High-profile cars like the Trabant and the Zhiguli were just the tip of the automotive iceberg in eastern Europe and in Russia.
State-controlled car makers leveraged the limited funds they had available to put millions of motorists on wheels, whether they needed a small city car, an off-roader or a spacious van for work. Some firms put an emphasis on design to conquer overseas markets while others took a strong interest in racing and occasionally beat more experienced rivals.
From econoboxes with muted Italian genes to experimental mid-engined coupés, here are some of the hits, the misses and the plain weird cars that hatched from the eastern European and Russian car industries.
Zastava 750 (1955)
Zastava began its collaboration with Fiat when it started building the 1400 in 1954. Relatively big and expensive, the 1400 found few buyers in Yugoslavia. The firm quickly moved downmarket by obtaining a licence to build the then-new Fiat 600 for the local market. Early examples were manufactured using parts shipped from Italy but Zastava soon began making the model from scratch to meet the growing local demand for a cheap, simple form of transportation.
The 600 received several changes under Zastava’s custodianship, although none was as extreme as the four-door bodystyle Seat created in Spain. The model’s final evolution used an 848cc four-cylinder engine rated at 32hp, which was enough to send it from zero to 62mph in 29.4sec. In contrast, the original, 21.5hp 600 took well over a minute to reach 62mph and refused to go one mile an hour over.
Tatra 603 (1956)
Tatra earned its own chapter in the history of automotive design. Introduced in 1956, the 603 was the latest in a long line of forward-thinking cars characterised by a body that’s still aerodynamic by 2018 standards and an air-cooled V8 engine mounted behind the passenger compartment.
In eastern Europe, the Tatra 603 was precisely the kind of car you didn’t want to see pull up in front of your house in the early hours of the morning because the stately saloon was mostly used by high-ranked government officials. Tatra exported some of the production run, which is how Fidel Castro allegedly ended up with a white example retro-fitted with air conditioning.
Skoda 1000 MB (1964)
Skoda looked west as it began developing the 1000 MB. Many of the most popular cars in western Europe (such as the Volkswagen Beetle, the Renault 8 and the Fiat 600) featured a rear-mounted engine. The firm experimented with front-engined, front-wheel-drive and front-engined, rear-wheel-drive prototypes but it ultimately selected a rear-engined, rear-wheel-drive configuration. The first option was considered far too daring and the second was ruled out because it was too close to the aging Octavia.
Production ended in 1969. Skoda continued making rear-engined cars until 1990.
Trabant 601 (1964)
In 1964, the Trabant 601 replaced the 600 as a basic form of transportation that even factory workers could afford. There was nothing ground-breaking about it. It retained its predecessor’s two-stroke two-cylinder engine and carried on with a Duroplast body. From a design standpoint, the 601 looked a little bit like a Peugeot 404 that shrunk in the washing machine.
Officials expected to replace the 601 in the early 1970s but the model ended up surviving, virtually unchanged, until 1990. Its value and image both plummeted after Germany’s reunification in 1989. East German drivers abandoned them in the streets the minute they had access to faster, more modern cars made in the west.
This suddenly created the unforeseen problem of scrapping the thousands of Trabants beached across East Germany. Scrap metal yards wouldn’t take them because the body wasn’t made of metal. Some proposed melting them into fuel used to heat homes while one company went as far as developing Trabant-eating bacteria that made the body disappear in as little as 20 days.
Wartburg 353 (1966)
In terms of design, the Wartburg 353 represented a significant leap forward compared with the 312 it replaced. It wore a boxy look whose lines were perfectly in tune with the styling trends prevalent in the second half of the 1960s. Peeking under the bonnet revealed a different story, though. Concerned with keeping development costs in check, engineers fitted the 353 with a smoke-belching two-stroke three-cylinder engine initially rated at 45hp.
This made the 353 difficult to sell in western Europe, although that didn’t stop Wartburg from exporting at least 20,000 right-hand-drive examples between 1968 and 1976. The saloon was also popular as a taxi in the Benelux countries and Wartburg even managed to sell a handful of 353s in West Germany.
The line-up grew to include an estate and a pick-up. The 353 received several visual updates during its long production run but its two-stroke engine nearly outlived the Berlin Wall. Wartburg manufactured the last two-stroke examples in 1989.
ZAZ 966 (1966)
The ZAZ 965 was reportedly so flawed that the company decided to design a successor from scratch instead of settling for making gradual improvements to it for decades on end. It was replaced in 1966 by the vastly superior 966. The new model was more comfortable and more spacious and it benefited from a better cooling system.
The 966 arrived as a rear-engined, two-door saloon with a look that channelled the NSU Prinz and the Chevrolet Corvair. It morphed into the 968 in 1971. This was evidently the design the company had been looking for all along. The 968 remained in production with only minor changes until 1994. It’s remembered as the last car mass-produced with a V4 engine.
