Interview with Bratislav Petković

Mr Petković, when did you fall in love with cars?

I belong to the generation of post-Second World War kids who lived in the post-war gloom. At the time, we regarded a car as a wonder, much more than the generations which came after us. From the Belgrade of my youth I still remember the smell of badly burned gasoline mixed with the smell of manure, as horse-drawn carriages travelled Belgrade streets until 1962. We, as kids in the capital, were privileged compared to provincial kids. Belgrade was a global crossroads where a variety of cars could be seen.

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International co-production of films was initiated and Avala Film offered good services, so a lot of filmmakers kept coming to make films, and we could see cars which could not be seen in the provinces. Before The Belgrade Car Show started, we would go to the Metropol hotel parking lot to watch brand new models from afar, since the parking lots were well-guarded. As kids from the capital, we also had the privilege of watching cars in front of embassies. In front of the Russian Embassy we could see Pobedas, Moskvitches, Volgas, even Chaikas, outside the US Embassy there were the latest Chevrolets, Pontiacs, as well as Cadillacs, which was the Embassy’s official make of car. In front of the German Embassy we could see the latest models of Mercedes, Borgward and BMW, while outside the French Embassy there were Citroëns – the first Citroën DS, locally known as the Shark, appeared there – as well as Renaults and Peugeots. When we went car watching we used to say, “Let’s nose-grease some windows.” We would press our faces up against car windows, leaving greasy marks. Then the first Belgrade Car Show opened, it was around 1957-1958, and we skipped school for seven days. We collected pamphlets from stands. The other sources of information were the American Reading Room and the British Council, where we would go to skim through “Road and Track”, “Car and Driver”, “Autocar”, “Motor”, “Autosport”… there were some who even cut out pictures with razors. We devoured the magazines, collected pamphlets, inspecting and swapping them.

“A car is a device which is the best reflection of the time in which it was created. The car incorporates all the inventions of mankind, from fire to the wheel.”

I had quite a collection of car show pamphlets and that is how the Automobile Museum started. A car represented a status symbol to our post-war generation. The present generations do not regard it in such a way. Today, all the cars are somehow alike, since safety standards have become stricter. You cannot find those elegant, beautiful steering wheels any more. The design range of cars has narrowed. Cars used to be tailored to fit a man, while today you cannot tell one car from the other until you see their logos.

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How did car culture develop in Serbia?

Car culture was slow to develop due to terribly high taxes, which were imposed although we didn’t have our own production. As late as at the end of the 1930s, they started assembling some Chevrolets in Smederevska Palanka, at a factory called Jasenica at that time. Then, Industrija Motora Rakovica (Rakovica Motor Industry) obtained a licence and started assembling Praga RN-8 trucks. We did everything backwards – first we made planes and then cars. Due to high taxes and high gasoline prices, we had the smallest number of cars in the region. In the early 1930s gasoline in Romania cost less than one dinar per litre, while in Belgrade it was sold for 6 to 8 dinars per litre and in the rest of the country the price went up to 12 dinars. Gasoline cost too much and so a car was a rich man’s toy. Half of all cars were Fords, it was a simple car, easy to maintain and relatively cheap, since the basic model cost around 25,000, which was the price of a house with a 300-400m2 plot on Pasha’s hill. It was expensive. A Lancia Lambda cost 85,000, the same as a mansion in Dedinje. A Buick cost 120,000, the same as a huge mansion in Dedinje. We didn’t have Rolls Royces at the time, there was only one at the Royal Palace. Geca Kon used to have a Mercedes 540k, which cost a fortune. Those cars are gone, the war destroyed them all. The cars which survived are in the Automobile Museum now. We are saving the victims of progress.

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You say that one of the Museum’s roles is to save the victims of progress. Was this enthusiasm the guiding force when you came up with the idea of founding the museum and did the state participate in its implementation?

I have never received any help from the state to preserve this part of history. It was pure enthusiasm. The state only provided the space for the Museum, which I had a lot of trouble to obtain, but I managed to do it bit by bit. That is the space at 30 Majke Jevrosime Street, the first public garage in the Balkans. It had been built in line with the highest standards at the time. We are the first country in Europe to have a garage protected by law, since in 1997, during Mirko Marjanović’s government, it was put under protection as a cultural heritage site. It was built in 1929, according to the design of the Russian architect Valery Stashevsky. It was named the Modern Garage for Car Maintenance, Servicing and Storage. One of the first cars which entered the garage, a Nash model 870 driven by Velizar Janković, is kept in the Museum. I started campaigning for the garage around 1985-86, and the Museum was finally founded in 1994. We celebrate our 20th birthday this year. We have proved that this is not a short-lived story. The Museum has worked for 20 years already, owing to the Petković confectionery. People may joke about this as much as they like, but that is a fact. Show me another person who has invested money in a cultural institution. The list ends with me. We have played an important role these 20 years and we have even raised the level of technical culture. The Museum managed to survive the hard times. It has never been closed. It is distinguished by the fact that it is located in a building of historical importance. The law says that a building which is protected by law should return to its original purpose. The Museum has fulfilled the requirement and that makes it unique. One of its important characteristics is that 90% of our collection of what was happening in the automobile industry in the area of the former Yugoslavia dates back to the early 20th century.

What was the first car in your collection?

The first car I bought was a Ford Model T. I found it in Šumatovačka Street, it belonged to an oil man named Žare, who they called Parrot. He didn’t want to sell it at first and I kept insisting for a year or two. He had removed the back part of the car, but the car itself was well preserved. He used it at the timber-yard in Franchet d’Esperey Street, he didn’t come to the centre of the city, but would drive it around Voždovac. We could not make a deal until during one of our conversations I happened to mention the pre-war tenor singer Mijat Mijatović, and he was thrilled. My grandfather used to have a tavern before the war, so I had some of Mijat Mijatović’s records and a wind-up gramophone. There were ten records in total, his whole collection. The guy was thrilled and I instantly saw his weak point. I offered him the gramophone and the records. I also gave him some 500,000 dinars, which at that time, in 1965, was not an insignificant amount, but the car was well preserved. I managed to find the back part for it in Užice, from a guy called Pipelja, who used to have a rent-a-car service. That was the first whole car which became a museum exhibit. The collection now consists of around 100 cars.

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Which are the most special cars in your collection?

I have a Marot Gardon tricycle from 1897. It is the first engine with over 1,000 revolutions per minute, and the first that used an electric spark plug and an electric spark. It had a battery, not an ignition magneto. It was a revolutionary engine. I found it in 1969, and it took me 5-6 years to restore it. I could not find any drawing or picture of it, since the company which had produced it went bankrupt. I managed to reconstruct it guided by my own feelings and consulting the pictures of other similar manufacturers, with the help of my friends, godparents and other enthusiasts. Another valuable car in the collection is a Lancia Lambda, the first car with a camshaft in the head. It is a car which was 20 years ahead of its time, while in financial terms, it was a complete failure. There is also a Buick Coupe from 1928, and only 11 of those have been exported from the States.