Home Cars The 20 Most Obscure and Interesting Classic Eastern European Cars

The 20 Most Obscure and Interesting Classic Eastern European Cars

Vukasin Herbez July 20, 2018

The most important historical events in the first half of 20th century deeply divided Europe. Politically and culturally for a better part of the last hundred years, the way of living rapidly changed from country to country. And such vast political and sociological differences are visible throughout history, including the car culture.

However, Eastern Europe was behind the west in terms of their car industry. In fact, the government-controlled car ownership. However, this doesn’t mean there weren’t interesting and innovative cars produced in those ex-communist countries. The car industry in Czechoslovakia, East Germany or Russia had several extremely cool cars.

So here is an interesting look at the interesting, obscure world of Eastern European motoring. In most cases, especially in Russia, the cars were design copies of Western or American models. But some Eastern European manufactures introduced some innovative concepts. And some manufacturers produced cars that demanded respect, even from their Western competitors.

  1. Skoda 1100 R

Skoda is one of the oldest European car manufacturers, starting in 1895. After World War II, Czechoslovakia became a communist country. And Skoda became the main economy car manufacturer, concentrating on everyday models and delivery vehicles. Due to recognition from the rest of Europe, they successfully exported Skoda cars to Western countries, including briefly in the U.S.

During the ’60s, Skoda`s main sedan model was the 110. It was a basic four-door car with a rear-mounted four-cylinder engine. Those days in Eastern Europe, sports cars were almost nonexistent, so Skoda wanted to introduce a sports coupe to widen its appeal and export sales. The result was the Skoda 110 R, a true sports coupe with a dynamic fastback design and more power. They presented the 110 R in 1970 and it immediately became a popular model in Eastern Europe.

It retained the basic technical layout but had an upgraded engine boosting it to 62 HP. The performance was diminutive by today’s standards. However, back in the early ’70s in Czechoslovakia, this was a proper sports coupe. Skoda even entered it in some rally championships, and the 110R won a few events. Production lasted until 1980 and they made over 56,000 of them.

  1. GAZ 24 Volga

Russia was behind the Iron Curtain back in the ’60s, so the car industry concentrated on domestic needs. However, there were still many interesting cars from this country that viewed car ownership as a step away from capitalism. So GAZ, the producer of family cars and trucks, introduced a new, modern model they called the GAZ 24 or the Volga.

In the late ’60s, the Volga was a modern car, even by Western standards. It was a large sedan, almost the size of a full-size American model with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder and 95 HP. The performance wasn’t great, but by Russian standards, this was a prestigious automobile. In fact, you could only own one if you were a perspective or respected member of the Communist Party or a KGB operative.

Even so, the design of the new Volga was American. It reminded people of the 1962 to 1964 Chevrolet Impala sedan. The bumpers, the boxy shape, chromed front grille and trim were all extremely reminiscent of Chevrolet’s design. But, the Volga came with two headlights less than the Impala. The Volga stayed in production, although with extensive modifications, until the late 90’s.

  1. Trabant 601

One of the funniest examples of American design on an East European car is the East German Trabant 601. This was a communist economy car, diminutive in every way with a body consisting of composite material. It had a tiny 600cc, two-stroke engine with two cylinders and 26 HP. However, since it weighed just 1,300 pounds, the performance was good, but far from satisfying. But the most interesting thing was the design.

The Trabant 601 got its inspiration from those American cars even if it was much smaller and lacked any chrome. But the Trabant had rear fins and taillights that were clearly U.S.-inspired. They introduced the Trabant 601 in 1963 and they considered it a modern economy car. It stayed in production until 1990 and they made more than two million of them.

  1. GAZ 12 ZIM

You could easily mistake the GAZ 12 ZIM for a 40s Cadillac or Chrysler limousine. In fact, to all but the most knowledgeable enthusiasts, the ZIM looks American. But it is a Russian car and one of the first big post-war sedans for the higher-ranking members of the communist party, as well as taxis and ambulances.

Obviously, they styled it after the American models of the period. The Russians never denied using Cadillacs or other U.S. cars as inspiration for the development of their vehicles. They presented the GAZ 12 ZIM in 1950. They equipped it with a 3.5-liter six-cylinder engine delivering just 95 HP.

The performance was not fast, but it was a comfortable cruiser, so it didn’t have to be fast. The car stayed in production until 1960 and they built more than 21,000 of them. Interestingly, the ZIM is one of the rare Russian high-class cars that ordinary citizens could own.

  1. Wartburg 353

After the end of World War II, East Germany became a separate communist state under heavy control of Soviet Russia. This meant they accepted the political and social system, which nationalized the German car industry. After the end of the war, the new East German government started car production with new designs. And the Wartburg company was one of them.

The Wartburg 353 was a mid-size family car. It was bigger and faster than the compact Trabant but shared the same two-stroke engine technology. During its 40-year history, Wartburg produced several models, but the most common is the 353. They sold it as a sedan, station wagon and even as a pickup.

