belgrade night

The Belgrade Phantom

In what is widely considered to be the first public act of opposition in former communist Yugoslavia, a man nicknamed “The Phantom” stole a white Porsche 911 Targa and raced it through the streets of Belgrade for ten consecutive nights, to the delight of thousands of onlookers and the dismay of police, who were powerless to stop him. 

Vladimir Vasiljević, also known as Vasa Opel or Vasa ‘The Key’, was a car enthusiast in his late twenties, famous in parts of Belgrade for his unparalleled ability to unlock any car, no matter the make or model. Another contributor to his fame was his nightly habit of doing it to cars that weren’t his, taking them for a ride, then returning them to their rightful owners with a full tank of gas. 

The event that would turn him from a local character into a nationwide sensation happened in September of 1979, while President Tito was on a state visit to Cuba for a Non-Aligned Movement Summit. It was then that Vasiljević managed to hotwire a white Porsche convertible, belonging to tennis player Ivko Plećković. After ‘borrowing’ it, Vasiljević would drive it at breakneck speed around Belgrade city centre every night after 10 PM, attracting more and more spectators with every lap. 

Pictured: Belgraders gathering to watch the Phantom race.

Towards the end of his ten day adventure, several thousand people would congregate on the streets, night after night, just to watch Vasiljević do stunts. He would announce his route every night by calling into a local radio station, taunting police who were unaware of his identity and under pressure to capture and punish him before Tito returned from the Summit.

Pictured: The only existing photograph of the Phantom.

The cars available to police in ‘70s Yugoslavia couldn’t match the Porsche’s speed, so they had no chance of catching up to him during his nightly races around the city centre, and the people of Belgrade, who thought of Vasiljević as a rebel and a hero, kept quiet about his identity in spite of their probing. A photographer with the daily newspaper Politika captured the above image of the Phantom in action, but chose not to publish it in order to protect Vasiljević from police repercussions.

This spectacle went on for ten nights, until the police set up a trap at Slavija Square, using several city buses to block the Phantom’s path. The Porsche crashed into the police blockade, but Vasiljević managed to jump out of the car at the last minute and disappear into the mass of people who had gathered to watch. The crowd, ever on his side, shielded him from the police and allowed him to escape, unharmed.

Pictured: The famous white Porsche crashing into the blockade.

However, a couple of days after the crash, someone tipped the police off to the Phantom’s true identity (some of his contemporaries contest this and claim he turned himself in). He was arrested and sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

By all accounts, Vasiljević was a model prisoner. The only instance of him misbehaving during his incarceration was when, one day, after his sister’s visit, he escaped through a vent, then came back to prison of his own accord three days later. He claimed he had had to go for “just one more drive”, “to show the cops they hadn’t won”. For this, he was sentenced to 30 days in solitary, then served the rest of his prison sentence in peace and without incident.

Unfortunately, the story of the Phantom doesn’t have a happy ending. He died in a car accident under mysterious circumstances in 1982, not long after his release from prison. Some believe the police never forgave him for how he had humiliated them for those ten days in 1979 and either tampered with his brakes or sent someone to purposely crash into him. 

The remnants of Vasiljević’s car following his fatal accident.

Whatever the truth may be, even though Vladimir Vasiljević’s life was cut short many years ago at just 32 years old, the story of his reckless bravery and racing prowess lives on in the legend of the Belgrade Phantom.