The history of Ukrainian car manufacturing evolved from the Soviet industry, post-independence. When the Soviet Car Industry died, most of the car factories were left to Russia, with one ‘illustrious’ exception – the Zaporizhya Automobile Factory (ZAZ). Although there have been no significant breakthroughs in the 73-year history of the Soviet Car industry, including both Ukrainian and Russian, there have been plenty of tries at creating a car that might be something to proud of. After all, England has Jaguar, Germany has Mercedes – surely it isn't too much to ask for countries of our size to come up with something?
Uncle Joe Says No
The story of Soviet mass car manufacturing started in the late 30s when Stalin noticed that there were not enough motors in his mighty empire. As there was no car industry in the state, engineers appropriated their ideas from somewhere. And so, taking the Ford T Model as a basis, the Soviets came up with their first ever “car of the people”.
The first three KIM-10 cars were completed on 25 April 1940, and sent to Stalin right away. However, the cars arrived when Uncle Joe was in a bad mood and the verdict was: “Bad”. The director of the Kuznetsov KIM factory was even sent to prison for “misleading the Soviet nation”. Engineers went back to the drawing board and came up with an upgraded version, the KIM 10-50. Even though the KIM was designed for personal use, there were not more than 200 of them on the roads; this supposed car of the people wasn’t actually for sale to them. As an agenda of that time said, cars were awards for heroes – lessers could take the tram.
Intentions to Make Soviet Life Better
The civil car industry made a huge step forward after WWII. Fortunately for the industry, the war had given some much-needed new impetus and ingenuity. First of all, there were plenty of Mercedes, BMWs and Opels taken as trophies. Secondly, general Soviet engineering evolved in the 5-year search for better technologies. And so, borrowing some western ideas and mixing them with a truly Soviet way of thinking, engineers introduced the Moskvich 400 – a clone of the German Opel Kadett but with KIM parts. Stalin was finally pleased. The Moskvich was introduced in 1947 and became the first car in the Soviet UNI0N somewhat comfortable to drive.
Later, in the early 50s, the car industry started supplying their products for the public. However, apparently aiming at the average citizen, the industry was still producing cars that could be hardy afforded by them. The cost varied from 9000-40000 roubles, while the average salary of a worker or engineer ranged from 500 to 1000 per month. Notwithstanding this, the Moskvich was a pretty successful car and its later model, the 407, was earmarked for export to the USA.
American President Dwight David Eisenhower even asked Khrushchev to sell him one so that he could drive it when he retired. Unfortunately, after the US spy pilot Francis Powers was taken down over Soviet territories, the relationship between the two countries worsened, and the 407 didn’t end up making its overseas trip.
This didn’t affect Moskvich manufacturing though, and later models, including the 412, 2140 and derivatives produced by the Izh Factory, spread over the country becoming a standard vehicle for the middle class of the 50s to 90s. Until, that is, the borders were opened and foreign imports flooded the country towards the end of the century.
Along with the Moskvich, there were other cars on the market. At the same time the Moskvich appeared, another car factory, Gorkovskiy Auto Zavod (GAZ), was working on a car to celebrate the victory of WWII. The GAZ 20 “Pobeda” (Victory) was produced from 1947 until 1958. However, when Stalin was asked to endorse the name of the car, the only thing he said was: “Not a great victory, but let it be so.” Unfortunately, the car had many defects and soon enough they became causes of general dissatisfaction. Its biggest problem, for example, was that tall people found it impossible to sit in the backseats, as the roof was so low.
As usually happened in the USSR, the first set was given to various officials, and when the malfunctions emerged, head engineers had to face harsh punishment. After this scandal, the factory was given 11 months to sort out its problems, and finally the Pobeda 1955 version became a car pleasant to drive.
Even though the car had been upgraded, Pobeda was soon replaced with the GAZ 21 Volga, introduced in 1955. Even now these cars can be seen on Kyiv streets, albeit increasingly rarely. A recent Russian blockbuster, Black Lightning, features a Volga with a difference: this one can fly and even shoot missiles – not your standard features in a Volga!
In 1970, the last Volga 21 came off the conveyor, only to be replaced by the GAZ 24. In the 70s, the Volga 24 was one of the most popular cars, used for taxis, police and even ambulance purposes. Ten years later, a new modification was released, and the GAZ 3102 is probably the most comfortable GAZ vehicle ever produced. In 1995, the factory produced its three millionth car!
A Gigolo to be Proud Of
In the 60s, the demand for cars was still many times higher than what was on offer, and the decision was made to build a gigantic new factory in Toliyatti. The Volzhskiy Auto Factory (VAZ) decided not to spend funds and precious time actually designing a car. Rather, they simply bought the blueprints of the Italian Fiat 124, European Car of the Year 1966. This cooperation was additionally beneficial to the international relations of the USSR. After making a couple of alterations to the car and adapting it for Soviet roads and climate, the first VAZ 2101 was released on 9 September 1970.
“Kopek” was what people usually called the first model of VAZ, as its headlights looked like little coins. The official name for the car, however, was Zhyhuli. Ironically, the name was very similar in some European languages to “gigolo”, and eventually the car received its second name for export – Lada.
VAZ became probably the most successful Soviet Car Manufacturer of all time, and the original Zhuguli is still in the Top 10 bestselling cars in the world, ever. VAZ satisfied the car demand of the country, making automobiles an affordable product for almost every citizen. For their reasonable prices, Ladas remain popular even now. The latest models, Lada Priora and Kalina, have been assembled in Ukraine since 2007, together with the one and only Soviet 4x4, the iconic Niva.
A Comedy Car?
In the 60s, a lot of factories had to substantially restructure their work to meet demand. That’s how the Ukrainian Zaporizhya Factory of Agricultural Machines turned into ZAZ. Specialised in tractors, the factory tried hard to create something worthwhile. Unfortunately, what they created in the end was a car that became a hero in countless jokes across the country.
The Zaparozhets was copied from the Fiat 600 and was a cheap/affordable car with a fistful of faults. There were two generations in this car’s history: the first one was produced from 1960 until 1969 and looked exactly like its Fiat ‘brother’. The second had a new design featuring lots of interesting innovations for the average Soviet citizen – a manual control fit for the disabled, an engine situated at the back of the car and many others.
The second generation ended with production of the final Zaporozhets in 1994. The car had, by then, had an unhappy existence, mocked and abused for years. The first model, ZAZ 965, was often called Gorbatiy (Crook-back), Ushastiy (Ear-like), Mylnitsa (Soap-dish) or Jewish Armoured Car. The later models, although they were of much better quality than their progenitor, were widely known as Stool, Fifteen Minutes of Humiliation and You are at Home, etc.
In the 80s and 90s, Zaporozhets evolved into Slavuta and Tavria – typical Ukrainian budget cars. Nowadays, ZAZ assembles the most common cars on Ukrainian roads such as ZAZ, Sens, Lanos, Chevrolet, VAZ and KIA. And fortunately, the jokes are a little fewer. After all, there are enough dangers driving in this country without being laughed off the road!
The 20th Kyiv International
SIA 2012 Motor Show
Motor show and car exhibition, International Exhibition Centre (Brovarskiy Pr 15)
25 – 27 May from 10.00 to 18.00
For more information visit www.sia-motorshow.com.ua/en