If you’ve always wanted to delve into the wonderfully complex and not often seen world of Soviet automobiles, but didn’t want to pop several blood vessels in your eye from trying to figure out the difference between a Moskvitch 2141 and a Moskvitch 214242, or a ZiL 41047 from a ZiL 41074, then I just might have the book for you.
Andy Thompson’s Cars of the Soviet Union: The Definitive History is a fun and accessible 376-page book that examines Soviet automotive industry, from a historical and political perspective, covering the period from 1917 till 1991 in five parts. Behind the instantly recognizable and sexy car names like AZLK 214006(7)-117, you’ll find a whole parallel universe of automotive history, which was always capable of surprising. Since this is Hooniverse, you’re probably aware that in the 1950s there were AWD sedans and wagons available from at least two Soviet carmakers (the Moskvitch 410 & 411, and the GAZ M72). But did you know that for over thirty years the USSR had a V8-powered long-wheelbase minivan that came in police and ambulance versions? We’ve just barely scratched the surface.
Wrapped in a funky avantgarde-style design, Cars of the Soviet Union: The Definitive History is sharply designed and nicely illustrated, and devotes most of its time to the Soviet cars made between the 1950s and the mid-1980s. The organization of the book warrants a mention as it is arranged by several uneven (11 to 28 year) time periods rather than by manufacturer, so each of the book’s five parts goes through the roster of manufacturers.
The author deserves a lot of credit for tackling the, ahem, spectacularly popular subject of Soviet automotive industry in the first place, and for having the tenacity to research all these cars with lots of letter Zs in the their names. Even though the text at times resorts to cliches, perhaps mimicking the attitude of a certain UK-based TV program, it’s a fun read that sheds light on some of the least known cars in the world.
Perhaps the greatest issue that I would cite with this book is that the author casually alternates between Soviet cars’ domestic model indexes and names, and their foreign-market names, which often offered little clue as to the specific car. By way of example: the VAZ 2102 estate (1971-1985) was sold in some foreign markets as the Lada 1500. In addition, the VAZ 2103 sedan (1972-1984) was also sold in some foreign markets as the Lada 1500, as was the later VAZ 2107 (1982-2006). In short, there was a huge gang of different VAZ models from four different decades that were called the Lada 1500 across the world, which makes the interchangeable use of this model designation in a book about these cars somewhat counterproductive and confusing to the non-anorak reader.
In addition, a lot of the period advertisements of cars featured in the book are UK-market adverts and brochures. On the one hand this makes sense as this book was written and researched by a UK-based author working within various research and copyright constraints for a western audience, but at the same time an American book about Italian cars would be criticized for using US-market period ads and for mixing US and Italian-market model designations in the text. Nevertheless, this book doesn’t feel like it was a text written around a collection of period brochures, as some car books are, and the huge presence of Avtoexport period ads can to a large degree be explained by the fact that there was little in the way of domestic ads for cars in the USSR. Perhaps the best images are those sourced from the author’s collaborators who’ve personally photographed things like rare concept cars rotting in people’s yards in the countryside.
The result, however, is that this book cannot always be easily used as a reference guide for Soviet cars, a problem which one would not expect in a book that calls itself The Definitive History. At the same time, if you’re the kind of person who is well versed in model designations of GAZes or ZAZes, chances are you’re not going to buy this book in the first place as you already own hefty factory tomes on the topic filled with all sorts of lengthy diagrams and index tables. In addition, it’s not a spotter’s field guide either, so if you saw something weird parked in an alley in Tallinn whilst urinating behind an expat bar, you’re not guaranteed to find a picture or get a reliable model number of that car using this book.
The book doesn’t take itself too seriously, and handily succeeds on the level of a fun coffee table book that entertains with images of campy period advertisements, as in, look at what those crazy Soviets came up with! In that regard, it’s very well suited for its target audience, if not price range. Granted, there’s only so much Soviet automotive history that can be crammed into 376 pages with photos taking up a sizable chunk of each page, so some manufacturers are somewhat overlooked.
The verdict: a somewhat pricey (MSRP $60.00, if you can find it for that) but fun way to begin learning about Soviet cars. Unless you have something in the garage that is pictured in this book, this is all you’re ever going to need when it comes to Russian cars, and would make a nice holiday gift for that aspiring hoon in your family.
Author: Andy Thompson
Publisher: Haynes Publishing (2008)
Pages: 336 pages, hardcover