(first posted 10/12/2017) Having taken the opportunity to discover Iceland last July, I went ahead and took the opportunity to take a trip to Armenia and Georgia in September. Why? Because I had never been there before. And these countries have a long and fascinating history, beautiful mountains and monuments, edible food and nice wine… The intriguing carscape I was to encounter on this edge of Europe there was just the icing on the cake.
Perhaps some of you may not be entirely familiar with this corner of the globe, so in a nutshell, Armenia is a small landlocked country, about the size of Belgium or the State of Maryland, with a population of about 3 million. Georgia is a bit bigger, roughly equivalent in area to Ireland or West Virginia, with 3.7 million inhabitants.
Both countries share a border, but they also have problems with their immediate neighbours. About 30% of Georgia’s territory is under Russian control, whereas Armenia controls a chunk of Azerbaijan’s territory – the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan are closed, but one can go either north to Georgia or south to Iran.
Armenia displays its long-standing Christian heritage prominently, as it claims to be the oldest Christian nation in the world (since 301 A.D.); not to be outdone, Georgia’s flag has five crosses – St George is a bigger deal here even than in England. Over the centuries, these countries have had to endure invasions and occupation by a variety of empires – the Romans, the Ottomans, the Persians, the Mongols, the Russians… So the culture and language in these countries is quite unique.
Both Armenia and Georgia have their own alphabets, their own independent clergy and their own issues with the past. Armenians are still marked by how most of their country was basically destroyed by the Turks and their population scattered around the world, the Georgians still live with the memory of the two prodigal sons that became their tormentors during the Soviet days – Stalin and Beria.
But let’s get to the cars already. Both countries seem to be sourcing a lot of their stuff second-hand from Germany nowadays. The ultimate status symbol, as in many former socialist countries, is owning a Mercedes-Benz. Plenty of new-ish Opels, VWs, Škodas and Fords are around for those who cannot afford the three-pointed star. Japanese and Korean cars are a bit less common here than in other parts of Europe (though they get several models that are not found in the EU) and American ones are nowhere to be seen, barring the odd Escalade.
No Italian cars either really, except a single Maserati Ghibli saloon I saw in the middle of nowhere in Georgia. Of course, as in any capital, a few super-rich elites drive around in spanking new top-of-the-range luxobarges, but they are the exception (this is not Geneva or the West End of London). A smattering of Renaults and Peugeots, but no Citroëns. But I’d say a good fifth of the cars are still Russian-made legacies of the old Soviet days. And that’s what interested me, first and foremost.
Of course, we should get the Ladas out of the way. These are ubiquitous, though I personally don’t get tired of the sight of them. These Fiat derivatives were built in a completely new factory in Togliatti from 1971 to 2015 – over 18 million were made.
The basic Lada (often called “Zhiguli” in Russian) had a 1200cc engine and looked almost exactly like the Italian Fiat 124. Not sure when they stopped making these with full chromed trim and single round headlamps, but they’re still around – both in saloon and wagon form. And seeing these never fails to bring a smile to my face.
More common are the newer “Russian Mercedes” Lada Riva 1500 / 1600, also known as the 2107. They are mechanically very similar to the Zhiguli, but their bigger engines and more manly looks have made them far more popular. Lada Rivas are going to be with us for a long while yet.
In the mountainous terrain of the Caucasus though, it’s perhaps better to opt for the Lada Niva. These rugged 4x4s have been in production since 1978 and have a worldwide following. You still see some in Western Europe, whereas other Ladas have pretty much gone extinct there. Few Russian designs can claim to have as much personality as the Niva, and the car’s simplicity and roadability on rough mountain roads have made its success.
In 1984, Lada introduced the FWD Samara, known in Sovietland as the Sputnik. I cannot remember the last one I saw in Western Europe, though they were imported (and dirt cheap) at the time. These were in production for almost 30 years, but their overall shabbiness seems to have claimed a good number of them already. They are definitely not as common as the Niva or the Riva.
