VAZ: Diplomacy, Politics, and Urban Legends (Part Three)

Debunking the persistent legend of Russo-Italian rust.

Image: Scrawb/Flickr

Fiat’s cooperation in the establishment of the VAZ factory, along with Alexei Kosygin’s new policies(1), helped mobilize the Soviet citizenry en masse. With the quite excellent Fiat 124 as a basis, the end-product was arguably a better car to own and drive than anything offered by ZAZ(2), AZLK(3) or GAZ(4) at the time.

The establishment of the VAZ factory was, as we now know, politically motivated(1). For the Soviet government at least, the project was a major success: they took a good initial design and successfully adapted it to their country’s conditions and needs. They even sold it successfully in export markets. For the Italians, though, things played out somewhat differently: this project would become part of a narrative that still haunts the entire Italian automotive industry, and this is precisely the issue we address in this final part of the series. As one would easily suspect, I am referring to the ‘inferior Soviet steel’ narrative that, until fairly recently, was almost universally accepted as fact.

A persistent narrative

According to this narrative, Fiat was paid by the Soviets in steel. More specifically, rusty, sub-par steel reclaimed from ship-breaking yards. The story goes on: this rusty, sub-par steel was used as raw material by Fiat in its own cars, and also in Lancia models such as the Beta, and even in Alfa Romeos, especially the Alfasud. This, along with other factors, caused Italian cars to rust profusely, far more than any other car built by any other manufacturer since 1960. As I said, this narrative was widely accepted as fact until fairly recently.

According to many in the motoring press, this is what the Soviet Union paid Fiat with for the construction of the VAZ plant in Tolyattigrad. Image: Public Domain

Where the narrative originated, I cannot be entirely sure. I have not been able to trace its roots and its beginnings to an original article or historical reference because I have never seen such a source being cited by any of the numerous  automotive journalists and bloggers/vloggers who have incorporated it in their commentary over the years. Even today, prominent publications still include the ‘Soviet steel’ claim in their posts as fact(5)(6)(7). Only fairly recently has its veracity began being questioned in various forums, so perhaps the time has come to seek explanations for its proliferation.

Separating fact from conjecture

Before we examine the veracity and credibility of this narrative, we need to have a look at what this project represented. The VAZ factory was going to be a major investment. Business Week reported that the total cost was estimated to be as high as $800 million. The Istituto Mobiliare Italiano offered to finance $320 million, the amount that would be spent in Italy. The loan would be repayable eight and a half years after the delivery of the goods, and the interest rate would be approximately 6.5%. Of this $320 million, 65% to 75% would be spent on machine tools that would be purchased from Italian companies besides Fiat(8).

How would this huge loan be repaid? The prevailing narrative, of course, says ‘Why, the Soviets paid in sub-par, rusty steel reclaimed from ship-breaker yards.’ There are, however, several serious problems with this narrative, which we will examine below.

Trade balance implications and a ferrous deficit

Fiat President Vittorio Valletta worked hard to secure Fiat’s deal with the USSR and lobbied the US government to facilitate the construction of what would become the VAZ factory. Image: Alamy.com

First of all, as Vittorio Valletta, who was Fiat’s President when the VAZ factory was still in the discussion and negotiation stages, explained to US Secretary of State Dean Rusk, the “balance of trade between Italy and the USSR favored the latter.”(1) Would the Italian government be willing to allow this trade balance to be further shifted to the Soviet side and risk a severe backlash from the opposition? I doubt it.

Even if Saragat and his moderate socialist government were willing to bend over backwards to facilitate the Soviets, this option was a non-starter. The reason for this is simply that the Soviet Union could not produce enough ferrous metals, especially cold rolled steel, to satisfy its own needs(9) in the first place. Where would it find so much steel to supply to the Italians in repayment for the VAZ factory?

It doesn’t matter at all

Let us entertain the ‘Soviet steel’ narrative for a while, and accept the claim that the Soviets proposed to pay the Italians in steel, new and/or reclaimed from ship-breaking yards, or whatever other source they could come up with. Let us also accept that the Italians agreed to this arrangement, regardless of what it would do to the bilateral trade deficit. Does the origin of the raw material even matter? In a nutshell, no.

The life cycle of steel, one of the most recycled materials in the world. Image: worldsteel

People recycled metals long before recycling became cool. Steel, in particular, is one of the most recycled materials in the world(10) and the steel industry has been actively recycling it for more than 150 years. It simply makes economic sense to do so: recycling steel is cheaper than mining iron ore and manipulating it through the production process to form new steel. The metal does not lose its physical properties during the recycling process, and the energy and material requirements, compared to refinement from iron ore, are drastically reduced: we are talking here about energy savings as high as 75%(11).

Now, to address the ‘quality’ issue: the quality of the initial material (i.e. impurities, poor refinement process, and so on) does not matter at all. After the scrap metal is melted, it goes through a purification process, which then allows the processing plant to create steel alloys of whatever quality is required(12). This is just how metallurgy works.

Finally, preventing rust comes down mostly to using corrosion-resistant (stainless) alloys where possible, or protecting the metal from the elements, painting being the obvious method. Galvanizing, a technique not widely used by car manufacturers before the 1980s, goes a long way towards achieving this goal. However, neither method will do much good if the car has places where water can get trapped for a long time, and if proper production procedures are not followed.

Soviet steel and Alfa Romeo

In response to a feature in the sixth issue (Autumn 2020) of The Road Rat magazine, automotive historian and fellow DTW contributor Matteo Licata pointed out that “[e]arly Alfasuds rusted prematurely due to poor working practices at the Pomigliano plant.”(13) He added that Achille Moroni, the engineer Alfa Romeo sent to solve the problem, recalled that “he found the roots to be the poor management of the electrophoresis vats, because of awful working relations and the workforce’s relative lack of experience. On top of that, micro-strikes on the line often led to moisture depositing on unpainted bodies during processing.”(13)

All versions of the Alfasud suffered from serious rust problems due to failures in the production process. This did not stop motoring journalists from attributing them to the use of ‘sub-par Soviet steel’ that Alfa Romeo was not obliged to use, as it was not owned by Fiat at the time. Image: Scrawb/Flickr

That Licata had to write to The Road Rat to set the record straight regarding the Alfasud’s rust problems is a worrying indication of how much the ‘Soviet steel’ narrative has clouded our understanding of Italy’s automotive history. So much so that even Andy Haslam, owner of the magnificently informative Big Car YouTube channel, attributed the Alfasud’s rust problems to the “low-quality Soviet steel,” in an otherwise excellent documentary on the small Alfa, adding that “inadvertently Fiat were lowering the quality of Alfa Romeo’s cars.”(14)

However, Alfa Romeo was under the Italian government’s control at the time, whereas Fiat was a private company. So, whatever deal Fiat made with the Soviet government created no obligation or benefit for Alfa Romeo. After all, the two companies were competitors until 1986, when Alfa Romeo was acquired by Fiat(15).

