How to buy a car in the U.S.S.R.
July 22, 2016 5:13 PM   Subscribe

It was a bit harder than you might think....
Ronald Reagan told the joke:
a guy in a Soviet country is told he has a 10 year wait for a car.
This man laid down the money, and the fellow in charge said to him:
Come back in 10 years and get your car.
The man answered: Morning or afternoon?
And the fellow behind the counter said: Ten years from now, what difference does it make?
And he said: Well, the plumber is coming in the morning. posted by shockingbluamp (21 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

I was once hitchhiking in West Germany and got picked up by a Lada 1500. Wondered how it got there. Probably via Yugoslavia.
posted by texorama at 5:51 PM on July 22, 2016

We had a Moskvitch.

It didn't go well.

This is not actually a joke.
posted by Devonian at 6:06 PM on July 22, 2016 [19 favorites]

Put it in H!
posted by 445supermag at 6:49 PM on July 22, 2016 [8 favorites]

Man, now I really want to play Jalopy
posted by _Synesthesia_ at 7:20 PM on July 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

My parents owned a Lada- you could buy one in Canada back in the early '80s.

The cool thing was, it came with a socket set in the trunk. The not-so-cool thing was, you needed it.

My parents also had a theory that Brezhnev had a button in the Kremlin that could shut down all Ladas in the world at will.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:47 PM on July 22, 2016 [12 favorites]

Man, that Lada 1500 looks exactly like my first car, a '74 Fiat 124, which is how I learned that the Italians shipped all their reject cars to the US (you name the part, it broke).
posted by adamg at 8:08 PM on July 22, 2016

Man, that Lada 1500 looks exactly like my first car, a '74 Fiat 124

That's because they ripped off the design.
posted by Behemoth at 9:01 PM on July 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

That's because they ripped off the design.

I wouldn't really call it a ripp-off, as they actually paid Fiat for the design (which was, in many ways, an improvement over the original 124) and tooling.
posted by daniel_charms at 9:39 PM on July 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

We had a Moskvitch.

I had a wonderful Moskvitch for a short time in Kyrgyzstan.

The Volga GAZ was the disappointment, turned out to be nothing more than an opportunity for my wife and brother-in-law to fleece me one last time. But it was beautiful and I was the owner, can't take that away.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:44 PM on July 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

We had a Moskvitch.

Not my fault.
posted by mosk at 10:25 PM on July 22, 2016 [7 favorites]

Is that real vinyl in that LADA 1500?

The first ZIS look like some good ole American steel circa 1957.
posted by AugustWest at 11:04 PM on July 22, 2016

When I was 12, my teacher had a lada, in the 1990s in NZ. She got special stickers printed with a picture of it and "Ms [name]'s lada says " good job! ". They were the best thing ever.
posted by lollusc at 11:53 PM on July 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

Yeah, that's real vinyl. We had a VAZ-2103 when I was a child and it got hot as hell in sunny weather. And it cracked like crazy.

The story of how my father bought this car is a great example of how stupid the permit system actually was. It wasn't exactly like it's told in the article, as you didn't have to wait seven to ten years for the car itself - if you had a permit, you could actually simply go and pick one up from the dealership (like my dad did), or maybe wait for a few months to get it in the colour you wanted. The real difficulty was getting a permit in the first place - you had to apply for it and then usually wait in line for years before you were allocated one.

As a driver on a collective farm, my father wasn't exactly at the top of the line. The first in line were farm workers, combine operators - those doing the work yielding the all-important production numbers (x tons of milk, y tons of grain). A combine operator might even receive a new permit for a new car after some years, whereas someone doing non-productive work would always be way down the line. And my father belonged to this latter category, even though he was a diligent worker - and the personal driver of the head of the collective farm. His boss really liked him, though, so he decided my father should get a car permit, even though he didn't qualify for one, as he was too young (about 25), not a member of the Party and so on. They solved this problem by allocating the permit to my grandmother, a middle-aged farm worker who probably had never put her hands on the wheel in her life. They gave her a permit and she gave it to my father (which was perfectly legal). Unlike an average person waiting in line for a car, my dad didn't have any money saved up for one, so he borrowed it from the neighbours. And he went and bought a Lada, the best car you could actually buy at the time.

