Since I'm based in Budapest, American journalists often ask me about the local classic car scene. My standard answer is that apart from a Ferrari 250 GTO, pretty much anything can pop up somewhere in the circle around , otherwise known as Hungary.
Of course it helps if you know where to look.
I've known Zsolt Kitta since I was a kid. When I was in high school, he kept showing up around town, doing burnouts with his Vauxhall Viva. For obvious reasons, nobody else had Vauxhalls around here, and while Zsolt was also known for being a devoted Opel Manta fan, his love for American iron was equally legendary.
Right around the time when I got my first car in 2004, a rusted out Fiat 131 with the 1.6 twin-cam, I took a visit to his garage, only to get busted by the police later that day in an all-black third-generation Trans Am. Not because he was doing donuts in a parking lot, but our fairly obvious lack of plates.
I moved abroad soon after, but ten years on, we met again at a classic regularity rally in the mountains. I vaguely remembered that during my last visit, his garage contained Mantas, a factory fiberglass Opel GT, at least a pair of ZAZ Zaporozhets, a massive Lincoln land yacht from the seventies, and a bright yellow second-gen Cutlass Supreme that was missing an engine.
As I rolled up to the parking lot in my Autobianchi A112, it became clear that Zsolt has finished his Olds' project.
This year, I was determined get back into Zsolt's garage, and a recent trip to my parents provided the perfect opportunity.
Although he literally lives five minutes from the house I grew up in, we met once again at a parking lot, as two members of the Euro GM fan club needed the Charger he's working on for a photo session.
"440 V8, of course."
Zsolt's workshop (as well as his garden) is full of various classics he fancies, some of which are unique in many respects. Some cars stay for years, others get flipped fairly quickly, and there's always a rear-wheel drive daily driver somewhere, as well as a basket case saved from the claws of scrap merchants.
Let's just dig into the details, starting with that "R/T":
It's a '68, belongs to a friend in town. He got it in exchange for two other cars, because the former owner got fed up with its faults. Fact is, it's a badly neglected and hacked piece of junk. He got ripped off by everybody who touched it. The good news is that I'm almost done with it, and now I don't need to call a trailer every time I go for a test drive!
Still, both the engine and the transmission are coming out over the winter, because something is messed up there, and it will get a new steering rack, brakes, bushings, I would also prefer to redo the wiring as well, because a fire has started behind the dash...
1976 Chevrolet Camaro
The crazy thing is, this has been in Hungary since the late seventies. Imagine Ladas, Wartburgs, Trabants, rear-engined Skodas on the road, and then, this thing drives by. No wonder why they refer to the political situation behind the Iron Curtain in the eighties as "soft communism."
It's a 1976, here since almost new. Crashed and hacked constantly ever since. When parts availability became a problem in the eighties, it's got a new front and rear off a different Camaro vintage. It's engine got swapped too, that came from an '88 GMC truck.
Arrived here in a terrible condition, rotten, with at least four different colors under the top layer. It took me five years to restore it, and I feel like I'm done with Camaros for a while. Of course there's more to do still, but it's okay now.
1976 Opel Manta
It's an early car that came complete, with the correct papers and about a million holes on the body. After the complete rebuild, it's got the 2.4 from an Opel Omega, and period correct Recaros. Pretty much everything is new. Big brakes, bumpers, glass, lights, seals. A beefier limited-slip. It's gonna be pricier than your regular Manta, but it's significantly lighter than all those BMWs...
Starting with the former daily driver smoke machine.
The silver one just got sold, it's been one of my best cars period. If people gave it a go, they'd realize that there are better tools for a Miata's job for less money, although Manta prices are climbing rapidly.
We took it to the track all the time, doing burnouts and the lot with its stock 35-year-sold L-Jetronic engine, stock five-speed. I've only replaced the LSD for a stronger one. I also drove it to Kiev. 1200 miles, roughly 30 mpg, comfy seats, quiet ride cruising at 70 mph. At year 35, nothing beats it. I just kept buying more and more tires.
The white Manta was a training race car, I bought the empty body for $300 the trailer, and I have so many parts for it that I'll turn it into a car again very soon.
1952 Buick Special
The communist state car that wasn't quite like this back in the fifties.
It used to be a '52 four-door sedan, property of the Hungarian state. Then, it was sold off to a private buyer, who sold it to a friend of mine. We took it apart, and then came the grand idea to turn it into a coupe.
It's a ridiculously slow project. Got it painted in 2000. Then, piece by piece, you know. But we'll speed it up now, for real. Oh, and the straight-8 got swapped for a V8. Sure enough, it's better.
1961 Citroën Ami 6
We imported it from Lyon, France, when a guy I knew went there with space to spare in his truck, and I saw one for sale in the region. Amis are getting more expensive, and they're worth fixing up, because they are very basic, and all the parts are still available. 2CV chassis, you know.
Did you know they made these in left-hand drive for the Austrian market? I was not aware of this crucial fact, until seeing a pair in the flesh.
Reliant Robin from 1974. I've got two, because that's the way to go. Austrian papers, factory left-hand drive, 750 cc straight-four. I'm currently selling the blue one, restoring the red. They go like hell. At least according to the British Reliant club members. I'll have to try it for myself.
1963 Ford Thunderbird
Destined to be parked for years to come.
Needless to say, it's a V8 with an automatic. It works just fine, but it's in pretty bad condition overall, with American papers. Came in for restoration, but I'm not in a rush, since I'm no sure yet whether it's worth the effort. I told the guy that it will be hard to make a profit on it once all the work went into it. So, it will have to wait for now.
1951 Opel Olympia
Fifties styling, seventies technology.
Came here turned into dust. Now, the bodywork is done, it's prepared for the paint shop. I'm not restoring it to original spec, because there's plenty of those. Instead, I want it to be useable. With engine and brakes from a C Kadett, and slightly more American headlights.
1977 Chevrolet LUV
Otherwise known as the Isuzu Faster. From the Hungarian perspective, perhaps Zsolt's most interesting ride, and the only one I really wanted to take home, pulling the 2.4 Manta behind it. Although this pairing could work too:
Since the Manta is gone, I'm using this. It's perfect. It's 1.8 gas engine only has to carry 2425 lbs, so it goes. I ordered a bunch of parts from Thailand and Indonesia, I entered the local club on Facebook. A bunch of them asked where Hungary was.
The dude who's been dealing with LUV parts for two decades now said he hasn't sent anything to Europe yet, so it must be ultra-rare. I don't know about another one in Hungary, and it must be few in numbers overall in Europe. Which is a curse forcing you to order a custom-built radiator and the exhaust manifold for it.
It was a camper, that's why the huge mirrors. A German soldier bought it in California in 1977, only to use it in Mexico until '92. Then, he shipped it back to Germany, where he sold it to a Hungarian. The guy used it here until 1996, when he removed the camper, and put it aside for a rebuild. 21 years later, I got it out of his garage. It runs fine, so I took it to MOT, and have been using it ever since. Most cars would have died from a 21-year-long retirement.
Since my visit, Zsolt also got his 1967 Opel Record C coupe back from the body shop, which he saved a year ago from the scrapyard. When he told me that the car will be fantastic with a late series fuel-injected 2.2 from a Record E, I wasn't surprised.
But I got there fairly quickly once he followed up with a message regarding another recent purchase of his:
It's a Puch Meister K6 Kabinenroller. You're welcome.