Winter of late 1938 found wealthy Romanian Playboy Archimedes ‘Archie” Antonescu transporting his fabulously expensive custom, race-tuned Bugatti Royale to Estonia to prepare for the January start of the 1939 Monte Carlo Rally in Tallinn, Estonia. As fate and Archie’s lack of driving prowess would have it, the needs of his 7th Royale would place the lives of Estonian craftsman Jaak Oja, Jaak’s son and Estonian freedom fighter, Mihkel Oja, and Archie on a collision course that would resonate deep into the coming decades.

In Search of the 7th Royale (Part 5 – Beauty and Beast)

Border crossing

Having crossed from Poland into Estonia with no complications, the big Mercedes truck carrying Archie and his precious secret cargo rumbled north. Veering east well south of Tallinn, the driver vigorously urged the truck forward along rutted country roads. A freshly constructed warehouse located off a long desolate dirt road situated deep in Archie’s recently purchased sprawling forest tract awaited his arrival. Unaccustomed to gratification delayed, Archie, exhibiting the patience of a spoiled backseat bound child, peppered the driver with every possible form of inquiry that boiled down to “are we there yet?”

As the long night associated with the short winter days of the Arctic circle closed in on the big Mercedes transport, it pulled off onto a freshly carved road. With two blasts of the big Benz’s air horn, two large metal doors on the warehouse rattled open allowing the truck to enter. The two other mechanics dedicated to servicing the needs of Archie’s Royale greeted him. His wealth and their Nazi affiliations had provided Archie with complete confidence that the secret of his race-prepped Royale would be kept until the start of the 1939 Monte Carlo rally.
With the Royale now here, they would have the great car ready for Archie to start practicing tomorrow.

City of Tallinn, Estonia

Emblematic of a frail moral fiber that contributed to Archie’s spotty efforts to enhance his driving prowess, he had put off an early morning road test in favor of having dinner in Tallinn with the attractive wife of a manager and friend employed at Archie’s Estonian oil shale facility. Just two days earlier, his friend had been unexpectedly called back to headquarters in Romania. The man responded by immediately departing. Good paying jobs like his were hard to come by in Estonia. Archie planned on dinner with the wife to last late into the evening as he would be discussing her role in assuring a promotion her husband greatly coveted. For Archie, self indulgence always seemed to trump responsibility.

Assuming it even a possibility, Archie’s commitment to developing a mastery of the driving skills necessary to command the powerful Royale frequently lost traction when competing with the summer pleasures available on the French Riviera in 1938 for wealthy friends of the Reich.

Archie, very possibly motivated more by the opportunity to rub shoulders with the stars of motor sport than by what he could learn approached contemporary drivers in the pantheon of greats. These included Rudolf Caracciola, Herman Lang, Tazio Nuvolari and Hans Stuck. He considered asking Donald Healey but Healey being a Brit turned him off. And, though, Rene Dreyfus ranked as one of the best of his time, Archie had no interest with Dreyfus his being a Jew and all. Over the preceding months despite Archie’s overtures none of the greats responded to “the Romanian’s” inquiries. Some lesser drivers accepted the opportunity to dip into Archie’s money trough. If the drivers who accepted Archie as a student had been polled as a group the assessment of his skills could best be summed up as “good enough to get himself killed.”

With the great drivers displaying no interest in Archie’s offer, Archie viewed the lesser driver’s who did accept his offer with little or no respect. He would have no problem ditching a session at the track in favor of joining a wealthy debutante on her father’s yacht. But, now, in the presence of the great Royale, time engaged in sipping champagne with debutantes suddenly seemed ill spent.

Emanating from the warmed and ready athletically stanced Royale, a deep sonorous growl more animal than machine seemed to be offered as a fair warning as Archie approached. However, fortified with boundless self confidence foolishly grounded in his nonchalant approach to driver training, Archie climbed into his completed 7th Royale. Bringing with him would be a skill level considered spotty at best. His first attempts to initiate forward motion to depart the warehouse resulted in stuttering stalls. With frustration bubbling up like a pot close to boil, Archie, accepting the guidance of the chief mechanic, coaxed the magnificent beast to depart the warehouse and enter the desolate country road. Amazingly well mannered at slow and moderate speeds the Royale absorbed ruts and bumps and offered pleasant passage along the forest border road. In retrospect it would seem the beast had intentionally lulled an unsuspecting Archie into unwittingly unleashing a perfect storm of performance potential far beyond Archie’s abilities to control.

