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The Copycat Cars Of The U.S.S.R.

  • Amos Chapple
Industry loomed large in the race for influence between the West and the Soviet Union, symbolizing power and the ability to create, innovate, and carry the world into the future. But while the Soviets held their own and in some cases bettered their capitalist rivals in some fields -- such as space exploration and weaponry -- they were behind from the start when it came to the automobile. Often, the U.S.S.R. had to copy its capitalist rivals just to keep pace.

A convoy of Soviet Chaika cars glide along a road near Tbilisi, Georgia. The Chaika ('Seagull') was one of several Soviet cars that were copied nearly wholesale from their Western forerunners. 
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A convoy of Soviet Chaika cars glide along a road near Tbilisi, Georgia. The Chaika ('Seagull') was one of several Soviet cars that were copied nearly wholesale from their Western forerunners. 

The first truck to roll off the assembly line of the U.S.S.R's GAZ automobile factory in 1932. Three years earlier, American industrialist Henry Ford signed a contract with the fledgling Soviet Union to set up the plant in Russia. The factory would turn out licensed copies of Ford cars and trucks like this GAZ-AA. 
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The first truck to roll off the assembly line of the U.S.S.R's GAZ automobile factory in 1932. Three years earlier, American industrialist Henry Ford signed a contract with the fledgling Soviet Union to set up the plant in Russia. The factory would turn out licensed copies of Ford cars and trucks like this GAZ-AA. 

Newly minted GAZ-AA trucks at the factory at Nizhny Novgorod. Partnering with Ford would seem to go against the Soviet ideal, but the industrialist offered manufacturing expertise, technology, and training that Moscow could use to develop other industries. For Ford, the $30 million deal offered the opportunity to enter an untapped market.  
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Newly minted GAZ-AA trucks at the factory at Nizhny Novgorod. Partnering with Ford would seem to go against the Soviet ideal, but the industrialist offered manufacturing expertise, technology, and training that Moscow could use to develop other industries. For Ford, the $30 million deal offered the opportunity to enter an untapped market.  

The muscular elegance of this American classic -- a 1935 Buick 4-door sedan -- apparently caught the eye of Soviet engineers.
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The muscular elegance of this American classic -- a 1935 Buick 4-door sedan -- apparently caught the eye of Soviet engineers.

Josef Stalin and a posse of senior cadres seem impressed by the heavier, thirstier Soviet copy manufactured in Moscow in 1936. The ZIS-101 weighed 2.5 tons (around 600 kilos more than the American original) and gulped through 26.5 liters of gasoline per 100 kilometers. 
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Josef Stalin and a posse of senior cadres seem impressed by the heavier, thirstier Soviet copy manufactured in Moscow in 1936. The ZIS-101 weighed 2.5 tons (around 600 kilos more than the American original) and gulped through 26.5 liters of gasoline per 100 kilometers. 

A 1939 Opel Kadett. Prior to World War II, Stalin had tried to work out a deal to assemble the car in the Soviet Union. But following the Allied victory, the Soviet leader considered it to be a spoil of war. In 1946 he reportedly had an entire Opel factory dismantled, transported out of Germany, and into the U.S.S.R. 
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A 1939 Opel Kadett. Prior to World War II, Stalin had tried to work out a deal to assemble the car in the Soviet Union. But following the Allied victory, the Soviet leader considered it to be a spoil of war. In 1946 he reportedly had an entire Opel factory dismantled, transported out of Germany, and into the U.S.S.R. 

The result was the mass-produced Moskvich 400. While in the West the automobile was seen as giving the average Joe access to the open road and more individual freedom, early Soviet cars were reserved almost exclusively for bureaucrats. Citizens in the 1930s literally had to win a national lottery to enjoy the privilege of sliding into their own vehicle. 
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The result was the mass-produced Moskvich 400. While in the West the automobile was seen as giving the average Joe access to the open road and more individual freedom, early Soviet cars were reserved almost exclusively for bureaucrats. Citizens in the 1930s literally had to win a national lottery to enjoy the privilege of sliding into their own vehicle. 

The 1947 Ford Super Deluxe Woody was well suited to the dry, sunny weather of the Californian coast. 
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The 1947 Ford Super Deluxe Woody was well suited to the dry, sunny weather of the Californian coast. 

But despite the drizzle of Russia's autumns and famously severe winters, the Soviets gave it a try -- reputedly as a means of saving steel.  
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But despite the drizzle of Russia's autumns and famously severe winters, the Soviets gave it a try -- reputedly as a means of saving steel.  

