For many folks in the West life behind the Iron Curtain had always been a source of endless jokes or wild guesses. Now, roughly 30 years after the old order collapsed, the tales of funny (as in both strange and hilarious) Ruskies are still aplenty. During this little nostalgic trip, we will talk about Soviet cars, car owners and ownership, will hopefully clear some of the prejudices, and revive a few old jokes too.
Many things could be said of the USSR, but ultimately, all politics aside, it was no different from other countries you can find on the map. Life was totally normal, the exception being the absence of private businesses, presence of totally free education and medical care, mostly free apartments and rather narrow wealth gap between the ruling class (“the Nomenklatura”) and the regular folks. Starting sometime in the early 60-s the ideological pressure gradually became very light, with even the Party propagandists clearly not believing in what they preached. Jolly cynicism was the name of the game and you could hear plenty of rather harsh jokes about the State and its increasingly senile leadership.
So people, all 286 million of them, lived their daily lives, went to work, had fun, raised children and tried to make ends meet.
Car ownership was a rare luxury and a symbol of prestige though. By 1985 (the last year before all hell broke loose and things started to seriously deteriorate and the social order collapsed) the Soviet populace owned 45 personal vehicles per 1000 people. To compare, the US had 535, Western Europe 350-400 and Japan 230.
Cars were expensive and difficult to obtain. The vehicle sale price was 3-5 average annual incomes of a skilled manufacturing worker or an engineer. One also had to wait up to several years to be allowed to buy one, as allotments for new personal vehicles were distributed through local trade union charters. Everybody supposed to work in the USSR and all workers were unionized.
The only way to bypass the system and wait was either travel to the Far North to work in the fast growing resource economy, or shopping used. This channel was officially regulated through a system of state-run consignment stores, but really they were just an unavoidable middleman between private sellers and buyers.
Getting parts and even basic wearables (bulbs, batteries, tires, pads, fluids and filters) was difficult, everything was “deficit”. Prices were not cheap either. And you were your only mechanic, as the OEM-backed service stations were placed only in major cities, sometimes a thousand kilometers apart, and waiting times to have your car serviced stretched into eternity. And as mentioned before, there were no private chain or small mom-n-pop repair shops.
The last reason for the relative scarcity of the personal car is that not too many really wanted to own one, because the USSR was rather heavily urbanized. The typical city dwelling in the USSR and now Russia is a multi-story apartment block. Typical arrangements back then were 5-9-14 stories, up to 25 or more now. Most things were within a walking distance, the public transit was quite well developed and the general pace of life was leisurely. On top of that, very few had a garage (usually on the city outskirts or in the industrial zone) or secure parking. So the last thing you wanted was having an expensive asset sitting outside, open to the elements and vandalism or petty theft (more on that later).
But imagine you have the means and the funds to become mobile. What could you get back then? The Soviets were not spoiled with much choice. Throughout the late 70-s (the peak of Soviet prosperity) there existed 4 “brands” whose products a private citizen could actually buy.
The largest was the VAZ (Lada for you). Its 2-model range comprised of several heavily revised Fiat 124 spin-offs, and a very modern (for 1977) and capable Niva 4×4. In 1985 the range expanded to add a new FWD Samara, developed with the help from Porsche Engineering. Interestingly, VAZ never boasted about the foreign input.
The Ladas were the indisputable style, prestige and comfort leader in cities, especially its top versions (2106 and 2103). Due to their requirements for higher quality oils, antifreeze instead of water, and less serviceable parts and assemblies, they were viewed with suspicion by the rural and out of big city folk. Parts were expensive and very hard to come by too. Funnily enough, the earliest batches assembled in 1970-1973 using Italian parts had the best reputation. Speaks volumes about the average quality then.
The second largest was Moskvich with its two factories, one in Moscow (AZLK) and one in Izhevsk (Izh). Both produced what was virtually the same car from the mid 60’s (M-408/412). While Moscow’s version was updated in 1977 to become 2140, it only came in 2 body styles (a sedan and a station wagon). Meanwhile Izh made a sedan, two trucklets and a 5-door hatchback with some faint hues of Renault-14 about it.
The truck with a tall canopy was often called a “boot heel”. Strong and durable, if narrow, noisy and feeling very antiquated on the road, Moskviches were an easier buy (shorter wait times and cheaper). They were mostly favored by those who had to regularly endure poor roads or haul lots of stuff.
For those in the know, the Izh was much more popular for its higher quality, because of the military origins of its assembly plant and the workforce. Interestingly, the M-412 engine was heavily influenced with the BMW designs of the early 60’s. Due to their durability and low cost, in later years it became popular with the builders of lightweight aircraft.
The less fortunate ones had to go with the ZAZ, or Zaporozhets. It was an air-cooled rear-engined contraption, that filled streets with an unmistakable cacophony of loud racket and air cooler whine. The common joke was that it took only a few minutes of shame, but you’d get there. Its earliest iteration closely resembled FIAT-600, was commonly known as a “humpback” and widely praised for off-road prowess.
The second generation took styling inspiration from the German NSU-Prinz, but with a bit more favorable proportions. A “jug-eared”, “a loser’s car”, “Zhopo-rozhets” (Assface) – the (nick-)naming nomenclature reflected what little respect that the car had. Were it not for the weeny “power” from the V-4 engines, they would have possessed rather suicidal handling traits. Their model range also included a “handicapped” car, with a bizarre system of levers and pedals to compensate for missing or inoperative limbs.
And finally the queen of the road, the Volga. Nothing shouted louder that you made it than having and driving one. No other domestic car attracted more envy from the fellow citizens. The appearance of the first one, GAZ-21, was inspired by the 1952 Ford Mainline, but mechanicals could not be more different. Introduced in the middle 50’s, it was theoretically available and affordable to the plebs. My dad, then a junior engineer, nearly bought one, while his colleague did and drove it for 40 years and almost 1 million miles.
The second one, GAZ 24, came out around 1969-70 and looked like an almost attractive concoction of several styling themes. To be able to buy one legally, you had to be either a director of a manufacturing plant, be a distinguished artist or some such, or win a lottery. Another chance to buy a Volga was working abroad for several years at a Soviet diplomatic or trade mission.
A layman with unbearable urge to own a Volga could only satiate the lasting by buying a retired one off a taxi or governmental fleet. For that though, you had to have formidable welding, bodywork and mechanical skills, as well as access to all parts, because those cars would be in a very sad state.
Also, over the years, a handful of Volgas were built as KGB pursuit cars, with truck V8 engines and 3-speed autos.
Other vehicles, like Chaika limousines, UAZ off-roaders and all trucks and minibuses, were unavailable to the general public, so I will not mention them here.
In part two we will look at some day-to-day trivia that an average car owner had to deal with in the USSR, like getting gas, parking, servicing, etc.