Curtain Call (Part 1)

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.

Moskvitch C1. (c)

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 prototype. (c)

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. (c)

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. (c)

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.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

17 thoughts on “Curtain Call (Part 1)”

  1. When listening to some believers in East German motor industry you get the impression that the whole Western car industry only existed because either spies stole those wonderful concepts and designs or the SED sold them to the west. The only thing they kept for themselves were their wonderful and superior two stroke engines.

    People like MZ’s Walter Kaaden achieved incredible results in an environment mostly hostile towards motoring but design the Seventies’ generation of VWs they did not.
    Just think of basing a conventional metal-bodied car like the Golf on something intended to use a steel skeleton (DS/P6-style) with non-load bearing duroplast panels (mats made from drawdowns of USSR cotton wool production impregnated with phenolic resin cured at high temperature) hung from it. And that’s before you think of the weird production processes that had to be reused and which dictated much of the Golf Mk1’s body production design.

    The Trabant P603 was intended to go into series production using a 600 cc single rotor wankel engine (a twin rotor was to be developed for the Wartburg successor) in 1967. To achieve this the engine would have to be approved for production in 1965 at which time it did not meet any of its set requirements in terms of durability, economy (production costs and fuel consumption) or emissions quality. It also was clear that it would have needed materials that could not be sourced in the RGW, mostly for the rotor tip seals. As the engine was using its fuel-air mixture to cool the rotor it had to be run on a petroil mixture and it suffered the same thermal problems as the Fichtel & Sachs engine using the same cooling concept. The engine would have had 34 PS with a lateral inlet port and gave lots of unresolved production problems – the only sensible solution was to kill it and the car it was to power.

    1. Hi Dave,
      Just to be clear: I don’t buy the (conspiracy?) theory about VW having used the P603’s design to help them create the Golf either- especially not when it concerns the duroplast body construction. And even if the P603’s overall shape and concept remind some of a pre-Golf that is also not really evidence either; several manufacturers were by that time thinking along the same lines concept-wise.
      But since this allegation comes up regularly when gathering information on the P603 (there has even been a TV documentary on the subject, it can be found on youtube no doubt) I thought it at least merited a mention.

    2. Hi Bruno,
      in no way did I want to indicate that you believed this nonsense.

      The sad thing is that enough damage has been done to the Eastern motor industry by people like Dieter Degen who sold Water Kaaden’s findings from his revolutionary approach to two stroke engines to Suzuki after renegation. Maybe this made some pople develop a kind of persecutory paranoia.

  2. Good morning Bruno and thanks for unearthing these Soviet-era oddities for us. The FWD 126 is an extraordinary effort for little return. You think they might have made the boot lid top-hinged, given all the changes elsewhere!

    Looking forward to the next instalment.

  3. A shame the Poles were unable to keep the Polski Fiat 126p NP from growing too long and increasing in weight when converting it to FWD (the Japanese Carmakers were able to keep their small cars within the dimensions of the Kei Car class), wonder if the engine bay of the 126p NP was by the end of it large enough to have room for a 100 Series 4-cylinder or a 3-cylinder version of the Fiat FIRE engine (as was originally conceived when PSA were involved in the development of the FIRE engine with a 999cc-based 35 hp 750cc later used in the Citroen ECO 2000 SL 10).

    Actually quite like the FWD 126p NP hatchback prototype though it is something that Fiat should have done themselves for the original 126 to slot beneath the Autobianchi A112 or in the event of the FWD 126 suffering from similar increases in weight and length to the Polish effort (to the point where it was slightly longer and only about 20-40kg lighter than as the A112), at least carried over the 2-cylinder engine to the A112 (albeit not before enlarging it to 704-792cc and converting it to water-cooling).

    Read in Dante Giacosa’s book that the Soviets were particularly interested in building a locally developed version of the Autobianchi Primula that even formed the basis of the NAMI-107 “Vasilek”, only for one of Fiat’s higher ups ordering Giacosa to persuade the Soviets to instead build the Fiat 124 (and dismiss the Fiat 123 E4 prototype that would form the basis of the Autobianchi A111)

    Also a pity Zastava / Yugo opted not to produce a locally built Autobianchi A112 to replace the Fiat 600-based Zastava 750 and slot below the Koral/127 and Skala/128, even if it is almost certain they would screw up the execution of a relatively modernized Zastava / Yugo badged A112 in one form or another.

