Volga, Lada, Gaz or Moskvich. These are probably the best known Soviet car brands, especially in the former Eastern block. However, you won’t encounter too many owners that were too happy about their cars, since these were not famous for their reliability. Quality was questionable at least, most of these models being based on old cars that were built and sold in Western Europe or the America.
Things got even more complicated after the fall of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Many brands disappeared, reappeared or were reinvented. Even today, Russians are a people with a lot of enthusiasm towards cars and the Soviet Union was the birth place of some of the weirdest and rarest vehicles ever built. From military prototypes that never went into mass production to unique vehicles built by enthusiasts. So let’s take a look of how the Soviet Union made the car world more interesting:
GAZ’s name stands for Gorkovsky Avtomobilny Zavod (Gorky Automobile Plant) and is one of the best known Soviet car brands. In 1952, GAZ built the 62, a military vehicle created to replace the Dodge “three quarters” (WC-52) that was successfully used by the Soviet military during World War II. GAZ 62 was designed to carry 12 people or 1,200 kg of cargo and it featured several innovative solutions such as sealed wheel drum brakes and a fan-assisted heater. A six-cylinder engine delivering 76-hp powered the vehicle, allowing it to go as fast as 52 mph. However, even though the vehicle passed all testing, some design challenges stopped it from going into production and in 1956 GAZ started working on a new prototype.
ZIS-E134 Model 1
In 1954, a small group of engineers were given the task to build a special military vehicle for the Soviet Ministry of Defense. The four-axle, eight-wheel drive truck had to be able to go on almost any type of terrain while carrying a significant amount of cargo. The result was the ZIS-E134 model 1, a military truck with four axles and eight wheels placed on the entire width of the vehicle, creating a traction system somehow similar to armored vehicles’ tracks, therefore making it extremely effective on rough terrain. The 10-ton truck was able to carry up to 3 tons of cargo on every type of soil and had a top speed of 40 mph on paved roads and 22 mph off-road.
ZIS-E134 Model 2
The eight-wheel drive military vehicle soon evolved and the second version of the E134 was built in 1956. Compared to the first version, this one featured a sealed displacement hull reinforced with beams, which gave the vehicle great amphibious capabilities. Even though it was a giant (gross weight was at 7.8 tons), the vehicle was able to reach a top speed of 37 mph on land and almost 4 mph on water.
Built in 1963, the ZIL E167 was an off-road military vehicle that was designed to run on snow. It featured three axles and six-wheel drive. On dry roads, it could reach a top speed of 47 mph (75 km/h), while on snow it could only go at around 6 mph and even though it was not fast, one thing was for sure, it was extremely hard to get stuck in the snow. Power came from two rear mounted 118-hp engines and the ground clearance was 852 mm. The vehicle never went into production because its transmission was considered too complex.
Also called the “Blue Bird”, the ZIL 49061 was another six-wheel drive amphibious vehicle which, unlike most of its predecessors, went into mass production and it actually became an icon among car enthusiasts. It had manual transmission, independent suspension on each wheel and two propellers, being able to overcome trenches wider than 5 feet and snow barriers up to 3 feet high. Top speed on land was 50 mph and on water about 7 mph. The vehicle has been mainly used by the Russian Air Force Rescue Department, but also took part in some special operations. For example, two “Birds” were sent to Germany to help the victims of the 2002 floods, since nothing similar was available throughout Europe.
And if you thought Russian vehicles are weird, wait until you read about this one. It doesn’t have any wheels, instead it features a set of spirals (one on each side) that allowed it to run on impossible terrain. The body was fiberglass and the two spirals were made from aluminum, with the vehicle being designed to be able to transport stuff through swamps or on snow. However, it was incredibly slow: it reached 6 mph on water, 4 mph in swamps and almost 7 mph on snow.
