Remembering 10 of the Most Iconic Cars Built Behind the Iron Curtain

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Lada RivaLada RivaLada RivaLada RivaLada RivaLada NivaLada NivaLada NivaLada NivaLada NivaTrabantTrabantTrabantTrabantTrabantWartburg 353Wartburg 353Wartburg 353Wartburg 353Wartburg 353Moskvitch 412Moskvitch 412Moskvitch 412Moskvitch 412Moskvitch 412YugoYugoYugoYugoYugoOltcitOltcitOltcitOltcitOltcitGAZ 69GAZ 69GAZ 69GAZ 69GAZ 69Dacia 1300Dacia 1300Dacia 1300Dacia 1300Dacia 1300Tatra 603Tatra 603Tatra 603Tatra 603Tatra 603
Since it was born in 1922 with the Treaty on the Creation of the USSR to its dissolution in 1991, the Soviet Union was a powerhouse of scientific and medical advances. Communist Russia gave the United States of America a run for its money in the Space Race, which is probably the most lucrative by-product of the Cold War. Be that as it may, the USSR sucked at making cars.
During the first five-year plan, implemented between 1928 and 1932, a chap going by the name of Joseph Stalin demanded the establishment of a competitive automotive industry. Before Stalin, the USSR’s auto sector was nothing more than a joke compared to the industries of America and Western Europe. Then again, rapid industrialization does have an interesting upshot.

In 1928, the industrial workforce in Soviet Russia numbered 3.12 million men and women. By the end of the first five-year plan, industrial workforce rose to more than 6 million souls. That’s how the USSR created an entirely new social class - the working class. Despite creating new jobs, the increase in the standard of living, and a maximum output of 2.3 million vehicles per year, having an automobile was a privilege even for the well-to-do working class.

It was even worse for those living in satellite states such as Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Poland, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. If you’re curious what kind of cars people could buy on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the following list should provide the insight.

Lada Riva

Lada Riva
The staple of commie cars. A brick on wheels. The subject of endless jokes. Call it what you want and loathe it as much as you want, but nothing comes close to the popularity of the Lada Riva in the communist universe.

It started life as a Fiat 124, a smallish family sedan with a spacious cabin, coil spring rear suspension, disc brakes all around, and even some sporting credentials. The Russians made it worse, though. Much worse.

Nevertheless, tens of millions were made since its inception in 1970 (VAZ 2101) to its demise in 2012. What’s that? Production of the estate model (VAZ 2104) is still going strong in Cairo, Egypt? Well, I’ll be damned.

Lada Niva

Lada Niva
Another famous car from the cruddy past of Russia. One that continues to be popular in eastern Europe and the southernmost part of the American continent. Compared to the Riva, the Niva (VAZ 2121) has a bragging right.

This humble 4x4 is the first series production off-road vehicle given a unibody construction and independent front suspension. It’s the forerunner of the crossover SUV and it inspired Suzuki to make the Vitara. The Riva, on the other hand, inspired shame and everything that was wrong in the USSR.

Provided that you can find a Lada dealership in Germany, you can buy the modern version of the Niva for €11,990. If you want a little more, oh I don’t know, comfort and modernity, approximately €4,000 on top of that will get you an off-road ready Suzuki Jimny or a tres chic Renault Captur, cars that wouldn’t have existed if it weren’t for the tried-and-true 1977 Lada Niva.


It’s made from cotton waste and phenol resins. It has a two-cylinder two-stroke engine that produces thick smoke out of the exhaust pipe. It’s one of the most detestable automobiles in the history of East Germany.

3.7 million units were produced between 1957 and 1991 and some weirdos collect these things in 2016. These so-called collectors restore them, then use them on a daily basis. Yup, masochism comes to mind.

The Trah-Bee, as the British refer to this mongrel, is one of, if not the worst economy car of all time. No wonder many Trabant cars were burnt down to the ground or abandoned after the Berlin Wall was torn apart.

Wartburg 353

Wartburg 353
East Germany didn’t have any other alternative to the Trabant other than the Wartburg. The model christened 353 is based on a 1938 design from BMW and it’s powered by a 993 cc two-stroke three-cylinder engine with a mind-boggling characteristic. No, I’m afraid it isn’t get-up-and-go.

What that engine lacked in performance and excitement made up in terms of DIY servicing. Thanks to only seven major moving parts, even those with minimal mechanical know-how could repair it themselves.

If you wanted one back in the day, delivery often took more than 10 years after paying for the car. The successor of the 353, however, lost the easy-to-fix engine in favor of a 1.3 four-stroke four-cylinder based on the engine found under the hood of the second-generation Volkswagen Polo.

