lot, and there were absolutely no hard feelings, (drivers make mistakes too!)
    It was quite an event……………….
Alastair Findlay,   April 2010
Back to top of this article

Back to Tales from the past