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Iron Curtain Classics

Chips Off The Old Blocs Published: 17th May 2012 - 1 Comments

Iron Curtain Classics
Iron Curtain Classics
Iron Curtain Classics
Iron Curtain Classics
Iron Curtain Classics
Iron Curtain Classics
Iron Curtain Classics
Iron Curtain Classics
Iron Curtain Classics
Iron Curtain Classics
Iron Curtain Classics
Iron Curtain Classics
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Fancy a cheap classic car with a difference? Look no further, Comrades...

Russian millionaires may buy football clubs and entire car companies in the UK, but Russian automotive manufacture rarely grabs the headlines, unless the feature focuses on poor metal, rust, and Italy/Fiat’s Togliatti/AvtoVAZ past saga.

Russian and, generally, Eastern Bloc cars are, however, full of surprises - not all bad either. In fact, there are even sports cars of Russian descent, such as ZIS/ZIL and MZMA, the Moskvitch manufacturers.

The latter built some Formula cars, and if one looks hard enough, it is possible to find a lone singleseater manufacturer in whole Socialist bloc, based in Tallinn (Estonia), TART (later renamed TARK), a truck and bus reconditioning factory originally, with a small-ish section of the works dedicated to single seaters. Over the years, more than 1300 open-top cars were built there.

Perhaps most of USSR’s 15 republics and 290,000,000 inhabitants were only interested in cars to take them from A to B, but ZA RULYEM (The Driver) of Moscow, the single popular auto magazine nearly up to the end of the Superpower, printed 4.5 million copies and had 30 million readers. Like the cars, copies of the magazine were not freely available, people were queuing up from midnight to get their subscription in the morning at the local post office. Za Rulyem was made up of 42 pages, two regular pages of world news per issue, plus the odd two-page features ever year. Estonia printed review articles on western cars every single month. These days, Za Rulyem continues as the main publication, print runs at about 300,000 units, 300 pages, but there are dozens of others available as well.

Over half of a whole engineering and design effort was focused on building luxury cars for highpositioned commies; automatic transmission for small and medium cars never came into fruition, for instance. Several V8 engines, automatic transmissions (mostly stolen ideas, as no licence was bought) were manufactured in-house, as political agendas dictated that an effort to be self-sufficient would be preferable to importing from abroad. Military truck chassis, engines and up to 16x16 wheel rocket carriers abunded. No country in the whole world produced a more varied palette of prototypes and series-built heavy hardware.

Due to the inevitable space restrictions this feature doesn’t cover every Iron Curtain classic (we left out the surprisingly respectable Polski Fiat for example). But what have gathered is a mix, from the cheap and cheerful to the decadent luxury brands. They all have one thing in common and that’s character.

Is It Volga To Be Seen Cooking On Gaz?

The Sixties carried a definite shift in car ownership and status perception, in Russia. The much loved GAZ-M20 ‘Pobieda’ model breathed its last in the Fifties, to be replaced by the M-21 Volga, an up-and-coming brand adoring at the altar of style, unique design and wealth.

From 1968 to 1985, the Volga/GAZ-24 was produced - though the first two years were almost entirely dedicated to make prototypes and pre-series models. In fact, the introduction of this model was so slow that by the mid-seventies its initially novel features almost felt outdated. The biggest headache for the Volga engineers was the engine: should they keep the old Volga GAZ-21 unit or replace it?

There was even talk of a six-cylinder version. The M-21 suspension greasing mechanism, which allowed the grease to be poured all over the road as one drove, did not carry over. In the end, the model was powered by a standard (aluminium) 2.5 four-cylinder engine, though the scary 5.5 V8 195bhp variant was produced alongside, exclusively for the use of Russian police KGB and authorities. A secret project, a police car, was finally shown at the Avtoprom ´84 show in Moscow. A few Volgas and Latvija minibuses had powerful wankel/rotary engines. A seven-seater station wagon was also built.

