9 Sports Cars from the Eastern Bloc
A short look into the rarities that were sports cars from the former Soviet Union and it's satellite states
When you think of cars from the former Eastern Bloc, cars such as the Lada, Trabant and Moskvich will often pop into your head. The Automotive Industry in the former Soviet bloc was geared more towards necessity, focusing on getting affordable, easy to repair cars out en masse to the workers without any real thought to speed or luxury. However, if you look close enough a diamond in the rough may appear from the heaps of standardised cars. Although there aren’t many of them, there were a few sports cars that emerged from the car industry in the former Eastern Bloc, though they were mostly unavailable to the public. A word of warning however, if you’ve clicked on this article expecting Soviet versions of the Countach or the DB5, the reality is a lot more… underwhelming. Here is a list of 9 cars I’ve selected as pin-up models for the performance scene in the east.
1. Melkus RS 1000
An East German Ferrari? Probably not.
Possibly the most well-known Soviet sports car is the Melkus RS 1000. It was designed by Heinz Melkus with engineers from the Dresden Technical University in East Germany and was debuted at the Brussels Motor Show in 1970. Looking like the East German answer to the Ferrari 246 Dino, the body was made of polyester resin reinforced with fiberglass, with the base models weighing in at 680 kg. Mechanically, it fails to impress. Armed with a tuned, mid-mounted 1 litre inline 3 engine from a Wartburg 353, it produces 68 bhp and a maximum 87 lb ft of torque, propelling this East German rocket ship to a staggering 102 mph. Only 101 of these cars were produced, and probably for a good reason. It does have gullwing doors though, so that’s something.
2. ZiL-112 Sports
The Shelby Cobra's estranged Soviet cousin
You’d be forgiven for mistaking this car for a distant relation of the Shelby Cobra living in the Soviet Union. The ZiL-112 was one of the few sports cars from the USSR that competed in races between 1961 and 1969, becoming Champion of the USSR in 1965. Technically it surprises, as the Soviet Cobra sports a controlled slip differential, disc brakes, radial ply tires and a huge 6.0L V8 delivering 240 bhp, with a later 7.0L variant pushing as much as 270 bhp. Depending on the engine, the car could reach 170 mph, which is respectable for its day. Only 1 of these cars remains today and is held in the Riga Motor Museum in Latvia.
3. Skoda Rapid
Affectionately called "the poor man's Porsche"
A car with a reputation for being “the poor man’s Porsche” is always a good start to any first impressions, even if this one doesn’t really meet the mark. Skoda’s replacement for the 1981 Garde, the Rapid is a rear engine, rear wheel drive fastback from Czechoslovakia that was marginally successful for a sports car in the Eastern Bloc and is gaining popularity now as a classic car. The original models came with a 1.1L inline 4, producing a measly 54 bhp and were plagued with reliability issues. However, later models came with 1.2L engines that gave a minor boost to 58 bhp and a top speed of 95 mph, despite only weighing 855 kg. Overall, not the fastest thing on the roads in the 80’s, but it does have a cool aesthetic going for itself at least.
4. KD Sport 900
This may be the only image that doesn't show this car in a dilapidated state
The KD Sport 900 is one of those cars that well, nobody has ever heard of (including me prior to writing this article). It was built by a bunch of enthusiasts working at the NAMI automotive plant in Moscow, with the backing of the Kuzma Durnov, director of the MZAK components factory and the man whose initials this car wears. Sharing most it’s parts with a ZAZ-965, the KD shares in the area of “underwhelming performance statistics” with its brethren on this list, with its 0.9L inline 4 engine producing 30 hp and reaching a top speed of 74 kmh. With statistics like that it’s a miracle this made it onto this list. However, it’s funky and sporty looking design and irregularity with Soviet automotive production at the time earns this weird little car a spot amongst its peers.
5. ZiS 101A
Weirdly enough it's not that bad looking.
A converted limousine whose production was approved by Joseph Stalin, this car certainly has an interesting origin story. Whilst Soviet motorsport was still very much in its infancy, Anatoly Puhalin published a diploma on “fast cars”, and his submissions inspired the Komsomol to begin creating a sports car. Based on the chassis of the ZiS-101 limousine, it sported a 6.0L inline 8 cylinder producing 141 bhp at 3300 rpm, with the car weighing just over 2 metric tonnes. No official top speed was ever recorded, though there are reports of testing where the car reached 95 mph. So once again, technically unimpressive, but a car that received the stamp of approval from Joseph Stalin himself is an oddity worthy of a spot on this list.
Bulgaria is not a country that you think of when you think sports cars… or any cars for that matter. However, in 1966 the small Balkan nation acquired the rights to begin producing licensed versions of the Alpine A110, with the interests of developing motorsport in the nation. The car shares many similarities with its French counterpart but was powered by a 1L inline 4 engine and was built with fiberglass bodies produced in East Germany and Poland. Intended solely for racing teams and sports clubs, the Bulgaralpine was rarely sold to private customers, except for film director Vasil Mirchev, who covered the distance between Sofia, Bulgaria to Cannes in 16 hours to attend the Cannes film festival. Only 60 cars were ever produced.
I promise you this isn't a Lotus Esprit
Not a lot is known about this strange car from the late 80’s. The product of Georgi and Stanislav Algebraistov, it was a private project built with parts from a GAZ-24 and with a specially sculpted fibreglass body that strangely resembles a Lotus Esprit S1. A strange project with a strange background that is difficult to trace, the only performance aspect is that it could apparently reach 124 kmh and had Recaro bucket seats, so make of that what you will.
This one was technically produced after 1991, but literally no other pictures exist that weren't taken by a man with severe tremors.
Like the previous entry, the Laura was a private enterprise by two young men based in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), who worked on the car in a small studio. Their vision was simple, the independently design and build cars that would not yield to the technical characteristics of foreign models. Only two models were ever produced, and could reach 106 mph, which is less than exciting. Not much is known about the vehicles, with many of the technical specifications lost. It was released in 1985 and was recognised by General Secretary Gorbachev and became the ambassador of the Soviet automobile industry in its dying years, despite being built with entirely foreign components.
9. Skoda 110R
The Rapids similarly underwhelming grandfather
Last on our is list is another entry from Skoda and the grandfather of the Rapid. The 110R is a rear wheel drive fastback produced between 1970 and 1980. Is there any improvement on speed or power in this car? No, not really. It was equipped with a 1.1L inline 4 engine producing 62 bhp and reaching a top speed of 90 mph. The 110R was actually taken racing, where rally specific homologation requirements spawned cars with 1.8L and 2.0L engines, culminating in the ultimate evolution nicknamed “Grenade”, producing around 250hp in 1975. Aesthetically speaking, it has a certain charm to it and to be honest isn’t the worst looking car around, even if I’m pretty sure my grandmother has more horsepower than it.
So what we can conclude from our adventure into the world of Soviet sports cars is: underwhelming. Maybe its for the best that the Soviets stuck to making affordable cars for the people after all.