Cars of the Cold War - Spirit of Speed

Cars of the Cold War - Spirit of Speed

The Second World War brought about a remarkable change in culture, society, politics, and also automobiles.

In the early 1960s, the Soviet KGB (Committee for State Security) needed a car for pursuit, escort, and various “special missions.” The car needed to look exactly like the commercially developed GAZ 21 “Volga,” and so GAZ went on to design the GAZ 23 which was produced between 1962 and 1970 with six hundred and three being made.

  • They look identical to the commercial cars that are made by GAZ at that time with minor changes being made to their exteriors. The car is modified with a V8 engine which allowed it to travel up to 100 km/h in 16 seconds and with a top speed of 170 km/h.
  • The car was also equipped with an exhaust system. The design was developed for the KGB's 9th Directorate as an escort vehicle for motorcades which dubbed the vehicle Dogonyalka (the "Chaser") or "The Double" (because it had an upgraded engine).
  • The body and suspensions were further reinforced due to the additional weight added to the vehicle. The commercial version of this car is the M21M design and the further developed Baleen which in 1965 cost around 6,455 roubles.
  • The car was a modernization of an older model, the 1958 Shark design, and in this updated version GAZ included strengthened spars at the steering fixture and removed the older ball bearings with an innovative design in the wheel hubs with rollers. Total sales of the M21 were 638,875 but the export of the design ceased around the 1970s to the Soviet Blocs. 

Germany too had their design which was heavily inspired by the Soviets. In 1964, East Germany began selling the Trabant 601 which was a Trabant model produced by VEB Sachsenring in Zwickau, Saxony. Made from 1964 to 1990, it has the longest production of all Trabant models which totaled up to 2,818,547 cars. It was a successful design that earned VEB Sachsenring a lot of revenue as it became the most common war seen in East Germany.

The car was the answer to West Germany’s Volkswagen Beetle also known as the People’s car made after the war. In addition to being affordable and easy to maintain, it was designed to be a cheap but still reliable car with front-wheel drive together with a transversely mounted motor and a minimal maintenance engine that made it a modern design compared to other cars of that era.

  • The car’s body was made from Duroplast and was installed with unitary construction, rack and pinion steering, composite bodywork, and independent suspension.
  • It used the pre-war DKW engine which was its only main disadvantage as many cars at that time had already been installed with the more efficient four-stroke engines. There were plans to create a Trabant that would utilize the capabilities of the Wankel engine but that did not come to fruition.
  • The lack of development funds in East Germany further hampered its development as the car design was forced to continue using the two-stroke engine in the Trabant which made it completely obsolete by the 1980s. Today, the car has a mixed reception by its former users primarily in East Germany as the car is known to be loud and uncomfortable. It also was the symbol of the old East German government many in that former nation have mixed feelings when wanting to be associated with the old regime.
  • Known as a collector's item, green Trabants have been especially popular in recent years because they are thought to bring good luck to their owners. Many Trabant 601s are still being used for rally racing.

There were a variety of cars used by the Soviet Union and its Eastern bloc allies both commercially and for the military. There were many companies in that part of Europe that wanted to cater to the growing need for automobiles, especially in the rural regions where they would be useful for farming.

However, the Soviet Union and many of its allies were plagued with a weak economy due to its Communistic stance on the subject. Furthermore, trade with the Western powers was limited for a few years until the Soviet Union started to open and began trading with other nations. We can see this with the Trabant 601 which was shipped to countries like Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Iceland, and Greece. With the success of the Trabant 601’s worldwide exportation, many companies would want to take a share of the import and export pie. 

AvtoVAZ would be one of the few companies to venture into this market with their Lada Niva.

  • This is a series of four-wheel drive, small off-road cars designed and produced since 1977. Its original goal was to sell this design to farmers in rural markets, but it got popular with those living in urban cities as well.
  • Described by its designers as a "Renault 5 put on a Land Rover chassis", the development of this car began in 1971 when the then-premier of the Soviet Union, Alexei Kosygin, asked designers for VAZ and AZLK to create a car suitable for rural areas of the country as most of the cars designed by the usual Zhiguli, Moskvitch, and Zaporozhets were meant for use in urban settings.
  • Those cars were not suitable for the harsh terrains that make up most of the Soviet Union with the nation being a vast country with many local farms dotting the fields. That same year, VAZ designers led by Solovyev began development and they managed to come up with an automobile that was partly inspired by the IZh-14 prototype of 1974. It was their first car that was based on the Fiat models, but some elements were taken and incorporated into the design such as the distinctive "clamshell" hood and its rear three-quarter section.

The earlier models utilized a four-speed manual as their transmission, but this was later upgraded to the five-speed manual from 1994 onwards. The first few models were installed with an overhead-cam four-cylinder petrol engine that produces 56 kW, giving a maximum speed of 81 mph.

Like other Soviet cars at that time, it was equipped with headlight wipers, a rear fog lamp, and a right external mirror with some of these features subsequently phased out from 1994 onwards.

For the international market, the company released a facelifted version of the Niva Cossack called the Hussar in the United Kingdom which added a few improvements such as a new Rover-designed grille.

This was not successful however as the company was having difficulty in sourcing the GM fuel injection unit which was necessary to meet the country’s emissions regulations.

There was several rebranding of the car designs made by the company recently when they acquired General Motors' stake in GM-AvtoVAZ which led to the release of the Chevrolet Niva in July 2020. For such a simple car made for farmers, its legacy continues. 