One hilarious aspect of car ownership in the USSR not mentioned in the article is that, at least if you had a Lada, you could go and get it completely overhauled after 10 years of use (probably for a ridiculously low charge). And if I say completely overhauled, I mean literally completely - other than the plates, everything would be replaced with a new part.
posted by daniel_charms at 6:06 AM on July 23, 2016 [34 favorites]

I had a Lada, in early '90s Chile.
It sucked.
And looked like some sort of ambulance.
And most taxis where Ladas, so I got flagged down all the time.
posted by signal at 6:52 AM on July 23, 2016 [4 favorites]

I had a wonderful Moskvitch for a short time in Kyrgyzstan.

I am hard-pressed to think of anyone in the world who could deliver this line without it sounding like a dirty joke. Pope Benedict couldn't pull that off.
posted by Etrigan at 8:17 AM on July 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

I sent the link to a friend of mine who grew up in the USSR, and he called it "pretty accurate," adding the following details:
He doesn't mention the hard currency option. My parents saved a few dollars while working in America and bought a Volga GAZ-21 in the early 70s through the hard currency shops system, no wait, no bribes. And he did commute to work and parked the car in the yard. In winter this included emptying the radiator and refilling it again in the morning with boiling water, and sometimes also removing the battery (аккумулятор) and bringing it up to the 6th floor apartment so that the water inside didn't freeze. We didn't have a dacha until the late '70s, and they managed to build a co-operative (кооперативный) communal garage with an open-fronted box on the third level. Not 40 minutes away, but not near the apartment.

My wife and I bought a Zhiguli-Lada after returning from Japan in 87 in the same way and also without a wait. I didn't drive it, my wife did, and yes, to the dacha too, but she still parked it outside our apartment building, though finding a place was more difficult.

Things improved greatly after they built the huge Zhiguli factory with FIAT's technical assistance and early designs based on FIAT. They started coming out in the early '70s. It was a fairly good car and there were service (repairs and technical control) stations in larger cities. The proof is that at some point exported Ladas were very popular in many countries, despite the many jokes, including English ones. (Why does a Lada have a backscreen heater-defroster? To warm your hands when you're pushing it in winter.) Lada exports were one reason why the car supply continued to be insufficient.

Servicing was a nightmare (he doesn't write about it much), as spares, various liquids and other things were in short supply or non-existent, and mechanics always expected cash-in-hand payment, call it a bribe or not. And it was a challenge to find a reliable one.
It is accurate as regards non-depreciation. My mother sold the Volga in the mid-'80s and bought a Lada for my sister and her husband!

There were often shortages of petrol. Also partly as a result of massive exports and weak refining infrastructure.

He doesn't mention another problem - the price of buying the car even when they were allocated to your predpriyatiye or organizatsiya (there were no 'companies' in those days). How could an ordinary worker afford to save several thousand rubles on a salary of around 100-150 rubles per month? As far as I remember there were no credits for cars until the 90s.
My friend recommends the "wonderful Soviet comedy Берегись автомобиля [Watch out for your car!]," which deals with a lot of these issues and is available on YouTube.
posted by languagehat at 8:34 AM on July 23, 2016 [15 favorites]

Comments actually seem informative:

What do you do [after finally getting your car]?

Take it to your garage and fix it! Only the capitalist bourgeois cars work good straight out of the factory. In Soviet Russia, or in our case Communist Hungary, you get your new car and you better start working on it right away.

My dad finally got his Dacia after 5 or 6 years of waiting. First we had to travel to a city about 200 miles from our home town, as we had no “distribution center” at our town. After picking the car up, my Dad drove it straight to my Grandpa’s garage, and they worked on it for 3 days to make it drive like a new car should.

posted by mark k at 10:33 AM on July 23, 2016

I worked a car show in the 90s, doing detailing on cars. Everyone got assigned a dealer, mine was Chrysler, so I mostly cleaned fingerprints on Dodge trucks, minivans and jeeps, but one day the Lada guy didn't show up for his shift so I had to detail the Lada cossacks and everything was stollen from them: shifter knobs, rearview and side mirrors. Those poor little cars.
posted by furtive at 9:07 PM on July 24, 2016

While in Slovenia a few decades ago I got a kick out of the three letter country stickers common across Europe:

posted by anthill at 5:22 PM on July 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

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