GAZ-69 / UAZ-69

Cruise around most European capitals, and you'll find some monied district where the local residents comb their hair on Sundays, wear trousers with ironed-in creases in the evenings and drive around in massive, pointless 4x4s to take little Tarquin to his judo classes. I'm not starting a class war, but you'd have to be blind to have not noticed the Chelsea-tractor phenomenon of the past decade; manicured and coiffured individuals snorting their way along perfectly smooth tarmac in a car that thinks it's a truck. Designer dirt, and all that.

Not in Warsaw. Yes, there's a district filled with "gated communities" where your nose has to be raised to a particular angle before you can move in, but the SUV invasion hasn't hit yet. Poles, quite simply, aren't that stupid. For a country that's 80% mind-numbingly dull sandy plains, there's very little justification for balloon tyres and two-foot ground clearances, and seeing as Poles would rather eat horses than ride them, you're not going to be towing many horse-boxes around either. Therefore, driving around in a shiny, sporty alloy-wheeled Tonka toy will not impress anyone, at all. Anywhere.

Which means that if you can get your hands on a proper off-roader, there must be a reason, and in Poland, it's that other 20%. The rugged hills of the Carpathians (or Tatra Mountains, as the hills in these parts are known) are a playground of skiing routes, wolf-prowling meadows and gushing streams - perfect for throwing around an ex-military invasionary jeep in.

The brightly-coloured UAZ-69 here is the perfect example of one of those weekend toys. There's no spray-on mud or silly-coloured brake callipers; the whole thing is garishly painted as if Noddy had been conscripted into the Warsaw Pact forces. Because that's what this truck is for - invading. The GAZ/UAZ-69 was Russia's post-war military jeep, the light (in military terms, at least) off-roader conjured up to mobilise the Soviets' post-war troops.

GAZ and UAZ are a pair of automotive manu
-facturers in Russia; GAZ operating out of the sneeze-inducingly named Nizhniy Novgorod, 200 miles east of Moscow, and UAZ being another 200 miles east of there in Ulianovsk. While GAZ might be the more famous of the old Soviet manufacturers, producing anything from cars to trucks to amoured transports, it was UAZ that churned out the largest number of the formidable 69, which is why, if you stare at the bonnet edge in the picture above, you'll see stamped into the metal three Cyrillic letters. Aside from that, UAZ and GAZ 69s are identical.

It's this approach to status symbols that cheers me up about Poland. The locals will whinge and moan about how poor they are, how much Communism shafted them up, how it's just not fair; then they'll buy one of the old military vehicles that terrorised them, paint like a children's cartoon, and rag it up and down the Carpathian foothills chasing sheep, throwing up clouds of dirt and blue smoke from the sidevalve engine, then getting drunk on homemade alcohol. There's such a delicious sense of irony in using one of the ex-overlord's toys for such wanton abandon that it puts a smile on my face to see a GAZ being used in this way.

When it actually comes to troop invasions, you wouldn't really want to depend on a GAZ-69 these days. For a tonne and a half of motor, 55hp is not really going to see you border-hopping the other side of the world any time soon. And if you really rev the nuts off it, you'll get up to 56mph, which in a canvas-topped leaf-sprung motor can be stomach-emptying at best. But the plucky Russians with their if-it-aint-broke attitude churned them out of the UAZ factory until 1972, when it was replaced with the UAZ-469. That left two thirds of a MILLION of the rugged off-roaders rumbling their way around the world, serving in any military force friendly to the USSR. They were the basis of anti-tank units, rocket-platforms, even amphibious cars like the GAZ-46.

So plenty of modifications were available for the old beast, and it's not uncommon for the run-of-the-mill two-door versions (the ones that trickled down to civilian ownership, at least) to have the more modern Polish S21 engine put it, or even a 2.4D engine from an old Mercedes. But the mods will all be practical - massive wingmirrors from a Scania truck bolted on and a home-made breather snorkel for water-driving, rather than chrome strips and heated leather seats. Indicators tacked to the front wings almost as an afterthought. The brutal honesty of this vehicle is what appeals to me. No-one's trying to impress, or show off, or preach over how safe Quentin is on the school run. A UAZ owner is more likely to harm himself, by dint of being deranged enough to drive one down the side of a mountain. In the dark. In winter.

Further west, an old jeep like this would have been lovingly restored to its drab green paint and driven around historical re-enactments by bearded old men who smell of cheese and onion. But that's just not the Polish way.