Reader Submissions: I Drove Several Classic Communist-Built Cars To See If One Was Actually Awesome

I Drove Several Classic Communist-Built Cars To See If One Was Actually Awesome

Petrolicious Productions By Petrolicious Productions
July 13, 2016
33 comments

Story by Alessandro Renesis

It all started with a coffee break in Knin, Croatia, after a brief visit to the War Museum in Karlovac. A few hours earlier, we had to turn our back and go back to where we had come from at the border control to enter Bosnia & Herzegovina. Gently but unceremoniously, the border control said, “No. Go back,” in confused English, because my travel companion had forgotten the insurance paper you need to travel across countries.

A couple of hours later, in that impromptu café, in the middle of nowhere in Croatia, there was at least a WIFI connection and, after a spot of browsing through booking websites and Google Maps it turned out that, while not being able to travel into Balkan countries, the nearest interesting location was Budapest, Hungary.

Twenty-four hours later, due to a thread of clumsy circumstances, I was driving a Lada Riva…property of a girl I had just met.

To find out, I went to Ukraine, Serbia, Slovakia and the God forsaken countryside of Hungary, Romania, and Croatia. Having driven the Lada Riva, the UAZ Patriot, the Moskvitch 408, and some other Soviet machines the answer is, simplified and filtered, “No”… And yet…

Let’s talk about it.

Let’s begin with the Lada Riva. The Riva was based on the underpinnings of the Fiat 124, which was quite an advanced car back then, but the Russians decided to make a few changes here and there. They replaced the original disk brakes with drums; the original fuel pump was replaced with a manual one, the car was equipped with a manual starting handle, and the body was upgraded with much heavier steel.

The result was exhilarating, kind of: the car weighs a bit more than the 124 and that, coupled with the 65 horsepower engine, makes it nearly impossible to drive in modern traffic and very slow. Driving it across the historic Széchenyi Chain Bridge in Budapest is…academic. The thing is, the Hungarian capital city is everything but stuck in its past. Which means that, just like every big city in Europe, the streets are awash with Porsche 911s and Mercedes über-sedans. Which means that if you’re driving a Lada and holding traffic back, the hatred is tangible.

Now sit back, wear a Ushanka, have yourself a glass of Kvass (a traditional Slavic and Baltic fermented beverage made from black or rye bread), because the list of cars made in the former U.S.S.R. is a saga. It includes Lada, yes, then Zastava (which is the Serbian-Croatian word for “flag”), the FSO, the Moskvitch, and a long list of names that end with –AZ, like GAZ, UAZ (founded in Ulyanovsk, birth place of Lenin), the ZAZ and of course, the Trabant, which was actually made in East Germany.

The history of the automotive industry in the Soviet bloc is full of carmakers that seemed to think it was a good idea to take a perfectly decent European car and it deliberately—or accidentally—worse.

Like the Moskvitch 408, for instance. Introduced at the UK Earl’s Court Motor Show in 1964 it was supposed to be the U.S.S.R. answer to the Ford Cortina, which was extremely popular back then. For one thing, the 408 was very cheap, it only cost £679, whereas the decadent and “capitalist” Cortina, as James May opined on Top Gear, was a lot more expensive than that, at £680.

Obviously, not every Soviet car was the same because, just like Orwell said in his famous allegorical 1945 novella Animal Farm, “while all animals are equal, some are more equal than others”.

This brings us neatly to the giant door of the GAZ Chaika (“seagull” in Russian). The Chaika was made in a limited production of just 144 units per year. Obviously, not one of the 144 units would land in the hands of the working people. The Chaika was especially made for the KGB and high-ranking generals.

Like the best of America, it had the engine in the front and drive at the back. Its engine, a 5.5-litre V8,  produced only 220 horsepower and was coupled with a 3-gear transmission. It weighed over 2 tons; do the math and it’s easy to understand that while it may have been comfortable, it surely wasn’t quick.

So, the people’s cars weren’t any good and even the luxury cars weren’t exactly brilliant, either. Even when it comes to SUVs and off-road cars, it doesn’t get much better. The UAZ Patriot for example, still on sale today, it’s a mid-size SUV and well, the brakes are as powerful as the Andorran army, the steering is incredibly heavy and yet very vague, the transmission is mostly a box of suggestions, the clutch is very heavy…and slips constantly under your feet.