Dacia 1300 (1969)
In the 1960s, Romania’s government began searching for a western car to build locally. It selected the Renault 12 after examining proposals from Alfa Romeo, Austin and, of course, Fiat, among other brands. Early examples were made with parts shipped from France, and they differed little from the 12, but the Romanian factory soon began building the 1300 from scratch. Dacia later turned it into a full family of models, including two- and four-door pick-ups and a coupé.
Dacia made the last 12-derived car in 2004. It was replaced by the original Logan. The 1300 started a journey that culminated in Renault buying Dacia in 1999. Today, it's a successful budget brand, selling 655,228 cars in 2017, nearly three times more than a decade earlier. Note: Dacia 1310 pictured.
Lada 2101 (1970)
Lada’s first car, the 2101, made its debut in 1970. It was based on the well-regarded Fiat 124 saloon but Lada made several modifications to the design in order to help it resist the onslaught of Russian roads. The changes included a newer engine, thicker body panels for increased resistance to rust and upgraded suspension parts.
The 2101 became Russia’s people’s car overnight. Production didn’t end until 1988, well after Fiat phased out the 124 saloon in Italy. Lada replaced it with a pair of updated models called 2105 and 2107 that remained in production until the early 2010s. Lada made its last 124-based car, a 2104 estate, in 2012.
Skoda 110 R (1970)
Skoda turned the 1000 MB into a coupé but production remained low due in part to rigidity problems that stemmed from the lack of a B-pillar. The firm gave the coupé segment another shot when it launched the 110 R in 1970. It was based on the 110 saloon but it received a fastback-like roofline that gave it a much sportier look. Period road testers affectionately dubbed it the communist Porsche. Some examples even came with hubcaps styled like Fuchs wheels. Skoda built about 57,000 examples of the car until 1980.
The 110 R famously spawned the 130 RS, a seriously dynamic coupé developed with racing in mind. The 130 RS helped Skoda sprint ahead of well-established names like BMW and Alfa Romeo to win the manufacturer’s title in the 1981 European Touring Car Championship.
Zastava Skala (1971)
Fiat and Zastava took their collaboration a step further in 1971 by starting production of the four-door 128 saloon. The range grew in late 1971 with the launch of a brand-specific hatchback variant loosely inspired by the Simca 1100. The model was called 101, although it wore many different names (including Skala) in many different markets over the course of its long life cycle.
The 128 offshoots remained in production until 2008. Zastava raised more than a few eyebrows when it displayed an updated model at the 2008 Belgrade motor show. The last evolution of the Skala received an aluminium radiator, upgraded running gear parts and a more modern-looking instrument cluster. These were small but significant changes for a model that traced its roots back to the winner of the 1970 European Car of the Year award.
Polski-Fiat 126p (1973)
Fiat nonchalantly wandered further and further into eastern Europe in search of additional revenue. After launching Polish production of the 125p, providing Lada with the 124’s basic design, and letting Zastava call the 128 its own, it sold a licence to build the 126 to Poland’s Fabryka Samochodów Małolitrażowych (FSM). Production started in 1973 and the 126 – colloquially called Maluch, 'the small one' in Polish – quickly became one of Poland’s most popular cars thanks in part to its low price and simple design. It took less than a decade for FSM to build the one millionth example.
The Cinquecento replaced the 126 across western Europe starting in 1991 but Polish production continued until 2000. Some 3.3 million of the 4.6 million 126s built wore a 'Made in Poland' label.
Lada Niva (1977)
The guidelines given to the Lada Niva’s designers asked for a car that looked like a Renault 5 on a Land Rover chassis. Mission accomplished. Extensively tested in the Uzbek desert, the Niva went on sale in Russia in 1977 as a no-nonsense, daily-drivable off-roader that was cheap to build and easy to maintain. Lada tested open-top, Jeep-like prototypes but wisely chose a closed-roof configuration after examining the harsh reality of motoring through a Siberian winter.
The Niva has seen and done it all. Lada exported the model to all four corners of the globe – including, briefly, to Canada – and even sent it to King George Island off of Antarctica. It continues to sell relatively well in 2018, especially in Russia, but Lada plans to finally phase out the model around 2020.
The Oltcit looks like a two-door Citroën Visa. In fact, it could have been the Visa. When the Romanian government requested Citroën’s help in developing a small, affordable car, the French firm dusted off the blueprints to a stillborn project named Y that it worked on with Fiat in the early 1970s to replace the Ami 8. Peugeot cancelled the Y when it took over Citroën and insisted the Ami’s replacement use the 104’s chassis to save money.
The Y unexpectedly got its chance to shine in Romania. Base models came with a 652cc flat twin but the Oltcit shared no other parts with the Visa. More expensive variants benefited from the GSA’s flat four engine. Citroën sold the Romanian-built model in some European markets under the name Axel but it fell well short of expectations.
Citroën ended its partnership with the Romanian government in 1990, the year after Nicolae Ceausescu's regime collapsed. Production nonetheless continued until 1995.