Soviet steel and Fiat’s other subsidiaries

Of course, since Fiat struck the Soviet deal, it should come as no surprise that the ‘Soviet steel’ narrative is associated with it. We have already established that the inclusion of Alfa Romeo in this narrative is historically dubious. Now, we are going to examine how the narrative affected the historical and journalistic coverage of its other subsidiaries. At the time, there were other Italian car manufacturers that could, or were obliged to use, Fiat’s supply of raw materials: Lancia, after its acquisition by Fiat in 1969(16), Autobianchi, which was acquired in 1968(17), and Ferrari, 50% of which was also acquired by Fiat in 1969(18).

Interestingly, Autobianchi and Ferrari seem to have been spared any connection to the ‘Soviet steel’ narrative. Lancia, on the other hand, has been subjected to over forty years of defamation by the automotive press until its name became a punchline. The Beta’s rust issues were covered in an almost hysterical manner(19). Numerous sources, well-meaning or not, have attributed them – without providing any evidence – to the alleged ‘Soviet steel’ barter(20). Over time, this one model’s issues became the poison that was methodically administered by automotive journalists in pretty much every article covering Lancia’s later cars, from the Trevi all the way to the third-generation Delta and Ypsilon, and the rebadged Chryslers that followed them.

The Beta was a fine car, but the automotive press turned its rust issues into the stick with which they have been relentlessly beating Lancia for over forty years. Image: ruoteclassisiche.quattroruote.it

Yet, there is a certain unevenness in this smear campaign. Typically, post-1980 features on Lancia included something along the lines of ‘Lancia, whose reputation was ruined by the rust-prone Beta that was made from cheap Soviet steel…’ But the Beta, which has been used as the stick with which car journalists have been beating Lancia since 1980(21), was not the only Lancia that was supposedly built with this ‘sub-par steel’: production of Fulvias, Flavias, and 2000s continued after 1970. In fact, the last 2000s rolled out in 1975, and the Fulvia Coupé was produced until 1976.

This gives us a three-year overlap with the production of the Beta’s first series, the one that was hit hardest by rust issues(19). It makes perfect sense to assume that this ‘sub-par Soviet steel’ that was supposedly the killer of the Beta and the Alfasud would also have been used on 2000s and Fulvias. Yet, whereas the Beta has been maligned as a ‘rust bucket’ over the past forty-two years, its contemporary 2000 and the third series of the Fulvia Coupé were spared this treatment.

It may come as a bit of a shock, but the pretty 1975 Fulvia Coupé was hewn from the same ‘Soviet steel’ as the early Beta that was caught up in the 1980 ‘rust scandal’. Yet, no one speaks ill of it or its contemporary 2000 Berlina. Image: historics.co.uk

An inexplicable(?) longevity

In general, non-automotive journalists and historians try to adhere to certain standards. First of all, they try to ensure that their story can be verified from as many credible sources as possible. The ‘Soviet steel’ narrative clearly fails both parts of this test: since its proponents and purveyors have never cited any specific source to back up their claims, much less a verifiable and credible one. It is pretty much an anecdote, and nothing more.

Furthermore, the narrative’s credibility takes three additional hits: as was established in this series, it made no fiscal or financial sense for the Italians to be paid in kind by the Soviet Union(1), and it was doubtful that the USSR could spare enough steel with which to pay the Italians(9) in the first place.

Also, self-respecting journalists and historians try to ensure that their narratives check out, chronologically and scientifically. One can only remember the long-standing, but historically inaccurate, claim that Charles de Gaulle, two years after his death, vetoed the alleged Citroën CX-Lancia Gamma joint venture(22). The ‘Soviet steel’ narrative suffers both chronologically and scientifically.

According to several famous motoring journalists, Charles de Gaulle could veto corporate decisions two years after he died. Image: IMDb

Chronologically, the narrative falls flat on its face regarding the attribution of the Alfasud’s rust issues to the use of ‘Soviet steel’. It is further discredited by the chronological overlap in the production timelines of the remaining ‘F-series’ Lancias (the Fulvia Coupé and the Flavia-derived 2000) and the first-series Beta. If the metal used was the primary contributing factor to Lancia’s rust problems, then shouldn’t the 2000 and the Fulvia Coupé also be dismissed and denigrated as ‘rust buckets made from rusty Bolshevik steel’? Or, given the well-documented sectarianism among Lancisti, do they get preferential and deferential treatment as ‘the last real Lancias™’? On the scientific front, it makes no sense at all, as it contradicts everything metallurgists and engineers are taught and put into practice regarding the production and recycling of steel.

Conclusion

Why has this narrative been allowed to survive and prevail for so long? I am inclined to attribute it to expediency. It is a convenient story: it provides a quick, blunt, sensational, and easy explanation of the matter, however inaccurate. This story fits the convictions and sympathies (including nationalist, ideological, and political) of many automotive journalists and their readers. Finally, we must consider the possibility that the writers who promoted and exploited this narrative were seeking to serve certain business interests.

