Eastern Bloc Car Enthusiasts are not Masochistic Madmen, Here's Why!
People who restore, mod, and enjoy soulless, unreliable, archaic trashcans on wheels - according to popular opinion - must be insane...or are they?
Dear DT readers, I think I am correct in assuming that most of you are from Western Europe or North America. As someone who lives in Eastern Europe, in a developing country, which has long been a satellite state of the Soviet bear in the past, experiencing history from the less fortunate side of the Iron Curtain, I represent a minority here. However, my journey as a petrolhead in Hungary has allowed me insight into the culture of Eastern Bloc car ownership, and I can see its reality and its popular projection outside of our region collide and set sparks flying, as the difference is substantial. In the article below, let me lubricate this rough contact patch with a few drops from the oil of perspective, as I tell you why Eastern Bloc enthusiasts are not crazy at all.
Popular Representation and its Problems
Let's start by talking about what outsiders know about these cars, and how truthful all of it is. Eastern Bloc (let's clarify, because it might be useful, I keep referring to these cars as Easter Bloc and not Russian or any specific nationality, because it's an umbrella term encompassing Russia and all of its former satellite states) cars are not dealt with very often in mainstream car media, and when they are, they are a cheap punchline of a joke.
Top Gear's segment on communist cars springs to mind first of all, where they bash several of them, ridiculing most of all quality, reliability, and sluggishness, then they almost like a Lada Niva, but finally don't. James and Jeremy have also discussed these cars separately, for example in Clarkson's Motorworld, and James May's Cars of the People, two excellent series by all means, but they came to a similar conclusion. Doug DeMuro has also reviewed a Trabant, Yugo, and Volga at the time of writing this article, and his videos are also mostly about how outdated, slow, and garbage quality they are.
Laugh all you want about Soviet pills in an empty parking lot, Douglas! I bet you would want them (whether they make you feel better or put you out of your misery) if you got stuck on the Russian taiga with your Volga!
Jeremy is drag racing an FSO Polonez, exclaiming "Growing a beard!" (The Worst Car in the History of the World, DVD) but forgetting to mention that the Fiat 125, which it's based on, would make him grow a beard just as much.
What is True and What isn't?
Let us get to debunking or regrettably confirming. Yes, Easter Bloc cars are outdated. This is because once they got developed, or modified based on other manufacturers' plans, there was no need to update and develop them any further. This was first of all due to a captive market. If a carmaker today doesn't update their models and range all the time, opposition will quickly overtake them, their sales will plummet, and they will fail faster than you can say "It's okay, the government will bail us out" *cries in British Leyland*. On the oriental side of the Iron Curtain, there was no up-to-date opposition. You could get outdated car 1, 2, or 3. Another reason for this is the "if it's not broken, don't fix it" attitude. These cars were perfectly capable of driving people around, dealing with the harsh environment, and going off-road if necessary, and there were no tech or horsepower wars. Why change them if they already do their job?
Ratting is a popular style of mod for old Eastern cars.
The second attack is directed at quality and reliability, let us address these together. Build quality is usually...agricultural, to use a polite and adequate word. This is because most countries producing them had little to no passenger car building experience and/or used the same production techniques and lines which were for building agricultural and industrial vehicles, or other equipment. They are built like a tractor literally because they were built like a tractor. A famous example of this is that the Russian Moskvitch was made in the same factory which produced the AK-47 rifle. However, this is by all means not bad news! The doors might not line up perfectly with an even gap, the interior might rattle like an old lottery drawing sphere before producing a lucky little ball, but what they all share is a sense of ruggedness.
Now, this is the point where we must surgically separate two closely related terms, reliability and ruggedness. Yes, we can say that Eastern Bloc cars are not reliable. This is in the sense that they require much maintenance, and non-essential components can fail more regularly than desired. But let me ask, does this description not ring true to an old British or Italian car? Of course it does. But are those designed to start in -30 degrees Celsius weather, get you across vast, inhospitable terrain, deal with horrible road conditions of non-stop potholes or no roads at all, be fixable at home if necessary with cheap spares, and to be handed down for generations, because buying a car was an ultra-high privilege and consumer society hasn't kicked in yet? No, I don't think so. Undeniable proof of this ruggedness and its appeal is that developing, poor economies all over the world cling to the simple, cheap, maintainable, go anywhere nature of Socialist Bloc cars, even without being a captive market. The Lada Riva, for example, was made in Egypt until 2015, and people were free to buy something else instead, but masses of them did not. The Niva too, is still going strong today in various markets, with few changes since the '70s, and is a very capable off-roader. Truly a Russian Land Rover, only more dependable.
Now onto the final piece of popular criticism: they are slow. Indeed, they are. By modern standards very much so. You could probably leave an entire Eastern Bloc meet in your dust in a Dacia Sandero. However, they are old, mostly economy cars, and let's not forget that those are all slow, so it really isn't a distinguishing characteristic. Here are some old Western cars: Fiat 124, 125, 126, 600, Renault 12, Packard Patrician. I even snuck a luxury car in there, but they are all basis of Eastern vehicles, namely the Lada VAZ–2101, Polski Fiat 125p, Polski Fiat 126p, Zastava 750, Dacia 1300, and GAZ Chaika 13. The commie variants are not slower than the vehicle they are based on, and cars based on original designs were also entirely adequate for their time of conception in the '70s or '80s. It is a valid, but completely different matter that they stayed in production even when the world had already moved on.
The Parallel Universe Parable, and why Enthusiasts don't Switch
To better illustrate the context and meaning of these cars I came up with an analogy that will hopefully set everything straight. So imagine this. Tomorrow, a parallel dimension conjuncts with our own, and out come some new people, bringing with them their cars. They are just like us in many ways, but their cars, oh man! Their cars are much better! They are nicer looking, better handling, faster, more economical, safer, and equipped with all sorts of outlandish gadgets you have never even heard about. Best news though: they are available for purchase right now! So, given this situation, what do you do as someone who loves cars? Would you laugh at a BMW M3? Ridicule a Ferrari? Shame an S-Class? Just because something objectively better came in out of nowhere does not mean you can no longer embrace what worked for you, gave you pleasure, and was as good as it gets for you anymore. This was just the case for the East when the Berlin Wall collapsed.
So there you go, hopefully I could illustrate what these cars are actually like, why they are different because of the context that spawned them, carrying with it widely different priorities than that of today. Also, the emotional bond of their enthusiasts, for values long lost, simple nostalgia, or clinging onto something they know and love.
Thank you for bearing with me on this journey, if you have an opinion on the subject, let me know in the comments below. I will see you out with a gallery of Eastern Bloc iron from auto shows and meets, illustrating a range of their unique charm, and that all sorts of modding goes without compromise, because they are not associated with one mod school or another. Oh, and next time you see one, don't be a condescending Parallel Universe person, and appreciate that quirky little Lada, Trabant, Skoda, Polski Fiat, or whatever it is. I know I will!