My girlfriend and I were parked on a street in Tallinn, Estonia, we had thousands of miles ahead of us, and our little white Volkswagen was making a terrible noise. The young hipster had appeared out of nowhere, put his hand on the hood, wished us luck and continued on his way on an old bicycle. His pep talk proved valuable in the long run.
We had started on a long journey to Wolfsburg, Germany, from Helsinki, Finland, with the idea of returning my humble Volkswagen Polo to the place where it was built more than 30 years ago. I have been crisscrossing Europe for the past few summers, always with a very cheap car — but this one only cost me €60 (or $70) in 2013, with a bad headgasket. Finally repaired and tidied up, I wanted to do a really, really long drive through the Baltics and Poland to visit the town whose crest is displayed on the car's horn button. In its life, the mechanically simple, entry-level VW had only traveled about 60,000 miles, so I felt it would still be able to do a couple thousand more.
We didn't get far until the front wheel bearing manifested its best-before date, and the faint rumble I had initially associated with the tires or a driveshaft was now supremely annoying. The only place open on a weekend during our drive south was an Estonian VW dealer who inspected the car and confirmed the bearing was to blame. First thing on Monday morning I had both front wheel bearings replaced in southern Lithuania, and the car felt road trip worthy again.
As we made it to Warsaw through the Polish countryside, we came upon the old FSO car factory. A quick U-turn and a photo opportunity under the sign made for a distinctive road trip game: spot all the Eastern European-built cars on our drive. Old Polish-built Fiats proved plentiful in Warsaw. Later in Dresden, Germany, we found a Trabant specialist garage that let us look at their car collection. The following day we visited the Wartburg factory museum in Eisenach. Most of the old factory compound has been razed, but what remains is a brick building full of idiosyncratic East German cars and the stories they tell – in stark contrast to the glass and steel VW e-Golf factory in Dresden we also visited.
The following days were filled with incessant rain, but the Polo seemed to suit the German back roads I chose to drive from old East Germany to the Nürburgring. It's not usually recommended to do a tourist lap of the famed track in pouring rain (let alone in a 30-year-old econobox), but as the track was open and not as busy as usual, a very careful Ringlap was soon performed. Of course, that was after having the wheels balanced on short notice at a Porsche specialist garage of all places. As I enjoyed their coffee from a Manthey Racing cup, they insisted on working on the little Polo free of charge.
With its rainy day at the Green Hell behind it, the little Polo hit its literal home stretch, rolling through the VW factory gates on Monday morning.
The people at Volkswagen's historic department were fantastically welcoming. As Volkswagen archivist Dr. Ulrike Gutzmann explained, these once-ubiquitous '80s commuter cars are now seldom seen in good condition, and while VW enthusiasts do often contact them to find out more about their cars, not many actually bring their car in for a visit – especially all the way from Finland. Over coffee I received a signed certificate of the car's origin, which noted the build date and the original specification. A factory tour and a visit to the nearby museum and the Autostadt park followed, and then we were on our way to Berlin, where the car took a much-needed breather for a couple of days. It had done well.
As we parked the Polo on board the ferry back to Finland, I started to appreciate that the two-week, 3,000-mile drive would've been nearly impossible in 1986, when the car was new and the Iron Curtain remained intact. Eastern European border crossings are a breeze compared to the late 1980s, and while the car has remained almost identical to the way it was when it originally left Wolfsburg, Europe most certainly has not. Between its two homes, the factory and the small Finnish town where the Polo had spent decades, the sky was high and the road was straight, with wide open prairie in all directions. But at no point did the little white car really feel all that lost.