Sources, quotations, and acknowledgements:

(1) Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume XII, Western Europe, Italy, ed. James E. Miller (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2001), Document 114 [accessed 27th April 2022]

(2) ZAZ – Wikipedia

(3)  AZLK – Wikipedia

(4) GAZ – Wikipedia

(5) “Is it a Lancia, is it a Saab…?” – Classic Cars Magazine, 19 December 2018 status update. Facebook. Archived from the original on 11 May 2022 [accessed 11th May 2022]

(6) Matt Bell – Ode of Remembrance : Classics World, 14th November 2018 [accessed 9th May 2022]

(7) Mark Wan – AvtoVAZ : Autozine.org [accessed 9th May 2022]

(8) The Fiat-Soviet Auto Plant, and Communist Economic Reforms: A Report Pursuant to House Resolution 1043, 89th Congress, 2nd Session, for the Subcommittee on International Trade, Committee on Banking and Currency, House of Representatives (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1967), p. 74 [accessed 7th May 2022]

(9) The Fiat-Soviet Auto Plant, and Communist Economic Reforms: A Report Pursuant to House Resolution 1043, 89th Congress, 2nd Session, for the Subcommittee on International Trade, Committee on Banking and Currency, House of Representatives (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1967), p. 23 [accessed 7th May 2022]

(10) Roy A. Hartman, “Recycling” – Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2007. Archived from the original on 14 April 2008. [accessed 9th May 2022]

(11) Facts About Steel Recycling – Earth911.com. Archived from the original on 25th August 2009. [accessed 9th May 2022]

(12) How Does Metal Get Recycled? – Federal Metals. Archived from the original on 9th May 2022. [accessed 9th May 2022]

(13) Matteo Licata, 2021. AOB (Any Other Business). The Road Rat, issue 7 (Spring 2021) p.242 

(14) Big Car – The Alfasud – Italy’s “Car of the decade” that ruined Alfa Romeo [Video]: YouTube, 21st May 2021 [accessed 10th May 2022]

(15) Roberto Suro – Company News; Fiat Best Ford In Bid For ALFA : New York Times, 7th November 1986

(16) Fiat Announces It Is Seeking Acquisition of Lancia Concern : New York Times, 22nd October 1969, p.69 

(17) La Storia – Registro Autobianchi [accessed 11th May 2022]

(18) Fiat Acquiring Half Of Ferrari Concern : New York Times, 22nd October 1969, pp.55-56

(19) Deserving Beta (Part Two) – Daniel O’Callaghan : Driven To Write, 30th September 2021

(20) Lancia Beta – Wikipedia

(21) Alister Martin and Sydney Young – Luxury Cars In Rust Riddle : Daily Mirror, 9th april 1980, pp.1, 11

(22) The Phantom Joint Venture – Part One – Konstantinos Tzoannopoulos : Driven To Write, 13th January 2022

Author: Konstantinos Tzoannopoulos

Industrial engineer. Disgruntled lover of Italian cars. Virtual worlds dilettante.

59 thoughts on “VAZ: Diplomacy, Politics, and Urban Legends (Part Three)”

  1. Inferior Soviet Steel™ also was used for Golf I, Audi 100 C2 and Scirocco Mk1 which all were able to challenge any Italian car for corrosion speed.
    Before this series I’ve never heard that Inferior Soviet Steel™ came from shipyards. In most cases it was inferior by definition because it was made by Commies. I’ve also been told nonsense like they melted complete cars with their wiring looms and that the copper from the wiring was responsible for rapid corrosion.

    In reality car makers just began to master details of unitary body design by creating ever more complex box sections from ever thinner steel (some panels like the roof of the Audi 100 C2 were just 0.2 millimetres thick to save weight) and they didn’t use any proper corrosion protection. Manufacturers knew exactly what they should have done on the production line because they published recommendations to companies like Dinol and Teroson for very effective after-sales corrosion protection. The ‘Sud was an exception because its corrosion was induced by bad production processes that no amount of later corrosion protection could undo.

  2. I seem to recall the attack towards Lancia was mostly a UK automotive press thing. For some reason or other they did beat it with a stick until Lancia finally abandoned all RHD markets by the mid 90s.
    The only Lancia that survived the onslaught was the “iconic” Delta Integrale in all guises as somehow the UK press was in love with that car but forgetting that, according to their myth, should of rusted within a week of delivery as well.
    The Sud story is even more absurd, since Alfa was at the same time making the last 105 based cars like the GTV, GT Junior, S2 Spider (which incidentally carried on in S4 guise until ’94), 2000 and Giulia Nuova and the 116 based cars like the GT, GTV, Alfetta, Giulietta, 6 etc.
    They all rusted equally well with their North European counterparts but the Sud more so and Alfa had investigated the cause, as you very well pointed out.
    The results were overwhelming in their blame towards poor operating practices and staff training (and willingness if I might add) as you also state.
    A very good article on the Sud story is here (albeit in Greek): https://theitalianjob.gr/alfasud-willing-spirit-in-rusty-body/

  3. I seem to recall the attack towards Lancia was mostly a UK automotive press thing. For some reason or other they did beat it with a stick until Lancia finally abandoned all RHD markets by the mid 90s.
    The only Lancia that survived the onslaught was the “iconic” Delta Integrale in all guises as somehow the UK press was in love with that car but forgetting that, according to their myth, should of rusted within a week of delivery as well.
    The Sud story is even more absurd, since Alfa was at the same time making the last 105 based cars like the GTV, GT Junior, S2 Spider (which incidentally carried on in S4 guise until ’94), 2000 and Giulia Nuova and the 116 based cars like the GT, GTV, Alfetta, Giulietta, 6 etc.
    They all rusted equally well with their North European counterparts but the Sud more so and Alfa had investigated the cause, as you very well pointed out.
    The results were overwhelming in their blame towards poor operating practices and staff training (and willingness if I might add) as you also state.
    A very good article on the Sud story is here (albeit in Greek): https://theitalianjob.gr/alfasud-willing-spirit-in-rusty-body/

    1. I suspect the attack on Lancia, using the early Beta’s rust issues as a weapon, was a means to an end. Even in 1980, the Beta and its offspring, the Trevi, were at least as good as any of their competitors. The Beta and the Trevi were also in a crucial market segment, a race in which all the EEC’s Countries That Matter™ had a dog.

      In all fairness, the Daily Mirror report from which everything started made no mention of “Bolshevik Steel” whatsoever. It reported that Lancia Betas were being bought back and scrapped, and that Lancia were extending this policy even to older cars that had been resold once, twice, or even thrice. The authors of the article even mentioned that this was a gesture of goodwill from Lancia. However, subsequent coverage of this issue (especially on TV) was far more sensationalist, with a hefty dose of fearmongering thrown in to spice things up.

