Once, they were symbols of derision and ineptitude. Now they are highly sought after collector’s items. The cars of the communist era were often ugly, cheaply produced and mechanically problematic. But they have become beloved by history nuts and fans of the underdog with many of these smoke-belching, decidedly boxy vehicles changing hands for fairly astonishing amounts. Here’s just a few of these classic car-buncles of a bygone age.
With its poor performing 2-stroke engine, its propensity for releasing clouds of noxious smoke and it’s less than delicate design, the poor old Trabant is cited as the epitome of communist car production. Built in East Germany and exported around the communist bloc, it is often considered one of the worst cars ever made. But, as with many relics of the past, its previous design failings are now considered iconic, there’s a growing market for the slightly fancier “limousine” varieties and even talk of the Trabi going back into production.
Used to transport hospital patients, criminals and ordinary citizens, the Nysa was the van of choice in communist Poland. With its rounded chassis and windows, it was slightly more stylish than the angular Zuk having a vague sci-fi quality, coupled with distinctly Iron Curtain design. Sadly, like many pre-Glasnost businesses, they didn’t bother much with product development, so when the wall fell and lots of lovely new and more safety conscious safe vans were suddenly available, the Nysa looked even less attractive.
FSO Polonez Truck
Another Polish commercial vehicle, this one having the distinction of actually looking like two completely different vehicles poorly welded together. But this was no chop shop horror story. Licensed from Fiat, the regular coupes and sedans actually looked like fairly normal vehicles with a front and back that practically matched. It was the truck variety that resembled a monstrous motorised Frankenstein.
ZAZ-968 M Zaporozhets
The Ukraine based Zaporizhia Automobile Building Plant, snappily shortened to ZAZ, started out building combine harvesters before moving into the car market and commencing production on their equally snappily named Zaporozhets. Thanks to their good looks, they garnered nicknames such as the “hunchback”, the ˜big ears” and the “soap box” which may tip you off on the way they appeared. Appreciated at the time for their durability on poorly paved roads, they are fondly remembered and slavishly collected today. Even Vladimir Putin has one.
Basically a re-badged Renault 12, the Dacia was extremely popular in Romania, partly thanks to its no nonsense design but mainly due to the fact that there wasn’t much choice. The 1300, first produced in 1969, didn’t look particularly special to those in the west, but resembled the cutting edge of motorised technology to those used to dumpy Trabants and Yugos. They kept the 1300s pouring out of the factory, virtually unchanged and unmodified, for over a decade.
Moskvitchs in various numbered forms had been tackling the dodgy Russian roads since the early 1940’s. Known for their noisy, slow engines and uninspired design, the company tried to change things with the introduction of the 408. These featured a fake leather interior, panoramic windows and a heater that actually worked. There were even plans for a convertible “Tourist” model, but the powers that be decided it was too luxurious for ordinary Russians and it only appeared in a child’s pedal car version.
A Skoda 1000 MB
Known for drastic rusting (ironic as it faintly resembles a submarine) and engine overheating (ironic as it came from freezing cold Czechoslovakia), this classy 60’s Skoda was rear-engined and featured rear-wheel drive. Despite its many problems, it was a real beauty featuring fins, vents and rounded wings. It was popular in the UK, where it shipped for a very reasonable £579 (in 1965), which is something you can’t say about the Trabant.
With a name that translates as “red flag”, the Hongqis were the premium vehicle for important Chinese party officials from 1958 until the early 1980’s. Based on the 1955 Chrysler Imperial, dignitaries from Mao downwards were kept safely away from the proletariat, except when they wanted to wave at them and then the convertible model was deployed. Though the party faithful have now switched to more luxurious vehicles, such as Audi’s, Hongqi’s are still being produced, with the HQE retailing at $1.2million, the most expensive Chinese car ever created.
Also known as a Zastava Koral, the Yugoslavian/Serbian born and bred Yugo had the distinction of being voted the worst car of all time by American radio show Car Talk. But defenders of this plucky, boxy subcompact argue that they were sold so cheaply and were victims of such derision that owners often didn’t even bother conducting basic maintenance, to the detriment of the vehicle. Though any car where “carpet” is listed as a selling point is not going to attract too many plaudits.
If you asked a toddler to draw a picture of a car, they would probably create something that looked like this. It was angular and quite painful to look at, but the Lada Niva (meaning crop field) was an off-road vehicle that featured quite a number of innovations still used on 4x4s today. And while it didn’t appear that pretty, my goodness it had “sturdy” running right through it. A fleet of them were used in the construction of the Channel Tunnel and some intrepid Russians even managed to drive one underwater.