When you think of some of the classic vehicles to emerge from the Soviet era it’s easy to build an image of a lumbering stereotype of Soviet cars; a kind of dull, functional car that looked and felt extremely similar to other models. While that may be true to some extent – it has to be said that most Soviet car models weren’t exactly exciting – there was much more to Soviet car production than this. Their design reflects a fusion of Western car design and something truly Soviet, and it’s clear that cars made in the Soviet Union are real collectors items today, and will hold an enduring fascination. In this article, we’ll roundup some of the major Soviet car manufacturers and models, taking you on a tour through the Lada, the Volga, the Zil, the Uaz, the Gaz and the Mosckvich.
Due to its undisputed qualities in the off-road, as well as its simple and rugged looks, the Jeep Willys qualified as the iconic vehicle of the American Army during the Second World War. After the war, the Soviets could not remain indifferent to this new type of vehicle, so they developed the GAZ 69, which was produced between 1953 and 1975 under different names (GAZ, UAZ and ARO).
Like the LuAZ 969 M, the GAZ 69 was a 4WD vehicle initially created for the Red Army. It had a 2.1 liter engine capable of producing 54 bhp, and a maximum speed of 56 mph with a 11 mpg fuel consumption rate. Not exactly a high tech piece of machinery, even for those days, but it was a great success nonetheless, being supplied to all Eastern European armies, exported to 56 countries, and also built in North Korea.
The Ulyanovsk Automobile Plant was founded in 1941 as a direct result of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. In response to this threat, the government of Joseph Stalin ordered the evacuation of strategically crucial industrial centers to the East. By October 1941, the rapid German drive to Moscow, triggered the decision to relocate the Moscow automotive manufacturer ZIS to the Volga town of Ulyanovsk.
The town, already a nascent industrial center with a sufficiently developed infrastructure and a good supply of skilled workers, would be an ideal location for the reconstituted factory. It was also safely out of reach of the German army. At that time of its founding, the plant was considered a subsidiary of ZIS. By 1942, the plant began production of artillery shells and automobiles. The first vehicle produced at the plant was the ZIS-5 three-ton truck.
The Lada is perhaps the most iconic of Soviet car brands in the world, and is still made today by Russia’s AvtoVaz car manufacturer. Lada is actually the brand name used for export, though – at home in the USSR it was known as a Zhiguli. The Lada/Zhiguli came about through a collaboration between AvtoVaz and Italian car-maker Fiat. The aim was to produce a reliable car that could be produced cheaply enough to be accessible by ordinary Soviet citizens, rather than the more expensive to produce models that were restricted to the elite.
The very first Zhiguli – the Vaz-2101 – was simply a re-engineered version of the Fiat 124. Produced in 1970 it went through many iterations, and went on to become the most popular car in Soviet history. The Soviet Union began to export Ladas in the 1980s, primarily to Western Europe, and they became a valuable source of foreign revenue for the Soviet Government.
Over ime, the name Volga became synonymous with luxury in the Soviet Union after the brand emerged as a successor to the GAZ-M20 Pobeda in 1956. GAZ – Gorkovsky Avtomobilny Zavod – were founded in 1932 as part of a collaboration between Ford and the USSR and they still exist as an entity to this day. The very first Volga vehicles proved to be an instant success and in a time when most cars on the street were fairly uniform, they stood out with their distinctive design.
Volgas became known for their luxury and were soon adopted by the police across the Soviet Union. After a while, only doctors, lawyers and government officials could really afford a Volga. The brand enjoyed peaks and troughs during its existence before it finally ceased production in 2007. There does however remain an active market for Volga from a classic car perspective. Vladimir Putin is certainly a fan of Volga cars – in the picture above you can see him in a Volga Gaz 21 with the then President of the United States, George Bush.
Outside of the Soviet Union Zil, or Zavod Imeni Likhachova vehicles were often seen transporting the country’s leaders. These luxury limousines seemed at odds with the outsider’s view of Communist Russia and as such they gained a distinct air of mystery. These official limos first saw life in 1936 when the first ZIS-101 rolled off the production line. Its main target audience, if you like, is summed up rather neatly in the photograph above, which sees Josef Stalin standing rather proudly alongside one of these early models.
The most famous model outside of the Soviet Union however was probably the ZIL-115, which was an armoured plated vehicle used to carry dignitaries on foreign visits. It could withstand heavy artillery and the floor was also bomb and booby trap proof. Outside of limousine production, ZIL also produced trucks, buses and a range of sports cars including the ZIL-112 which could reach a top speed of 162 mph and went on to become the most successful racing car in Soviet history
Moving away from luxury vehicles, the Moskvich rather embodied the outsider’s view of a dull, uniform car that was driven by many Soviet citizens in the second half of the twentieth century. Aside from the more basic GAZ models, the Moskvich was arguably the most popular of all the Soviet cars.
The first vehicles first appeared in 1945 but the boom years came in the 1970’s and 1980’s in line with the third generation of Moskvich cars. However, as the Soviet Union fell in the early 1990’s, many of the Soviet icons went with it and Moskvich were notable casualties. The great era of Soviet cars was therefore mirrored to some extent by this company’s life and death.