The Truth About Cars » Soviet Union The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Wed, 16 Jul 2014 16:33:07 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Soviet Union No Credit? No Problem! Uncle Ho’s Used Cars Has a Low-Mile ZIS For You! Thu, 13 Sep 2012 14:30:59 +0000 Ho Chi Minh was a mysterious guy; even after reading the definitive biography of the revolutionary schemer who changed pseudonyms as often most of us change our socks, I still couldn’t tell you much about the man who is now his country’s equivalent of all of America’s Founding Fathers rolled into one. However, I can tell you what Ho Chi Minh drove!
I spent a couple of weeks in Vietnam earlier this year (some of you may recall my rant about Honda Super Cubs in Vietnam), and I visited the Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi. I wasn’t too keen to visit the creepy embalmed corpse of Ho (whose body got the Lenin/Mao-style waxworks treatment in spite of his dying request to be cremated), but I had heard that his old Peugeot 404 could be found somewhere nearby and I definitely wanted to check that out. Sure enough, there were signs indicating “GARAGE OF HOCHIMINH’S USED CARS” on the museum grounds.
The place is full of soldiers in snazzy uniforms marching in aimless patterns among groups of bored Hanoi schoolkids on what was no doubt their 50th trip to look at dusty 1920s French Communist newspaper articles written by Uncle Ho. Thanks to the “GARAGE OF HOCHIMINH’S USED CARS” signs, however, all I could think about was an alternate-history scenario in which Ho Chi Minh (known as Nguyễn Sinh Cung at the time) stayed in the United States after working in New York for a few years in the 1910s (instead of moving on to Europe, which is what he really did) and then went on to found a chain of used-car dealerships in California: Crazy Uncle Ho’s Quality Pre-Owned Vehicles! He’s givin’ away those Model Ts! Imagine the TV commercials in alternate-history Los Angeles of the 1950s, in which elder statesman of used-car sales Ho Chi Minh offers unbelievable deals in a Kaiser Manhattan. Even Cal Worthington would have grown a long goatee, in order to follow in Crazy Uncle Ho’s footsteps. Oh yes, things would have been different.
Right. So, the Ho Chi Minh Museum has three of Ho’s cars behind glass in what was once his garage, and tourists— most of whom probably have Super Cubs as daily drivers— shoot thousands of photos of them.
Here’s his 1964 Peugeot 404, which (according to the sign next to the car) “was given by Vietnamese residents in New Caledonia (France).” By this time, Ho was in very poor health (he was more or less a figurehead by the middle 1950s) and probably didn’t do much cruising of the avenues of Hanoi in his new Peugeot.
Then there’s this ’55 GAZ-M20 Pobeda, given to Ho Chi Minh by his friends in Moscow. In those days, if you were a Communist revolutionary in a Third World country, you had to choose between China and the USSR as your patron. The Chinese were closer (and Vietnam’s traditional enemy), but the Soviets had better cars.
Ho probably saw this stately 1954 ZIS-110 (allegedly based on the Packard Super Eight) as his payback for all those years as a starving radical in Parisian hot-sheet flophouses.
It doesn’t quite pass the Proletariat Test, but who cares? Look at this ZIS!

01 - Ho Chi Minh's Used Cars - Picture Courtesy of Murilee Martin 02 - Ho Chi Minh's Used Cars - Picture Courtesy of Murilee Martin 03 - Ho Chi Minh's Used Cars - Picture Courtesy of Murilee Martin 04 - Ho Chi Minh's Used Cars - Picture Courtesy of Murilee Martin 05 - Ho Chi Minh's Used Cars - Picture Courtesy of Murilee Martin 06 - Ho Chi Minh's Used Cars - Picture Courtesy of Murilee Martin 07 - Ho Chi Minh's Used Cars - Picture Courtesy of Murilee Martin 08 - Ho Chi Minh's Used Cars - Picture Courtesy of Murilee Martin 09 - Ho Chi Minh's Used Cars - Picture Courtesy of Murilee Martin 10 - Ho Chi Minh's Used Cars - Picture Courtesy of Murilee Martin 11 - Ho Chi Minh's Used Cars - Picture Courtesy of Murilee Martin Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 13
The Победа That Got Away Thu, 30 Jun 2011 22:30:29 +0000
I am now on an active quest to import a genuine Soviet people’s car from the former Soviet Union; if all goes according to plan, a ZAZ-968 will go into a shipping container in Odessa and make its way to Chez Murilee later this year. I have a special affection for the Zaporozhets, because it was the product of the downward-economic-spiral, economy-temporarily-propped-up-by-oil-exports Brezhnevian Malaise Era, yet was the only car that ordinary Soviet citizens had any chance of actually owning prior to the Glasnost period. However, when an elitist, Party-members-only 1956 GAZ-M20 Pobeda in not-ridiculously-far-from-Denver Iowa came up for sale on eBay last week, with a starting bid of just six grand, I decided I’d take a shot at buying it instead of a Запоро́жець.