Reaching a point of relative comfort Archie recalled comments from his instructors and decided to see what kind of performance his considerable investment had purchased. It quickly became apparent his money had purchased him far more car than he could handle. He remembered one of his German driver instructors intentionally demonstrating a cornering technique called drifting. The instructor’s words came to mind as the great Royale gobbled up huge chunks of road at a pace that exceeded Archie’s ability to process. And, now, a slow bend to the left rushed at him. The Bugatti’s rear started to break loose. It came around and broke free swinging out to the right. It felt very much like what the instructor had intentionally induced, except that the driving instructor had maintained control. Here, the car had produced this slide all on its own and it petrified a helpless Archie. Unlike the instructor who confidently and competently brought the back end of his car under control. Archie felt he might as well have been swept up in a landslide. Out of control and surrounded by danger all around he cut the wheel to the left and the big Bugatti spun. Amazingly he missed a row of trees. However, he could not avoid the deep trench carved by rain in the road side. The massive vehicle came to a brutal and sudden stop. Archie’s head struck the steering wheel then snapped against the door frame. With blood trickling down his cheek, Archie sat frozen, his head resting against the driver side window. An eerie silence filled the forest. His breath created the only sound. He knew this Royale now and forever would exceed his ability to drive.

Limping back like a pirate with a bad leg, the hobbled Royale with its front left suspension badly damaged came to a painful rest. Nobody said anything. Nobody dared. Silently the chief mechanic moved to inspect the damage. The front suspension member sagged like a badly broken shoulder. The mechanic believed the damage could be repaired. The repair, however, would be impossible with the capabilities available in the warehouse.

Furious, frustrated and snared in a trap of “nobody to blame but himself,” Archie instructed two of the mechanics to come up with a plan of action. The third mechanic would drive, a still dazed, Archie to a doctor.

To have his Royale discovered in its damaged state and him clearly the cause could not be allowed. Repair must be affected but it could not be brought to town. Secrecy had to be maintained, now, more than ever.

As the local doctor attended to Archie, the mechanic inquired of  the doctor as to any skilled local metal workers who could weld and repair an “old Volvo” that had been damaged. With no second thoughts the good doctor responded with but one name, Jaak Oja. The doctor sang the praises of Jaak as he stitched up Archie. Clearly respected by all, Jaak, who lived on an isolated farm east of Tallinn had a proven reputation for machine repair and the equipment to do it. He was the first person the big oil shale company called when they had a problem.

Even as the doctor bandaged the stitches, Archie had a plan formulating. He had to think quickly. He needed to get the Royale out of sight and fixed. He understood that his dream of driving could never be. He lacked the ability to drive his Royale much less race it. He would need to find a premium driver who would race for what would now be Archie’s team. This would all take time. Clearly, Archie would not enter the 1939 rally. His Bugatti would have to wait till the 1940 Monte Carlo Rally to wow the automotive world. However, for the matters at hand he would seek out this Oja fellow.

Jaak opened the door to has farmhouse to greet a man in mechanic’s coveralls. The man made very clear what he wanted, skilled metal work, welding excellence and secrecy. For this Jaak would be very handsomely compensated. When asked, Jaak confirmed that he had done work for the oil shale facility. The man in coveralls asked to inspect where the work would be carried out. A visit to the spacious barn on Jaak’s farm convinced the man of Jaak’s suitability and he extended a hand. Jaak agreed and they shook on it. Jaak understood that the vehicle would be delivered the next day.

As the big Mercedes truck departed the warehouse one of the mechanics mentioned the fish delivery and the young freedom fighter with the same last name as Jaak. Archie listened but said nothing.

As Jaak finished his breakfast and Ann poured him a final cup of coffee, he watched a large truck with Ploesti oil logos pull up and back towards his barn.

As men scurried around, large metal ramps extended down from the truck, a well dressed man with bandages on his head walked towards Jaak. With a gruff if not threatening demeanor the man with the dour expression simply introduced himself as “the owner.”

He wanted to meet Jaak face to face before showing him the project. The two walked around to the back of the truck. Foreshadowed by the resonating growl of a mythic beast, a beautiful but wounded colossus eased down the ramps, flawless save for a jury-rigged front wheel that dragged slightly. Jaak stared in quiet disbelief. His eyes marveled as an automotive  work of art slowly captured his consciousness before coming to rest in his barn.

With the nature of the repair to be completed reviewed in detail, the owner agreed on a price that Jaak considered quite fair. Jack added that if he had to keep the project on his property for more than a month after completion, a storage fee would be charged. The owner shrugged off the fee as meaningless considering his plan to relocate the Royale once the repair took place.

With the Royale parked in the deep dark recesses of the barn, Jaak closed and locked the wide wooden doors. He made an effort to calm the man’s concerns about secrecy by noting that few people if any traveled these roads. He assured the owner that secrecy would not be a problem.

Seemingly odd to Jaak, the owner asked if he had any children. Thinking that the query merely indicated that the owner sought to lighten the mood with small talk, Jaak responded that, yes, he had a teenage son. The owner firmly instructed Jaak that the young man could not know of the car. Jaak assured him that the son did not live at home and would never see the car. Jaak noted a strange almost cruel smile creep onto the owner’s face.

Reflexively as if incapable of suppressing the darkness resident in his heart, Archie curled a lip and fixed a harsh stare on Jaak. With words direct, cold and brutal he warned Jaak that should he or his wife betray the owner’s secret, Jaak’s freedom loving son would pay the price. Maintaining his stare, Archie with a slow deliberate motion raised his right hand and softly uttered “Heil Hitler,” then silently turned to the waiting truck and left.