You know when you’re watching a Hollywood film set in Eastern Europe or Russia, and there is a whole mishmash of cars that parade across the screen that you suspect as being in the wrong place at the wrong time, like an UAZ 469 rubbing shoulders with a Polski Fiat and an Oltcit, in what’s supposed to be 1950s Prague? To be honest, Hollywood has been getting better at this sort of thing, with the emergence of IMCDb and legions of enthusiasts who will nitpick the accuracy of the license plates on some random car deep in the background. The biggest gaffe I’ve spotted recently was a late-80s GAZ 2410 in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a film ostensibly set in the early 1970s. That film also suffered from not being edited to run chronologically, and from Seinfeld-quality green screen effects for in-car moving shots, but who am I to complain? Perhaps they ran out of money in the end for editing software, who knows.
Well, now you’re going to be able to tell which cars are supposed to be seen in which country, and which ones never even came within a hundred miles of each other, period! In a follow-up to the surprisingly popular Cars of the Soviet Union: The Definitive History which we reviewed a few months back, author Andy Thompson released a tome similar in concept titled Cars of Eastern Europe: The Definitive History. Myself and a number of other people might dispute the second part of the book’s title, but overall it’s a solid effort that tries its best to cover an immense and arcane topic. Let’s take a look inside.
As there is arguably a bit more ground to cover within the automotive world of Eastern Europe as opposed to the USSR, this book is a bit heavier on text in comparison with the author’s previous effort, which is never a bad thing when it comes to car books. By the way, Andy Thompson was inspired to write Cars of the Soviet Union: The Definitive History having read Julian Nowill’s East European Cars, released in 2000, which is pretty much identical in concept to the book we’re now looking at. In fact, I couldn’t help but think of Nowill’s previous stab at the same topic while thumbing through Thompson’s recently released book.
In this effort Andy Thompson splits up the book into 7 major parts, ordered alphabetically by country name, with the first section being devoted to the cars of Bosnia, Serbia and Slovenia as one heading. In this section it was nice to see coverage of lesser-known car producers, such as Bulgarrenault (I’m going to give you three guesses as to what they made under license) Rodacar, and Pirin Fiat. The author definitely gets credit for starting off the book slowly, and not immediately jumping into crowd pleasers (unless you count Zastavas as crowd pleasers).
The next section of the book is devoted to the cars of Czechoslovakia, and the author does an excellent job of edumacating the reader on the early history of Czech cars here. In fact, this was probably the most interesting and surprising section of the book, and almost made it seems like it came from an earlier attempt at an entire standalone effort on Czech cars. However, when it comes to East European cars I am sure that most of us will agree that Czechoslovakia produced the most innovative and distinctive passenger cars among the Eastern Bloc states, due in no small part to the engineering talents of Tatra and Skoda, and arguably had the richest automotive history when it came to pre-war automobiles out of all the former Eastern Bloc states. So a lengthy examination of early Czech automotive history is quite warranted here. (I’m going to get an email from Mr. Kaluski about this in the next thirty minutes, How dare you, Sir, slight Poland in this manner?)
East Germany is another well written section in this book, and one that I have to say was well curated when it came to photos of prototypes, even if excessive time was spent on everyone’s favorite/least favorite car, the Trabant. I was delighted to see a section on Sachsenring, a make that we don’t get to see too often. And since I consider myself a huge fan of Wartburgs, I’m pleased to say that Wartburg fans were in no way shortchanged in the East German chapter either.
And that brings us to the section on Polish cars, which I have to admit is well written, but not particularly extensive in comparison to other sections, with a total of 54 pages. The author does a nice job of discussing the cars made by marques such as FSO (producer of the Warszawa, Syrena, and Polski Fiat), Zuk, Lublin, Tarpan, Honker, and FSM, with a generous section on Polonez cars. However, I felt that the ZuK and FSO sections could have used a little more detail, especially given the variety of Polski Fiats that were produced there. Needless to say, each of these manufacturers easily deserves a 500 page tome of their own, so with 54 page overview of the cars from six different Polish manufacturers there will inevitably be some condensation.
And herein lies my issue with the title of this book, which claims to be the “definitive” history of Eastern European cars. I would propose, as with the author’s previous book, that the title The Illustrated History would have been more appropriate, especially given the fact that some other reviewers felt that it was a book written around a collection of car brochures (which is inevitably what a car book has to be these days in order to sell). After all, I suspect that Hungary’s automotive history is slightly more extensive than the two pages devoted to a Suzuki made under license there. Where are all the Hungarian microcar prototypes of the 1950s, like the Balaton or the Alba Regia? Microcars cannot be said to be beyond the scope of this book, since the SMZ and various ZAZ microcar prototypes were duly discussed in Cars of the Soviet Union: The Definitive History. Having said that, I realize that the publisher often has a bigger say in how a book is titled and marketed.
The book concludes with a section on the cars of Romania, namely Aro, Oltcit, and Dacia. Dacia gets slightly more attention here, since at present it is the runaway success story for Renault all over the world, as Skoda was for VW a decade ago. Ahh yes, had AZLK held out just a little longer, it probably would have been making Renaults under license badged as Moskvitches. Actually, that’s what VAZ is doing now, with the Logan MCV-based Lada Largus.
As in the author’s previous book, there is some unevenness when it comes to time devoted to a particular section, but in terms of actual output and significance it is all likely very proportional. For example, the section on cars of Czechoslovakia gets a total of 140 pages. East German cars get 118 pages, while Hungary gets a grand total of 2 pages, most of which are devoted to discussing the Suzuki Swift that was made under license there. Okay, so Ikarus buses aren’t cars, but it would have been nice to see a mention of what was pretty much the biggest bus factory of the Eastern Bloc. Perhaps Andy Thompson is currently hard at work on a book about Eastern Bloc trucks and buses.
Also, as in Thompson’s previous book, most of the photos come from glossy period brochures, which betray to some degree the inspiration for writing this book. But, being realistic, it would have been prohibitively expensive to seek out and photograph surviving examples of all of these cars, and the brochure and press photos give a nice period feel to the images of the cars themselves. After all, this isn’t a book meant to please the learned marque experts and the most barnacled car club presidents, but rather offer a “quick” (at 416 pages) glimpse at the cars which many people outside of those countries have never seen. After all, who’s seen a late 1980s Sachsenring parade limo? And whatever happened to that thing anyway?
The author’s previous book, Cars of the Soviet Union: The Definitive History, appeared to be a runaway success, not only in the English-speaking world of car fans, but also in Russia, as it has been translated and released there. That fact alone deserves some discussion, because I wasn’t aware there was a niche in the publishing market over there for a book about Soviet cars written from a western publisher, utilizing a metric ton of non Russian-market brochures and using foreign (to them) model indexes and names. Unlike with the previous book, I don’t think there is as big an issue here with the author using domestic (for the car) and western market names interchangeably, as Eastern European cars tended to be built for their own respective domestic markets.
The verdict: a somewhat pricey book, and one that perhaps will neither delight nor satisfy an owner of an actual Eastern European car, but one that succeeds on the level of an entertaining book to have around if you’re not into Eastern Euro or Soviet automotive history but want some funky cars to gawk at from time to time. Or as something for your guests to thumb through on the coffee table while you bungle another cocktail recipe in the kitchen. But is it entertaining, well illustrated, and worth the purchase price? You bet.
Author: Andy Thompson
Publisher: Haynes Publishing
Price: $42.90 on Amazon