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