Yugo Lada
January 28, 2012 2:36 AM   Subscribe

To get one large point out of the way: In the new book, The Socialist Car: Automobility in the Eastern Bloc, several contributors rapidly acknowledge the oxymoron of the title as well as the practice of owning a car in the former Soviet Empire. The private automobile, that avatar of western individualism, is difficult to square with collectivist notions. And once its owners were at the wheel, these socialist automobiles were often difficult to reconcile with notions of mechanical reliability. More than one contemporary joke appears in the text; the introduction, for instance offers, “Why does a Trabant have a heated rear window? To keep your hands warm when pushing it.” All that aside, the collection of essays edited by Lewis Siegelbaum, is a fascinating look at automobile use, production, and urban planning behind the Iron Curtain. It reveals a system that, if far from socialist or egalitarian in origin, created a culture of automobile use distinct from the western world.
posted by infini (23 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
FTA: Instead of just one car for everybody, there was a model for each class, ordered along a strict hierarchy.: just like anywhere else.

I think it was the desire for nice cars which also played a role in the collapse of eastern bloc communism.
posted by Renoroc at 3:03 AM on January 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Heh, I've been reading The Gun and the book mentions that one of the amazing things Mikhail Kalashnikov could afford thanks to his success was a Pobeda and I had been thinking Soviet cars might make a good post here.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 3:13 AM on January 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would love a Lada station wagon.
posted by k8t at 4:14 AM on January 28, 2012

They are hard to come by, mostly due to rust, but here you go. You'll need to pick it up in Czech Republic though.

The essays, judging from the Metropolis Mag piece, seem to be spot on, although I regret that they didn't mention Polish market even in passing, as it was unique and quite different (perhaps that's why it was omitted in the resume). I noticed that there's a chapter in the book titled Cars as Favors in People’s Poland - and I wonder if it covers the position of the western made cars that were the absolute pinnacle of the status pyramid. No matter how cheap, dinky and ruined was your ride, as long as it was from the West, you were someone because you were different.
posted by hat_eater at 4:56 AM on January 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Found this link to the papers presented by the authors in the original workshop in 2008 which led to this book. Might be some tidbits in there as well as it seems to touch each essay/paper comprehensively.
posted by infini at 5:19 AM on January 28, 2012

For one of my college courses, I put together a project on urban transit in the Soviet Union, mostly focusing on mass transit, but also with some history of the Soviet automotive industry (based heavily on Siegelbaum's research).
posted by thegears at 5:20 AM on January 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by mattoxic at 5:20 AM on January 28, 2012

I also follow this flickr set

František Kardaus was a talented commercial artist and industrial designer who worked in Prague and lived in nearby Velká Chuchle. His work influenced the taste of people in Czechoslovakia and the COMECON / RVHP countries where means of public transport were exported in the thousands. Among his timeless industrial designs belongs trams TATRA T3, trolleys T 400 and cars Tatraplan and TATRA 603

posted by infini at 5:25 AM on January 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

mattoxic, that ZAZ is based on a Fiat 600, which would probably be a little better of a choice. Especially if you got the Multipla option, which is awesome.

The only Eastern bloc car which inspires lust in me is the Škoda Estelle, which in the UK was the butt of what people in the US call Yugo jokes. Škoda is now a pretty well respected member of the VW group, selling reliable cars at a slightly lower price point than the VW branded cars with which they share a platform. They are, for example, very well represented as taxis in the regions of the UK where black cabs are not compulsory.

But going to Romania in 1991 as a British 14 year old car freak was amazing for me: all these cars which I regarded as beneath contempt (and I grew up 3 or 4 miles from where British Leyland was based) were all that anyone owned, apart from one couple who'd bought a Nissan Sunny in Switzerland and driven it over. They'd had a cracked windscreen and couldn't replace it, because no parts. Oh, and I almost forgot the priest who drove a 20 year old Mercedes W123 diesel with a broken starter motor which had to be stopped at the top of a hill or push started. I'm sure it was just a blocked bendix pinion, but it wasn't my place to suggest that.