      The Delta Integrale, unfortunately, seems to have had an inadvertent detrimental effect on our perception of Lancia: the automotive press (without exception) made everyone believe that this car reflected the true, pure, essence of Lancia and that everything else wasn’t worthy of the badge. Incidentally, I’ve driven two Integrales; an 8-valve and a 16-valve Evo. Fantastic cars, but not what Lancia’s typical buyer would buy.

      The “no current Lancia is a true Lancia but the Integrale” narrative poisoned the well beyond fix. Characteristically, I remember that a certain Greek publication (one that would later proceed to make rather audacious claims about its own importance in modern Greek culture) dismissed the base, 1.6-liter Dedra as an “Italian Nissan Sunny” and “not a true Lancia.” This is not, however, to dismiss the role Fiat’s mismanagement of Lancia played in the erosion of its cachet, internal politics and all.

      Regarding the Alfasud, I’m aware of the article on the Italian job, and I had read it in preparation for my post. My issue with it is that the author focused too much on the strikes and on the stories about the workers preferring to grow tomatoes rather than work on the factory – the car’s rust problems were caused, as we know now, by the fact that the firm did not design the production proess accordingly and also failed at personnel relations.

      I’ll also state here that strikes aren’t a “hobby” or a “pleasant pastime” as “prestigious” (i.e. establishments) pundits would have us believe. They’re the product of a bad financial/fiscal environment and/or poor management-workers relations.

      As to the role of the UK car reviewers and pundits, mark two words: expediency and confirmation bias. As it’s often been pointed out by my fellow DTW contributors that the gist of many of their reviews and op-eds can be summed up as “yes, the French or Italian offering is better, but I must tell you that the British or German one is the better choice.”

      These stories were eagerly adopted by our own 1980s car reviewers and pundits, with two of them being the most prominent examples – both of them literally on their knees before even the janitor of Car magazine. These fine people, in a magnificent display of expediency and confirmation bias, made a conscious and deliberate choice to not seek proof, but to take these tales at face value instead.

      These stories, no matter how embellished or fact-free, fit a hardline anti-labor, anti-union stance like a glove. Plus, they also shielded certain countries’ (well-paying in ad pages per issue) industries against the competition, even though some of the argumentation was borderline racist and tribalist. But hey, car culture is rife with tribalism and people who seek comfort in their cars’ “prestige” and size for some “abnormally” diminutive features of their anatomy.

    2. In the late Seventies VAG dealers were forced to buy every Golf Mk1, Scirocco Mk1 and Audi 100 C2 they could get and scrap it. When customers wanted to buy a new VAG product and trade in such a car VAG made sure dealers paid any price just to get the cars off the road and VAG’s methods were quite rude to make sure dealers did what they were told. Selling on such a used car got dealers into serious trouble with VAG. In the end these cars simply disappeared and nobody talked about their corrosion probems anymore.

      For the whole life of the Alfasud Alfa bought back corroded cars as long as the customer bought another ‘Sud. As long as the car was no more than two years old they paid the new price of the car. We made use of this programme once as one of our numerous Suds developed a hole of twenty centimetres at the centre of its roof after eighteen months.

    3. Extremely late to the party, but here goes:

      First off, hats off to the excellent analysis of the extremely convoluted and interesting story behind VAZ and the Soviet 124 derivative. It’s thanks to researchers like all of you that DTW remains my sole automotive information hub.

      Secondly, as the author of the Greek article in the Italian Job back in 2016, I think I should reflect and detract from the initial prose regarding the Pomigliano’s workforce. My original intentions were -as yours, albeit in a much more amateurish fashion- to finally debunk the perpetuated “Soviet Steel” theory, and set the blame where it was due. The article’s last sentence was unecessary, and I understand that that kind of commentary might strike wrong on my view towards South Italy’s labourers. The Sud’s rust issues were of course caused from bad production line practices and little if not nonexistent workforce training, exacerbated by countless stoppages which disrupted the production line in a way that compromised unpainted/unprotected bodyshells. The workers were indeed not used to such labour, and the learning curve was steep. Even so, the Pomigliano plant proved its worth in subsequent years, rivalling and matching European standards until today.

      The truth is that your thesis on proving how absurd the Soviet Steel theory was, is extremely well researched, and finally undisputed, especially in the metallurgy section (engineer myself, I can attest to the industrial steel recycling practices utilized worldwide). Thank you.

  4. Very interesting rust-story
    Thank you

    In the countries of the former “Eastern Europe” was a common problem with corrosion of imported Mazds. It turned out that these were cheaper cars for sunny Italy without the necessary protection.

    The US probably “always puts politics ahead of a good healthy economy.” But maybe that’s why they have historically proven reasons. For example, the Rolls-Royce Nene jet engine, which the United Kingdom government allowed the USSR to sell in 1946, then, as a reverse modified Klimov VK-1 in MIG-15 fighters, damage UN troops in the Korean War. It was not until Stalin’s death then that a truce was made possible. We’ll see if not hearing of a good healthy economy will help now. We’ll see what Putin’s health is.

    If the USSR hadn’t gotten the Rolls-Royce Nene engine, it might not have even armed the Vietnamese who killed the “American boys”. And the block of Ex-Im Bank loans to Fiat for the VAZ plant wouldn’t have been needed either.
    The USSR, with American help, built the Gorky Automobile Plant and the Volgograd Tractor Plant. American Ford also built a plant in Germany, and GM took over Opel and financed the construction of its factories. But at the time they were not at war. Otherwise the American people would not have accepted it.

    The McCarthyite purges of the late 1940s and early 1950s caused almost hysteria at the time.
    But perhaps there were also historically proven reasons for this: The Collaboration of Hollywood with Hitler (Ben Urwand – The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler Harvard University Press, September 10th 2013)
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Collaboration:_Hollywood%27s_Pact_with_Hitler

    Lyndon B. Johnson, president of the United States from 1963 to 1969, told the Greek ambassador in 1964 what he thought of the sovereignty of a smaller nation. However, it was about the sovereignty of the nation, in which during the Second World War the radically armed branch fought not only against the occupation of the Axis, but also against other resistance organizations that could make the left’s way to power more difficult.

    I believe that the Greeks have already made a democratic decision about their future in the euro area by choosing those who did not provide real data on Greek finances before the adoption of the euro. The European Union would be harmed by Greece’s exit from the eurozone. But it would harm Greece even more, much more than if Greece did not adopt the euro at all. Greece’s proposed referendum would deny the style that it adopted the euro at all.

