Soviet cars

On the always-excellent How To Be a Retronaut, a gallery of the dreadful automobiles of the Soviet Bloc from the 1960s and 70s.


  1. These look a whole lot like the cars you see in small-town Appalachia. No, I don’t mean antiques.

  2. “Dreadful”?

    Boingboing, your American parochialism can be grating at times. I’ve tried a few of these cars myself since I moved to Bulgaria two years ago, mostly Ladas. An amazing number of them is still serviceable after 30+ years of use, and they are generally a lot better than the ludicrous land frigates Detroit was building at the time. And by “a lot better”, I don’t just mean “more robust and with less planned obsolescence”, I also mean “more efficient” and “largely free tailfins”. The only cars I personally know with cleaner design and more resilient engineering are the original VW Beetle and the 1976 model Honda Civic.

    There’s a reason Lada is still a profitable company. Shitty craftsmanship is not it. 

    1. American parochialism? I was born in Canada, hold dual nationality with the UK (where I live), my father was born in Azerbaijan, and my grandparents are, variously, Romanian, Ukranian, Russian, Polish, and Belarusian (there were two grandfathers on my dad’s side).

      Say whatever you like about my taste, but if there’s any parochial blindness here, it’s in people who think that anyone whose taste they dislike is “American.”

      1. Yes Cory, you’re a breathtakingly cosmopolitan man. We’re dazzled by the breadth of your cultural experiences. Which is why it’s a little surprising to hear you call these practical and durable cars “dreadful” even though this world could do with more things that are built to last.

        If you’ve got a critique of the Checker Marathon out there somewhere balancing this out then I apologize.

        1. “Which is why it’s a little surprising to hear you call these practical and durable cars “dreadful” even though this world could do with more things that are built to last.”

          Buahhahhhahhha!!!! You _got_ to be kidding me! The only good thing about those cars were that they were cheap to fix. And fix you did. We had a Skoda, because that’s all my mom could afford at that time (very early 80´s), but holy crap did it get fixed! We hadn’t had it for long (under half a year or so) when it needed some major fixes. And some more fixes, and more, and a total motor change.

          There were a lot of Ladas and Skodas in my country (Finland) and yes, they had a bad reputation, and yes, for a good reason. They will last an eternity, you can still see some Lada enthusiasts driving them around, but you better know how to fix a car!

          Lada jokes. Some that I remember from my childhood… unfortunately the best ones are puns, so they don’t translate (“Lada kiihtyy alamäessä, kuski ylämäessä”):
          What do you call a cardboard box with wheels? – A Lada 
          How do you double the value of a Lada? – You fill its tank.
          How many Ladas does it take to change a light bulb? – 15. 14 are in the repair shop and 1 to change the light bulb.
          Why don’t you need any safety belts in a Lada? – Your behind is frozen to the seat.
          How do you define “an optimist”? – A Lada driver in the overtaking lane.

          +1 for “dreadful”.

          1. My husband reminded me of this one… for anybody who knows Finnish:
            “Skoda – neljä pyörää ja loota, helppo purkaa ja koota!” 

    2. There’s a reason Lada is still a profitable company. Shitty craftsmanship is not it.

      No, indeed: it’s shitty craftsmanship and design. Lada themselves noticed this about 40 years ago. That’s why they made a deal with FIAT to copy the 124’s design and have been churning out slightly tweaked versions ever since.

    3. There’s a reason Lada is still a profitable company.

      Are you serious? I’m not sure AvtoVAZ (which is 75% government owned) was ever profitable. It has certainly been operating almost exclusively on taxpayer dime for at least a decade, for the simple reason that it is pretty much the only employer in Togliatti, so letting VAZ fail would be a political cataclysm.

      I suppose the Fiat 124-based designs are pretty easy to repair (in the sense that none of them have any even moderately advanced systems), but unless you have owned for for a few decades and replaced pretty much all factory components with with aftermarket equivalents, these cars break down with spectacular frequency.

      “Dreadful” does not even come close to describing what these cars are.

