CC Video: Rusty Italian Cars And The Myth Of Russian Steel – Nyet


I’m a natural skeptic, and the myth that bad Russian steel was the reason Italian cars in the seventies rusted so badly has always seemed dubious to me. It’s right up there in automotive internet myths along with the VW Beetle being nothing more than a ripped-off Tatra 97 and the 1962 downsized Plymouth and Dodges  being solely the result of something overheard at a garden party. Yes, we all like simple answers, but life—and cars—are more complex than that.

I’ve long wanted to do a dive on this issue of bad Russian steel, but someone already beat me to it, in this video. It’s well done, and the research, although not utterly exhaustive and 100% conclusive, is really quite good. Don’t blame the Russians, this time.

First off, there’s no conclusive evidence that Fiat ever used Russian steel. Italy was Europe’s second largest producer of steel in Europe, and there are documents that state that the Russians were going to pay Fiat for the technology transfer to build the 124 (Lada) in oil, which rather makes more sense, since Italy was heavily dependent on imported oil. Is it theoretically possible that Fiat bought some Russian steel? Yes, but there’s no concrete evidence, and there’s evidence to the contrary.

In any case, Alfa Romeo (which was not owned by Fiat until 1986) clearly used steel from a major plant very close to the Alfa Sud Plant. The Alfa Sud had the worst reputation for rusting, but as I’ve read before, there were numerous reasons for that, and not because of the steel. Due to constant strikes at that plant, bodies that had already been dewaxed were left outside during work stoppages, so that corrosion started even before the bodies were primered and painted. And clearly there was little or no genuine effort to mitigate corrosion in the way these cars were built and painted.

The Lancia Beta also had a terrible reputation. The Beta range of cars were all-new, the first to be designed, engineered and produced under Fiat’s ownership. It appears that rust-proofing on these cars simply was not given adequate attention, and combined again with labor issues and work stoppages, they rusted very readily, especially the subframe that supported the engine and transmission. Lancia ended up withdrawing from the UK market due to this issue, and had to buy back a number of cars.

The reality is that other European cars were rusting as bad, or almost as badly, as the Lancias and Alfas. This was a notorious era for rust, and in the US the problem was also severe, both with domestic cars (some worse than others) and Japanese imports, some of which undoubtedly rusted every bit as badly as these Italian cars.

The use of salt increased dramatically in the 60s and 70s, and the proliferation of new cars and bodies along with a constant pressure to reduce production costs combined to make the seventies the decade of corrosion. New processes to reduce rust were developed and implemented, and the issue steadily improved throughout the 80s.