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 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.
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.
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 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?
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