I can tell you a little secret.
Off the coast of continental Europe lies a little group of islands called Great Britain. I don’t know if you’re heard of it, but it is a noteworthy place for a car buyer, since the Brits have decided to keep buying their cars with the steering wheel on the right side of the car instead of the more commonly chosen left, rendering the cars worthless for a continental buyer. Add the traditional British weather that keeps the cars wet and salty, and the end result is a rusted-out car that changes hands for very little money. This background info is very important.
Our international and fearless group of petrolhead friends usually arranges a winter meet somewhere in Finland. I’ve written up a few of these meets for Hooniverse earlier: usually, we need an icy surface for driver training, and some snow banks to form a track outline. Another important thing is an available sauna, for any heated discussion afterwards. This year, the meet was held at Pudasjärvi, Finland, which is halfway through the country widthwise when you start east from Oulu. We got ourselves an airfield of all places, and invited some British friends to come over in cars they would buy cheaply. They certainly did well.
Amongst themselves, the Brits set some rules of their own. A car could not cost more than £250 and it would have to be rear wheel drive. It would have to make it to the meet on its own power, driven the entire weekend, and then left in Northern Finland as everyone would buy a plane ticket home. This is an exciting premise for anyone with £250 and a need for a disposable car. What sort of thing would you buy?
Upon arriving to the meet, I had a good look at the cars at hand. They had made it to the airfield relatively unscathed, but some preparations had been made.
First of all, there was the dynamic duo formed by two Vauxhall Omegas. Despite being decently far removed from a Cadillac Catera, they had been outfitted as a NYC-style combo: the other one, a 2.6 V6 manual had been turned into a police cruiser (tagged “Ditch Patrol”), the other one was now a yellow taxi, roller-painted with what they called “skip paint”. It was a four-cylinder 2.2 automatic.
Well bought, both of them!
Two other automatic cars were a very late build BMW E36 323iA and a suspiciously clean Mercedes-Benz E-class. The W210 was an E200 Kompressor, and completely beige; apparently, it had been offloaded cheaply as the long-time owner had recently passed away. But out of the two Mercedes-Benzes on offer it was the cleaner one by far, as the last car of the bunch was incredible in every way.
A Mercedes C200 Sport wagon, dubbed “Rusty” or “Rustmas Tree”. The rot was unreal and all-encompassing, everything on the inside was falling off.
Nothing really worked on it, not the fan, not the air conditioning, not the interior fan; the outside was decorated in a Yuletide fashion, and the light-up job worked until an enthusiastic Finnish driver jumped into the driver seat straight from the sauna, wearing only a towel, and drove the Benz almost immediately into a snow bank causing the decorations to short out and catch fire. But it drove, and it was manual.
A bunch of Finnish ice-track all stars were also present. You might remember the Sierra from the time I owned it; it’s changed a bit now, as the current owner has lowered it, modified the steering rack so it’s now quicker and the wheels turn more, and the previously truck-like gearchange has benefited from a short-shift kit. The car is still largely hopeless, but a lot more fun on the ice.
It also had a rally-style extra headlight setup on its front bumper, but those got ripped off on day one. As did the front bumper. And the rear bumper got ripped to shreds. Such is ice track driving, especially with a Sierra that hasn’t been pristine for ages.
But a far better car was discovered soon – the Volvo 240. Limited slip diff, rebuilt B200K with better carbs, power steering, wooden steering wheel; the 240 was a hoot despite its crunchy synchros. It also found its way to snow banks, and by side-swiping a bank I uncovered some rust on the rear corner: some bondo came off and the rust underneath was plainly visible. The guys shrugged it off, so I didn’t feel too bad about it.
Out of all the Brit cars, the V6 Omega was found to be the best. The strongly-pulling, great-sounding engine was a joy to rev, and the steering was far better than in the staid, cumbersome W210, which easily found itself banked. The BMW’s steering was also curiously heavy, and the autobox didn’t help its maneuverability on the track.
The C200 Sport was the most beaten of all the cars, but keen drivers found it to be a lot better steer than the cleaner E200K. I was even tempted to buy the E-class, but as it gained a ton of damage on Sunday’s track driving, I quickly retracted my bids and put my hands back in my pockets. At least I wasn’t the one who dented the passenger side doors.
I mean, see for yourself. I just understeered into two different snow banks.
As the meet drew to a close, four of the Brit cars ended up for sale at a supermarket parking lot – and since no deals were done, they were all dumped at a nearby junkyard for a nominal sum. By that point, they were all rough enough not to yield that many good body parts. The E200K was stored elsewhere for logistical reasons, but it’ll probably become a donor.
We’ll probably arrange another meet next year. This year’s event was a great success: we managed to ruin a bunch of perfectly good ice track cars worth next to nothing, and since taxing them and registering them to road use in Finland would have been ridiculously expensive compared to what the cars had cost, their fate was sealed from the moment they were bought back in their homeland.
As for the actual driving: there’s nothing quite like driving on an ice track. You have to be a lot more alert, since everything is white and negotiating a polished corner takes skills – which only really develop after you have made a bunch of mistakes, booting the throttle too early, or trusting the car will rotate enough. This costs you bumpers and foglights easily, and the only way to win is to have a truly disposable car, one that isn’t really worsened by punched-in bodywork.
[Images: Antti Kautonen]