This slab of cool, known as the 1955 Packard Caribbean, had a short-lived production run in the United States. But the design was granted an unexpected second life when In 1959 the Soviets came out with their most prestigious comrade carrier. 
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This slab of cool, known as the 1955 Packard Caribbean, had a short-lived production run in the United States. But the design was granted an unexpected second life when In 1959 the Soviets came out with their most prestigious comrade carrier. 

A ZIL-111 carries Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev (standing right) through Moscow in 1964. The limousine would, according to one observer, look at home "next to a jukebox and a photo of Elvis."  
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A ZIL-111 carries Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev (standing right) through Moscow in 1964. The limousine would, according to one observer, look at home "next to a jukebox and a photo of Elvis."  

It wasn't just American cars that the Soviet designers looked to for inspiration. Italy's bubbly Fiat 600d was a hit throughout Europe, with more than a million units sold within five years of its 1955 release.  
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It wasn't just American cars that the Soviet designers looked to for inspiration. Italy's bubbly Fiat 600d was a hit throughout Europe, with more than a million units sold within five years of its 1955 release.  

In 1961, the Soviets came out with the ZAZ 965, a nearly identical copy of the Fiat, right down to the forward-opening "suicide doors." By the 1960s Soviet designs were becoming more proletarian as an increasing number of ordinary Soviet citizens were able to get their own passenger cars, albeit after a lengthy wait. 
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In 1961, the Soviets came out with the ZAZ 965, a nearly identical copy of the Fiat, right down to the forward-opening "suicide doors." By the 1960s Soviet designs were becoming more proletarian as an increasing number of ordinary Soviet citizens were able to get their own passenger cars, albeit after a lengthy wait. 

"Drive a Prinz and be a King" ran the marketing for West Germany's NSU Prinz 4 when it was released in 1961. The car was not for Kings in a hurry though, taking more than half a minute to hit 97 kilometers per hour.
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"Drive a Prinz and be a King" ran the marketing for West Germany's NSU Prinz 4 when it was released in 1961. The car was not for Kings in a hurry though, taking more than half a minute to hit 97 kilometers per hour.

Ten years later, the ZAZ-968 trundled onto Soviet roads. The addition of side vents earned the Soviet copycat the nickname "big ears."
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Ten years later, the ZAZ-968 trundled onto Soviet roads. The addition of side vents earned the Soviet copycat the nickname "big ears."

Italy: After dropping by parachute onto the world stage, the Fiat 124 was named the European Car Of The Year in 1966. Soon afterward, the car would be forever associated with "the deal of the century," when Fiat signed a contract with the U.S.S.R. to set up Russia's largest car factory. 
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Italy: After dropping by parachute onto the world stage, the Fiat 124 was named the European Car Of The Year in 1966. Soon afterward, the car would be forever associated with "the deal of the century," when Fiat signed a contract with the U.S.S.R. to set up Russia's largest car factory. 

Fiat cut a deal with the Soviet government to set up a manufacturing plant in Tolyatti (so named in 1964 in honor of the Italian communist Palmiro Togliatti). The Zhiguli (aka as its export name, the Lada) was modeled closely on the Fiat, but with thicker steel skin and higher clearance for Russian roads. The iconic car had a production run of nearly 18 years, and Tolyatti -- home of AvtoVAZ, the country's largest automaker, which is today part of the French Groupe-Renault -- remains the center of car manufacturing in Russia. 
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Fiat cut a deal with the Soviet government to set up a manufacturing plant in Tolyatti (so named in 1964 in honor of the Italian communist Palmiro Togliatti). The Zhiguli (aka as its export name, the Lada) was modeled closely on the Fiat, but with thicker steel skin and higher clearance for Russian roads. The iconic car had a production run of nearly 18 years, and Tolyatti -- home of AvtoVAZ, the country's largest automaker, which is today part of the French Groupe-Renault -- remains the center of car manufacturing in Russia. 

A traffic jam humming under giant billboards for cars in Moscow. When the U.S.S.R collapsed in 1991 there were around 600,000 registered automobiles in Moscow. By 2006, when this photo was taken, the number had jumped to more than 3.5 million.  Sources for text: "Cars For Comrades: The Life Of The Soviet Automobile"; Lewis H. Siegelbaum Interview with Lewis H. Siegelbaum The Riga Motor Museum, The Soviet Car Industry
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A traffic jam humming under giant billboards for cars in Moscow. When the U.S.S.R collapsed in 1991 there were around 600,000 registered automobiles in Moscow. By 2006, when this photo was taken, the number had jumped to more than 3.5 million. 

Sources for text:
"Cars For Comrades: The Life Of The Soviet Automobile"; Lewis H. Siegelbaum
Interview with Lewis H. Siegelbaum
The Riga Motor Museum, The Soviet Car Industry

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