Curbside Classic: 1974 AZLK Moskvich 412 – Cod War Icon

(first posted 10/5/2017)     Iceland is a land of contrasts. The fire and the ice, the midnight sun and the dark winters, the sulfurous hot baths and the frozen tundra… And one can add to this list: old American iron and Soviet tin-cans. By virtue of geography, Iceland was one country where Detroit’s fine products routinely shared the road (that one road around the country) with the USSR’s very own “Big Three” – GAZ, AvtoVAZ (a.k.a Lada) and AZLK, better known as Moskvich. Get a cup of tea from the samovar, comrades, it’s going to be a good one.

Before we start, GAZ, Lada and Moskvich weren’t the only Soviet carmakers – ZIL, ZAZ, UAZ and Izh were also making vehicles – but they were the largest and, unlike the others, they were exported to both COMECON and Western markets. GAZ (Gorky Automobile Factory) started off circa 1930 by making a licensed version of the Ford Model A in Gorky (present-day Nizhny-Novgorod); soon, a GAZ factory was operating in Moscow under the name KIM (literally, “Factory named after Communist Youth International”). By 1939, KIM became independent from GAZ. Taking inspiration from the Ford Prefect for its mechanicals and the Opel Olympia for its styling, a brand new small car, the KIM 10-50, was launched in 1940. But barely a few hundred were made before Germany invaded.

After 1945, the factory became MZMA (Moscow Small Car Factory) and the cars became Moskvich. The Red Army had brought back most of Opel’s Rüsselsheim factory as war reparations, so the 1938 Opel Kadett became the 1946 Moskvich 400 four-door sedan and cabriolet. As pre-war cars go, this was a pretty modern design, with independent front suspension, hydraulic brakes, a capable 1.1 litre engine and all-steel construction. It became the 401 in 1951, still sporting the pre-war Opel sidevalve engine; the mooted facelift shown above did not make it to production. These were the first Soviet cars to be exported to the West (Belgium and Norway) in the early ‘50s.

The follow-up model, logically named 402, came out in 1955. This time, it was a purely home-grown design, pretty comparable to the contemporary Fiat 1100 or Hillman Minx. The engine was upped to a 1.2 and the electrics switched to 12 volts. The drop-tops were ditched in favour of a wagon variant and exports were widened to more countries. There was also a 4×4 version. The basic design went through several detail and name changes, becoming the 407 and later the 403 (Peugeot must’ve had a fit). In Belgium and several other countries, it was known as Scaldia; the Belgian importer even made a special version with a Perkins Diesel engine, creating the cheapest Diesel-powered car on the market. Production lasted until about 1965.

Moskvich were more style-conscious than one would have thought, so the 402-403-407 was completely re-engineered with an OHV engine bored out to 1350cc as the 408 in 1961. Production only got going in 1964. This was to be the definitive RWD Moskvich body shell: the Brezhnev years were synonymous with stagnation, and this was visible in the USSR’s automobile production as much as anywhere else.

Still, the 408 was given a mild restyle in 1968, giving rise to the “new” Moskvich 412. One other feature had been updated: the engine was no longer an Opel descendant but a modern alloy-block 1.5 litre OHC with hemi heads delivering 80 hp (SAE). Moskvich had allegedly reverse-engineered the BMW Neue Klasse’s motor, but kept the leaf-sprung live rear axle and drum brakes of the 408 (which remained in production in parallel) – you can’t have everything.

The 412 also shaved off a few pounds compared to its predecessor, chiefly through the adoption of thinner-gauge steel and a wider use of plastics. This helped the car’s performance but didn’t do much for its durability. At least the 412 kept the impressively complete standard toolkit that was always the hallmark of Russian cars. A companion wagon model was also produced, the 427, that kept the 408’s quaint vertical light clusters.

Exports were still a priority, so cars slated for Western markets were usually better equipped than ones for domestic customers. Nearly all contemporary tests made by Western European automags emphasized how these were “a lot of car for your money”: terrific heater, all compartments with lighting, radio, rear defroster, ashtrays and cigar lighters galore – all these were standard issue in the Moskvich, at least in the West. But the same rags also berated the Moskvich’s crude controls, ageing styling and questionable build quality and finish.

The latter criticism was a particularly tough nut to crack. The Soviet planners themselves were keenly aware that MZMA’s output was of mediocre quality (even within the Soviet context), but struggled to fix the numerous issues they correctly identified. This did not prevent the cars from being produced, but it did end up causing problems for Moskvich’s image both at home and abroad.