And yet…there is one car made in and by the Soviet Union that is actually quite nice, the Lada Niva. Russian for “field”. A small, plucky, no-frills, cheap jeep has been in production continuously, nearly no changes have been made, since 1977. It’s very honest. Earnest, even.

Something else must be noted. All of these cars are mechanical and with almost zero electronics, which means they are mostly reliable and easy to repair, and yes: they may have a million flaws but in today’s automotive world, which is vaguely drab and homonymous, these Soviet cars at least have some character.

So, back to the original question: has the Soviet/Communist bloc ever made a decent car?

Not really, but it made a great deal of them, and when you see one parked outside a Starbucks or an Apple Store, you at least crack a smile.

Image Sources: Alessandro Renesis, wheelsage.org

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EGDriverUncle_InoZold FuluTwoOhTwoRuud Recent comment authors
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EGDriver
EGDriver

Try this one: Melkus 1000 an East German Sports car of the 70ies. 90BHP for 800kg. Used mostly in its own racing series but also driven on the regular streets.
https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melkus_RS_1000

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Uncle_Ino
Uncle_Ino

I have read that you have actaully been to Croatia, but I was under the impression that Zastava is mentioned as a car from the former U.S.S.R? Zastava was actually one of several vehicle manufacturers from the former Yugoslavia (now Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Hercegovina, Serbia, Montenegro…) which was in fact a socialist federation, but was never part of the U.S.S.R, it never even shared a border with the U.S.S.R. Hungary was also considered a satelite state of the U.S.S.R but was never a member of the union.

Zold Fulu

I definitely do not argue with the final conclusion. Nevertheless, to get the full (and nicer) picture, I recommend to pass by the Latvian’s National Museum that also hosts the former presidential cars of the Soviet Union (the former “Beast ones”, or the Rolls Royce that Brezhnev personally crashed (never repaired), these are now priceless artifacts). The Museum has a unique collection and the Latvians also invested heavily to provide a top experience. It is a must for every car enthusiast… http://www.motormuzejs.lv/index.php/en/

TwoOhTwo
TwoOhTwo

what about the Marussia?

Ruud
Ruud

I think somebody watched an old top gear episode…. your opinion and the cars you “drove” are identical to Jeremy Clarkson.
FAKE!!

Brandon Strickland
Brandon Strickland

Quite a few Lada Nivas made their way down to Australia!

-Greg-
-Greg-

Come on! This story is plain wrong. There were much more cars in USSR than those covered in this article article. Many of those cars were horrible, but definately not all. Even if you go through mainstream VAZ cars, so called Zhigulis, 2101 and 2103 were not bad. Even today they are capable of keeping up with traffic and being reliable. 2108s were also not so bad. I will not bother listing all those cars of other manufacturers that the author desided not to mention, but judging Soviet cars by 2105 (possibly the worst car from VAZ factory) is funny… Read more »

Owen Stride
Owen Stride

You can’t really answer the question without driving all the vehicles. The Skoda Rapid and Rates T603 strongly disagree with your opinion.

tarmiricmi
tarmiricmi

First of all, you should inform yourself on which countries were actually a part of the U.S.S.R/Soviet Block. And second, your English seems just as “confused” as that of the border patrol guy you mentioned.

Peter Lukáč
Peter Lukáč

Interesting read. 😉 I live in Slovakia, yet before few years, theese cars were common here, but after massive scrappage programs and extension of leasing programs, most of them disappeared from roads. But there is still lot of czechoslovakian cars, altrough not so much now, too. You were writing about eastern block cars, but didn´t mentioned czechoslovakian cars – but Czechoslovakia was too part of Eastern block. 😉 I am not going to convice yoou about cars like Škoda 105, TAZ1500 or Avia, but what about Tatra? Yeah, they were a bit “exclusive”, but I consider it as a miracle,… Read more »

Jan
Jan

Exactly, the CSSR is missing completely. That’s bad. Wartburg from East Germany is missing, too.

Vasi Atanasova
Vasi Atanasova

My family had a Jiguli first then a Lada. And yes, the Lada Niva is still going. You can see them on the streets in most Eastern European countries as well as in the West. I’ve seen them on the streets in Germany quite often.

