Concluding our tour of some of the Eastern Bloc’s unrealised dreams
Moskvitch 2139 Arbat, 1989 and Istra, 1991
The rising popularity of the minivan during the eighties prompted Moskvitch to explore the possibilities of creating their own version, development starting in 1987. The result shown two years later was a seven seater named 2139 Arbat styled by Alexander Kulugin’s AZLK design team; the A- and B-pillar treatment by coincidence appearing somewhat similar to the more recent Skoda Roomster.
Featuring a sliding door on the passenger side, front seats that could rotate 180 degrees like those in the Renault Espace and clothed in an up to date looking body the Arbat nevertheless never made it past the prototype stage.
After the Berlin wall came down, ultimately taking the whole Eastern block with it, a renewed sense of hope and freedom swept through the bloc – and automotive design engineers were no exception to this optimism and expansiveness. In late 1991 the 2144 Istra was one of the first tangible results of the new era.
With its aluminium body, gullwing doors and a drag coefficient of only 0.149 the Istra – which was also fitted with air suspension and electronically adjustable ground clearance – demonstrated that, freed from the shackles of the communist regime, the Russian designers were much more capable than the eventual production versions of the companies they worked for would suggest. Being very forward looking, the Istra was never meant to be developed into a production vehicle, and so remained a one-off.
Moskvitch MXRL, 1975
In the late 1950s the Soviet Union wanted to establish a domestic automotive R&D centre. Famous industrial designer, Raymond Loewy was invited to come to Moscow in 1961 to discuss the plans and offer his guidance. The result was the VNIITE institute which opened a year later; soon Loewy received several requests for design proposals from VNIITE.
As this was the height of the cold war Loewy was fearful that his New York based agency might be at risk if the US government found out he was doing work for the Russians. Therefore Loewy entrusted the work to his Parisian branch CEI (Compagnie d’Esthétique Industrielle). At first things went smoothly and Loewy and his team produced several design proposals; what Loewy was less happy about was the fact that payment for his work was not materialising.
By this time the US government under President Gerald Ford somehow had got wind of Loewy’s connection to the USSR but instead of blocking the venture they, in hope that a successful relationship between a famous Western designer and the USSR could decrease tensions between the nations, assured Loewy that they would pay him for his work should the Russians fail to do so.
In 1975 the Moskvitch MXRL (RL presumably standing for the initials of Loewy) was presented in a series of renderings and scale models. The initial styling direction for the MXRL came from Raymond Loewy himself, Syd Mead of the New York office took it from there.
The MXRL was a daring design with a few asymmetric elements. If actually produced it would have been resolutely avant garde, especially for a car from behind the iron curtain. Upon being handed the MXRL renderings the Russians did pay Loewy for his work, but since the check was made out in Russian Rubles, which were not convertible to US Dollars at the time, there was a big problem.
In despair Loewy turned to the US government but by that time Republican President Ford had been succeeded by Jimmy Carter; the Democrats refused to honour the agreement made with their Republican predecessors. It is thought that this financial setback started the decline of Loewy’s business – at first he closed the New York office, the London and Paris agencies followed not long thereafter. Moskvitch never did build the MXRL of course, instead developing the decidedly more pedestrian Aleko. VNIITE, once the worlds largest design research institute, became defunct in 2013.
Trabant P100 / Wartburg 314, 1960
Trabant and Wartburg joined forces to develop a medium-sized sedan that was more interesting than its somewhat bland styling by Hans Fleischer suggested. Barring a few minor details the Zwickau and Eisenach versions -named P100* and 314 respectively – looked very similar. What made these cars interesting was their rear-mid engine layout.
Driving the rear wheels, the watercooled four-cylinder boxer engine with a displacement of 1047cc was situated under the rear seat. This setup had the advantage of providing the car with a boot front and rear but harboured potential problems in terms of cooling, noise and maintenance accessibility.
The Trabant version would fall by the wayside first because of its lower market position compared to Wartburg. As could be expected, cooling issues and tortuous engine accessibility meant the Wartburg 314 was also ultimately abandoned. In 1966 Wartburg would launch the more conventionally packaged (from an engineering standpoint) 353 to replace the old 311.
* Also known as Paloma
Skoda Favorit Coupe, 1985
This attractive stillborn coupé version was part of the Bertone designed 781 series Skoda Favorit line. Although the coupé was shorter and lower than the five door hatchback their wheelbase was identical. There is already a slight likeness to be detected between the Citroën XM and the regular Favorit, but in this coupé with its black A-pillars and beltline kickup the similarity between the two Bertone designs becomes even more obvious.
Unfortunately the coupé failed at the production hurdle, mainly because its body consisted of too many parts that differed from the regular Favorit. Because it was lower, it also required unique windows all around. Skoda determined that the five door hatchback, soon to be followed by utility variants, was the main priority. One Favorit coupé survives at the Skoda museum in Mláda Boleslav, where visitors can reflect on what could have been.