      1. “unless you have owned for for a few decades and replaced pretty much all factory components with with aftermarket equivalents, these cars break down with spectacular frequency”

        So much this! After the total motor change, our Skoda was actually… well… kind of reliable.

  3. Dreadful?  Not at all.  I’ve always loved that you can’t tell the front from the back in many of these cars!  Their simple styling has always attracted me to them.  If I could buy one, I would in a heartbeat.  :-)

  4. No doubt this was shot over an ICBM silo in Ukraine, and these women are moles-in training. You can see the reflections of their Kalashnikovs in the back seat.

  5. That may be true Georg, but why do all of the owners look like they are waiting for a tow truck?  ;)

  6. I think they’re cute.  They look sturdy.  Like a car you could love in its old age.  I have a Kia.  I don’t think it will have an old age.  Don’t get me wrong, I like it an all, but it’s so shiny and square…   I just don’t see it rusting gracefully.

    1. I drove (intermittently) a Gremlin for three years.  No car in the history of motoring has been more aptly named.

  7. It’s the W.C. Fields thing: They’re nice to look at but I wouldn’t want to own one. 

    Just because something fulfilled the “gets me dere” requirement and causes waves of nostalgia doesn’t preclude it from being dreadful. 

  8. I believe 4 wheels drive Ladas were sold in Canada in the late 70s. They had a crank handle to start them in super cold weather when the battery wouldn’t produce enough amps (the crank can be used when an electric oil pan heater is not available.)

    1. I recall seeing images from Russia where taxi drivers would light small fires under their cars to thaw them before starting the day.

    1. Probably because they are driving a dreadful car. Or just had their car called dreadful, or both. The first one kind of reminds me of my dad’s Dodge Dart. Same color too.

  9. I drive a Soviet car designed i the early 70ies. It s very reliable (after changing a few parts valued less that $300), sports an advanced 4wd drive system, and is nearly indestructible. It has put many modern SUVs and jeepoids to shame. My “latest” catch was a 2009 Cherokee, stuck in thick mud on a Forrest road, it took me just 2 minutes to tow it so safer ground, didn’t even have to engage my second (low) transfer case  selector, nor the diff. lock. Some pics of the places where my Niva is the king:

  10. IMHO it all is so relative. Sure they will look dreadful to me if I earn five figures a month. But, since I never had anything bigger than a mountain bike, a Lada Niva represents some serious shit to me!!! and if it breaks often, that’s good for my incipient mechanic skills.

  11. the Volt will not last 30 years.   the electronic “components” will crater and be un-replaceabel,  the battery will turn to poison landfill crap, the internal plastic trim, body, etc, will rot.

    it is very very difficult to restore and maintain cars built after ~ 1973 in the US.   too much “whiz bang” stuff that cannot be replaced/refurbished.

  12. I think Cory is a troll, but in the good sense. He knows what to say to get a rise, and interest and responses.

    I think he is not blind to style: he wouldn’t have posted this if it didn’t look way cool, if it hadn’t made him go “ooh!”

    I also think he’s a realist. These were cheap cars of the people,  and their cheapness showed in their reliability and their reputation. They were considered awful. And they were loved for being cheap, and workaday. Something can be both an awful thing, and a wonderful one.

  13. My parents had a Lada, and I remember being plastered to the vinyl seats in the summer when I was a child – this in the early eighties, when people would pull up alongside us as red lights and shout at the car. I remember an angry man yelling ‘if I had a g-d damn missile, I’d blow that g-d commie car off the face of the earth!’ at us. Confusing.

    It was really not the best time to be driving a Russian car in North America, I guess. But it was a very reliable little car. My parents drove it for years…it just kept going, and going, and going….

  14. That red car in the top photo looks surprisingly like a Chevrolet Corvair.  It’s safe to assume that GM copied the design, since the Eastern Bloc countries never copied anything American, as their automobiles were superior in every regard.

    1. Not sure if troll – You couldn’t possibly be more wrong when it comes to Russian cars – the most notorious auto industry for ‘borrowing’. Right from the start, with GAZ clones of the Ford Model A, right up to knockoffs of the 70’s Cadillac Fleetwood.