They presented the 353, also known as Wartburg Knight in some export markets, in 1966 and discontinued it in 1991. It came with a 993cc, three-cylinder two-stroke engine that developed 55 HP. The Wartburg 353 was a moderately-innovative model due to its front wheel drive and synchromesh four-speed transmission.

Even though it only had 55 HP, two-stroke engines are famous for their torque, so the Wartburg 353 could accelerate to 60 mph in 11 seconds. This was faster than many comparable Western cars. The Wartburg 353 was popular in all Eastern European countries and the sold over a million of them.

  1. Yugo GV

Back in the late ’80s, Yugoslav car manufacturer, Crvena Zastava attempted to enter the American market with their compact model, the Yugo. The Yugo was a nice-looking three-door hatchback they built on a Fiat 127 chassis. However, that added improvements in design and technology. So, under the hood was a 1.1-liter four-cylinder engine with electronic fuel injection.

But for the U.S. market, buyers got updated equipment, a radio, and even AC as an option. From today’s standpoint, the Yugo was a basic and even primitive car. But for the middle of the 80’s, it was a decent proposition as well as a solution to the economy car dilemma. The Fiat mechanics were relatively common in the U.S. since Fiat had just left the American market in the early ’80s.

So, why did the Yugo receive such bad reviews from consumers back in the day? And why do most people consider it to be one of the worst cars Fiat ever sold on the American market? The reason was simple. Both the driving dynamics and quality were horrible even by the standards of the day. The engine had 65 HP going to the front wheels over a badly-assembled five-speed manual gearbox.

The performance was painfully slow, but that is not the worst thing. The fit and finish were bad, too. But to make things worse, Yugo importer, Malcolm Bricklin, didn’t import enough spare parts. So if your Yugo broke down, and eventually they all did, spare parts had to travel for months from Yugoslavia to America.

Despite all that, the Yugo was somewhat of a sales success because they sold over 40,000 of them. The price of $4,000 made it one of the most affordable automobiles in America when they introduced it.

  1. GAZ Chaika

The Chaika is another Russian limousine with an American-influenced design. But, in the case of the GAZ Chaika, it was more than just influence. In fact, it was a direct copy of those late ’50s Packards with little modifications. In fact, if you put a 1956 Packard and 1959 Chaika side by side, you would have a hard time telling difference between them.

GAZ presented the Chaika in 1959 and discontinued it in 1981. The GAZ Chaika copied the American car industry even further with a 5.5-liter V8 and push button automatic transmission like Chrysler’s Powerglide gearbox. The only difference was that they sold the Chaika as a six-window sedan and also a wagon in its hearse version. But the Packard was a regular four-window model.

  1. Tatra T603

Automotive historians agree that if the Tatra came from France, Germany or England, it would have been one of the most influential names in car history. However, they made it in Czechoslovakia, so it never got the respect it deserved from mainstream car enthusiasts. Tatra was one of the most distinguished companies in car history. They also had an interesting factory that offered a specific technical layout, design and features.

Before the World War II, Tatra started experimenting with streamline designs and rear-mounted, air-cooled Hemi V8 engines. Although the first models looked strange, they were efficient luxury sedans with decent power and high cruising speeds. After the war, Tatra returned to car and truck production using their modernized, improved pre-war designs. And the most popular and characteristic was the T603 model they introduced in 1956.

It featured a strange egg-shaped design that was aerodynamic. Behind the passenger compartment was a 2.5-liter V8 engine with around 100 HP. Those numbers were good enough to deliver a respectable performance and solid cruising speeds. The Tatra T603 was a luxury car they exported in limited numbers to other communist countries and selected Western markets. They stopped production in 1975 after building more than 20,000 of them.

  1. Melkus RS 1000

The sports car market in communist countries was extremely limited. So, apart from the Skoda 110 R, there were no sports cars available. However, in East Germany, automotive engineer Heinz Melkus designed a capable and interesting sports coupe. And then he convinced the Wartburg company to build a limited number of his cars.

Using the Wartburg 353 as a basis, Melkus designed and fabricated the independent front and rear suspension. It also came with roll-bars and close ratio five-speed gearbox. They tuned the 992cc engine to produce 68 HP and mounted it behind the driver. This sent the power to the rear wheels instead of the front like the standard Wartburg 353. Melkus also designed and manufactured a lightweight fiberglass body with a modern design and low profile.

They called the car the Melkus RS 1000, presenting it in 1969. However, by 1969 standards, this was an advanced sports car. Unfortunately, it had little power, with just 68 HP on tap. Production ended in 1979 after they built just 101 of them. The Melkus RS 1000 was extremely expensive for East Europeans, which explains its limited production. In fact, sports teams bought most of them for local races.

  1. UAZ 469

All Eastern Bloc countries paid attention to the military, investing lots of money on equipment and vehicles. Soviet Russia was the largest producer of all military vehicles and sold its models to fellow communist countries all around the globe. Apart from dozens of specialty designs, the Russians produced simple, affordable off-road models for wide use. And one of the most successful is the UAZ 469.