AvtoVAZ, the makers of Lada, introduced the 110 (or 2110) saloon during the dark days of the Yeltsin era, though it was designed, with a little help from Porsche, during the last years of Gorbachev’s premiership. They barely lasted a decade on Togliatti’s roster, though they lasted a lot longer in the Ukraine and Egypt. Was is the bulbous styling, the devalued badge or the overall poor quality that kept most foreign buyers away? The 110 (along with the 111 wagon and 112 hatchback variants) bombed in export markets but were pretty strong sellers in Soviet successor states.
Sensing that the 110’s rather amateurish design hindered its larger popularity, Lada gave it a mild makeover and renamed it Priora in 2007. These are still being made in Russia, but again export markets responded with an emphatic “Nyet”. That’s it for the Ladas – I don’t recall seeing any Okas, the smaller model that Lada used to make, nor many of the newer cars they came out with recently.
So on with the show and to Russia’s other big carmaker – GAZ. The Gorky Automobile Factory has produced cars since 1930, but it seems the oldest ones still on the road are the Volgas from the -50s and ‘60s, such as this lovingly restored M-21. This looks like a 3rd series car (nicknamed “the baleen”), which would make it a mid-‘60s example, with the oft-added, but not period-correct, pedestrian-piercing leaping gazelle hood ornament.
These are not that rare in the Caucasus, though roadworthy cars are not as common as wrecks or parts cars. The 3rd and 4th series were outwardly pretty identical, with production lasting until 1970. Their 2.5 litre 4-cyl. engine is one of their most valued assets, as it is known for its torque and durability. But the Volga one sees most often in Armenia and Georgia is the M-21’s long-lived successor (and a personal favourite of mine), the M-24.
I chanced upon this restored 1st series M-24 in Tbilisi, complete with bad quality black paint and toothy chrome grille. These are relatively large cars to non-American eyes and noticeably wider than the M-21 – hence their nickname of “barzha” (barge).
The M-24 was officially launched in 1967, but production only really got going in 1970. This particular car’s lack of bumper guards and C-pillar sidelights appear to make it a 1974-77 model, but it’s anyone’s guess when this car made it out of the factory, really.
The “gazelle” emblem makes this car something of a Soviet Impala. A good portion of these were used as taxis and government cars, but some were exported to various Asian and European countries. They’re not the status symbol they once were, but it’s heartwarming to see some folks are taking the time and effort to save a few.
Of course, there were other chrome-grilled (i.e. pre-1985) Volgas around, but most of them were in pretty poor nick. This 2402 station wagon, photographed in the Armenian city of Gyumri, is a case in point. Funnily enough, the more recent Volga wagons have a modernized front clip, but the whole rear end was never updated, which makes them look like two cars merged into one.
Some Volgas are still on taxi duty, of course. This 2nd series (plastic grille) Volga 2410 was working for a living despite its advancing years – the last ones were made in 1992. I’m no fan of the black plastic scourge that befell the automotive world from the late ‘70s onwards, but I must say GAZ did very well compared to most other automakers, be they European, Japanese or American. These still looked damn good.
For a 30-year-old Volga taxi, it seemed in impeccable condition. The engine was probably still the original 2.5 litre four with its Cossack-like cavalry of 98 ponies (DIN), which doubtless has quite an appetite compared to a Lada engine. But you make do with what you have.
The more serious-looking Volga 3102 was also to be seen on occasion, though not as frequently as other Volgas. This one was snapped in Yerevan. The 3102 was launched as a more upmarket Volga, though still quite visibly based on the M-24. These were produced from 1982 to 2009, this being one of the later models. The 3102 was reputed to have a better build quality than its lesser stablemates, which explains its long life within GAZ’s lineup. Personally, these Volgas’ ham-fisted, square-jawed looks and rectangular tails leave me pretty cold.