Dacia Sport (1983)
Dacia wasted no time turning the 12 into a full family of models. The saloon and estate variants were complemented by two- and four-door pick-ups in the middle of the 1970s. However, the most interesting variant that Renault never made was the Sport launched in 1983.
Alchemising the homely 12 into a coupé was presumably easier than cajoling Renault into obtaining a licence to build the 15/17 duo locally. Designed in-house, the two-door wore the rather awkward proportions you’d expect to see on a model developed as an utter afterthought with a bargain-basement budget. The most powerful factory-built evolution of the Sport was the 1410, which boasted 65hp from a 1.4-litre engine.
Lada Sputnik/Samara (1984)
The Lada Samara originally went by the name Sputnik in its home market. It thankfully fared much better than the eponymous satellite, which ran out of batteries after spending three weeks in orbit and unceremoniously nosedived back to earth. The car followed the opposite path: it skyrocketed to the top of the sales chart in Russia.
The Sputnik/Samara stood out as the first Lada developed without any input from Fiat. The Italian firm allegedly didn’t want to help its Russian partner make a front-wheel-drive model because it feared competition. Lada instead enlisted the help of Porsche as a consultant, benchmarked a variety of models including the ever-popular Volkswagen Golf and designed a boxy hatchback it hoped to market internationally.
In Russia, the Sputnik remained in production until 2012. Lada sold it in western Europe, too, but road testers persistently argued it was too basic for its own good.
The car Americans know and fear as the Yugo started life in 1977 as the Zastava Koral (pictured). It was an evolution of the Fiat 127 with a boxier design. It was developed for the local market and a handful of export markets where buyers held cordial opinions on eastern European cars. America was certainly not one of them.
Malcom Bricklin – the man who founded Subaru of America in 1968 – saw a glimmer of potential in the Koral. He envisioned it as the 1980s equivalent to the Subaru 360 he imported as an alternative to European economy cars. Times had changed and the hunter became the hunted: the Koral was to compete against Japanese economy cars. Bricklin helped develop a US-spec model, named it Yugo and imported the first examples in 1985. It sold remarkably well at first but its success was short-lived.
Plagued by quality problems, the Yugo became the butt of every joke in America. Sales ended in 1992 after Yugo America filed for bankruptcy.
Dacia MD87 (1987)
The 1410 Sport hardly lived up to its name so Dacia valiantly flirted with the idea of turning up the performance dial with a budget-friendly sports car in the vein of the Fiat X1/9. It developed a mid-engined, Renault 12-derived prototype named MD87 in 1987. Details about it are few and far between but period photos reveal a design that blends Toyota MR2 and Lancia 007 styling cues.
An evolution of the MD87, aptly named MD87 Evo, ran in a more aerodynamic direction by adopting a streamlined front end with pop-up headlights. Dacia made a single example of each car. Neither has been seen since the late 1980s.
Skoda Favorit (1987)
The Favorit marked the beginning of a brand-new era for Skoda. The Bertone-styled body hid a front-engined, front-wheel-drive architecture developed with export markets in mind. And, significantly, it was engineered in-house rather than built under a licence obtained from a car maker in western Europe. The Favorit showed Skoda had what it took to compete on the global stage and it helped shake the stigma associated with cars made behind the Iron Curtain.
The line-up included a four-door hatchback, an estate and a pick-up. Skoda experimented with coupé, saloon and hot hatch variants but never gave them the green light for production.
Wartburg 1.3 (1988)
Like the Trabant 601, the Wartburg 353 lived well beyond its sell-by date. And, also like the Trabant, it received a water-cooled engine from Volkswagen in a last-ditch effort to turn sales around. The 1.3-litre 58hp four-cylinder shared with some versions of the second-generation Golf extended the 353’s life until April 1991. Four-stroke models stood out, with a more modern-looking front end required to fit the bigger engine.
Trabant 1.1 (1990)
The East German government shot down every request engineers and executives made to modernize the 601. The pile of options on the table even included replacing the two-stroke engine with a Wankel unit. Government officials finally caved in the 1980s. They approved the development of an updated model powered by a 1.1-litre four-cylinder engine sourced from the Volkswagen Polo.
Visual updates (including a new grille) and interior changes accompanied the new engine. Trabant made the aptly named 1.1 between 1990 and 1991. It was too little, too late. The Trabant was already as doomed as the communist government that created it.
Lada 111 Tarzan-2 (1999)
Lada’s segment-bending Tarzan-2 started life as a run-of-the-mill 111 estate. It received a separate frame, four-wheel-drive parts borrowed from the timeless Niva and a set of beefy off-road tyres. The result was a rugged, go-anywhere estate that looked like it could eat a Toyota RAV4 for breakfast and still have room for a Suzuki Jimny.
Although Lada hasn’t released production figures, most historians agree that fewer than 1000 examples of the Tarzan-2 were built. In 2018, it’s as unknown as if it had never existed.