    IIRC have read stories of BMC being interested in

    Another Soviet / Eastern Bloc small car projects that come to mind include:

    Lada (or VAZ) E1101 prototype aka Cheburashka (an early-70s project featuring a 50 hp 900cc engine with 4-speed gearbox that was capable of being enlarged to 55+ hp 1100cc as well as a length of 3.12m / 123-inches)

    Tatra T604 LIDO (featuring a 22 hp 750cc or more specifically 736cc Flat-4 with 4-speed gearbox and a length of 145-inches)

    Skoda Mini (featuring a 21 hp two-stroke 2-cylinder 350cc / 344cc engine from the Jawa 350, weight of 400kg and a length of 117-inches)

    1968 Skoda Mini

    Polski Fiat / FSM Beskid (carried over the 594-704cc 2-cylinder engines from the Fiat 126 / Cinquecento, with another prototype using a 1116cc Fiat SOHC unit as opposed to the Fiat 100 Series engine. It is claimed that Renault largely appropriated the design for the original Renault Twingo.)

    Trabant P603 / Trabant P610 / Trabant P601 WE II (can be best described as a series of modern looking hatchback prototypes to replace the original Trabant, with the latter two and possibly even the former featuring 1100cc+ Skoda sourced four-stroke engines to replace the old two-stroke units. Part of a series of still-born Eastern Bloc plans for Trabant, Wartburg and Skoda to cooperate with each other. Some implausibly allege East Germany sold the designs of the Trabant P603 to Volkswagen and thus it, not DKW/NSU had a role in the creation of the original Volkswagen Golf.) (Dutch link)

    Lada (or VAZ) 3E1101 prototype aka Ladoga (though outwardly resembling the later larger Lada Samara, this roughly Polo-sized mid-1970s Supermini prototype actually traces its genes back to the earlier and much smaller Cheburashka yet still carried over the 50 hp 900cc engine)

    1. There was a 126 BIS with its engine converted to water cooling and tilted by 90 degrees but still in the back which had a large hatch.

    2. Know the tilted layout of the water-cooled engine in the Fiat 126p BIS was previously used in air-cooled form with the Fiat 500 Giardiniera, yet is it known whether Fiat looked at tilting the engine by 90-degrees in the regular Fiat 500 in an effort to liberate some space in the rear in non-Giardiniera form?

      It is possible a production version of the FWD 126p NP would have eventually featured a similar rear as the 126p BIS (that is quite attractive notwithstanding the grille-less front), perhaps a FWD 126 would have also opened the door to the front resembling the mk1 Fiat Panda’s first/second facelifts or Fiat 127 Series 3 (and later 127-based derivatives like the later Fiat 147, etc)?

    3. Fiat in Italy never had plans to make water cooled twins until the Twin Air of the last years. A tilted engine in the 500 wouldn’t have made sense because the 500 could not be converted to a hatch and the room acquired by such a move would have been enoough for a half litre bottle of San Pellegrino at best. They used the air cooled twin in the Panda Mk1 650 (sold mainly in Italy) which is as close as you can get a modern attempt at the FWD 126.

    4. Hello Bob,
      Hmm… unless they repainted that yellow 126NP they apparently did make more than one prototype….
      Some of the cars you mention will be covered in this series, so watch this space!

    5. Fair enough, know Dante Giacosa looked at FWD for both the 600 and 500 before ruling it out at the time. Never really regarded the original Panda as an adequate successor to the 126 unlike the later Cinquecento, the 1977 Daihatsu Cuore (later 1980 Daihatsu Mira) and 5th Mitsubishi Minica would be roughly how one would envisage a properly developed FWD 126 hatchback.

      Hello brrrruno, indeed there are a number of 126p NP prototypes that managed to survive along with other fascinating 126-based developments.

      Also found the following Czech language article on the Skoda Mini project the company looked into prior to the Soviet invasion.

  4. Love the eastern link to the Twingo! I was aware of the Honda Today stories, the brochures littered the studio floor at one point..
    Renault had spent some considerable temps getting to a result that people who hadn’t sniped at, the VBG program took dome time and not a little state funding.
    Look at the book « Les Petites et Secrets Renaults » written by Christophe Bonnaud to get an insight behind the rumours. The period was ideal for thinking about small cars. Doing one took some balls, however. Renault nearly did a 4L successor during the VBG programme, Fiat did the Panda. One cancelled the other. The petite monospace was the ideal candidate going forward. Le plagiat? Plutôt les vignes amères, Messieurs.

  5. Dare I mention the Poland-only 704cc Tipo 170 Cinquecento with the 126pBIS engine in a longitudinal FWD configuration?

  6. Hello Bruno – fascinating, as usual – thank you.

    I heard the Volkswagen Golf rumour, many years ago. It was told to me in hushed tones; I thought it was an odd claim, given how well known and well documented the Golf’s story is.

    I hope Karl Clauss Dietel features in future instalments.

    1. There seem to be some challenges to KC’s authorship of the Wartburg 353 but I’m captivated by the designs which he and Lutz Rudolph produced for Heliradio:

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