Western importers usually had to spend a lot of time and money getting Soviet cars to showroom condition when they received them. Missing trim, broken instruments, misaligned panels and mechanical gremlins were routine, but what was borderline acceptable back in the USSR (placed it!) was not going to fly in Western countries. This was also the case for Polish or Romanian imports, but far less so for East German or Czechoslovakian ones.

Our CC is a 1974 model – one of the last 412s made in the Moscow factory. The official name and badge changed to АЗЛК (AZLK, or Leninist Komsomol (Communist Youth) Automobile Factory) in 1969, though nobody used this acronym, even in Russia. By this time, Moskviches looked pretty dated and became harder to sell in Western countries. Sure, there were plenty of 1974 Western cars that looked even older (VW Beetle, Simca 1000, Citroën 2CV, Saab 96, Mini, etc.), but these were usually smaller city cars, not family saloons. The 412 was about as cheap as some of these cars in some markets, but somehow this argument was less than compelling.

So how did this particular example of Soviet engineering prowess end up in Iceland? Well, it seems it was all about the fish. Britain and Iceland have had regular “Cod Wars” over the decades, or even centuries, due to British fishermen often wandering into the rich Icelandic waters to catch their prey. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, tensions periodically flared up between the two countries, especially in the mid-’70s. Britain did not hesitate in using its still relatively large Royal Navy to protect its fishing fleet and prevent Icelandic fishing boats from leaving shore. This disrupted commerce quite a bit.

But there was one fleet the Royal Navy tried not to mess with, and that was the Soviet one. The Russians used this quarrel between NATO countries to their advantage and bartered Icelandic fish in exchange for Russian wares, including trucks, vodka, wood and… cars. Cheap Russian cars were pretty ideally suited to Icelandic conditions anyway, with their good heaters, rugged mechanics, complete toolkits and high floors. The Fiat-derived RWD Ladas, which are still in production today (in Egypt), were quite popular for these reasons in Iceland until the late ‘90s, when virtually all other European countries had already quit importing them.

In 1975, the “new” Moskvich 2140 entered production, replacing the 408 and 412. No idea why they switched to four digits, but that also happened to Lada and other Soviet marques around that time. The 2140 did away with the 412’s cute rear fin turn signals and was soon developed into an export-market 1500SL model with blacked-out trim, rubber bumpers and plastic mirrors à la ’80s. But the chromed cars remained available for a long while yet for domestic customers. The RWD Moskvich gave up the ghost circa 1990, as production of the completely new FWD Aleko ramped up.

But the 412 actually survived the collapse of the Soviet Union, just not in Moscow but in the Urals. The military manufacturer IzhMash (or just Izh) in Izhevsk, makers of the AK-47 Kalashnikov and other hardware as well as the best motorcycles in the Soviet Union, set up their own car-making line in the mid-‘60s to help Moskvich reach their production quotas. The Izh 412 was a carbon copy of the AZLK model initially, but after a while Izh put out their own designs, such as the strange 2125 Combi (the first Soviet hatchback!), a pick-up and the 2715 van.

The quality of the finished product was said to surpass the original one (faint praise). The Izh 412 was in production until 1997 at least and the 2715 vans were made until 2001. The Izh 2126 Oda, launched in 1987, was essentially a new body on the 412 chassis and was produced until 2005, though the later models used Lada engines. Izh sold their car plant to Lada in 2010.

Moksvich as a marque did not survive for very long after the Russian financial crisis of 1998 – their exports had dwindled to a few former Soviet states by then, and their latest cars were, shall we say, rather misguided. The factory closed in 2002, though there have been recent mutterings that Renault, who had links with the Soviet firm back in the day, might re-launch the brand. But Moskvich is not Dacia and Russia isn’t Romania, so I’ll believe these rumours when I actually see something tangible. Moskvich spent its last 25 years in Lada’s shadow, at least as far as most export markets are concerned, and their reputation was never very good.

You still can see a few 412s or their descendants on the curbsides of the former Soviet Union and Cuba. Keeping these on the road is relatively straightforward, and they (plus Izh) did build around 150,000 per year for the better part of three decades. Seeing one in such pristine condition in Iceland was quite a surprise. It was on my bucket list, but I expected to see one in more eastern climes. That’s the nature of CC hunting, I guess – just keep your hopes up, your eyes peeled and your camera charged!