Work on the VAZ-E2121 prototype (the “E” stands for “experimental”) started in 1971, when the Soviet company wanted to create an off-road vehicle based on the 2101 and 2103 models. The final product was an open-top off-roader with all-wheel drive powered by a new 1.6-liter that had been developed for the next generation VAZ-2106. However, only two units were ever built, a white one and a green one (the latter also gave it its nickname, “Crocodile”) and the model never made it into production.
In 1973, the AZLK-2150 prototype was presented for the first time, following another off-road concept, the “Moskvich 4×4”. The development team was led by N.I. Baranov and V.E. Vyadro and the car featured many upgrades compared to previous prototypes. It was more stable, the engine’s compression ratio has been lowered to 7.25 (it could run on A-67 gasoline, since one of the car’s main destinations was agriculture). However, like many vehicles of the time, the small SUV never made it past prototype stage and only two units were ever built: a hard top (Moskvich-2150) and an open top (Moskvich-2148).
The E2122 was another experimental project from VAZ, an amphibious vehicle whose development started in the early 1970s. Water propulsion was provided by the wheels, but this was pretty ineffictive, since top speed on water was only 3.1 mph. Power came from a 1.6-liter engine, it had four-wheel drive and, as you can imagine, a lot of issues. Different parts, such as the engine, the transmission or the front differential overheated (to protect them from water, these were placed in sealed enclosures), visibility was awful and the exhaust system had some major design flaws. However, the military was quite excited with some of the car’s features and ordered two more test units, but the vehicle never made it to mass production.
The 452K was an experimental utility van based on the popular UAZ-452, also known as “Loaf of bread”. The main difference was an extra axle whose purpose was to offer improved stability and traction on difficult terrain. Two versions were created, 6×4 and 6×6, but testing revealed that the design was too complex, and the car was too heavy (also increasing fuel consumption a lot) and the project was dropped. However, the project was not completely abandoned, because a small run of vehicles based on the 452K were built in Georgia (around 50 per year) between 1989 and 1994 and were used for different rescue services in the small country in the Caucasus.
When it was created, the car was meant to be the successor of the famous ZIL limousine used for so many years by the Communist Party elite and a usual presence during Moscow parades. The front-wheel drive ZIL-4102 featured a body with several elements made of carbon fiber such as roof panels, trunk lid, hood and bumper. Two prototypes were built in 1988 and it looks like three engines should have been made available, a 4.5-liter V6, a 6.0-liter V8 and a 7.0-liter diesel. As you can imagine, being ZIL’s flagship, it had a lot of luxury features like power windows, ten-speaker sound system with CD player, onboard computer and white leather upholstery. Unfortunately, Mikhail Gorbachev wasn’t too impressed with the car and disapproved it, so the ZIL-4102 never went into production.
The 0284 was developed by the Russian Institute of Automobiles and Automotive (NAMI) and was the prototype of a small front-wheel drive city car. The prototype was ready by the end of 1987 and was unveiled for the first time at the Geneva Motor Show in March, 1988, impressing with its extremely low drag coefficient of just 0.23). The car was only 3,685 mm long, it was powered by the 0.65-liter “Okie” engine from the VAZ-1111 and it featured an electronically-assisted clutch and cruise control. Even though the engine only produced 35-hp, given the car’s low weight (less than 1,200 pounds), it was capable of going as fast as 90 mph.
The first AZLK-2142 “Moskvich” was unveiled to the public in 1990 and was presented as the most modern car ever built by AZLK. The car was scheduled to enter production two years later, when the company planned the release of a new generation of engines, called Moskvich-414. The one who insisted on waiting for the new engines to come out before launching the car was the company’s general manager, V.P.Kolomnikova, who wanted to use the new engines on the 2142. However, the fall of the Soviet Union, the death of Kolomnikova and lack of funding led to the project being abandoned. What’s interesting is that even though the car never made into production, it was the starting point for a new generation of Moskvich-2142, who had three editions, “Prince Vladimir”, “Ivan Kalita” and “Duet”.
