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Western Group looks east for lesson in automotive history
publication date: Sep 25, 2015
author/source: Kieron Fennelly
In a country where only party bigwigs travelled in cars and for everyone else it was bus, train or Shanks’s pony, the advent of the Zaporozhets was nothing short of momentous.
The Zaporozhets was the nearest the USSR would get to creating its own Volkswagen and was the direct result of the liberal reforms undertaken by Premier Nikita Khruschev. After the harshness of the Stalin years, Khruschev placed more emphasis on people and on production of consumer goods rather than heavy machinery.
Indeed, Khruschev decreed that it was not to cost more than 1,200 roubles, which still represented years of savings for the average Boris or Ludmilla, but it meant that for a fortunate minority, having a car became a possibility.
The Zap had a V4 rather than flat four engine: this made the sparking plugs more accessible and the engine easier to work on, an important factor in a vast and undeveloped country where owners generally had to do their own maintenance. The straightforward torsion bar suspension was similarly serviceable and even if it tended to lose its tension, ride on Russia’s often unmade roads was at least tolerable. With barely 30bhp, lift off oversteer was unlikely to be encountered.
Later a 1200cc version emerged from the factory and with an 8.4:1 compression ratio said to produce a dizzying 50bhp on 93 octane petrol. As only 76 octane was generally available though, most cars were made with a lower compression ratio and the loss of about 6bhp.
Until the end of communism, the USSR had a striking shortage of one ton utility vehicles and regular visitors would marvel at the way the Russians always seemed to need a ten ton truck just to deliver parcels or loaves of bread. It was a classic anomaly of state planning and characteristically it was to stymie Sorochkin’s plans, refusing him permission, despite successful prototypes, to build something on the lines of VW’s much admired van.
The air cooled Zaporozhets was always very basic transport, but it mobilized a section of Russian society much as the Model T Ford had in America fifty years before and for this, its owners were grateful. They tolerated the V4’s tendency to overheat in hot weather (the aluminium head and iron block were always uneasy bedfellows) and became adept at fixing their own breakdowns. “Zapor” in Russian also means constipation and made ZAZ cars the butt of endless jokes, but in the end it was infinitely preferable to taking the bus (if there even was one).
When the world turned and the Soviet Union disintegrated, state planning yielding to the open market and the Zap became a despised symbol of the mediocrity of the old regime. People cast them aside as soon as they could afford an imported car. ZAZ production itself was modernised, the Zap mutating into the Tavria, a clumsily slab sided front wheel drive hatchback which did not even bear the Zaporozhets name.
Now, twenty-five years after those upheavals and new generations of drivers too young to remember Soviet life, the Zaporozhets is viewed a rather differently. It has become something of a cult car, like the vastly inferior, indeed criminally awful Trabant; today there are Zaporozhets clubs of proud owners for whom the Zap is no longer contemptibly old fashioned, but a symbol of individuality, a status that the central planners would never have believed or still less understood!
© Image of Saporoshez ZAZ 965 A by Brams in Dresden museum