27 August 2018

Ovidiu Magureanu’s memories of communist Romania are still vivid. He remembers the heating going off in winter as a small child and his family huddling up in one room to stay warm. He also remembers the large crowds gathering to watch speeches by Nicolae Ceausescu, the dictator who ruled over the country with an iron grip from 1965 until he was overthrown and killed in 1989. 

What he didn’t expect, back then as a curious small child, was that some 25 years later as a classic car enthusiast, he would one day own a car belonging to Ceausescu. 

In 2012, Magureanu, 38, saw an old Dacia 2000 on a local website and bought the vehicle for 1,500 euros. He knew that it was rare.

“It was in Bucharest and the guy who was selling it didn’t know what its story was,” says Magureanu, standing in the medieval town square of Sighisoara, a city in Transylvania where a Dacia classic car rally is taking place.

After close inspection of the car’s documents, Magureanu discovered that the old car was once owned by the state and used to drive Ceausescu around during his interior state visits. Magureanu, a self-taught classic car restorer, has since spent years resurrecting the Dacia. 

“I’m not a big fan of Ceausescu, he was not a nice person, but I like the idea of owning the car from a historical point of view,” says Magureanu, a well-built man with a sharp humour. “I named the car Tovarășa, which means ‘Miss Comrade’ in Romanian.”

The Dacia 2000, made in 1982, was advanced for its time: it boasts power steering, electric windows, central locking, air-conditioning and even an auto-pilot mode — all rare features for a car built at a time when Romania’s state-driven economy was badly ailing. Extra bolts on the wheels and additional chrome trimmings suggested to Magureanu that this was no regular Dacia 2000; it must have belonged to someone important.

Later, at a Made in Romania fair where Magureanu exhibited his car, he was approached one of Ceausescu’s old personal drivers. The driver confirmed it was indeed the car of the deceased dictator and pointed out some fascinating details. 

“I was shocked when he found me, he heard about the exhibition and knew that I’d be there so he came especially for that,” says Magureanu. “He told me that the holes in the dashboard were where the security detail’s gun was kept and said that the auto-pilot never worked — and it still doesn’t.”

Romania’s Dacia car factory was founded in 1966, a year after Ceausescu came to power. However, the cars were mostly licensed copies of Renaults — the Dacia 2000, for example, is actually a rebranded Renault 20. Dacia, which took its name from early regional Dacian settlers, was to be a symbol of the Communist regime’s industrial power. 

Indeed, even the dictator’s three-speed automatic Dacia 2000, Magureanu says, wasn’t even built in Romania. “Someone told me that it came fully assembled from France, and the Renault logos were swapped with Dacia logos.” 

Not all of the car’s logos, however, were changed: both the gearstick and the steering wheel remain embossed with the French manufacturer’s logos. But to a dictator concerned with power and public image above all else, that perhaps meant little as they were out of public sight.

As Magureanu drives the dictator’s old 116 horsepower vehicle through rural Transylvania in the heat of summer, through a series of small idyllic looking villages, he is quick to point out that industrial power during communism, particularly in the 1980s, was more facade than reality.

“Productivity was very low and that’s one of the real reasons that the communists failed,” says Magureanu. “Everything fell apart because we were not competitive and everybody stole anything they could to survive.”

Indeed, Magureanu recalls the two-mile long queues for petrol in the late 1980s, which became a regular topic of discussion in his family. 

“People would stay in the queues and then exchange with a wife, a neighbour or a friend doing eight-hour shifts,” he says. “People were often pushing the cars because they’d run out of petrol during the long wait.”

In his day-to-day life, Magureanu works as an IT cloud specialist, so he is working in a cutting-edge field. But like many Romanians, he’s drawn to a darker side of his country’s history. 

“Our parents tried to hide the bad parts from us, but I knew that something was very wrong in our country,” he says, reflecting on his life as a small child under Ceausescu’s regime.

“I remember my father, who worked as an engineer, bringing some slices of salami back from a business trip abroad so me and my sister could try it for the first time,” says Magureanu, who was just seven years old at the time and food was rationed by the state.

Ceausescu’s old car is a surprisingly smooth drive, possibly owing to its independent rear suspension and additional mod-cons. As I sink into the car’s sofa-soft, beige passenger seat and Magureanu switches on the air-conditioning, it certainly feels comfortable enough for a communist dictator.

“The funny thing is that even though the most comfortable place is the rear seats,” Magureanu says, “Ceausescu sat in the passenger seat and his bodyguards in the back.”

Returning from a trip into the Transylvanian countryside in Ceausescu’s old car, we cruise passed a row of run-down communist apartment blocks. I ask Magureanu if he feels a sense of nostalgia towards communism. 

“Not at all,” he says flatly and without hesitation. “You hear a lot of people saying, ‘Ceausescu gave us all apartments’ or ‘he gave us all jobs’ — everybody had work, yes, but nobody was doing anything.”

Almost 30-years have passed since communism in Romania ended, and although the country joined the EU in 2007, it remains one of the most corrupt states in Europe with large anti-government protests occurring frequently, despite a growing economy. 

For Magureanu, communism is a chapter in Romania’s history that even today doesn’t face appropriate scrutiny, particularly in the country’s education system.

“The ugly part is that in schools now, people aren’t taught how bad it was during communism, and nobody speaks about it. Communism was hard for us, it left a very big scar on us as a nation,” he says. 

Magureanu now owns eight classic cars — two old Romanian military vehicles, multiple classic Dacias and a Mercedes coupé from the 70s — and each one holds its own sentimental value.

“I always liked old cars when I growing up,” he adds. “But I didn’t think I would ever find something like this — with its history.”