You don’t know how lucky you are…. Commonly believed to have been an automotive wasteland, but in fact a hotbed of innovation and inventiveness – Bruno Vijverman goes back to the USSR.
From establishment until its dissolution at the end of 1991 the USSR, with its highly centralized government and economy, kept its subjects in check under a stifling regime of five-year plans (pyatiletka) and widespread collectivisation. Stray too much – or too often – from your allocated path within the one-party state system and you risked intimidation, re-education, arrest or worse.
Such an environment of course was hardly conducive to creativity or self-deployment; at first sight this would also seem to be reflected in the vehicles that the (relatively) lucky few were allowed to own, assuming they could afford them. But as so often, not all is as it seems.
If we delve deeper into the information and evidence that has been unearthed since the USSR’s demise, evidence emerges that while the creative spirit and talent of its car designers and engineers was certainly for the most part, silenced under the communist regime, it was far from extinguished.
Unfortunately the vast majority of ideas and concepts ultimately did not make it past the final hurdle of party decision makers behind the iron curtain. Nations that were under the influence of the USSR at the time suffered similar impediments.
This series presents a selection of concepts and prototypes, in no particular order, that offers a taste of what the car designers and engineers behind the iron curtain were capable of despite the limitations imposed upon them by the regime.
IZH TE, 1967
Based in Izhevsk and established in 1965, IZH is now a subsidiary of AvtoVAZ. In 1967 the TE prototype, designed by VNIITE (the Russian institute of design and research), first broke cover. It was a concept for
a compact passenger car with a capacity of 4-5 persons. The TE had a fiberglass body, sliding doors on both sides and a hatchback; the floorpan and mechanicals – a 1357cc four cylinder developing 54hp- were sourced from the Moskvitch 408. Styling was quite futuristic for the time and in profile reminiscent of the AMC Gremlin that would enter production a few years later.
Trabant P603, 1966
VEB Sachsenring Automobilwerk Zwickau is of course best known for the Trabi 601. One year before the 601 became available, work began on a modern front wheel drive three-door hatchback under the name P603. Styled by Karl Claus Dietel (also responsible for the Wartburg 353), the P603 had a thoroughly modern look. As with the Trabi, the P603’s body was composed of duraplast panels onto a steel structure. Several engine proposals, which included a Wankel powerplant, were built into the ten P603 prototypes.
In April 1970, with the P603 virtually production-ready, General Secretary of the SED Erich Honecker ordered the cancellation of the project
and the scrapping of all prototypes. One of the reasons was the initiation of an ambitious joint Czechoslovak-East German car development project
named RGW (this will be covered in more detail in a later instalment).
This was unfortunate because the P603 had potential and in essence was, according to some, not that far removed from the vehicle that would
save Volkswagen four years later, the Golf. There are even theories that Volkswagen, during that period struggling to come up with a successor
to the Beetle, got its hands on the plans of the cancelled P603 and at least partly utilised them to ultimately produce the Golf- these allegations
however remain unsubstantiated.
FSM 126NP, 1978
Not all projects from behind the iron curtain were modern, clever or even sensible. But they could be creative – the FSM 126NP is a case in point.
Fabryka Samochodów Małolitrażowych sold the 126P, affectionally named Maluch (toddler) in its native Poland, for many years, with production beginning in 1973. By the late seventies most carmakers, including FSM, were aware that the rear-engined car had its best days behind it.
FSM’s solution, likely driven by the lack of funds to design a completely new vehicle, was to move the 650cc two-cylinder engine and transmission to the front thereby creating a front-engined, front wheel drive 126. Substantial modifications had to be made to the transmission, body structure and suspension of course; the 126NP was 190mm longer than the 126P.
The powers that be ultimately made the wise decision to nip this project in the bud (only one prototype was built) because of the huge investments to be made that would very probably never be recouped if the 126NP was ever to be readied for volume production.
This series will be continued shortly.