  • One of the first commercial cars distributed after the Second World War was the GAZ-M20 Pobeda which began production from 1946 to 1958 in the Soviet Union and 1951 to 1973 in Cambodia and Poland.
  • The idea emerged from a sketch made by Valentin Brodsky in 1938 and was further worked on by Vladimir Aryamov in 1940. There were plans to produce the car immediately but that was not feasible after the German invasion of 1941 when military priorities were switched to military production rather than for commercial cars.
  • A revolutionary vogue was introduced in automobile design with the GAZ-M20 Pobeda, the first Soviet car of the original design. Only the front suspension and, partially, the unitized body was inspired by the Opel Kapitan.
  • Ponton styling with slab sides was one of the first features introduced by this car, ahead of many Western manufacturers. M20 was the first Soviet car manufactured entirely from domestic dies; it was designed to avoid wooden bucks that warped, requiring last-minute adjustments by GAZ factory workers. The prototype was ready on November 6th, 1944. 

Much of the design was influenced by Joseph Stalin who choose for the car an inline-four engine which was, at the same time, used by the ASU-57 light assault gun and that gave the automobile a top speed of 105 km/h. The total production of the Pobeda was 235,999 with a considerable number of cars used by the Soviet Government and it was produced slowly since the Soviet Union had just emerged from a war that drained much of its resources.

There was a huge demand for this design despite its 16,000-ruble price tag. However, the demand exceeded the production capabilities of the factories making them. The car was replaced by the GAZ M21 Volga in 1956. One of its shortcomings was not understanding the economic feasibility of the Soviet Union after the war which was slowly rebuilding and different from before the war. Thus, the car was designed to be the state of the art but has been hampered by a weak economy.

The Cold war had destroyed everything such as schools, vehicles, and entertainment. The idea of rebuilding quickly was something that many wanted and a necessity. The Soviet Union at that time also wanted to return to normalcy by allowing its citizens to be able to continue their daily lives.

  • In 1947, the Moskvitch 400-420 was introduced to the Soviet Market. A total of 500 KIM 10-50s were produced between 1940 and 1941, making it the first Soviet compact car.
  • Based on the Ford Prefect and equipped with such features as a mechanical clock and an indicator for the radiator's temperature and oil level, yet having a low price. Like other factories in the Soviet Union, there were plans to produce the car immediately but that was not feasible after the German invasion of 1941 when priorities shifted to military production.
  • When the war ended, the Soviet Union was able to obtain plans and tools for the 1939 Opel Kadett K38 as part of war reparations. With the development from 1944, the KIM factory was selected to produce the new car based on their older model, the KIM 10-52, as the basis for the contemporary design.
  • Production was approved in May 1945 and the prototypes were set to be completed in December of that same year. A four-door Opel Kadett was personally chosen by Joseph Stalin as the first mass-produced popular Soviet car in June 1945, so plans and tooling for a four-door version had to be reconstructed by German engineers working with the Soviet occupation forces.
  • It was then renamed MZMA, and the new car was ready for production before the end of 1946 with the first cars completed in December. It was considered the best car at that time as it was able to accelerate up to 50 mph in 55 seconds. It featured a unitized construction, independent front suspension, and three-speed manual transmission. and hydraulic brakes with the car being powered by an inline-four engine.
  • On the 28th of April 1947, the Soviet Government granted the manufacturer the ability to mass-produce the car design. About 1,501 were built that same year with 24,714 cars made in the following two years.
  • An improved variant was released to the public in 1954 with its main improvement being that it is installed with a side valve inline-four engine which gave it a top speed of 90 km/h. Production of the car ended on the 20th of April 1956, when it was replaced by Moskvitch 402.

Although the war had drained much of the Soviet’s resources, the Cold War was just beginning and after a few proxy wars, the Soviet Union wanted to maintain its relationship with the Americans although they are a bit suspicious of them. The Soviet government needed an automobile for its use. The Soviets also wanted to show that they were a modern nation and were competing with the Americans in everything from the space race to new automobile developments.

Thus, the ZIL-111 was designed by the Public Joint-Stock Company – Likhachov Plant specifically for members of the Soviet party and those in government positions. From 1958 to1967, only 112 of all models were made, making them an extremely rare find today.

  • The ZIL-111 gained a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest passenger car in the world when it was introduced in 1958.
  • Achievement by the Soviet car manufacturer ZIL as it also won a top prize at the Brussels Expo World Fair in 1958, it was the first post-war design of a limousine made by the Soviets.
  • It was inspired by the American Packard cars in general layout. It is installed with a 6.0 L V8 engine producing 200 hp which gave a top speed of 170 km/h. Besides top-quality leather and broadcloth, thick pile carpet and polished wood fittings decorated the interiors.
  • The car was equipped with air conditioning, heating, a 5-band radio, electric windows, vacuum-operated screen wash, and windshield and front door window defrosting, all of which could be controlled from the rear, as well as vacuum-operated screen wash.

The car was completely restyled in 1962 as they were catching up with the latest trends by having a wide chrome grille with quad headlamps similarly used by the 1961 Cadillac Fleetwood Seventy-Five.

Many of these cars were considered a luxury as they were given as gifts to many political leaders from all around the world by the Soviets. Yevgeny Molchanov once designed a special version of this car for United States President Dwight D Eisenhower for an official state visit. Fidel Castro also received a variant of the car, the ZIL-111D as a gift from the Soviets. By 1967, the car was replaced by an improved model, the ZIL-114 which continued to be used by the Soviet Government as transportation for their politicians.

Efforts have been made to get the information as accurate and updated as possible. If you found any incorrect information with credible source, please send it via the contact us form
Author: M.A Amru
Writer of First under heaven & A Song For Zenith
Back to blog