  5. Thank you Konstantinos for this wonderfully researched series of articles.

    The story of the car plant in Tolyatti brought back memories. My father was involved in the development of the VAZ 2108 (the car was developed in cooperation with Porsche) and travelled to Tolyatti a few times during the development period, also some VAZ engineers were in Weissach during this time and spent some merry evenings with my parents.

    Also, thank you for the third part about the urban legend of Inferior Soviet Steel™. Why journalists have generously copied from each other on this subject over the years and thus kept this narrative alive will probably always remain a mystery.

    The fact that only some specific models from various manufacturers had an extreme rust problem, while other series did not, should have given every writer at the time pause for thought.

    That this legend has (or had) no basis is shown by the fact that not all cars made with this Inferior Soviet Steel™ died of corrosion.
    Our Alfasud Sprint survived, although according to this legend it should have died long ago. Of course, despite care, it is not completely rust-free after 44 years, but the rust is within safe limits for a vehicle of this age.
    So the rust problem with the Alfasud (and also with products of other manufacturers) cannot be due to the material, but must have had other reasons.

    1. Hi Fred, thanks for your comment! I really love this part you wrote:

      The fact that only some specific models from various manufacturers had an extreme rust problem, while other series did not, should have given every writer at the time pause for thought.

      You hit the nail on the head, but you know what they say: never let facts ruin a good story!

  6. Good morning Konstantinos And thank you for an excellent and meticulously researched series. Regarding the Beta, the terminal corrosion issue related to a closed box-section to which the rear of front subframe was attached, which was clearly the result of a design or manufacturing fault. That apart, I don’t recall that the Beta rusted any more readily than its contemporaries (not that that was much consolation to Beta owners affected).

    I’m amused by your lead photo of the rusty Fiat 128. The red rear number plate reveals that it is an Irish registered car (I think the last letter is ‘M’ which would make it a Galway registration.) Ireland’s famously damp and rainy climate made short work of most cars when I was a child back in the 1960s and ’70s. In those days, before the NCT (roadworthiness) test was introduced, it was not uncommon to see cars not much better than that 128 still on the road!

    1. Indeed, Daniel, that was exactly the cause for the demise of so many Betas. This was a prime example of bad design. As for the poor 128, I see cars in such a horrible condition here and there, usually driven by destitute people.

    2. Yes, “destitute”that would have described many of us, even those in work, back in the Ireland of the 1970s and ’80s. How things have changed for the better since I left in 1984. (Cause and effect? 😁)

    3. Yes Daniel. The celebrations take place annually, with evermore giddy revelry. Floats, dancing nuns, two-fisted drinking. A tunnel of goats. You should come along sometime. Oh, hang on….

  7. That’s been a marvellous series of articles – proper investigative journalism. Thank you Konstantinos.

    I think I can explain the success of the Soviet Steel rumour – some journalists are lazy and people love conspiracy theories – especially if they fit in to a wider prevailing narrative. And there’s a lot of truth in the old saying – a lie is halfway round the world before truth has got its boots on.

    I also think that people believed that there must have been something ‘especially wrong’ with some Italian cars for them to rust so badly and that must therefore have been down to the materials they were made out of.

    We can see echoes of the Soviet Steel story in so many stories today, so it’s good that on this topic at least, the record has been set straight, based on facts.

    It was good to see the Big Car series mentioned, which looks at the history behind cars and related products – it’s worth a look on YouTube.

    1. I wonder if FIAT’s rather casual attitude towards rustproofing wasn’t simply a function of the company having a virtual stranglehold over the Italian (and Spanish, via SEAT) markets, where corrosion was less of an issue?

  8. The key to ensuring a myth gains traction is ensuring that it seems just plausible enough, and preferably, adheres to people’s inherent or learned prejudices – the confirmation bias that Konstantinos speaks of. It highlights – and I say this as someone who in the past fell into a few of these beartraps myself – the vital importance of proper, rigorous research and for any author to ask himself, ‘do I actually believe this?’

    In fairness to most commercial writers, they are usually working to a deadline and when time is short, it’s easier to pull some received wisdom from the shelf than to ask more searching questions – which by the way, does not absolve anyone from perpetuating nonsense, such as the myths defenestrated above.

    As a former Alfasud owner, I can attest to the model’s propensity to rust, but while many cars of this and previous eras suffered similarly, the manner in which the Sud decomposed did suggest something well outside the norm. We now know what that was, although irritatingly, the hapless line worker still routinely gets the rap, while management (for whom the buck stops) continue to get off lightly. By the way, it is also documented that the Alfasud used identical steel and rustproofing processes to that of the Alfa Nord cars (which I might add, also rusted – albeit with less wild abandon), which does tend to point towards the processes themselves.

    But to return to the subject of the motor press, we should not forget that auto journalists have political leanings too. A number of prominent motor writers are quite vocal about their politics – there being several well-known writers who make their ‘right-leaning’ political sentiments abundantly clear on social media – which of course they are entitled to do. However, their more measured stance in print sounds a note of – how shall I put this – inconsistency?

    Question everything.

    My thanks to the author for this fine series of articles.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Eóin. I’ll address the journalists’ convictions: some are not merely political or national(ist), but also brand-related, or even business -related: if brand X buys more ad space per issue, it’ll get preferential treatment, sometimes scandalously so. I’ve seen this a lot.

    2. 105-series Alfas did rust but differences were great, depending on the model. A Giulia saloon was decidedly less rust-prone than say a fintail or /8 Benz or a 02 BMW. Bertone’s Giulia GT was a record rust trap where literally each and any panel could corrode away. If you opened the boot of a Giulia GT you could see that there was no paint at all in the inside of the panels because Bertone only painted what could be seen when the car was in use.
      The ‘Sud’s problems did not come from the processes as such but from the way the processes were translated (or not) into real life. Putting empty beer cans into sills before they were welded up, throwing a handful of loose nuts and bolts into the oil sump or stuffing plastic bags under valve covers has nothing to do with processes but is simple sabotage.

    3. Putting empty beer cans into sills before they were welded up, throwing a handful of loose nuts and bolts into the oil sump or stuffing plastic bags under valve covers has nothing to do with processes but is simple sabotage.” Dave, unless you can back up your assertions with cold, hard fact I will be forced to view this narrative as further urban folklore – somewhat ironic, don’t you think, given the subject of the piece.

