By Angelo Van Bogart
The following is the first of a two-part story following John Quam and his recent around-the-world trip in a 1928 Plymouth roadster. Need to brush up on your geography? Use map above.
John Quam returned Oct. 8 from circling the globe, and not from the comfort of a run-of-the-mill Accord or Impala. Quam completed the journey in a 1928 Plymouth roadster he pulled from his dad’s barn and prepared for the ultimate road trip.
The California hobbyist’s journey took him through Asia, Europe and North America. With the help of two replacement shocks and a spare tire tube, the Plymouth carried him safely and dependably through Japan, South Korea, China, Iceland and the Faroe Islands, the United States and most notably Siberia, one of those corners of the Earth where even natives shutter to think of traversing.
Quam’s goal to go around the world in an old car began before 2008, when groups were organizing re-enactments of the famous 1908 Paris-to-New York race that was won by an American team led by George Schuster in a Thomas Flyer. Quam hoped to be a part of the journey with his own old car.
“I responded to an ad in Old Cars that basically said, ‘We are leaving for an around-the-world journey.’ It said, ‘If you want to go, be here at such-and-such time in New York Times Square,’ so I put my car on a transport and met them there,” Quam said.
The plan to recreate the trip of the 1908 race 100 years later turned out to be a bust, partially due to the difficulty crossing national borders within Asia. Although that around-the-world trip never materialized, Quam said about a dozen cars used the opportunity to gather together and travel through the United States.
“At the end of that, we thought it would be great to continue this onto Paris. This gentleman and I who organized this (recent trip), Luke Rizzuto, we had to do this,” Quam said.
Serious planning began two years ago between Quam, Luke Rizzuto, Leo Jansens and Eileen Bjorkman. Quam planned to drive his 1928 Plymouth roadster, and Jansens a modern GMC Envoy (Eileen Bjorkman rode along as a freelance writer). The group knew they’d need help with the language barriers they would encounter, but more importantly, they’d need assistance crossing the borders between countries. First, they set up visas for each country they were entering and other paperwork to not only leave and enter countries as Americans, but the vehicle registration documents so their transportation could cross with them.
To cross borders, the group utilized the services of the MIR Corp., which specializes in customs travel, especially in Russia and China. The company provides travelers with lists of the documents required, assists with transporting vehicles and also arranges translators to accompany travelers from the front seat.
On May 7, Quam and his group left California for Japan to meet up with their vehicles, which had been shipped by boat about one month earlier. They landed in Tokyo and had their fully loaded vehicles in hand by May 9. However, American vehicles aren’t necessarily welcome in Japan — especially old ones. Importing the Plymouth required a carnet, a document that states the car will not only be entering the country, but also exiting it. Quam said carnets are no longer provided in the U.S. so he obtained the document through the Canadian AAA.
“Japan is very stringent on the cars they let in the country,” Quam said. “You don’t see old cars in Japan, so needless to say, having a car from 1928 in Japan was like having an alien spacecraft land. The car was absolutely mobbed whenever we pulled in somewhere.”
Once the car was unloaded and released to Quam in Tokyo, the drive through Japan was smooth with beautiful scenery. Realizing the old Plymouth was adding to the country’s beauty, a hotel manager asked Quam if he would park the car in front of the hotel to attract attention to the business.
He soon recanted and asked Quam to park in the ramp because guests couldn’t get to the hotel through the crowd around the Plymouth.
To Russia, with love
From Japan, Quam and the group took a day-and-a-half-day ferry trip across the Sea of Japan to Vladivostok, Russia, to begin traversing the mainland of Asia. Vladivostok is at the southeastern tip of Russia, between North Korea, China and the Sea of Japan. Quam said an invitation is required to enter Russia, but it was easy to obtain through the service they used.
From Vladivostok, they made their way toward China in an effort to follow the original path of 1908’s Thomas Flyer team. In some ways, entering China was easier in 1908.
“The interesting thing about that is the border crossing there,” Quam said. “They told us there was no way we could cross there, but it was where they crossed in 1908. It was sort of a deal breaker if we couldn’t drive into China there.”
Getting it made in China
Quam said China only allows commercial traffic to enter the country at that customs point: no cars, no bicycles, no people. The travelers had planned to have a rollback meet them in Russia to cross into the country at that commercial customs point, but the truck was a no-show. With the help of their translator and guide, Quam jumped through hoops and hired a local semi with a flatbed. Then, of course, he had to figure out how to get the cars on the back of the semi bed. A Russian man with welding experience built them an A-frame rigging to load the cars onto the rollback. However, after one look at the rigging (see photo below), Quam decided he wouldn’t allow a lawn tractor to be lifted by the poorly constructed contraption and he looked for another way to get the vehicles on the back of the truck.
“We always traveled with a translator and I told her there was just no way, so after three hours, she comes back and they were able to find an abandoned trans-Siberian railroad yard there with a load ramp,” Quam said. “We used that loading ramp, which was very difficult to get on and off of, but it worked and… we got to the Russian border. It took us 12 hours to cross that border.
“A car has never gotten through that border and I am not sure one ever will again,” he said. “We told them, ‘The only way you are going to get rid of us is to do it.’ It worked and we got into China.
“At these borders, what you find is whatever paperwork you have, you always need something else and you, of course, don’t have it. You just shovel paper work at them — I don’t care if it’s a receipt for a hamburger, you give it to them. But we always got through. These translators always got us through.”
