Let’s go for a drive in Hungary

This will be a lighthearted piece inspired by a funny story I read in a Hungarian paper. But let's start at the beginning of driving in Hungary. The first automobile arrived, a Benz, in 1895. Its owner was, strangely enough, an optician. The second man who owned a car was much more famous, József Törley, founder and owner of the Törley champagne factory. Törley apparently was a furious and adventurous driver. He undertook a thirty-kilometer drive from Budapest to Gödöllő that took three hours and "only once did they need animal hauling power."

By 1910 there were 937 automobiles in the country; only in 1928 did their number reach the ten thousand mark. I had difficulty finding numbers for the 1930s but owning a car was a big deal even in the late thirties. Moreover, the cars were modest. I remember that there was only one family in the whole city of Pécs who owned a Mercedes. We had a DKW, not so much for family use but because my father, who had just bought half interest in a small manufacturing company, needed it: he also served as the salesman for the business.

None of the car owners in Pécs drove through the very narrow streets, more like passageways, downtown. Therefore, people didn't have to resort to sidewalks. I just found a delightful old "movie" from 1939 taken by Antal Hammerli of glove factory fame. There were practically no cars, and people were merrily walking in the middle of the streets. Consequently there were no traffic lights either, only one policeman directing traffic at the intersection of Rákóczi and Irgalmasok Streets. He was such a famous sight that Hammerli obviously wanted to include him in his movie.

What Hammerli didn't show were the hansom cabs parked on Széchenyi Square, even after the war years. Perhaps especially after the war years because practically all privately owned automobiles were taken by the Hungarian state in support of the war effort. By that time we had a second car, a fairly new Skoda. The poor Skoda ended up somewhere in the Soviet Union never to be seen again, but the old DKW was left because it had far too many miles on it. My father hid the car somewhere and loosened everything that could be loosened before the Russians arrived. Never mind, the dear old DKW disappeared as well.

Even as late as 1953 in the whole country there were only 13,000 cars. Streets were free of cars not only in Pécs but even in Budapest. In the mid-1960s there were still relatively few cars and I remember "drag racing" with a bunch of Italians, side by side, after leaving Margaret Bridge late at night. Not a soul or a car in sight.

Things have changed drastically since. Although public transportation is excellent, Hungarians have a love affair with their cars and anything connected with them. Nothing can excite the listeners of György Bolgár's talk show more than "traffic," "cars," "price of gasoline," or "parking." As far as parking is concerned Hungarians have a peculiar idea about "public places." Since the street is public, parking should be totally free. And if they have to choose between parking on the streets where it is very difficult to find a parking place or in a parking garage they'd rather park on the streets. I recently saw a report from Győr in Népszabadság stating that "in the majority of cities outside of Budapest the drivers have an aversion to underground parking or parking garages." Debrecen spent a fortune on parking garages which stand almost empty. In Szeged, the complaint is that "the automatization of the payment is too cumbersome." Or most likely they can't quite handle it.

One might speculate that parking in these garages is too expensive. But no, in Győr the city fathers made parking free for a generous fourteen hours while they raised the parking fee on the streets by 40%. And yet the drivers would still rather pay on the streets. Moreover, they are apparently quite willing to drive around and around until they find the closest possible parking place to where they are heading. Apparently the fancy new free parking garage is only 250 meters from the city center and still. Or perhaps some of them are afraid of navigating inside the garage, which can be tricky.

And now comes the funniest story of the day. An older man was traveling on the M7 four-lane highway

when he came to the new overpass. He stopped dead in his tracks because he suddenly realized that he was afraid to drive on it. He picked up his cell phone to ask the police for help. The cops arrived and drove him across. However, at the other end they had a few things to say. First they asked for his driver's license and told him that he would have to pay a fine for illegally stopping on the superhighway. Moreover, if he is afraid to drive across the overpass perhaps he should be examined by a doctor to see whether he is fit to drive at all. They told him that if he is afraid of heights he could have avoided M7 because with a few extra kilometers he would have been able to drive along the bank of Lake Balaton on an ordinary two-lane highway. No, no, said the elderly gentleman, he specifically wanted to come this way because of the wonderful panorama!

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Oh well, I grew up in Amsterdam in the sixties, and remember we played soccer and hopscotch on the road. Once in a while, there was a car owner got angry when a ball hit his car. But chances that that happened were slim, as there were hardly any cars parked in the street (mind you, there were no garages either).


“…public transportation is excellent…” – Certainly by US standards, but not necessarily by European ones. What is worse, the public transport in Budapest is stigmatized. No respectable middle class professional would ever dare to be seen in the metro. Instead, they spend total of years of their lives in koruts’ traffic jams. It may have something to do with rustiness and ugliness of the Soviet metro cars, but more likely the love for cars is just a class divide. You certainly cannot meet ladies in fur coats going from the Opera by metro as in Vienna…


Regarding driving. You did not mention the fact that until the mid 1940s Hungariand drove on the left hand side of the road, UK style.


“…public transportation is excellent…” –
Yeah I found this the funniest bit of the story. I suppose it is excellent if you compare it to a hundred years ago… (I especially love it when the doors shut, you could cut someone’s head of, I’m sure the French revolutionists would have been green with jealousy)
“Hungariand drove on the left hand side of the road, UK style”
You live and learn. Thanks David!

Matt Temple

Re: “public transportation is excellent”. I am an urban American who lived in Budapest for nearly six months in 2008. It delighted me that I could go anywhere in Budapest, nearby towns, or to remote corners of Hungary by public transport conveniently, affordably and enjoyably. If that compromised my vaunted middle-class status, I never knew. It did endear that portion of the Hungarian population to me which utilizes public transport (quirky, idiosyncratic but nonetheless effective). And it makes public transit in the United States look inept and third-world by comparison.

Nick Matyas

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Nick Matyas

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Truck Rental

I can’t believe that the first driver in Hungary was an optician! Who could ever imagine? The story is great!I couldn’t stop laughing!