Not to mention that people only fixed the wiper blades to their cars when it was raining, because otherwise they'd be stolen when the car was parked, no matter how upscale the area of town.
posted by ambrosen at 6:16 AM on January 28, 2012 [4 favorites]

Was it not the case that Hitler assumed Czechoslovakia in '38 in part to get his hands on the Skoda works as they were making pretty respectable tanks?
posted by mattoxic at 6:50 AM on January 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Siegelbaum's last book on this topic was Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile. He has a great narrative voice, a historian readable by ordinary folks. It's a great book of Cold War history sugar-coated for gearheads, as well as an exploration of the peculiar kind of analysis the automotive angle can afford.

full disclosure: Dr. Siegelbaum was one of my undergrad professors and a great guy. The kind of prof where you went to office hours not because you had a question, but because you had an extra hour between classes.
posted by LiteOpera at 8:41 AM on January 28, 2012

Also, I should say that it is my ambition to one day own an original Fiat 126p. Cute little Maluch!
posted by LiteOpera at 8:43 AM on January 28, 2012

I had a brand new Lada station wagon in 1990 in Chile. Complete piece of crap. It stopped working after 2 years and we didn't bother to fix it for another year, and that only to sell it.
posted by signal at 9:02 AM on January 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

My father drove a VAZ-2103 for 20 years. He bought new in 1975 for about 7,000 roubles (for comparison, he paid 3,000 (IIRC, but I'm quite sure I do) for the old farm house we lived in; the average worker's salary was something like 150-200 roubles). Finding the money for the car wasn't a big problem, for people generally tended to have tons of money saved up at the time, as there simply wasn't anything to spend it on. Still, he wouldn't have been able to buy the car if his mother hadn't been a model worker. She had joined the collective farm pretty soon after it was founded (ie after the local peasants had been coerced into forming one) to get away from her foster family; she worked hard at the local farm until it was dissolved in the early 90s. Work was literally her life; she had continued working past her retirement age and couldn't bear her forced retirement, becoming a miserable wreck of a person in the last years of her life. But I digress.

Anyway, my father was the personal driver of the head of the local collective farm at the time. He was a good and diligent worker, just like his mother. One day, his boss told him: hey, we'll be getting a bunch of car-buying permits pretty soon, would you like one? My father, of course, didn't have to think twice about it, since car-buying permits were extremely hard to come by (hell, you even needed one to buy a vacuum cleaner or a washing machine). There was this small problem, though: even though my father was a great guy, he wasn't a party member, nor a war vet, nor even a veteran worker. So the permit was assigned to his mother who did meet one of these categories, even though she didn't even have a driver's licence.

So my father got his permit, borrowed 7,000 roubles from his relatives and went to the nearest VAZ dealership (200 kilometers away) to buy a car. When he got there with his papers and his cash (or maybe it was on his checking account), he saw that all the cars at the dealership were all badly scratched and dented. He demanded that they gave him one that wasn't dented. "That's what they all say," the guy behind the counter told him. "Everyone demands one in perfect shape, and then they hit the first lamp post driving out the gates." But my father wasn't swayed; he waited for a few months and got a shiny new car without a scratch to the paint job, even if it was dark green, not the red he had wanted. It wasn't a great car, but it was good compared to everything else that was on offer at the time. It broke down every now and then (the rear axle broke once; luckily, we had only just left home), and it probably only lasted 20+ years because it had undergone "capital repairs" after 10 years of use -- basically, it meant that pretty much every single piece of it was exchanged for a brand new one.

