Made in USSR: how Soviet cars were treated in other countries

Let’s remember to which countries Soviet cars were supplied and how sophisticated Western journalists spoke about our models.

The USSR began exporting cars even before the Great Patriotic War. Of course, not to countries with developed automotive industries, but to neighboring countries – Turkey, Eastern European countries, the Baltic states. For example, Soviet three-axle ZIS-6 served in the army of independent Lithuania. And the main export model was the three-ton ZIS-5, on the chassis of which they put their bodies abroad, and sometimes even improved the cabins.

The trucks were also sold abroad after the war. At the same time, a more or less noticeable export of passenger models began. Let’s talk about them.

GAZ-M20 Pobeda (Victory)

GAZ-M20 Pobeda
GAZ M20 Pobeda

Pobedas were bought well in Scandinavia, and especially in Finland, where Western cars were not officially exported until the early 1960s: the country was too poor after the war. It was in Scandinavia that Pobeda was nicknamed “a tank in a tailcoat.” In 1952, the GAZ-M20 fell into the hands of the British (Pobeda was not officially delivered in Great Britain) from Motor magazine. What they disliked most was the low dynamics and poor back visibility. But: “Perhaps the strongest quality of Pobeda is its cross-country ability. The driver can safely drive on a bad road at high speed, even if the car is fully loaded.”


Moskvich 400

“Having tested Moskvich both as drivers and as passengers,” wrote the British magazine Motor in 1951, “we declare that the car in no way deserves to be neglected.” The British wrote down the quality of the finish and a quiet engine as the advantages of the Moskvich, and the brakes and insufficiently informative steering as the disadvantages.


Moskvich 402

In 1957, a certain Norwegian sailor who bought a Moskvich in his homeland came to a friend in Britain, where our car fell into the tenacious hands of experts from the Autocar magazine. Their verdict was: “A simple and obedient car to drive, with good grip, excellent synchronizers, lights and precise steering. The suspension provides a comfortable ride on bad roads… However, the car is nothing new and unacceptable for the average Briton in terms of finish and dynamics.”

GAZ-21 Volga

GAZ 21 Volga
GAZ 21 Volga

Volga in Britain sold only about one and a half dozen. In 1960, Autocar magazine, testing 21st, wrote: “The dynamics with a maximum speed of 130 km/h and a quarter mile in 24 seconds is not amazing.” However, the British liked the car for its economy (average consumption 13 L/100 km), especially considering the mass and size of the Volga, and good build quality.

Five years later, in 1965, American experts, having driven on the Volga for the third series (the car fell into their hands in Belgium), did a lot of irony on the pages of Mechanix Illustrated. However, the journalists still tried to be objective: “This carriage is made with high quality, reliable and functional, although some materials are frankly bad. The ceiling looks like a shower mat, and the upholstery is on the plumage of a shedding sparrow… The Volga rolls like a paper cup into a hurricane… The best unit is the engine, it is made with high quality and works well.” Volgas, including those with imported diesel engines, were sold in Scandinavia, Belgium, Holland.

Moskvich-408 (Moskvicth Elita)

Moskvich 408

In 1968, the journalists of the Swedish Teknikens Varld drove 1240 km in the serial 408 Moskvich in two days along the worst roads they could find and with the highest loads they could think of. “The car did not go fast, but gently, – wrote the Swedes, – but the synchronizers in the box did not always work well … We passed special sections of the Swedish rally, drove along the paths trodden by animals … We never managed to break the car”. For some time Muscovites really enjoyed a good reputation in Scandinavia and some other countries. True, in Finland, say, the 408 was cheaper than the Volkswagen Beetle with a 1300 engine. And the British Motor called the 408 a paradoxical car. “The overall design is good, but neglect of gearbox vibration and noise, tight brake pedal, slow acceleration deprive the borscht of sour cream.”