Over the following two decades, the model underwent modernisation to both the suspension and the interior, bearing in mind that the car was specifically used as taxis, police chase cars as well as ambulances (based on the commodious estate version). Like many other Russian cars in the UK, the Volga is considered a ‘Cold War’ curiosity, though a pretty tidy one. The American styling has a certain irony about it don’t you think?

Pros: Once the dream car of every Russian; relative good-looks, neat lines, European ‘flavour’. Four model generations helped iron out potential pitfalls.
Cons: Russian general public twitched at the sight of a Volga, given the car’s use by secret police and authorities. Nowadays only used as taxis out there. Less valuable than GAZ-20, the car it replaced.
Price: Standard M24, £1000 for project, all the way to £7000 for a mint example.

Tasty Lada Delights!

Last year there were rumours of the Lada returning to the UK, after a gap of 15 years. AvtoVAZ, the Russian manufacturer once close to Fiat, seems to be edging closer to Renault, with the plan to introduce an under- £5000 Lada to this market as a response to Western financial crises. Renault now owns a good package of assets and controls the much needed ‘perestroika’. It’s the first time a Western maker has been so thoroughly involved on more levels than just manufacturing, though it also brings its valuable parts bin.

Some 20 million Fiat 124-based Ladas VAZ-2101 were built from 1970 to 1997 (called ‘Riva’ after 1980) of which around two per cent found their way to the UK. These were upgraded, made prettier and legal, with one or two creature comforts added to the stark equipment list. By the end of the century, though, carbon emission regulations in the UK put a stop to the import of cheap Ladas with an image and reliability problem. Those were the years of Daewoo, Kia, Proton and inexpensive but cute run-arounds. The ungainly Riva was doomed here (though it continues to be built in Russia). Lada took the then capable 124 and toughened it up for its harsh climates and fitted simpler rear brakes (drum) to cope with the winter. Sadly the changes turned the agile Fiat into a truck to drive. But Motor in a 1974 test said of the 1200, “In all but a few areas it measures up well to what Western Europe can offer”. The Niva 4x4 (top) is a modern mud plugger and quite well liked still.

Pros: Interesting to those who long to own a piece of Russian/Italian history and engineering, no matter how basic and antiquated. Robust and indestructible. Cheap. Alternative looks. Rare. Specialist part sales network quite supportive. Niva 4x4 is tough go-anywhere vehicle.
Cons: Rust-prone; ungainly looks. Not as inexpensive as other brands, due to cheaper labour elsewhere. 1200 and Riva is nothing like as good as the 124 in its prime…
Price: It may start at £250, but a time-capsule example, rust-protected from new and careful ownership has been known to be priced (but not get!) a lofty £3500. A good Riva can go to up to £1000 but, at car show last year, some optimist wanted four grand for a late model (admittedly in mint condition, mind)!

Solid Support For Commies

In most cases of running a communist-built classic, you’ll need to source a good network of advice and spares from within the car clubs, set up to defend these paragons of a different era. Obtaining spares from abroad can be done, but it is complex, and without knowledge of spares suppliers, it is easy to find your money spent with no recourse ever to get your parts delivered or your money back. You can find parts on eBay both in Britain and in Germany, where spares from the East sometimes ended up in the DDR. A working knowledge of German and/or Russian can assist in such circumstances. Cars such as GAZ, ZIL, Zaporoshets, IZH and Moskvitch are so specialised there is no owners’ club support in the English-speaking world, though get into the Soviet car ‘scene’ and you will find people who own the cars and are able to help.

Clubs’ List

Yugo Owners Club -
Skoda Owners Club -
Tatra Register UK -
Lada Owners Club -
Wartburg Trabant IFA Club -

Moskvitch: Is There A Hitch?

