Curtain Call (Part 8)

Concluding our tour of some of the Eastern Bloc’s unrealised dreams

(c) Spoki.lv/ Autowp.ru

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

(c) Wroom.ru

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

(c) Wouters/ Antymoto.com

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

Auto Swiat.pl/ Autorevue.cz

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.

Author: brrrruno

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

13 thoughts on “Curtain Call (Part 8)”

  1. Did I already express my thanks for this series? If so, I’ll do it again. Very interesting finds altogether, and I’ve only seen very few of them previously.

    Growing up with car magazines and catalogues in the 1980s, I came to like the futurism of the 70s and 80s at a young age. It still remains one of my favourite themes, and the Istra as well as the MXRL prove this. Very likeable in their unrealistic avant-garde dresses. And what a pity that all creativity seemed to be suppressed by the regimes at that time. Today it’s not much better, it’s just the economical boundaries and the current conformism that is doing the same.

    The Favorit Coupé is another of my … erm, favourites. No wonder, as I’ve always been a fan of the XM design. Really a pity it didn’t come to life. Was it really shorter than the standard hatchback? This one already had a minimal rear overhang, I wonder if they succeeded to shorten it even more.

  2. That the US Government under (Republican) President Ford agreed to pay Loewy for his work should the Russians default was remarkably enlightened and internationalist thinking for the time. (Insert your own thoughts about comparisons with the present day here. DTW rightly discourages overtly political comments.)

    Once again, the frustrations of Eastern Bloc designers and engineers are in evidence in these unrealized prototypes

    Like Simon, I’m sorry the Favorit Coupé never made production. It’s a really interesting design, and just like a baby XM. That stepped waistline is a lovely detail. The only thing that jars is the awkward looking area at the base of the A-pillar, although a body-coloured mirror and sail panel might improve matters considerably. The ultimate solution would be a treatment identical to the original XM:

    Here the black scuttle panel at the base of the windscreen flows into the (two part) sail panel and mirror, neatly mirroring the upstep in the waistline beneath the rear door quarter light. It’s a lovely detail, spoilt on later XMs by the decision to paint everything body-coloured instead.

    Imagine now owning an example of the Favorit Coupé that had been meticulously maintained. Pure Bertone design for pennies!

    Thanks again Bruno for a great series.

  3. Unfortunate the Favorit Coupe never reached production, would have benefited from the larger 1.3-1.6 engines Skoda were developing. Also see some faint shades of the mk1 SEAT Ibiza 3-door from the side.

    Have to wonder why Trabant / Wartburg decided to shift to a mid-engine layout for the Flat-Four powered Trabant P100 / Wartburg 314 (Paloma) from the front-engined models, at least had the boxer engine been mounted to the front then that was have avoided most of the project’s problems or could have been carried over to the existing models.

    Unsure what to make of the 1975 Moskvitch MXRL project, maybe the productionized versions would have been more attractive otherwise it seems like a styling blind alley (that must have contributed some way towards the decline of Raymond Loewy’s business) compared to the earlier proposed 1973 collaboration between Moskvitch and Porsche.

  4. This has been/ is a terrific series; very educational and enlightening as well as entertaining. Thank you!

    Like everyone else, my brain went straight to the Roomster when I saw that photo at the top of the article – could there be a connection anywhere? Also, I too like the Favorit Coupe and would have thought it would have made an interesting addition to the range (maybe VW killed it when they came in?).

    That’s a very nice photo of the original XM – love those wheel trims.

    As an asides, I rather approve of the new Dacia Sandero; any views?

    1. Hi S.V. Hold those thoughts on the new Sandero. DTW is on the case, so stay tuned!

  5. Thank you all for your kind words- I enjoyed putting this series together also and learned new things from come of the comments also; one of the things that make DTW so appealing!

    1. Many thanks for this series, Bruno!

      The Arbat reminds me of Fiat’s Ecobasic concept car – the shape of the windshield (which was dictated by aerodynamics in the Fiat’s case) and even the front end’s graphics.

    2. Yikes! That should come with a warning for viewers of a nervous disposition, although Ronald McDonald would probably like it.

  6. Looking at this again, the Istra (I think – the bottom car in the triptych at the top of the article), recalls the prototype AR6 Metros which was eventually binned in favour of what ended up being released as the R6 Rover Metro.

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