February 23, the last day of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, also is a national holiday in Russia and other former Soviet states called Defender of the Fatherland Day, the equivalent of Veterans’ Day in the United States. It began in 1919 as Red Army Day, and it became a holiday honoring men and women currently or formerly serving in the armed forces. February 23 is therefore an appropriate day to take a look at a little-known series of vehicles that represented a noteworthy act of decency by the much maligned Soviet car industry: Zaporozhets subcompacts designed specifically for amputees. Why they came to exist, and their existence as distinct mass produced variants, make them unique in the history of automobiles.
The Zaporozhets already is world famous, even though almost no one outside of the former Soviet Union knows it by name or is aware of where they have seen it. It had a signature cinematic moment in the 1995 James Bond film Goldeneye. A 1960s Zaporozhets was the car that James Bond’s inept CIA counterpart used to pick him up at the airport in Moscow, needing a blow from a sledgehammer to get started. This image probably defines Soviet cars for millions of people around the world.
Even in Russia, the Zaporozhets gets little respect. When Western cars flooded Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, ridicule rather than nostalgia became the lot of the Zaporozhets. The Zaporozhets made an appearance in the parade of Soviet cars at the Sochi Winter Olympics opening ceremony, but even that moment in the spotlight seemed to belittle it: while immaculately restored examples represented other Soviet cars, the two Zaporozhets turned out to be only empty shells on wheels that were tossed aside to reveal dancers hiding inside. The Zaporozhets appears to be consigned to a place in history as nothing more than a toy-like box.
Photo from http://www.denisovets.ru/
The Zaporozhets was no more a toy than many of its successful contemporaries in Western Europe, though. It had its origins in the mid-1950s, when the Soviet state decided to develop a small car that would be a people’s car akin to Germany’s Volkswagen or Italy’s Fiat 500. Design work began in 1956, and the final product had much in common with those cars. Like them, it had a rear-mounted air-cooled engine, in the case of the Zaporozhets a V-4 displacing 0.7 to 1.2 liters.
The first model was the ZAZ-965, produced from 1960 to 1963 at Zaporyvskiy Avtombilebuduvelniy Zavod (Zaporizhia Automobile Factory) in Zaporizhia, Ukraine. Resembling a Fiat 600 and similar in size, it had a 746cc engine producing 26 horsepower. An upgraded ZAZ-965A, produced from late 1962 to 1969, had an 887cc 30 horsepower engine.
1976 ZAZ-968B2 owned by Ed Hughes in the U.K. Under previous owner Julian Nowill, a leading collector of Eastern Bloc cars and organizer of the Banjul Challenge banger race to Gambia, this car appeared in the Top Gear feature on Eastern Bloc cars. It then became the inspiration for the Zaporozhets that appeared briefly in the Pixar movie Cars 2, which used the same two tone color scheme. Photo from Ed Hughes.
The misfortune of the Zaporozhets was to stay in production until 1994, although it was already obsolete by world standards at the end of the 1960s. Three more generations appeared, each slightly improved from its predecessor, but hopelessly behind small cars in the rest of the world. The ZAZ-966 of 1966 to 1972 introduced a completely restyled body whose square shape many see as inspired by the Chevrolet Corvair, and which would continue with minor changes to the end of production. It began with the engine of the ZAZ-965A, but soon introduced a 1.2 liter 41 horsepower engine that subsequent Zaporozhets models would use. They were the ZAZ-968 of 1971 to 1980 and the ZAZ-968A of 1973 to 1980, each slightly restyled without the fake grille of the ZAZ-966, and the final ZAZ-968M (“Modernized”) of 1979 to 1994, which deleted the distinctive side air intake scoops, making the car even more plain and boxy.
The Zaporozhets deserves a place of honor in the history of the automobile for one reason. When making a people’s car, Soviet planners decided to use it to give mobility to a large number of people who had made great sacrifices to save the country from Nazi Germany during the Second World War: veterans who had lost arms or legs. The death toll from the war is officially estimated to be 26.6 million, including 8.7 military combat deaths, with dissenting independent estimates putting the losses at over 40 million. There were at least 18 million military personnel wounded in action. These losses exceeded those of the entire world in the First World War, and U.S. losses were small in comparison: approximately 418,000 killed and 670,000 wounded. Of the at least 18 million wounded in action, a considerable number lost one or more limbs, possibly more than all U.S. wounded. It was almost certainly the largest population of amputees that has ever existed.
