USSR ‘driver-in-chief’ almost killed Nixon when he took the wheel, but was never fined in his life
Brezhnev’s driving documents have changed ownership between two unidentified private collectors this week. What is known is that in exchange the buyer paid about $24,000. The laminated papers include a driver’s license in Brezhnev’s name – which also authorized him to take the wheel of pretty much any commercial ground transport – and a punch-through card that every Soviet driver had to carry.
The card was for a sort of three-strike system, in which a certain number of violations of the traffic code resulted in a revocation of the license, but Brezhnev’s was obviously not meant for any street cop to lay hands on. In fact, the two documents had been a jokey gift from his protégé and friend, Interior Minister Nikolay Shchelokov, and were made in December 1976, shortly before Brezhnev’s 70th birthday.
Brezhnev was an avid driver and loved fast cars and his status as the undisputed Soviet leader gave him ample opportunities to satisfy both cravings.
“Brezhnev started driving during World War II. After it ended, he soon became part of the top bureaucracy, so he didn’t need a license to drive,” Igor Okhlopov, a historian who confirmed the authenticity of the lots before they were sold, told RT.
Brezhnev’s de facto personal collection of cars had included anything between 40 and 500 vehicles, depending on who you ask. Foreign leaders or heads of corporations seeking contracts with the Soviet government were eager to win favor with the secretary general with a fast-racing present or two. Some cars were procured by top Soviet officials trying to win favor with their boss.
One of the foreign gift-bearers was US President Richard Nixon, who probably risked his life for it. In 1973 Nixon hosted Brezhnev at Camp David and personally presented his guest with the keys to a brand new Lincoln Continental. Brezhnev naturally wanted to try his new expensive toy, so he jumped in and had Nixon join him.
Secret Service security detail probably recited a lot of prayers as Brezhnev rushed across the mountains of western Maryland, buzzing along the narrow curvy roads. The driver-in-chief didn’t care that he knew nothing about his route or that they could well encounter an armored vehicle next to a military base – he just sped at 50 miles per hour on an adrenaline rush. Thankfully, Brezhnev was actually a skilled driver, so the leaders of the two superpowers didn’t end up in a ditch or wrapped around a tree.
Brezhnev’s taste for reckless driving was less dangerous back in the USSR, where his guards simply cleared all traffic from the road when he was racing between the Kremlin and his residence near Moscow. But this was not always enough. In at least three road incidents the Soviet leader risked his life, although accounts differ on how big those risks were.
Arguably the most publicized case is enshrined in an automobile museum in Riga, Latvia. It features one of Brezhnev’s Rolls-Royce limos, its front smashed and the high-profile driver’s wax figure expressing profound surprise on its face.
The urban legend says it recreates an incident that occurred in 1980, when Brezhnev was severely ill. Conflicting reports say it never happened and that this particular vehicle got damaged by a runaway truck carrying a load or when a driver working for the Kremlin’s garage moved it.
Another potentially fatal road incident happened in Crimea. The somewhat salacious version of events says Brezhnev escaped his security detail and picked up a pair of female medics on the road. He wanted to have a joyride with the attractive women screaming in excitement form the back seat and almost threw the car off the cliff.
The not so larger-than-life account says an ailing Brezhnev told his chauffeur to free up the wheel and then drove around, but suffered some medical complication and almost fainted. The regular driver managed to take control and steered long enough for Brezhnev to take over. That urban legend says the chauffeur thanked the man for driving them safely to their destination, to which Brezhnev reportedly responded: “Now, who drove whom here is a question.”
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