Check out what we captured at a junk yard in Bulgaria last month – Russian, American and German cars sit next to each other 🙂
http://www.corsia.us/visitng-a-junk-yard

Cheers to all those great Russian cars!
Vasi
Corsia Logistics

Douglas Anderson
Douglas Anderson

We live in Warsaw for a time in the early 90’s . The streets were populated with any and all makes of east block , foul smelling , black smoke belching junk., The commute to work was always in a fog of diesel smoke . The traffic was as bad as any we had ever seen , but the skill of driving was non-existent. What constantly amazed us was the skill of everyday drivers to repair their car on the side of the road from what ever malady had attacked them. The local Polish produced Polonaise car was to be… Read more »

Jani Pancar
Jani Pancar

my father had lada niva 1990 model we had oit for 11 yeard and would still go for another 11 if it wouldnt use so much gas per 100 km but still the lada we had still working today. body of the car is finished btu engine and rest of the car still working i must say i think ruskis made the best SUV and for really cheap price and car really do what it should a real SUV do clime hills and not roads on hills but real offroad stuff where allmoust no car can go perfeckt car im… Read more »

Garrett Charger
Garrett Charger

3-gear transmission? Who talks like that? The Chaika had a 3-speed automatic transmission – a real rarity for Soviet-made vehicles as vast majority were manual. That was actually the norm in Detroit at the same time so it’s not like they were behind. There were quite a few good Soviet cars actually. The original M20 Pobeda was quite ahead of its time. GAZ 21 Volga was also quite a good car. Moskvitch 408 did quite well when it was introduced, only problem is that they kept making cars based on that design for close to 30 years. Lada 2105 was… Read more »

Ale Renesis
Ale Renesis

a 3-speed gearbox is horrid. It was bad in Detroit just as much as it was bad in Ulyanovsk. Bad for fuel consumption and terrible for performance. Anyway, bad cars are still being made today, it’s just banter, lad 😉

Péter Friedrich
Péter Friedrich

I live in Budapest and we have a lot of Porsches, but the avarge cars aren’t the newset ones.
Next time try out some old soviet trucks, lika a kraz, zil, or a monstreus Maz-535

Victor Smith
Victor Smith

I agree with the comment the Lada Niva was the only decent Soviet Ruskie car, Surprising the Ruskies don’t have much of an automotive manufacturing presence anymore, in that I mean that you never hear much about them on the other side of the (former) Berlin Wall.

Radu
Radu

Please don’t put all Eastern European countries in the “former USSR”. Communist Serbia wasn’t in the USSR and neither were Romania or Hungary.

Also, like May, you mentioned nothing about Dacia, or the more interesting Romanian car, the 4×4 ARO.

Ale Renesis
Ale Renesis

I know, you’re right. Serbia was part of Yugoslavia

Michael Eldred
Michael Eldred

EDITOR!!

Guru
Guru

This article is a complete knock-off of Top Gear’s ‘Has Communism ever produced a good car’ segment. A good proof-read is also lacking. Shame on you.

Zoran Milosavljevic
Zoran Milosavljevic

While I agree with you on the Niva, you missed the most interesting Soviet block cars Skoda they made an interesting rear engine air cooled sedan that I remember as a child when I visited realitaves in Serbia, it was the only east block car that seemed somewhat modern and wasn’t a licenced product. They even rallyed the Skoda 120. Incessantly you also missed the Polish fiat (not a good car) and the Zastava licenced copy of the Fiat 500, in this case with a 650 or 750cc engine.

Ale Renesis
Ale Renesis

I did try to drive a rear-engined Skoda, I was in Prague in 2013 and the guy who worked at the hotel where I was staying had one. But he wouldn’t let me drive it. Bugger.

Robert Pásztor

Totally agree. However actually the Skoda 120 is so water cooled that it needs 11litres of coolant.

Hrvoje Marušić
Hrvoje Marušić

What you say on Zastava cars?

Ale Renesis
Ale Renesis

I love the Skala.

Artur Grochowski
Artur Grochowski

You should try to drive some czech cars, f.e. rear engined Skodas – they are quite decent. Also try some polish cars – Fiat 126p (extremely small, but charming) and FSO Polonez (awful car, horrible in every way possible).

Eba Normaalne
Eba Normaalne

Lada Niva is the only good soviet car

michael pristave
michael pristave

Try to find a Tatra

Jan Izik
Jan Izik

That wouldn’t be fair since Tatras were not cheap peoples cars. Maybe old Škoda but not Tatra.

Peter Lukáč
Peter Lukáč

Agree, that would sound different 😀 And GAZ Chaika isn´t cheap, too, but it was mentioned.