In the west, the 20th century was marked by the rise of consumerist culture with the automobile at the heart of it. However, in the communist Soviet Union, the government-enforced values of hard work and patriotism, with socialism forbidding the creation of a class based society, didn’t really allow a wide range of cars to be created. That’s why the car industry flourished in the capitalist West but not in the communist East, but this doesn’t mean that there weren’t interesting and cool cars from Russia. Even in such hard economic and political climate, talented Russian engineers and designers still managed to build some unique cars which capture the imagination of car enthusiasts even today. Lets get started.
1. Lada Samara EVA
The regular Samara (also called Sputnik for export markets) was an ordinary `80s hatchback with a 1.3-liter engine. However, the Samara EVA was something totally different and properly insane. Back in the mid-`80s, the most exciting motorsport class was of course the Group B rally championship which featured the fire-spitting Lancias, Fords, MGs and Audi Quattros we all love.
Lada wanted a piece of the action and decided to create an F.I.A-regulated racing machine in the form of Samara EVA. The car was redesigned from the ground up and a 300 horsepower turbocharged engine was put in the back, the suspension was completely new, and the company even got F.I.A approval. Unfortunately, Group B was banned soon after due to several deadly accidents and the Samara EVA sadly never got a chance to compete.
2. ZIL 4104
Although the communist leaders were eager to point out that every Soviet Union citizen is the same; there should be no privileged people in communism, the existence of ZIL cars proved them wrong. ZIL was the small company dedicated to hand-building luxury limousines for the highest members of society and their families.
The design of ZIL models was always very reminiscent of similar American models, and one of the last cars this factory produced was the enormous ZIL 4104, which was introduced in 1978. Under the hood was a massive 7.7-liter V8 engine delivering close to 300 horsepower and 600 Newton metres of torque. The car was 6.4 meters long and over 2 meters wide weighing a whopping 3.4 tons. It wasn’t fast, but was pretty damn cool.
3. ZAZ 966
Introduced in 1966 and discontinued in 1994, the ZAZ 966 or Zaporozhets was one of the most popular economy cars in the Soviet Union. The idea behind the ZAZ 966 was to make a small, affordable, and easy to maintain family car. For this one though, the Russians didn’t just want to copy an existing Western design as they often did, instead designing the vehicle from scratch.
The ZAZ had side scoops which were needed for cooling down the unusual V4 engine in the back. The engine was built from a magnesium alloy, which was extremely unusual since magnesium is very expensive, usually only used in high-end racing cars. ZAZ engineers knew that the model would be used in remote areas and on rough terrain too, so they mounted engine accessories higher than usual on the chassis in order to keep them dry. Crossing rivers and snowdrifts were no problem!
4. GAZ 24-24
Behind this strange name hides the classic Volga which you’ve probably seen in countless movies set in Russia or Eastern Europe. The GAZ 24 was a full-size sedan introduced in the late `60s as a copy of similar American models. It was produced in its millions, exported to several countries, and used as a taxi or police vehicle.
However, in the early `70s, the KGB asked for a more powerful version which was needed to keep up with ZIL limousines. The GAZ Company obliged (as if it had a choice) and delivered the GAZ 24-24 – a V8 powered Volga with dual exhaust, 190 HP, three-speed automatic which was the fastest production model in the Soviet Union. As expected, most of them were painted black and given to KGB operatives. The exact production number is unknown, but it is speculated that over 10,000 were built and used by military, police and various other agencies.
5. Lada Niva
Russian carmakers produced a lot of 4×4 vehicles, mainly for government services and military uses but until the late `70s, there wasn’t an easily available off-road vehicle for the common man. In 1977, the legendary Lada Niva was introduced and Russians finally had a modern 4×4 which was capable of tackling any terrain.
The Niva was based on Fiat mechanics since Lada used Fiat models under a license. This meant it was relatively modern for its time. Over the years, technology moved forward, but the Niva still remained relevant since it was so good off-road, so easy to repair and so cheap. Lada have produced millions of Nivas and continue to sell them to this day.
6. A: Level Volga V12 Coupe
The early `90s marked the fall of communism and the breakthrough of Western influences in Russia. Cars were in high demand, especially luxury ones; an expensive set of wheels was the perfect status symbol of the new Russian upper classes. Before long, Moscow was filled with Ferraris and Porsches, but every so often you might have seen an A: Level Volga V12 Coupe.
Back in 2001, a small Russian company called A: Level unveiled a strange looking restomod in the form of Volga V12 Coupe. The idea was simple. The basis for this elegant GT coupe was the already great BMW 850 CSI, and the designers kept the floorpan, suspension and drive train. However, the body was totally hand-built and designed to resemble the classic GAZ 21 Volga from the late `50s and early `60s. Even though the two cars look alike, none of the panels or parts are interchangeable. Under the hood, the 5-litre V12 made 380 HP sent to the rear wheels. Pretty cool stuff.
So, there you are. Which cars did I miss? Have you ever seen a Russian car in your country? Let me know in the comments.