No overview of Russian cars of the ‘60s and ‘70s could ignore the Moskvitch 412 (1967-1975): on its mechanicals, the USSR´s first ever (five-door) hatch was produced by Izhevsk Works between 1973-1979. This family car was, in fact, the best-selling model in the entire history of AZLK (the Russian automotive factory founded in 1929 which produced Moskvitch models), at least until the Seventies; though the weaker and cheaper Moskvich 408, produced over a longer period of time, came in bigger number if one includes the models that were assembled in Bulgaria.

Part of the Moskvitch 412’s success was undoubtedly due to its lack of direct competitors, on the other side of the Urals, for a decade. It was propelled by a modest (but new and ubiquitous, for it was used in all Moskvitchs) 1500 ‘four’. On the outside, the car’s square headlights and vertical rear lights were a new feature from 1969. A year later, Satra Motors Ltd. started importing 412s: from a handful of vehicles initially sold, over 14,000 units come to the UK. Things precipitated in 1975 when the Lada was perceived to be a better proposition by Satra, resulting in the 412 being withdrawn.

Again, the 412 was a pivotal model for Russian production, as it incorporated safety elements which had hitherto been ignored. Whilst style and comfort would not be priorities - but then again, a contemporary Morris Marina would hardly have those at heart - pre-412 models would also be cumbersome and compete against sleek Ford Cortinas. The 412 had the size and pace of a Cortina, the standard equipment levels of an XJ6, but the price of a Mini. It also came with the 22-piece tool kit: a reason which many owners found compelling enough to buy the car which contained it.

Three Moskvich 408 entered the London-to-Sydney Marathon, in 1968, one gaining a place within the first ten cars; then there was British racer Tony Lanfranchi’s pert 412 which won all the class prizes plus the Castrol and Britax sections of the British Saloon Car Championship in 1972. A car with what was, effectively, a BMW engine (but cost infinitely less) was arguably a wise proposition to enter the tournament. Testing the car in 1974 Practical Motorist didn’t like the comfort or the handling but rightly said “You can’t ignore a 90mph family saloon for less than £800 quid!”.

Pros: Price; being made in a country were cold and snow would be every-day occurrence, therefore armed with resilience and a good heating system; engine good for 90mph. A van version was also offered.
Cons: Colours! The 412 was even offered in vomit-orange. Safety was not that paramount, with hard dashboard and handbrake in the way of driver’s thorax and lower limbs. Poor handling and steering
Price: from £300 to £1000, for the very few left in this country, plenty overseas.

Sample The Wonder Of A Wartburg

Falling under the communist umbrella of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the Wartburg is one of the unsung heroes of practical, sturdy and functional Eastern automotive prowess.

The name was inspired by the Wartburg castle, a landmark in the area where the car was manufactured, in East Germany. All but the last models, built from 1956, had a three-cylinder, two-stroke engine, 992cc, based on a DKW unit which the East Germans purloined. Driven sensibly (and there really should not be an alternative), it was good for 30/32mpg. Having just seven moving parts gave it the advantage of very little potentially going wrong; the model was also solidly built, with a proper chassis and strong enough to manage big loads. The estate versions were particularly practical, thanks to the large loading area.

Exports of both Wartburg 311 saloons and estates to the UK started in the Sixties, but the later models were stopped by 1974, allegedly due to EU emission regulations (though Belgium kept importing Wartburgs until the late Eighties).

Later models, in a variety of bodystyles, were still imported to the UK, though not officially. Generally known as the ‘Knight’ here, whilst the estate version was called ‘Tourist’, the latter Wartburg 353s were made with thinner metal, which made them more prone to rusting. The ‘freewheel’ function was made necessary by the need to protect the two-stroke engine - running on an oil-petrol mixture - from the dangers of poor lubrication on a long downhill run, lest it ran the risk of seizing, though it did sacrifice engine braking and make the handling interesting. Practical Motorist said that while the engine went like stink, it smelt it too, thanks to the oil and petrol mixture…

The latest model, the Wartburg 1.3, was powered by a Volkswagen 1.3 engine under licence, and was manufactured in the very late Eighties.