      I owned an Alfasud (and took it to pieces in the process). I also knew several fellow owners, both at the time and subsequently. Nobody, not one of us found evidence of anything you describe. A lady of my acquaintance owned a 1980 Sud 1350 Super, which she bought brand new. When I drove it, some seven years later, it had done a mere 13,000 miles and drove like it came out of the showroom, unlike my own rather worn example. Similarly, it felt well-assembled and solid. It was rusting here and there, but for a ‘Sud, living in damp suburban Cork on the South Coast of Ireland, there was comparatively little of it – mostly around the fuel filler area – a known moisture trap. Was this an exceptional car? One of the miraculous few that escaped without being bodged or sabotaged? I rather doubt it. It was simply well looked after.

      I won’t deny that there were some practices at the Naples plant which took place that were probably not in the best interests of the business, but then, it does appear that management there did little to foster relations with the workforce, or provide adequate training and supervision. It was also a politically charged period, which certainly fed into elements within the workforce who may have had other agendas. This was equally the case in other Western European carmaking factories – not least in the UK. To tar the entire workforce thus however, is not only dismissive and unfair, but wrong. A question. Rudolph Hruska was a fine engineer, but what qualified him to run a car plant?

      If the Sud was so bad, why did so many people become serial owners? People would surely have cut their losses and shopped elsewhere. Yet, and this was a refrain I heard so many times from such owners – “I wouldn’t drive anything else”. Owner loyalty was based on genuine emotion, and was not necessarily bought. If so, Alfa Romeo would have been bankrupt in a matter of months.

    4. The “sabotage actions” hinted at by Dave are not completely out of the air.
      Some time ago I read a book/article (I can’t find the original due to sloppy archiving or memory) about the creation of the factory in Pomigliano d’Arco, which addressed the difficulties of production. Original field workers who – during the harvest – were suddenly absent from the production process, actions of the different trade unions against the management to push through their own interests, etc. An unholy alliance of various different actors.
      I don’t think any of this was funny. In this country, at this time, at this place.
      What historians have gathered so far on this social period (in Italy) is enough for a number of books as well as films and series (available from the usual suspects). Since I like to study history – it helps to understand a lot – I am convinced that it was not better in other countries at that time, it was probably just different.

    5. Fred/ Dave: There is always a grain of truth in these assertions. I am not suggesting that acts of sabotage did not occur. A lot of underhand and outright violent acts are documented to have taken place. There is also no doubt whatsoever that both production levels and build quality fell far short of projections at the Naples plant.

      Attitudes count. Alfa Romeo would never have willingly chosen to relocate to the heel of Italy, when their centre of gravity was in Milan. They only did so because the funding was predicated upon them doing so. It’s very likely that Alfa management of the time, reluctant as they probably were to have to start from scratch believed that the locals ought to have been grateful for their jobs. It’s very unlikely that there was much thought given to local requirements or traditions (the latter a big deal in Italy), so it was a case of ‘our way or go back to your tomatoes’. Naples was impoverished, and people there probably had to simply ‘muck-in’ to help one another – in the fields or elsewhere. That was the way of life. A little flexibility (and an understanding of history) would probably have gone a long way. Nobody likes to feel they are being patronised.

      There is also no doubt whatsoever that a good many Alfasuds were well assembled and gave their owners a great deal of pleasure and reliable service – corrosion notwithstanding – they all did that. From this I would infer that build integrity was highly variable at Pomigliano d’Arco. But not so fast. This was exactly what UK’s Car magazine cited as being the case with both Alfetta and Giulietta models during the same period. ‘You’ll love a good one and hate a bad one; a tragedy that they can vary”, they repeatedly stated. This suggests that while issues were of a greater order of magnitude at the Naples plant, they were not confined there, by any stretch of the imagination.

      Ultimately, it comes down to beliefs. My belief is that the image of a feckless, work-shy Napalese workforce has become a convenient scapegoat, both in print and in retrospective folklore for a situation which was in reality far more nuanced and complex, but ultimately rests with a catastrophic failure of managers to manage.

      What concerns me about statements like that of Dave’s highlighted above is that whatever the intent, they reduce a complex issue into something simplistic and one-sided. They also feed into the type of sensationalist, tabloid reportage which has become so prevalent in auto-journalism.

    6. In our family we owned enough ‘Suds to make a small dealer happy and we certainly didn’t buy them because dealers bought back corroded examples at favourable conditions but out of conviction. I happily admit that no other car has given me as much raw driving fun as a Sud and I often dream of buying a chrome bumper sprint veloce 1.5 just for the sake of it.
      We had Suds at all levels of production quality and at all levels of corrosion proneness.
      Our very first one was one of the earliest available Suds with four speed gearbox and no rev counter and it got new sills and fresh paint after eight years and soldiered on for another four at the next owner. The Sud that replaced the one with the hole in the roof was a 5m and one of the earliest ones with the C-post sticker and it lasted twelve years without any significant corrosion problems and its only major problem was the rear bulkhead that wasn’t welded in but glued in using body sealant and one day came loose, making the car somewhat wobbly to drive. Our latest Sud was one of the rarest of them all, a non-TI three door and it was incredibly badly made with a gearbox shimmed so far outside all tolerances that you couldn’t fit brake pads into the inboard calipers – this car also literally fell apart after five years when the headlights had nothing left to attach them and the front wings could be ripped off by simply pulling on them. I’ve also ripped apart and rebuilt maybe half a dozen engines, two of them to convert them to Alfasud Cup racing specification and the others because they were made so badly out of tolerances that they needed a rebuild to make them run as intended.
      Yes, Rudolf Hruska certainly was not the easiest man to live with and Italian management methods (still) tend to be very special and authoritarian. But if workers weren’t happy with their employer then the silliest way to express protest certainly was building products of bad quality because then you hit the customer and not your employer.
      When Alfa opened the Pomigiliano factory they had about 80,000 applications for the 16,000 jobs. They left it to the local authorities aka N’drangheta (out of respect for local traditions) to pick the workers with the result that there was far too much negative influence on the workforce. In the late Seventies shortly before production of the big bumpered Series 3 started there was an analysis showing that of the then 15,000 employees at least 8,000 were redundant and had nothing to do. Quality then took one more nose dive and the logical reaction was that for 33 production Pomigliano became the factory with one of the highest degrees of automation on the industry.