The development of a new UAZ off-road vehicle started in 1975, with Alexander Shabanov as the lead designer, and by 1980, the new 3170 “Simbir” was unveiled for the first time. The original model was 1.960 mm tall and had a ground clearance of 325 mm and both military and civilian versions were produced. A second generation (UAZ-3171) followed in 1990, whose development started in 1987.
The MAZ-2000, codenamed “Perestroika”, was a project aimed at creating a modern truck that should have been used mainly by Soviet transport companies. One of the truck’s highlights was its modular design, which meant that all the important parts, like the engine, the transmission, the front axle and steering were located in the front, decreasing the gap between the cabin and the loading area and significantly improving cargo space by as much as 350 cubic feet. The truck was exhibited for the first time at the 1988 Paris Motor Show and several prototypes were built, but the project was never given the green light, so no model ever saw the production line. Many believe the “Perestroyka” was the main inspiration behind the extremely popular Renault Magnum truck, which was launched in 1990 and won the “Truck of the Year” award in 1991 (some even claim Gorbachev agreed to sell the design to the French carmaker).
Everyone knew that Soviet cars’ reliability and performance weren’t the best in the world and this is why many Russian engineers decided to build their own cars, usually inspired by Western European or American sports cars. One of these examples is the Pangolina, created by Aleksandr Kulygin in 1983. The custom car featured a fiber glass body, it was powered by an engine “borrowed” from a VAZ-2101 and its design was most likely inspired by the Lamborghini Countach. The car still exists, showing up at different classic and custom car shows, but some changes were made to the original design, including the way doors open.
In 1981, a replica of the famous Jeep was built by Stanislav Holshanosovym, an engineer from Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, which was a part of Soviet Union at that time. To build this vehicle, the Armenian engineer used parts from several other Soviet models: a used VAZ-2101 (the original “Lada”) “donated” the engine, rear axle, gearbox, electrics and lights, the driveshaft comes from a Volga GAZ-21, while the suspension system, gas tank, instrument cluster and the windshield wipers are borrowed from a UAZ-469. Some parts were custom built, such as the front axle, but the car proved to handle great on difficult terrain and was exhibited at several shows across the Soviet Union, receiving a few awards too.
Another example of a custom built sports car, “Laura” was built by two engineers from Leningrad (today known as Sankt Petersburg), Dmitri Parfenov and Gennady Hain. The two wanted a sports car so bad that they decided to build one of their own, but unlike other custom made Russian cars, they didn’t want to just create a replica of a Western car, instead tried to create a completely new car. “Laura” was powered by a 1.5-liter engine delivering 77-hp and it featured front-wheel drive, a rudimentary form of onboard computer and was able to reach a top speed of 105 mph. Two units were built in 1982 and the model was praised by communist leader Mikhail Gorbachev himself, winning several awards. Today, both units are preserved, being exhibited at a museum in Russia.
This sports car was born out of Yuri Algebraistov’s passion for cars. The name comes from the engineer’s and his wife’s names (Natasha) and the custom car was built in 1982, currently being the only custom built sports car from the Soviet Union era that still works and runs great today. Not only that, but its creator, which is now over sixty, constantly upgrades it and makes sure it keeps running smooth. The car now has more than 500,000 miles on the odometer, but it also has a BMW 525i engine, power mirrors and windows, while the exhaust system has also been upgraded to produce a better sound.
This car follows the same recipe: a custom car build by an enthusiast. This time, its creator was from Sevastopol, a city in southern Ukraine. One of the things that made Katran popular was its original way of entering the car: it had no doors instead the entire front part of the cockpit, including the windshield, could be flipped forward to allow the driver and passenger to get in. According to a report in the famous Sputnik magazine, the car also featured an independent suspension and, perhaps more amazing, an electronic cruise control system that was able to hold a constant speed even when going downhill.
These are not all, compiling a list with ALL rare, weird or interesting vehicles created in the Soviet Union would probably take ages, but these are some of the most interesting in our opinion. How about you, feel like any other cars or vehicles should have made it on this list?