Are Communist Era Cars Really That Bad?

Dacia 1410 Sport 9 photos
Photo: Calin Iosif
Three Dacias SportDacia 1300 and a not-so-communist Dacia Pick-UpDacia 1300Dacia 1300Dacia 500 LastunTrabant 601Trabant 601Vaz 2101/Lada 1200
As petrolheads, we all wax-lyrical about the raw muscle of American cars, the tunability of Japanese ones, and the driveability and build quality of German cars. But, while the whole world was thriving after World War 2, Eastern Europe had a different narrative, a pretty dark one. Still, in Communist regimes, some exciting cars were born, so let's have a look.
First, we should look at how Eastern European people, especially those who grew up during the Communist period, view cars and how they relate to them. For those who don't know, purchasing a car back then was quite a difficult process. You had to get on a waiting list, pay the whole amount for the car, and then wait four or five years to have it delivered.

Then there was the selection of automobiles you could get. You had the likes of Lada and GAZ for the Soviet Union, Romania (where I'm from and what I'll use as an example moving on) had Dacia and ARO, and East Germany had the Trabant - hastily built cars with cost cuts in mind.

But before jumping to conclusions, we should look at how this industry came to be and how it worked. The Communist car extravaganza began in 1927 in the Soviet Union with the AMO brand. The first car they churned out was the NAMI-1. It was considered a success, soaking up the undeveloped roads of the Soviet Union, but it ultimately failed due to high production costs.

Trabant 601
Photo: Calin Iosif
Following the NAMI-1, production efforts were shifted towards the military because, you know, there was that big "fight". After the war, Communist era cars were promising. But, they were mere copycats of vehicles made by brands like Fiat, Opel, or Ford. The first of this kind was the Moskvich 400, modeled after the Opel Kadett, as Moskvich acquired the Opel manufacturing plant in Germany as a part of the reparation paid out to the USSR after the war.

The reverse engineering of Western cars soldiered on - the Soviets would get a car, break it down, and recreate it to fit the production standards of their factories. The prime example of this is the Dacia 1100 and Dacia 1300. Both were built under Renault licensing and based on the Renault 8 and 12.

Initially, the Dacias were comparable with the cars they were based on in terms of build quality and luxury. Still, as time went on and the economy was getting worse and worse, the quality of these cars started to decline massively. By the late '70s and early '80s, these cars were mere imitations of the Renault 12.

The scarcity of materials, poor assembly, and crummy parts led to this stigma of bad cars. But are they that bad? Well, the short answer is yes. Otherwise, it depends on who you ask and the context in which you ask it. Let's break it down a little.

Vaz 2101/Lada 1200
Photo: Calin Iosif
If I ask my grandfather, a mechanic who mainly worked on these Dacias, the cars were fantastic, with a massive accent on the word "were" - that is so because those were the only cars you could buy back then. And truth be told, they fit the needs of regular folks forced to live during communism. They could transport the whole family on that rare and mediocre holiday, you could haul everything with them, and they were relatively reliable - again, that's the perception of the people who grew up with them.

Of course, they are perceived that way because that's all you could buy, and you made the best of it. You could haul with them because you had no other option. They were reliable because they were barbarically simple and easy to fix - I could tear apart my Dacia with two wrenches and a screwdriver.

And that isn't the case for Dacia only. With VAZ, which was made by the Soviet - you might know them under their export name, Lada, it was the same old story - they were good because you had no other option. Communist cars were ridiculously outdated and spartan.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to get behind the wheel of quite a few cars. Among that inventory, I drove many cars from the '80s, from brands like Mercedes, BMW, and even American cars - all were better than my 1986 Dacia. And not only were they better, it felt like comparing a superyacht to a rusty bicycle.

Dacia 1300 and a not\-so\-communist Dacia Pick\-Up
Photo: Calin Iosif
That may sound harsh, but that's truly the case when you compare those models to Western cars. Now, if you look at them retroactively, they become unbelievably cool. I would hate to drive one daily, but if I want to feel in charge of driving the vehicle and take my mind off things, I love going for a drive in that rusty, slow, and stupidly loud Dacia 1310. If you judge them for their history and from an it's-an-old-retro-car perspective, things are great, but good luck finding a good one. They were so overworked and neglected after the regime's fall that the ones left are either destroyed beyond repair or have prices rivaling some overrated JDM cars.

But that doesn't mean all cars made in the Communist era are bad or boring. Vehicles like the Volga M21 are gorgeous and could easily rival Western offerings. They had a sleek design, impressive comfort amenities, and good performance. The base model featured a 2.3-liter (140 ci) inline-four, but if you were well connected or a KGB agent, you could opt for a 5.5-liter (336 ci) V8 with 160 hp (162 ps) - but, yet again, this was only a copycat of American cars like the Chevy Bel Air or the Ford Mainline.

The Communists even ventured into the performance world with cars like the Melkus RS1000, a fiber-glass bodied sports car powered by an unorthodox three-cylinder, two-stroke engine making 103 hp (104 ps) - but, unsurprisingly, they didn't sell.

So, are Communist era cars bad? Well, they are certainly worse than the ones built in capitalist societies. However, if you look at them from that retro-cool perspective, they are amazing, although that doesn't make them reliable or well-built, so get into one at your own risk, and only if you have a high-stress tolerance.
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About the author: Călin Iosif
Călin Iosif profile photo

Călin’s origin story is being exposed to Top Gear when he was very young. Watching too much of Clarkson, Hammond and May argue on TV turned him into Petrolhead (an automotive journalist with a soft spot for old pieces of... cars, old cars).
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