    7. Alfa Romeo’s management had no choice but to build this plant in the south. Alfa Romeo was at that time owned by the state (through IRI) – and the politicians/government wanted it that way.

      Responsible for the problems in Pomigliano were: politics/government, management, the various trade unions* and their workers, and the local mafia – in alternating order. Each of these groups cooked its own soup on the backs of the others.

      The whole thing happened in the late 60s/early 70s, a time (later dubbed by historians the “leaden autumn”) that is hard for anyone from north of the Alps to imagine.

      I remember an article in the magazine “Der Spiegel” from 1977 (when the former news magazine was still a serious news magazine) describing the labour uprisings in Turin (and also Pomigliano). Today we would rather call the description of the conditions at that time a civil war.

      It is almost a miracle that under these circumstances any mobile products left any factory halls at all.

      * There were disputes among the unions as well as within the unions. And there were splits that fought against management and the employers’ association for legal recognition.

    1. For VAG buying back corroded cars?
      Any VAG dealer should know these buy-back orders if he was in the business in the late Seventies or early Eighties.
      A friend was sales manager at a large VAG dealer from about 1976 to 1981 and he repeatedly told me when VAG had issued a new order, concerning mostly different years of manufacture that had to be bought back and scrapped.
      The affected cars were the three I mentioned with the Scirocco Mk1 being by far the worst – Karmann invented corrosion and then licensed it to the Italians.

      BMW by the way did the same with early examples of the E36 which also were bought off the road so nobody could see how badly they corroded, this time without any involvement of Inferior Soviet Steel™.

    2. I only know for sure VAG did this in their home country.
      I do no know whether there were similar actions on export markets but could imagine it was less of a problem in counries with less salt on the roads in winter.

  9. I believe there is a fairly easy way to disprove the “poor Soviet Steel” myth once & for all time. It should be possible to find one of the affected cars said to have used the poor quality steel. Perhaps a rust-free body can be sourced in a north African junkyard. Somewhere on the body shell [like the roof panel] should be a rust free or lightly rusted section of steel that can be used for samples.

    Theses samples of scrap steel can be submitted to a metallurgical testing facility, perhaps one operated by a university research organization or the quality control office of any steel plant. There, the samples can be examined and a true determination as to the grade of steel will be established. I would think that somewhere there will be a testing facility that would love the opportunity to prove it’s all a myth. Probably the hardest part of this quest for the truth, will be in finding someone willing to take on the search for a suitable sample, from a rust free body shell.

    1. I think material testing is not necessary. Corrosion on low quality steel should be caused by not homogenous structure and impurities like e.g. sulfides or oxides – and at the same time it should significantly lower ductile properties of steel and cause problems like tearing metal during plastic forming, especially on parts with high degree of deformation.

    2. In “Eastern Europe”, the quality of processing was very heterogeneous. In Czechoslovakia, cars for export to Western markets were manufactured in a separate factory. Probably because they were otherwise made by prisoners.
      Many more samples would probably be needed to properly test “Soviet steel”. And there is a possibility that poor quality has wiped out time and only well-maintained cars with short running times have survived.
      The construction of the VAZ Fiat factory was widely celebrated and discussed in the countries of “Eastern Europe”. It was supposed to be a barter shop covered with steel sheets. Rumors then said that they sometimes left the territory of the “Eastern Bloc” corroded. Probably due to the weather and the long unprotected transport.

  10. Well researched stuff by Konstantinos, dare I say that this is what proper journalism should be like! Another nail in the coffin of the paid-in-steel nonsense, how many people have ever complained about rusty Lada’s/VAZ’s? I’ve seen plenty of rusty British cars, Italian ones and there is a small collection of rusting 504’s and 505’s outside a specialist breakers up the road in Settle as we speak but for all their faults I can’t ever remember a rusty Lada.

    The Soviet metal urban myth (I’d no idea that the Taranto steel mill that supplied much of the Italian car industry was part of the USSR…), reminds me the urban myth about innocuous British kids TV cartoon “Captain Pugwash”. This alleges that the characters had- ahem- rude names. It was so widespread that an old girlfriend who to be fair was a nitwit convinced herself that she could remember Roger The Cabin Boy etc from watching repeats in her own childhood. Interestingly this is a myth with an identifiable source; Victor Lewis Smith in the now defunct Sunday Chorespondent, who found himself on the sharp end of a writ from the show’s creator. I’d love to know who startedthe steel myth started but I don’t suppose we’ll ever find out.

    1. The 2101 didn’t rust as badly as the 124, because it used thicker steel and, I believe, the factory didn’t skimp on the metal’s protection. There’s a careworn 2101 in my neighborhood, in fact. I also remember that what’s known in the UK as the Riva rusted more than it’s predecessors. As for the poor Samara… Oh well.

  11. Great series, Konstantinos! Thanks a lot.

    The bad quality soviet steel myth could be too a farce invented to prevent western companies to make deals with the USSR: “look what the commies have done to Fiat: they built them a car factory and the soviets paid Fiat with scrap. That what happens when you make business with The Enemy”
    Of course, this USSR conspirancy against western countries is a lot more attractive plot that bad design, production errors, etc..

    1. MZ motorcycles and Trabant cars were made in the combine ‘Happy Work’ with the sole purpose of inflicting the biggest possible damage to the West by exporting them. I’m sure that the more you go to the East the more sinister their intentions became and Lada cars and Cossack motorcycles in particular only were a secret form of nuclear arms.

  12. Made by prisoners? Care to elaborate? Because Eastern Bloc countries were seeking to maximize employment and, to that end, sought to devise all sorts of jobs, no matter how pointless or what this did to the complexity of each procedure – for evidence, see the overly complex mode of shopping in Eastern Bloc “malls”.

    1. There was a work duty in communist Czechoslovakia. Everyone had a job and there were no people. It was necessary to use everyone. Convicted prisoners were employed in Škoda.
      Czechoslovakia was thus able to export millions of tons of steel to the USSR every year. The ruling regime did not care that there was a shortage of everything in the domestic market. Even the conceptually obsolete Škoda 120 you had to wait a very long time.