Currently, there are about 50 Wartburgs in the United Kingdom, in regular use and MOTed/on the road. About twice as many are used occasionally or stored in garages as projects being worked on.

Pros: Easy to maintain, sturdy construction, most parts are bolt-on and easy to get to. Some parts are re-manufactured though there is still old stock available through helpful enthusiast clubs. The flat floor feature makes the Wartburg a comfortable car to get in/out. Rare sight on British roads.
Cons: The oil-petrol engine mix may be inconvenient to do, especially if you are not used to it. Freewheel mechanism needs to be disengaged to take advantage of engine braking. Rust always an issue.
Price: As a project, a Wartburg can start from as little as a £100. A usable, (though not Concourscondition sample) will fetch anything between £500 to £800. ‘Condition A1’ cars go for over £1000.

Take Time For A Tatra

Founded in 1850 in the Czech Republic, Tatra is the oldest car maker, after Mercedes-Benz and Peugeot, having produced the first motorised vehicle before the turn of the century. Trucks and tank production, started during WWII, still continues, though the company stopped car manufacturing in the late 1990s.

There are many similarities between the Tatras of the ‘30s (V570, T87 and T97) and the original VW Beetle: looks, for a start, and an air-cooled (Vee-engine) unit at the back.

After the hiatus of WWII, an out-of-court settlement sealed a 30-year-old dispute between the two companies in terms of original design ownership. Tatra’s technology and engineering was not for the masses: only diplomats, politicians, chiefs of Police and VIPs were apportioned the cars by the Soviet state in the Fifties. The luxurious T603 with its lively V8 and remarkably good looks was a large executive car, and one of the best from the Eastern block. T603s, made for twenty years, would sometimes be recycled from older T603s and sold as new. Their replacement, the T613, was penned by Vignale and started production in 1973; it had the typical Seventies wedge shape, reminiscent of the Jensen Interceptor - which was built by Vignale - and a brand new 3.5 quad cam engine, no less.

It remained in production until the Nineties, and more than 11,000 units were churned out during that time. A huge amount, if compared with, say, Russian Chaikas: 3179 and 1120 respectively for 13 and 14 models.

Pros: A car which handles with aplomb, thanks to its rearengine configuration (directly on top of the rear axle) and excellent 3.5 V8 air-cooled engine. Very Seventies, fresh Italian style.
Cons: A touch ungainly as a heavy saloon.
Price: Tatra 613 goes for £500 (project) to £7500 for a perfect-condition series 1 ‘chromka’; £1200 will buy a reasonable car. Up to £25,000 can be paid for a late T700 with long wheelbase and all the toys - air con, power steering, leather, and more.

Spare Us The Skoda Jokes…

Of course, we couldn’t miss out Skoda, although the Czech came in from the cold some 20 years ago, when VW bought the company.

It’s an entirely different kettle of camshafts now of course but back in the old days there was the choice of the Octavia saloon, the Estelle and the forerunner, the 1000 MB range. The Octavia was a conventional front-engined design, while the rest, made from 1965, went rear-engined. In fact, the MB was little more than a revamped Renault Dauphine. The spin off 1107cc S110R fastback had success on the tough RAC Rally and was ripe for 90mph - water-cooled this time. It was replaced by the fairly rapid Rapide; thanks to their swing axle designs both were likened to a poor man’s 911 and just as thrilling round the bends! The S11R commands the best values - say £5000 for a minter and the rest can all be purchased around £2-3000 mark with projects just a few hundred quid. Now the brand is utterly respectable thanks to Volkswagen which means much better cars but less character.

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User Comments

This review has 1 comments

  • "za rulyem" means "beyond the steering wheel". greetings from Russia

    Comment by: El     Posted on: 01 Jul 2012 at 12:48 PM

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