Australian adventurers, Lang and Bev Kidby are on an expedition to drive a 1969 Fiat 500 Bambino 35,000km around the world - the smallest car ever to undertake such a challenge. This is their first report, from the journey across Russia:

A Fiat 500 is probably not the ideal vehicle to take on the 4,000km trip from Vladivostok to Irkutsk along the new Trans-Siberian Highway. As an indication it provides proof that if you have 4 wheels (or 2) of any description the journey is possible. The little Fiat was collected from the dock in Vladivostok after its arrival from Australia with surprisingly little in the way of bureaucratic drama. It was packed beyond any possible weight limit envisaged by Fiat back in 1957. Russian roads generally have excellent signs, much better than many western countries, but unfortunately Vladivostok was the exception. On the way out of town we detoured via the gates of a Mental Institution and the car park of a chicken-plucking factory before finding the road to Khabarovsk.

I slipped up by not realizing the Asian influence on Far Eastern Russia and the question “Is this the road to Khabarovsk?” will ALWAYS get a “yes” response from someone wanting to tell you what you want to hear. The correct method is to choose a group of 3 people and ask “Which way to Khabarovsk?”. You then select the direction from the three possible offered solutions of the person with the most reliable appearance.

The 700-odd kilometres leading north to the large city of Khabarovsk was quite a busy narrow highway. The sealed surface was mostly reasonable but the usual pot-holed sections were ever present. About 50 kilometres of the road were under repair. This is a defining feature of Russian roads as there is absolutely no compunction by the road builders to facilitate traffic flow past the work site. A detour is built with one pass of a bulldozer – often many kilometres long – and nothing further is done even if say, the bridge construction is to take a year. The grader driver working 30 metres away from the detour on the new works would absolutely not consider it his duty to run his blade occasionally over the main traffic route. The result is lines of cars grinding away in first gear at walking pace and quite large trucks disappearing into pot-holes, never to be seen again!

We found the little Fiat to have some advantages in this rough going with the wheels only a metre apart and good suspension travel. Unfortunately the weight caused regular bottoming on the spring bump-stops despite our most cautious efforts. A plus to the low speed was a fuel consumption of around 20k/l or 60mpg. The little car with its Australian numberplates was the constant subject of tooting and waving. It always draws a crowd at any stop.

We have found that the roads often have many kilometres of no-passing lines on dead straight sections. The reasons for this are known only to God and Russian road engineers! After being caught on a stream of traffic behind a slow moving truck you finally get a break just in time to be pulled over in a random check of car papers by one of the regular police posts. Of course they see our strange little car coming down the road and we are 100% unlucky to be “randomly” pulled over. The farce goes on for about 5 minutes while they look at your International Driver’s Licence upside down (not one as yet has found the folding back page which has photo and identification details – they just study the Chinese, French, German and Arabic explanation pages and hand it back). A further couple of minutes are wasted while all traffic is stopped so the entire police unit can gather around the car for a group photo. Meanwhile the truck you fought so hard to pass has wandered through the checkpoint and you have to start all over again.

Anyhow we finally arrived in Khabarovsk after a fairly easy 12 or 13 hour 700km drive. It is a pretty tree-lined city on the huge Amur River (which also forms the border with China). The Fiat went very well and we have every confidence it will continue to do so. I am trying to keep it conservative and 80kph seems a good easy speed and few roads will allow more than this as the short wheelbase makes the car like a bucking bronco on the undulating highway surfaces. We are extremely pleased that an effort was made to replace the original kindergarten chair perches provided by FIAT with second-hand Holden Barina seats. Although cramped, both Bev and I are very comfortable for long periods.

Leaving Khabarovsk over the 3 kilometre long Amur Bridge we now were officially on “The Road”.  Amazingly there was not officially or practically a road across Russia until 1994. Only a few years prior to that only four wheel drives could make the crossing and then only during very small weather periods of the year. Of course there were the gallant few who had taken every description of vehicle and motorcycle through but many finished up being towed to the nearest Trans-Siberian Railway stop and placed on a train (that is if the vehicle was not just abandoned).

President Putin declared the road open in 1994 then hopped on his helicopter and flew home. The road could not be considered “open” even 3 years later. It is just under 2,400km from Khabarovsk to Chita where the main sealed road all the way to Moscow really begins. Of this distance, around 1,800 km is still gravel, dirt and indeed, farm track. Billions of dollars are being spent on the construction of the road. The standard of alignment is very impressive and is being done to full western freeway standards. Vast amounts of earth have been moved, tops of hills shifted into valleys, hundreds of bridges constructed and work continues.