And this car is still part of the Russian military and a successful export model. They introduced the UAZ 469 in 1971, as the successor to the GAZ 69. It was a simple and rugged military jeep-like vehicle. And they improved the 469 with an all-new chassis and live axles in the front and rear. It also came with a more powerful engine in the form of the 2.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline unit.

But despite the improvements, it was still a crude car. However, it was extremely durable making it perfect for the toughest off-road courses as well as for military use. It was uncomfortable and simple, but effective. This off-roader is still in production in Russia and in use all around the world.

  1. FSO Polonez

The FSO Polonez was the biggest and the most prestigious car produced in Poland from 1978 to 2002. It was based on the Fiat 125 P platform but it was modernized with brand new and contemporary hatchback body style, front and rear end.

The majority of these cars featured smaller 1.5-liter engines but some models, called Plonez 2000 had 2.0-liter Fiat engine with 110 HP. For the standards of the day, it was a rapid car especially compared to other Eastern European models.

  1. ZAZ 966

The ZAZ 966 or Zaporozhets as it was called in Eastern Block markets, was a compact economy car from the Soviet Union they produced from 1966 to 1994. This was a small, two-door sedan with a rear mounted engine and funny design.

It was technically an interesting machine since it featured an air cooled V4 engine mounted in the back and made out of magnesium. The 1.2-liter unit had 40 HP and they improved it over the years.

  1. Velorex Oskar

Built in Czechoslovakia, in the ’50s, Velorex Oskar is one of the strangest cars ever produced behind the Iron Curtain. A motorcycle company built it, so it was more of a three-wheeled bike than a proper car.

It was powered by a 300 ccm motorcycle engine delivering six HP. But since the car was extremely light, the tiny motor produced some performance, as well. Interestingly, the Velorex didn’t have body panels but canvas stretched over the frame rails.

  1. Zastava Florida

The lengthy relationship of Zastava and Fiat produced numerous models they built on a Fiat base. But in late 1988, Zastava presented the Florida, a brand new and fairly advanced car.

Although they used the Fiat Tipo, Zastava designed a different body. They also updated several key components and produced it all in Yugoslavia. It included a 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine with 70 HP. Compared to other Western models in its class in the late ’80s, it was a solid car at an affordable price. They stopped production in 2008 after building 30,000 of them.

  1. FSO Syrena

In the ’50s, Poland needed an economical, mass-produced car, so the government-owned FSO company produced several concepts that the officials approved. In 1957, they presented the finished car to the public they called FSO Syrena.

It was a compact two-door saloon with 842 ccm twin stroke engine in the front that powered the rear wheels. The car proved to be popular, so they exported it to other Eastern Bloc countries. When they stopped production in the early ’80s, they made over 500,000 Syrenas.

  1. Skoda Octavia

As one of the most accomplished Eastern European car brands, Skoda was well respected and famous, even in the Western European countries. Their cars were always up to date and modernly designed, which added to the appeal among their customers.

As one of the best cars of the ’50s, Skoda introduced the Octavia in 1959 a compact two door sedan or wagon with a 1.1 or 1.2-liter engine. With 45 to 55 HP, the Octavia wasn’t swift, but it was a high quality, dependable machine and that was all that the local market needed.

  1. ZIL 114

As you may know, they modeled most Russian limousines and luxury sedans after American cars. In the case of the ZIL 114, the role model was the Lincoln Continental. So the Russians copied the front and the silhouette of this cool sedan for their ZIL 114.

However, the ZIL didn’t use suicide doors and the rest of the features. They introduced the car in 1967 and produced it until 1978. Many high ranking government officials drove them.

  1. Tatra 613

As a successor to the fantastic Tatra 603, they introduced the model 613 in 1974. It stayed in production all the way up to 1996 as one of the most prestigious Eastern European cars.

The 613 retained the classic Tatra layout with an air-cooled Hemi-head V8 in the back. It had a roomy interior with lots of trunk space, too. The engine was enlarged to 3.5-liter and delivered around 170 HP. They exported the Tatra 613 to other European countries as well.

  1. Dacia 1300

Established in 1966, Dacia was founded as the Romanian national car company to produce affordable economy family sedans. In order to get the necessary technology, Dacia made a partnership deal with Renault and produced their own versions of Renault models.

The most popular was the Dacia 1300, which was the Romanian version of the Renault 12. It was a modern family sedan they produced from 1969 to 2004.

  1. ARO 10

ARO was a Romanian military and off-road vehicle manufacturer that closed its doors in 2006. They established the company in the ’50s and produced military jeeps and armored vehicles. However, in 1980, ARO introduced the model 10.

It was a modern SUV vehicle with civilian styling, but competent 4×4 mechanics. They produced it in several versions and even exported it to other countries.

These are the obscure and interesting world of classic Eastern European cars. Did you find one that appealed to you? Hopefully, you can find one, but if not, choose an American vehicle that looks similar. Even so, they are all part of automotive history.

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