Just to make the idea of a Pobeda more tempting, English Russia came out with this “Victory In America” piece, with photos from a Life magazine spread on M20s in the United States. The M20 was the first of the postwar GAZ cars, and it can trace its ancestry back to the 1938 Opel Kadett. Talk about history! However, I wasn’t willing to go over $7000 on an allegedly solid car 700 miles away, and the bidding went beyond that on the final day, so I’m back to my original plans of getting a rust-free, garage-queen Ukrainian ZAZ-968. Probably just as well, as the GAZ-M20′s flathead four-banger was hard-pressed to get the Pobeda up to 60 MPH (and it would be blasphemous, even by my loose standards, to change out the original engine in such a car), while the much lighter and more modern Zaporozhets can be driven like a normal vehicle.

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Zaporozhets: Fix It Anywhere Thu, 28 Apr 2011 15:20:01 +0000
The Zaphorozhets (aka “The Soviet Corvair”) didn’t offer much in terms of performance, comfort, safety, or style, but it was the first real attempt by the post-Stalin USSR to offer a car for ordinary citizens. The idea was that the heroes of Soviet labor would enjoy some of the bourgeois luxuries of their capitalist counterparts, and this would lead to increased worker productivity, or something. The proletariat wasn’t going to get ’57 Ford Mainlines, however; the reality of Soviet roads and repair facilities was such that their cars would need to be easy to repair under primitive conditions.

So, when ZAZ engineers ripped off the design of the Volkswagen air-cooled engine for their new car, they bent the cylinders up in a vee instead of using a boxer design. Why? So that the valves, which we must assume went out of adjustment even more quickly than the VW’s (i.e. every 200 miles instead of every 2,000), could be more accessible when working in a mud-floored shack in Turkmenistan. This philosophy was carried through for the entire car. When one of the rear brakes fails on a Leningrad street, why, you just stop right where you are and fix it with whatever rusty tools you find rattling around on the floorboards. Isn’t that the reason everyone loved the Model T so much? I say the humble Zaphorozhets needs more recognition as the perfect car for its time and place!
Image sources: English Russia,

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Project Car Hell, Soviet Edition: GAZ Volga 21 or ZAZ-966 Zaporozhets? Fri, 25 Feb 2011 15:00:29 +0000
I’ve already got a custom-van project and a basket-case Toyota 20R-powered Sprite project, but what I really want is a genuine, red-flag-waving Warsaw Pact machine to cruise around Denver. I don’t mean any Lada, either— it’s got to be a genuine, designed-and-built-in-the-USSR car, not a Fiat clone! Fortunately, I have a car-freak friend in the Czech Republic who can get such a machine into a shipping container in Bremerhaven for a reasonable price, so all that would remain for me would be to negotiate the Kafkaesque maze of registering the thing in Colorado. How hard could it be?

The GAZ 21 Volga is sort of the ’55 Chevy of the former Soviet Union, a real icon, the only Soviet car that might be identified even by those who don’t care about Soviet cars. They’ve become quite collectible in the countries of the former Soviet bloc, but you can still pick up a running, not-too-rusty 21 in the Czech Republic for a reasonable price. For example, this 1962 Volga 21 for 60,000 Kč, or about 3,400 US bucks. I think I might prefer a later, Brezhnev-era “box Volga,” what with all the Soviet Malaise Era connotations and all, but there’s something to be said for driving the classic Volga. Oh, sure, parts might be utterly impossible challenging to find, but the 21 was made to be operated on dirt roads in minus-60 temperatures, with little maintenance. What’s gonna break? Naturally, I’d need to get some Red Star wheels, just like the Stalinmobile, and there must be some way to obtain a genuine ZIL-41047 V8 to swap into it.

One thing the GAZ Volga 21 doesn’t have in common with the 1955 Chevrolet is its exclusivity when new; you had to have some pull with the Communist Party machine to get one back in the day. When Khrushchev and cronies decided that they’d better start getting some consumer goods to the public in the post-Stalin era, the order went down that a cheap workers’ car would be built, something like a Volkswagen but made for Soviet road conditions. That car was the beloved Zaporozhets, a rattly air-cooled heap that looks ominously similar to the Chevy Corvair. ZAZ engineers were told to rip off emulate the air-cooled VW’s engine design, but they ended up changing the configuration from a boxer four to a V4. Why? So that the valve adjustors would be more accessible when working on the car in a mud-floored garage! Needless to say, I would love to own an example of this historically significant vehicle, and the good news is that this 1970 ZAZ-966 can be had for a mere 39,000 Czech Koruna, or about two grand in US dollars. Were I to get this car, I’d make sure to obtain a Tatra V8 while I was over there, because a rear-engined, air-cooled hemi V8 in a Zaporozhets would be even better than a Tatra-engined Trabant. How hard could it be?

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Soviet Limousine: Our Favorite Oxymoron Wed, 22 Dec 2010 14:00:42 +0000
The best thing about the Soviet Corvair, aka Zaporozhets? The original idea was to rip off the design of the Volkswagen air-cooled engine for its powerplant, but Soviet engineers made their air-cooled four a V4 so that the cylinder heads would be more accessible when working on the engine in a mud-floored lean-to in Kemerovo (no doubt using tools made on the spot from melted-down kitchen utensils). So why not make a limousine version?
Once again, English Russia comes through for the lover of arcane Soviet road machinery. Sure, the site is backed by all manner of scurrilous/lowest-common-denominator advertisers, but seeing limo-ized ZAZs, Volgas, and Ladas makes the irritation of sleazy pop-up ads a small price to pay.

English Russia

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