A Fiat 500 is probably not the ideal vehicle to take on the 4,000km trip from Vladivostok to Irkutsk along the new Trans-Siberian Highway.


Australian adventurers, Lang and Bev Kidby are on an expedition to drive a 1969 Fiat 500 Bambino 35,000km around the world - the smallest car ever to undertake such a challenge. Photos: The main highway in Siberia (top) and checking tyre pressures in Siberia (above).

The seemingly small amount of machinery undertaking this work has impressed me. But, on the other hand, there are no unions in Russia and work goes on 24 hours a day, seven days a week in 12 hour shifts. The construction workers live in pretty basic conditions in small camps alongside the road. Having said the alignment impresses me, the same can not be said for the completion. The base road sweeps through the countryside but the surface is huge rocks, bulldozer tracks and holes a metre deep for hundreds of kilometres at a time. Why they do not finish sections progressively has me beat. The surface creates problems for vehicles on a scale not seen before. For hour after hour you crawl along in first or second gear, bouncing from rock to rock, hole to hole. The noises coming from underneath our little car were horrendous. One day we started at 5.00am and continued until 11.30pm (with an hour gained from a time change). During 18 hours actual driving time the little Fiat covered 600km at an average speed of around 30kph!

During the second-last day before Chita I noticed the steering becoming very heavy (on those 50 metre sections smooth enough to get any feel). A quick check revealed the left-hand front wheel leaning at an angle of about 20 degrees. I jacked the car up and found I could rock the wheel  75mm side to side at the top. I diagnosed that the king-pin bushes had completely collapsed but guessed that if we took it easy we could make it into Chita. This is what we did but after only a few hundred kilometres the new front tyres were totally scrubbed out from the gross wheel misalignment.

The world’s best bush mechanics, the Russians, removed the front wheel and I took a deep breath! The kingpin itself had actually snapped in half. Assuming the rigid pin was just flopping around in a large hole I had pressed on, thinking that although loose, the wheel was totally secure to the car. Once the pin had separated into two halves the possibility that the front wheel would depart the vehicle was very real. We were very lucky!

Anyhow the boys found a suitable high-tensile bolt (of course no 1969 Fiat 500 parts are available in Chita) placed it on the lathe and produced a new king-pin the equal of anything which has born a Fiat label. With a new wheel alignment and the nearly bald front tyres placed on the rear until I can find some new ones closer to Europe we are again sailing along. The only other problems encountered were the fuel outlet from the fuel pump coming adrift, a rock being caught in the fan belt, the spot-lights falling off, the oil-temperature sender being smashed off the sump by a rock and our fabulous AUS-500 number plate being crushed in a bottomless pot-hole.

Obviously this is written from a Fiat 500 point of view. Quite frankly I could not think of a less suitable vehicle to be doing a trip over the Siberian Highway unless it was a low-slung sports car. The care and constant attention required while driving up to 18 hours a day made this journey something of a marathon. Although we nursed our baby it was not possible to avoid constant pounding and I am amazed that this little car gave us such a good ride and came out as unscathed as it has. Now we are back on “good” Russian highway it is driving as well as it was when we left Brisbane.

The road is open to anyone willing to batter his or her vehicle. The constant stream of late-model Japanese cars being driven from Vladivostok to Moscow demonstrate this. Although these delivery drivers cover the cars with tape, fasten extension boards to the mud-flaps to stop stone damage and drive amazingly slowly on rough road their machines take a serious battering. There has been a huge turn-around with the drivers in the two years since we last drove in Russia. In 2005 the Vladivostok cars were being driven at insane speeds, being involved in many, often fatal, accidents and arriving in Moscow ready for sale as complete wrecks. The solution was easy. The dealers who employ the drivers to pick up the cars for the 2-week trip across Russia now take all damage out of the driver’s $500 wage. If the damage exceeds his wage the driver must pay the difference to the dealer out of his own pocket. No wonder they now drive them like their own car!

Anyone considering taking what is still one of the great adventure drives of the world should not be put off by the conditions. The countryside is beautiful, ranging from rolling grassland, to high hills, forests, rivers and subsistence farming villages. Most of the country is similar to North West USA and Eastern Australia.

Fuel is available at regular intervals with 92 and 95 octane everywhere and 98 octane at most spots. Of course diesel is available everywhere. As the road improves small fuel stops are springing up and no vehicle requires long-range tanks or extra fuel cans. The little huts which make up the “truck stops” dot the road and fabulous blinnies (light pancakes) are the breakfast highlight. Tasty soups, shashlicks and other food is on hand no more than 50 kilometres apart. More will be written as the trip progresses.

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