    2. The work duty in communist Czechoslovakia was even more complicated by the fact that it was only allowed to work in regime-controlled companies. Even the sale of newspapers was possible only in state stores. Everything was managed by the Central Committee of the Czechoslovakia Communist Party according to the wishes of the Central International in Moscow. It is no wonder the hundreds of millions of tons of steel sended Czechoslovakia to the USSR each year, even though there were no quality goods on the domestic market. Russia payed the Czech Republic a debt of over 100 billion crowns only after 2000. And not even half, as the then Prime Minister Miloš Zeman “cleverly” agreed.

      To make everything the property of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia helped After World War II Russian advisers. Torture, political assassinations, political prisoners. And the Communist Party decided what job you can do in Communist Czechoslovakia, for example by having you study according to the political reliability of your parents. According to your political reliability, you could have been fired and you could only find a new job in a position allowed to you by the regime.

      And of course, at the decision of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, you could end up in prison.

  13. Thanks for that interesting amendment to the record. The Soviet steel story persists because it´s believable and simple. I generally think the truth will out but some fictions are just so much more sticky than boring fact, especially for the mind inclined to go for them. I still think that Fiat and Lancia could have killed their reputation problems faster and more completely: Japanese cars were synonymous with rust in the 1970s and today people under 30 would be amazed. Ditto Skoda. Today it´s only the 45+´s who recall Skoda´s bad PR period. Soviet steel stories didn´t maim Lancia, Fiat´s rotten management did. The steel story distracts from that central accusation.

    1. One very colourful part of Fugen-Ferdl’s auto biography (which otherwise is astonishingly uninteresting to read) is where he describes his fight for ending discussions on corroding Audis by zinc coating them beginning with the B3. He very vividly tells about his boardroom fights for the fifty Deutschmarks per car for that zinc. That was exactly the right reaction to the corrosion problems of the C2.

    2. Indeed, Richard! I haven’t seen a single Japanese car from the ’70s that’s still on the road and hadn’t suffered from severe corrosion at one point in its life or another.

  14. Excellent series Konstantinos, very well researched. Looking forward to more contributions from you.

  15. Konstantinos thank you for this excellent concluding part to this story, I’ve said it before but this was a very thoroughly and rigorously researched series which should become a reference point. I am very grateful for your time and trouble.

    And thanks also to the DTW readership at large for the wide range of very well informed comments.

    On the Inferior Soviet Steel™ topic it is easy to forget just how prevalent rusty cars were back in the day – all makers. Fiats and Alfas and yes if you must Lancias certainly suffered – so did our C1 Audi 100, Vauxhall Viva, Austin Maxi and all the others. Now other forms of obsolescence consign cars to the recycling process.

    Years ago it is probably safe to say when buying second hand that provided the body is sound any mechanical problem could be easily fixed – rebuild, replace from the scrapyard- today it’s the mechanical and electronic parts that will make a car irreparable economically.

    1. That which makes a car economically irreparable – the real elephant in the room. A car built now could last indefinitely, requiring only routine replacement of consumables. So much better for the planet, but not for the economics of production. And so we have to deliberately and shamefully waste resources by pre-programming a point of artificially expensive failure.

  16. Lately, I’ve been reading up on old ocean liners, and I came upon the history of the SS Rex, which was bombed by the Allies in September 1944. Subsequently, her wreck became Slovenia’s biggest iron mine. I guess there were no car pundits then to tell the Slovenians that iron salvaged from decommissioned ships (or, even worse, wrecked ones) is a no-no.

    1. Konstantinos Tzoannopoulos,

      Had the Slovenians waited until the 1970s to salvage pre-WW2 ships, they could have really cashed in financially due to the desirability of what is today known as “Low Background steel”.

      Low-background steel [LBS], also known as pre-war steel, is all types of steel produced prior to the detonation of the first nuclear bombs in the 1940s and 1950s. Typically sourced from shipwrecks and other steel artifacts of this era, it is often used for modern particle detectors as more modern steel is contaminated with traces of nuclear fallout. Equipment needed for precise radiation detection requires low-background steel, and today per pound it is one of the most valuable types of steel available.

      I would be curious to know if the Soviets, needing pre-war steel, realized some vehicle parts could be 100% LBS, or did they simply blend scrap ship steel with lower grade steel in their mills.

    2. Now, that is new to me and really interesting, thank you Bill. Does it affect all post-WW2 steel, no matter where in the world the steel is produced? Amazing.

    3. Daniel,

      Yes, All steel created from post-ww2 iron ore [virgin steel] has slight nuclear radiation from world-wide fallout as a result of the hundreds of above ground blasts from 1945 into the 1980s from 3rd world blasts [N. Korea, etc.]. The main reason I’m familiar with this situation is because my father was one of the top nuclear experts on radiation effects on electronics and EMP, if he was still alive I could provide greater details.

      FWIW; My dad was the technical director of the Nevada & New Mexico test sites in the 1960s. in June of 1964 dad had to officiate at an underground test at Alamogordo, NM and the family was on the base for several days as part of our “Maryland to California and return” vacation. After watching “The sound of music” at the post theater, dad asked me if I wanted to go with him to the test facility [uh, yeah!] and as a 12 year old son of the director, I got to push one of the red buttons to make it go boom! Of course this was long before they had stringent security protocols.

      As I recall, nuclear radiated steel is different from naturally occurring radiation found everywhere, including steel, but I can’t remember exactly why.

    4. Indeed, low-background steel was valuable in the construction of sensitive instruments like Geiger counters, because it was practically free from contamination caused by post-WW2 nuclear tests. However, as the Straight Dope points out, there is currently less need for such material, because there’s less radioactive dust and because we have now sophisticated instruments that correct for background radiation. However, there was one case when lead ballast retrieved from the Spanish galleon San Ignacio, which had sunk in the Caribbean back in 1733, was used to equip a lab that required shielding that emitted no radiation whatsoever (always according to the Straight Dope).

    5. I think I jumped the gun with my previous comment; I thought you said the only viable use for the SS Rex‘s iron would be particle detectors. Now I read it more carefully, I got it.

      Yeah, I guess the Slovenians could have made a pretty penny out of this wreck’s metal, had they waited until the 1970s. Then again, they needed to rebuild after the War, so I guess they couldn’t wait.

      As for the Soviets, your guess is as good as mine.

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