      The list is too long to detail here:

      At least it worked out well for the folks in Cuba, being able to salvage Soviet truck engine parts to keep their Chryslers running, due to a remarkable similarity in engine parts..

      Only on BB would we need to explain to folks how Soviet-era cars are crap. Jalopnik this is not.

  15. A lot of these are Fiat designs – “Fix It Again, Tony”, so that ‘s part of the story. Back in the sixties, I was told Russian cars were worse than British cars as far as niggling things to replace, but you had to have garage full of shims and a spare for every part to make a British car work for long, while you only needed a hammer, a flat-blade screw driver, and a Ford wrench to keep a Zaporozhets running – it’s the ZAZ car in the pics that looks like a Corvair or an NSU Prinz. Thank God they didn’t copy Lucas electrics, every Russian would still be walking everywhere.  

  16. I have owned several Russian and East German vehicles. If you like working on cars they are a lot of fun as they are meant to be easy to maintain. I did many long trips in my Trabant and it never gave me any problems. I drove an UAZ452 from Helsinki to the UK – it had been standing for the better part of 10 years. Biggest problem with East Bloc vehicles is often the (lack of) quality of spare parts.

    Volgas were used as taxis and did very high mileage. They go for big money these days.

  17. Hey, if you can understand German, here’s an on-topic funny little TV clip:

    Comedian Hape Kerkeling goes to a guy’s house who ordered a Trabi shortly before the reunification. They bring him the exact model and color. But now it’s 10 years later, he’s got a Peugeot, and isn’t really interested. It’s basically making fun of the crappiness of the Trabi.

  18. i can’t say i know anything about these cars, but that one in the picture is adorable.  it looks like a toy.  i bet its horn went “MEEP!”

  19. My dad owned 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th from the top between early 70s and early 80s back in USSR. I have great memories associated with these cars; probably attributed more to happy childhood than anything related to the quality of these automobiles. All I recall is that these cars were super easy to fix — my dad always spent his weekends meddling under the hood.. I guess these cars were not that reliable..

  20. The Lada was sold at a loss in Norway, in a Soviet effort to get hard currency to be able to import for their faltering high-tech industry. They were cheaper than a good TV set. My father owned one, and was very sensitive about it. My mother told the story of when he forgot to turn the head lights on. As people were signalling him and honking at him, he immediately assumed they were making fun of his car, and his spoken responses were not diplomatic. The car was actually stolen. Apparently stealing Ladas were some kind of running joke for Oslo gangs.

    And I don’t think they’re dreadful! I’d very much like a Trabant some day!

  21. Those adds seems to be all from Finnish newspapers. Made by Finns for the Finns.

    Soviets dresscode was little bit different at that time. In fact there was exactly 10 years gap in soviet fashion.  I distintcly remember greasy-hair  James Dean-style soviet motorcycle film from 1968.

    In fact the styles of “Leningrad Cowboys”-band came from Soviets tourists in Helsinki at that time.

  22. What? LADA? These are Fiat 128, SEAT 124 (car of the year 1965, second from the top), Fiat 131… :-D

    But it is / was not all like that for LADA, i am sure, i remember pictures from older racing events where everybody would get their cars on stands and have all sorts of equipment to get on with their work and the LADA engineers would change a gearbox by just tilting the car on its side (!)

  23. As well as the Hillman Imp rip-off, and the FIAT-based Ladas, there’s something else in there that looks a lot like a 1960’s era UK Vauxhall – maybe a Vauxhall Victor or Vauxhall 101. 

  24. I still kinda want a Wartburg 353 Tourist.

    It’s basically a pre-war DKW design – their first longitudinal FWD design, that would eventually evolve into today’s Audi A4 – but with better rear suspension, a slightly bigger engine (992 cc instead of 910 cc), and a body designed in 1966.

    So, I get the weird Communist car part of my car interests covered, and I get the early Audi part of my car interests covered, in one fell swoop.

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