Soviet Cars
In the USSR, the messianic project of creating a whole new society did not lack a place for automobiles. Stalin admired the American car industry, and he engaged the Ford Motor Company to build a massive automobile factory for him in Nizhni Novgorod in the 1930s. While construction of the New Soviet Man went on briskly from the 30s through the 70s, with results that turned out to be perhaps less than dazzling, they never even attempted to create a New Soviet Car. The USSR's auto industry made a variety of models after WWII, but they all were closely based on one western brand or another, from Fiat, Opel, and Simca to Buick and Packard.

Now that the former USSR is becoming the object of a sort of ironic nostalgia, a minor cult of Soviet cars has developed here and there in Western Europe and in Canada. Nobody seems much interested in the pretentious ZIS, ZIM, ZIL, and Chaika limousines favored by the secret police of Soviet times, but there is now a Western market for old Ladas, Moskviches, Volgas, and, the cheapest of them all, the Zaporozhets.

This vehicle, you no doubt remember, was the low-price Soviet car that was planned as the Socialist answer to the VW Beetle. It began as a stripped-down version of the Moskvich, redesigned in a labor camp by two prisoners with engineering degrees who had once taken apart a Hillman-Minx. With its rear-mounted, snow-cooled engine and high pan, the Zaporozhets was well suited to run on snow and mud, although it was rather less successful on roads. It was unusually safe, for a Soviet vehicle, and several of the test drivers actually survived the crash-tests.

The "Zaporka," as it was affectionately called, had a lightweight chassis made of plywood and potato peels, and was powered by a simple engine of three 2-stroke cylinders, or in an alternative model by two 3-stroke cylinders. In line with Socialist principles, its transmission worked with three forward gears that were all the same, and it would not go into reverse without a direct order from the Politburo of the Central Committee. Its top speed was 17 mph.

The Soviet driving public was passionately fond of the little Zaporka, and learned to cope with its many handling eccentricities. When the vehicle swerved sharply to the left, the driver's side door tended to fall off, and the driver risked falling out of the car unless his seat-belt was fastened, although of course the Zaporozhets was not equipped with seat-belts. And when the car was driven up a steep incline, the back seat sometimes filled with gasoline.

At one stage, directors of Soviet industry attempted to develop an export market in Western Europe. They had Zaporozhetses driven to east Germany, where they were permitted to escape to the west and sell themselves disguised as products of the German firm DKW or "Das Kleine Wunder!" Unfortunately, the masquerade was discovered, and the relevant German court, the Reichsoberhandelsbeförderungsmittelgericht, found the Russian cars guilty of ex proprio in omnibus or worse, and ordered them all converted to skate-boards.

After the Soviet Union closed its doors, the ZAZ company which produced the Zaporozhets was privatized, upon which it immediately filed for bankruptcy. Its large plant in Zaporizhia, in the Ukraine, has been abandoned for a decade and a half, with Zaporozhetses in various stages of completion still lying scattered about the long-silent production line. For a time, an enterprising German firm began to purchase them for resale in the west as garden gnomes.

Recently, however, the American Disney company has begun negotiations to acquire the entire town, with the plant, the half finished cars, and the slightly radioactive surrounding countryside, in order to develop a theme park of Soviet nostalgia. It will be called OctoberRevolutionLand, and its corporate logo will be the hammer and sickle superimposed on the Disney Magic Kingdom castle. The displays will emphasize Soviet technological achievements such as the Zaporozhets, the White Sea Canal, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, the underwater assault rifle, the Theremin, the pelmeni dumpling mold, and the powdered form of chicken Kotletky Pojarskie designed to be eaten in outer space.

--- Dr. Phage
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