Moskvich-412 (Moskvich 1500)

Moskvich 412 (Moskvich 1500)

The popularity of the 412 rose after the London-Mexico Rally. In Britain, a car could be bought cheaper than a Western model with an engine that is half the size and power, and even cheaper than the Czechoslovak Skoda. Motor magazine rated the 412th on its five-point scale, giving the car the highest marks for dynamics, four for capacity, three for comfort and one for brakes. “The car can sometimes stop quickly enough,” wrote the sharks of the pen. “But not in a straight line.” In 1973, 3462 Moskvichs were sold in Britain, in 1975 – only 344, and supplies were stopped. Warehouse remains were sold until July 1976. At this time, the demand for Moskvichs fell sharply in other countries.

VAZ-2121 Niva (Lada Niva)

VAZ 2121 Niva

The Togliatti SUV is one of the most successful Soviet cars in terms of geographical coverage (cars were sold even in Australia and New Zealand) and the number of versions built abroad (convertibles, pickups, vans). “There are not many flaws in the car and they are insignificant,” wrote the picky British experts. – On the off-road, it will only compete with Land Rover and Range Rover. At the same time, Niva also makes a good impression on the highway.” By the way, cars are still exported, in particular to Germany, but now – in a few.

VAZ-2105 Zhiguli (Lada Riva)

VAZ 2105 Zhiguli (Lada Riva)

Autocar magazine, evaluating the “five” in 1984, wrote: “Without a doubt, Lada Riva is a decent car offered at an affordable price.” This, however, did not stop to call the Lada machines for dockers and hint that their owners of the house most likely have a portrait of Che Guevara hanging. One of the popular anecdotes reported that the last page of the instructions for Lada contains… a bus schedule.

VAZ-2108 (Lada Samara)

VAZ 2108 (Lada Samara)
VAZ 2108 (Lada Samara)

“The colossal progress of Lada… a low-price offer of a roomy car that combines decent dynamic characteristics, economy, safety and very good reliability,” – this is one of the first Western estimates of the G8 in 1987. However, What Car? added: “The build quality is not up to par, even taking into account the price. Perhaps for some, Lada is a chance to get an inexpensive mid-size hatchback. However, after a year or two of intensive exploitation, it will most likely be in a deplorable state.”

VAZ-21099 (Lada Samara)

VAZ 21099 (Lada Samara)
VAZ 21099 (Lada Samara)

Autocar magazine wrote in 1992: “The car is not perceived as an achievement of design ideas, but much cheaper than analogs… Handling is acceptable, the suspension is rather soft, but the comfort is mediocre… If you are new to modern cars or operate Lada Riva, you may be satisfied. Samara is not that bad.” In the 1970s and 1980s, the Lada was the main export vehicle of the USSR. In the socialist countries, they stood in line for them, as in their homeland. They also bought them in Western Europe (only in Great Britain until 1997 they sold 350,000 copies), but the main advantage of Samara was still considered the price and a two-year warranty.

Moskvich-2141 (Aleko 141)

Moskvich 2141 (Aleko 141)

In 1993, when the 41st Moskvich had not been very successful in promoting the 41st Moskvich to Western markets for several years, the German Auto Straßenverkehr appreciated a version with a Ford diesel engine, designed specifically for the German market. “In Russian, the sluggish nature of the car contributes to ‘moderation in drinking’… When you learn to tame the stubborn black handle between the seats with an energetic hand, you will be able to enjoy very short strokes and a fairly high definition of switching on… The car reacts sluggishly and inaccurately to steering, but cornering behavior is designed for fool… Modern elements of passive safety are alien to the car… An honest Russian guy who does the little that he promises – capacity, durability, efficiency.” Moskvichs sold a meager amount for export.

ZAZ-1102 Tavria

ZAZ 1102 Tavria
ZAZ 1102 Tavria

In 1992, the Hungarian magazine Auto Piac titled an article about Tavria: “Half a car for half the price”, because the car was offered even cheaper than the Romanian small car Olcit. “We are talking,” they wrote in the article, “about a technique that cannot be compared with any other passenger car in the world… The wiper blade moves away from the glass on the move… in turn, associated with a gearbox that never works normally… The dynamics are good, but the exchange rate stability is below any idea.”