ZAZ Zaporozhets - the best car the Soviet Union ever built?
Russia isn’t the most famous automobile manufacturer in the world. It seems Communism isn’t very good at making cars. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t try. They saw the success of the Volkswagen Beetle in West Germany, and the success of the Trabant in East Germany, and they liked it. In fact, they liked it so much that they decided to get a combine harvester manufacturer to have a go at making a ‘people’s car’.
The result was the ZAZ Zaporozhets. Featuring, like the Beetle, an air-cooled engine dumped in the back of the car driving the rear wheels, but unlike a Beetle, 4 cylinders arranged in a V formation, it was actually a pretty radical idea, except one which only had 23 horsepower.
The Zaporozhets was produced, over two generations, all the way from 1960 to 1994, when it was replaced by the front-engined, front-wheel drive, water-cooled, boring Tavria. I am firmly of the opinion that there is nothing worse than a boring car, and so the Tavria is basically the worst thing imaginable. I won’t even speak about it any more.
The first Zaporozhets was delivered in 1959, but the car didn’t enter full production until the year after. It featured rounded, rather bulbous bodywork, suicide doors and a cute little air intake on the side. Then, in 1962, the 965A was introduced.
Power was increased a little, but the car still became known for an urban joke where it was used a starter motor on Soviet tanks, which doesn’t sound half wrong for a car with 27PS. The 887cc V4 that produced all of this power was mounted quite high up; this heightened centre of gravity, although it helped with traction on steep hills (I would have thought it would have ran out of power before traction though 🤔), it also led to some interesting handling issues. So in other words, it was probably a bad thing.
Drivers were expected to do much of the servicing themselves, and there weren’t exactly very many workshops in the Soviet Union, so that V4 engine was actually quite practical and reliable, which is useful in Russia’s infamously balmy winters.
The second generation was the inventively-named ZAZ-966. Featuring much more angular and pleasing styling (which definitely wasn’t a ripoff of the NSU Prinz), and those little ears on the side which were of course the butt of many jokes, it got upgraded in pretty much every way. The 0.9 litre engine was replaced with a mighty 1.2 litre unit, producing a huge 30 horsepower. It also lost the rather impractical suicide doors, and engine noise was refined.
In 1971, the 966 was replaced by the 968. It featured a number of styling changes, the most noticeable of which was the replacement of the fake grille on the front with a chrome bar. As well as that, the dashboard was modernised and the front brakes improved, and there were a number of other safety upgrades. The 968 featured an incredible 40 horsepower, which I assume was enough to get it up hills that the 965, even with its high centre of gravity, couldn’t have hoped to ascend.
This generation has to be my favourite. There’s just something wonderful about it. I have fallen in love with everything about it - the way it looks, the whole quirkiness of an air-cooled V4 mounted in the back, the fact that there’s a hole in the passenger side footwell so that the car can be driven onto a frozen lake, a hole drilled in the ice, the car parked over the hole, and the driver can try and catch his dinner from the comfort of their car. It’s just marvellous.
Then, in 1979, they ruined it. The ears were removed. The chrome was replaced with black plastic. Of course this had to be the model that was kept in production for the longest - they were still churning these out in 1994. The only good thing about it was that it was offered with a massive 50 horsepower.
Thanks for reading my #blogpost, and please tell me below if you have an obsession with these as well, or if it’s just me. I’m thinking it’s just me.