The first Zaporozhets intended for use by amputees appeared in 1962. The ZAZ-965B had hand controls for the throttle, clutch and brakes, to enable people missing one or both legs to drive. It was a simple arrangement that used a large paddle behind the steering wheel to control the throttle and hand levers attached to the standard brake and clutch pedals, with the knob for the brake lever near the floor-mounted shift lever and two knobs on either side of the steering column for the clutch. This layout continued in the ZAZ-965A of 1962-69, as the ZAZ-965AB.
In 1966, another variant specifically for individuals missing one arm and one leg appeared, the ZAZ-965AR. It had an electrically operated automatic clutch that eliminated the need for a clutch pedal, comparable to the Saxomat vacuum-powered automatic clutch developed in Germany–another country with a large population of amputees from the Second World War.
ZAZ-968R control layout. Photo from http://www.denisovets.ru/
The range of control arrangements for different driver abilities, and the complexity of the controls, each increased as the years passed.
By the ZAZ-968 of 1971, there were three control arrangement variations: the ZAZ-968B for drivers lacking legs, now with the automatic clutch introduced in the ZAZ-965AR; the ZAZ-968B2 for drivers missing one leg, with a hand throttle, hand control for the brakes, and a clutch pedal; and the ZAZ-968R for drivers missing one leg and one foot, with a throttle pedal that could be mounted on the driver’s right or left side, a brake pedal, a gearshift with an automatic clutch controlled by the driver’s single leg through a lever with a stirrup-like handle straddling the driver’s thigh, and a steering wheel handle similar to a “necker knob” which must have greatly assisted one-armed drivers. Controls for the lights and heater moved to the center of the steering wheel to facilitate operation with one arm.
ZAZ-968MB control layout. From http://demertim.ru
The final ZAZ-968M of 1979-94 continued the same control arrangements generally, with some changes. The ZAZ-968MB retained the control layout of the ZAZ-968B.
ZAZ-968MG control layout. From http://demertim.ru
The B2 variant for drivers missing one leg became two variants, the ZAZ-968MG with wheelchair accommodations and the ZAZ-968MD without them.
ZAZ-968MR control layout. From http://demertim.ru
The ZAZ-968MR for drivers missing one arm and one leg moved the light switch and other controls to the handle on the steering wheel, to further ease operation with one hand.
A Russian source states that the ZAZ-968 and ZAZ-968M amputee variants used the smaller displacement 887cc engine from the early ZAZ-966 instead of the 1.2 liter engine of other Zaporozhets produced at the same time. It also states that the ZAZ-968R omitted fourth gear from the normally four speed gearbox. The reasons for these variations are unstated, but they may have had the intention of keeping drivers with missing limbs driving at slower speeds.
The Soviet state distributed these cars to the disabled, free of charge, through the social welfare system. Individuals with missing limbs received them for a specific period of years, after which each would return the car and receive a new one as a replacement. They were not private property and could not be re-sold. Whether there were supply problems and long waiting lists, as there were for Soviet cars in general, could not be determined.
This arrangement came to an end in post-Soviet Russia. Russia continued it into the 1990s, past the discontinuation of the Zaporozhets in 1994, substituting the more modern ZAZ-1102 “Tavria” front wheel drive hatchback and the VAZ-1111 “Oka” microcar, both 1980s designs. The privatization of the state-owned automobile industry ended the ability of the state to allocate resources for this purpose, however, and the passing of the wartime generation, whose youngest surviving veterans are well into their 80s, has made the mass production of specialized vehicles for amputees far less necessary.
For many years one of the most ridiculed Soviet cars, making it among the lowest of the low of the products of the world’s automobile industries, the Zaporozhets should be remembered for the unique role that it filled for veterans of the costliest war in history. It was not the only such effort worldwide; the U.S. automobile industry stepped up to address the needs of American veterans with modifications that it provided at no cost to veterans who had lost limbs. The Zaporozhets was unique, however, insofar as I have been able to determine, in providing a mass produced car specifically for wounded veterans. Filling this role for over 30 years was even more remarkable, even though it remained in production for too long.
Today, it appears that few examples of the amputee variants have survived into preservation, and information about them is difficult to find. The regular Zaporozhets models have a considerable amount of information and photographs on the internet on Russian-language websites, but the amputee variants are almost nonexistent, in both the English and Russian languages. Twenty years after the last one rolled off the assembly line, they have already almost disappeared, unless there are undiscovered cars or sources of information waiting to be found. Before they fade away completely, these cars of humble origins deserve to be remembered for the noble purpose that they served.