The M24’s rather dated appearance was, by the ‘90s, obvious to all, so Volga gave the old girl a much-needed butt and facelift, resulting in the 3110. The new rear was certainly a departure from the previous Volgas’ vertical tail lamps and squarish looks. But did this gel with the carried-over central section? No, not really. And the new front clip was not an aesthetic triumph, either. Luckily, that last point was taken into account.
This is the 31105’s happy and smiling face – the 2005 facelift of the 3110. I hadn’t seen these in the metal before, but they’re quite an improvement over the mid-‘90s facelift. These were to be the final iteration of the M-24: GAZ halted production in 2009, just as the platform reached its 40th birthday. For this final version, the toothy chrome grille made a welcome return, now frozen into a grin and accompanied by bulging thyroid-eyed headlamps on either side – the epitome of Volgarity. Nicely done.
So now we enter the domain of the “others”, the non-Lada and non-Volga Soviet cars. I recently wrote about the AZLK Moskvich 412, which was once about as ubiquitous as the Lada Riva is now. But this is no longer the case, I’m sad to report. At least in this part of the former USSR, there were few Moskviches to be seen. I did glimpse a few 2140s and at least one of the weird Izh combis, alas these were not captured on camera. I did not see any Moskvich Alekos, as far as I know. The only 412 I did capture was this late model (but already pretty far gone) Izh van, with a novel front-mounted spare wheel.
On the other hand, this being a region of rough roads and steep grades, there were quite a few UAZ 4x4s around. This UAZ-69 looks like it had been somewhat restored and accessorized to the hilt. These things were designed by GAZ in the early ‘50s but built at the Ulyanovsk Automobile Factory (UAZ), which was originally set up in record time when the Germans attacked in 1941 to make trucks. These were made until the early ‘70s and some are still in regular use.
But the UAZ one really sees everywhere is the Jeep-like 469. These tough little things are your best bet to get through the higher mountain passes in the Caucasus. A lot of them seem to be army surplus and consequently wear olive garb paintwork and have canvas roofs. This one though, which I saw in the Kazbegi region of Georgia and seems to be the village police officer’s car, was a “civilian” four-door with a full metal roof.
I have no idea if these can be dated in any way – it seems the ones they make nowadays are pretty much identical to the ones they made back in the early ‘70s. Similarly, the engines used in these could be anything from a 2.4 to a 2.7 litre 4-cyl. made (I believe) by GAZ.
UAZ may be the kings of the Soviet 4×4, but they also produce a significant amount of trucks and small vans, including this rather cute 451 – also available as the 452 in 4×4. These were introduced in 1965 and have remained in production ever since. These are often seen in Armenia and Georgia, though usually in 4×4 guise. This one seems to be a 4×2 (RWD) used by the Georgian Water & Power company.
Last but not least, a lovely Izh motorcycle and side-car found in Tbilisi. Motorcycles are not my field of expertise, so I’ll defer to the CCommentariat for the identification of this machine, but it does look like an Izh Planeta 3 with a single-cyl. 350cc engine, built anytime between 1962 and 1989.
A couple of regrets include my missing an opportunity to photograph a ZAZ – I did spy a couple of these little Corvair-esque rear-engined cars on my trip, but alas they escaped. Also, I did not see a single ZIL, but those are ultra-rare even in Russia, so that was perhaps to be expected. A couple of cars I found are worthy of stand-alone features, to be written up and posted soon. Hope you enjoyed this little virtual tour of these two fantastic countries as much as I did hiking there for a couple of weeks.
Back To The USSR – Or A Long Time Ago In a Galaxy Far, Far Away…, by Hombre Calgarian
Junkyard Classic: 1988 Lada Samara – The Modern Lada, by David Saunders
Cohort Sighting: Lada 112 – The Russian AMC Hornet?, by Perry Shoar
Curbside Classic: Volga GAZ-21 – Coming Out Of Hibernation , by Stanislav Alexeyev
GAZ-24 Volga: The Near-Immortal GM B-Body Of Russia, by Robert Kim