Once across the border, Quam and Jansens had to be authorized to drive in China.
“In China, you have to have two things to drive there: you have to get a Chinese driver’s license (and license plates), and you have to go a Chinese hospital to see if you are color blind. Then they drag you down to the police station where you have to listen to them explain the rules, which is interesting. You hear all these rules, but once you leave, you realize there are no rules in Chinese driving. Trust me, you are on your own!”
With drivers’ licenses in hand and Chinese license plates on their vehicles, Quam and Jansens began their trek across China, a country that remains mysterious to many Americans. Overall, Quam was impressed with what he saw.
“They had just built a brand new toll road across the northeast corner where we were, so the roads were outstanding,” he noted. “They hadn’t really gotten all the gas stations in, so that could become a challenge sometimes.” (Quam needed to fill the Plymouth about every 150 miles).
“That part (of China) is not really a tourist area, so the car was kind of like an alien landing, and they don’t see many Americans at all, so that was interesting to them as well,” Quam added.
Wherever they went, natives would stick their iPads out their passing car window to photograph the Plymouth. When the car was stopped, it was surrounded by picture takers.
While the Chinese were experiencing American car culture, Quam was also learning a little bit about their country.
“China should be called ‘the country of cranes.’ Wherever you go, there are cranes building something,” he said. “We were in the middle of nowhere and there were cranes building factories, homes and buildings. When they’re done, it’s ready to move in.”
Back to the ‘Mother Land’
From China, the group drove north to re-enter Russia at a far eastern point historically known as Siberia. The transition from one country to the other was obvious, Quam said.
“The difference between China and Russia is like night and day,” he said. “China is building and Russia is like going into Eastern Berlin. When you go into Siberia, it’s a completely different area.”
Where Chinese roads were modern and smooth, Siberian roads could be called archaic, at best. The Plymouth lost two shock absorbers within the first three days, causing Quam to come up with an on-the-fly repair. Using Fix-a-Flat, he filled the Plymouth’s aftermarket shock absorber bladders until new shock absorbers could be found.
“One day, we drove about four hours and went 10 miles,” Quam said. “(Siberia is) notorious for digging a trench across a road for whatever reason, maybe, 6, 8, 10 inches deep like they are going to fill it, but they never come back. They never mark anything and there is no traffic control, there is no AAA. Unless you are suicidal, you never want to drive on a Siberian road at night because of the roads. You can fall into a hole and be sent off into the Netherlands. Every waking moment as a driver, you have to be focused on the road. In America, the roads would be considered impassable. In Russia, there wouldn’t be a road hazard marked.”
Due to the nature of the roads and the sparsely populated countryside of Siberia, Quam said drivers are required to be resourceful. As an example, he said drivers often dismount and mount their own tires from the side of the road when the rough terrain causes a flat.
At one point, the travelers saw the entire front end of a semi tractor laying along the road with the engine nearby on the ground. They weren’t sure if it was being changed or had shaken out of the truck from the poor roads. When it came time to change a tube in one of the Plymouth’s tires due to the tube’s inferior construction, Quam found one of the several repair businesses — essentially shacks surrounded by tires. It was there he realized a universal truth extended even to the reaches of Siberia.
“(The man who fixed the tire) was shaking his head. He said, ‘China, nyet, nyet.’ What he meant was that it was a Chinese inner tube and I needed a better one,” Quam said.
About halfway across Russia, Quam found additional help replacing his Plymouth’s expensive aftermarket shock absorbers with units off of a BMW with Honda springs slid over them. If anything, Quam and his group learned that people in the farthest reaches of Russia were extremely helpful, to say the least.
“The Russian people were absolutely great — extremely accommodating and curious why Americans would be in Siberia. We couldn’t have had a better time. We were warned ahead of time (that there might be animosity toward Americas) because of the Ukranian issues, but if the Siberians knew where the Ukraine was, they didn’t care about it.”
As Quam and Jansens drove closer to Moscow, they sensed the Ukrainian turmoil became more of an issue, however the Russian people they encountered remained friendly.
“When we got closer to Moscow and told them where we came from, their jaws dropped,” he said. “They wouldn’t think about going to Siberia.”
The men stopped frequently during their trip through Russia, not because of mechanical failure, but because of the law. Sometimes, the police were looking for bribes from the visitors.
“They pulled (Jansens) over because he passed incorrectly, and there’s no such thing in Russia,” Quam said. “You wanted to handle it there on the road — not at a police station. They initially wanted $500, but that got knocked down to $35 and two world tour T-shirts and they were on their way.”
The next day, Jansens was talking to a Russian friend who happened to be meeting with the chief of police in Moscow. When the group met Jansens’ friend later, he returned the fine, which the police chief had pulled from his own wallet.
Other times, the Americans were pulled over for less “legal” reasons.
“I was only a few miles from the Latvia border and a squad car pulled us over — it looked serious,” Quam said. “It turns out that they had seen us two days before and wanted a picture and they couldn’t believe their good luck that they saw us again. They also opened their car door and wanted to get a picture of us in their police car — then they pretended to handcuff us and in the meantime, they had some prisoner in the backseat of this running squad car!”
The story of the Plymouth’s around-the-world journey will continue in an upcoming issue of Old Cars Weekly. Follow blog by John Quam and Eileen Bjorkman, www.worldautotour.com, sponsored by Sotheby’s International Realty, San Carlos, Calif.
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THE PLYMOUTH’S JOURNEY CONTINUES… READ PART 2 HERE.