Moskvitch 412

Moskvitch 412
This progeny of the Cold War excels at being dull. It’s so dull, I already feel sleepy from looking at the photograph above. Despite everything I hate about the Moskvitch 412, this small family car has some laudable attributes.

Take the UZAM-412 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine. Word on the street is that Moskvitch took inspiration from the BMW M10 engine. More specifically, the M115 unit used by two BMW New Class models - the 1500 and the 1502.

When Moskvitch set up shop in the United Kingdom in 1969, nigh on 300 examples of the 412 were sold that year. I feel sorry for the poor souls who chose this instead of a Ford Anglia, Hillman Minx or a Triumph 1300.

Yugo (a.k.a. Zastava Koral)

Where do I start with this one? The Yugo is based on the Fiat 127, the first supermini hatchback made by Fiat. And just like its Italian counterpart, the little Yugo employed a transverse engine and front-wheel-drive layout.

Built from 1980 to 2008, the Yugo became a subject of ridicule after it entered the United States of America and the United Kingdom. After all, it was a long shot for a Serbian brand to prevail in a free market.

Before political problems and a civil war broke out at the beginning of the 1990s, the Yugo factory in Kragujevac rolled out the best examples of the breed. Not that anyone is interested in buying such a has-been these days.

Dacia 1300

Dacia 1300
From 1969 to 2004, Romanian automaker Dacia built the 1300 family car in all shapes and sizes. 4-door sedan, 5-door station wagon, 2-door coupe, 4-door pickup truck, you name it, the Dacia 1300 was a universal car in Romania.

Based on the Renault 12 but made with cheaper components in a facility brim with unskilled workers, the Dacia 1300 was compromised from the start. Dacia continuously modernized the 1300, but then Renault bought the brand and said, “Erm, we’ll replace the 1300 with the Clio-based Logan, thank you!

The year production was halted, the Dacia 1300 sedan had a price of €4,100. That’s $4,545 at current exchange rates, which is dirt cheap. The peeps at Renault couldn’t replicate that competitive price with the Logan, a small family car which starts at €6,850 (approximately $7,560) in Romania.


The Oltcit is a commie car that could’ve been great. To make a long story short, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu wanted a subcompact vehicle to sell alongside the larger and more expensive Dacia 1300. Citroen accepted to provide the design, tooling, and know-how, and so begins the story of the Oltcit.

Sold in westernmost parts of Europe (except the United Kingdom) as the Citroen Axel, the Oltcit was based on a project from 1965. Robert Opron is the man behind project EN101, the man responsible for the Citroen DS Nouvelle Visage from 1967, the SM, Alpine A310, Renault Fuego, and Alfa Romeo SZ.

Offered with either a flat twin or flat four, the Oltcit wasn’t the supermini version of the Porsche 911 because it was hideously unreliable. Furthermore, it was so bad in terms of build quality and fit & finish, the Citroen-badged Axel was priced below the 2CV. The factory in Craiova, Romania, where the Oltcit was made is now the home of the Ford B-Max and 1.0 EcoBoost engine.

GAZ 69

GAZ 69
The Soviets could not remain indifferent to the Willys MB after World War II came to a close. After Land Rover and Toyota had copied the military version of the Jeep, the USSR followed suit and this is the result - the GAZ 69 from 1953.

As the standard military jeeps behind the Iron Curtain, the GAZ 69 family was so popular that Romanian carmaker IMS asked the Soviet authorities if it could produce a similar vehicle. The IMS 57 was born in 1957, then it got more modern with the ARO M461. The latter model, still based on the GAZ 69, won the 1970 Forests Rally in Belgium and it was exported to China and Colombia.

The GAZ 69 took its last breath in 1972 when the UAZ 469 replaced the off-road utility vehicle. The thing I find most intriguing about the GAZ 69 is that the civilian-spec model wasn’t offered with a hardtop because it had to meet Soviet Army requirements in case a war broke out. How communist is that?

Tatra 603

Tatra 603
I have a confession to make. This is my favorite car on the list and I’ll explain why. Six(ish) headlights? Check. Air-cooled 2.5-liter V8 engine mounted at the back end? Check. Popular with the highest of communist officials? Check.

The Tatra 603 was pure opulence in a Soviet Union full of uninspiring cars for the masses. When it came to market in 1956, people thought it was a mash-up between a limousine and a Sputnik satellite.

This thing isn’t just a luxobarge with go-faster warrants by ‘50s standards. The Tatra 603 with minimum modifications has participated in 79 racing events from 1957 to 1967, coming in first place in 60 of those races. Impressive? You betcha.
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About the author: Mircea Panait
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After a 1:43 scale model of a Ferrari 250 GTO sparked Mircea's interest for cars when he was a kid, an early internship at Top Gear sealed his career path. He's most interested in muscle cars and American trucks, but he takes a passing interest in quirky kei cars as well.
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