Was he happy driving a Lada? If you asked him now, he'd probably say that he was happy just to have a car, but also that it was the best car available at the time; way better than the back then popular Moskvich. He sold it in 1995 (for a pretty good price; Soviet cars still fetched a good price back then, since they still had the reputation for being easy to repair), bought an old Ford and never looked back. (He had actually intended to keep the VAZ as his work vehicle at first, for he worked as a postman at the time and the roads on his route were pretty bad most of the year, but after driving the route for the first time in his "new" 1980 Taunus, he said he had been a fool to even think something like this.)
posted by daniel_charms at 10:59 AM on January 28, 2012 [10 favorites]

posted by clockzero at 11:00 AM on January 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

That was a great story, daniel_charms.
My father bought his Lada 21093 in 1989 when he worked in Polish embassy in Moscow. As a diplomat, he earned about five times more than average moskvich at that time (and people in Moscow generally were paid better than in the rest of the Soviet Union except Far East and Siberia, living in the capital was a dream of many). Nevertheless to pay for the car, we bought an Atari 1040 ST in Poland for about 1000 dollars and sold it to a friend for 10,000 roubles (and he was insanely grateful, because he saved a ton of money that way). My father received the coupon for the car from the embassy, if we had to buy it from someone else, the price would have been about 50 thousand roubles. That would amount to over 16 years earnings - and people somehow managed to get so much money.
We loved that car - the first our family had. The engine was so quiet that waiting at busy intersections, my father constantly checked if it didn't quit all of a sudden, and it had great acceleration, handling and speed - it could go to 100 km/h (60 mph) on the second gear, an ability that was great for overtaking (and might have saved our lives more than once).
It was also relatively reliable - its constant failures were caused more by the shoddy maintenance, both on our and the service station part, than poor quality. I think I still could disassemble, clean and assemble the carburettor in under 10 minutes.
In the next 9 years we - all in all, three inexperienced drivers - made over 160 000 km (100 000 miles) in it, and the engine had to go through major overhaul, but the rest held together admirably, barring the rust spots under the hatch. When the guy who bought it was driving away, I got a tear in my eye and not because the small cloud of blue smoke he left.
posted by hat_eater at 11:37 AM on January 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

My dad's previous car to his current one was a Lada as well. In Singapore, they had the cheapest COEs (certificates of entitlement - a premium you pay over and above the cost of the car in order to have permission to drive it).
posted by infini at 12:07 PM on January 28, 2012

I've always been fascinated by Czech Tatras - and particularly the Tatra 603. What's not to like about a car with an air-cooled V8 in the rear and styling that looks like it's out of a Wally Wood sci-fi comic?
posted by zombiedance at 12:10 PM on January 28, 2012

> I've always been fascinated by Czech Tatras

And you can buy one right now!
posted by mrzarquon at 12:17 PM on January 28, 2012

To this day I am convinced Trabis have some sort of supernatural force field around them. There's no other way to explain how our practically 7-ft-tall (and built like Arnold Schwarzenegger) friend Filip was able to fit into his...let alone survive rolling the damn thing. This was in the Czech Republic, near Plzen.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 7:09 AM on January 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Anyone for a $35 car? Anyone?
posted by mdonley at 8:27 AM on January 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

In Sarajevo, I once saw five guys lift a broken down Yugo out of the roadway onto a sidewalk in order to repair it.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 8:52 AM on January 29, 2012

The days of one of the world's most iconic motoring brands, the Lada, are numbered in Finland. The once-popular car is no longer being imported. The 70s and 80s were the boxy Lada’s golden age in Finland.

"Tough cars. Tame prices," read a vintage Lada ad. The Soviet-made Lada was the real gem of Finland's trade agreement with its eastern neighbour. It wasn't fancy, but few other cars were as warm in winter 40 years ago.

The Lada debuted in Finland in 1971. In its heyday, 10,000 Ladas were registered in Finland every year before being overtaken by western brands.

More recently, Lada has struggled to meet EU environmental guidelines. The latest models sold in Finland were the Lada Niva and 117 STW station wagon.

"We've had a wonderful relationship, great cars, but we haven't sold any since 2009," explains John Costin, Delta Auto's CEO.
posted by infini at 11:38 PM on February 4, 2012

« Older Present Tense!   |   Anti-employee collusion by SF bay area tech... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments