Tim Brooks discovers a growing appreciation among car enthusiasts for no-frills, communist-era vehicles built for the masses.
Cars of communism
In the three decades between the Bay of Pigs invasion and the fall of the Berlin Wall, a clutch of communist cars were created behind the Iron Curtain. Ubiquitous and utilitarian, these socialist saloons had none of the flair and few of the features of their western contemporaries. These were cars designed to express unity rather than individuality. Marques such as Trabant, Skoda and Lada represented the antithesis of the car as status symbol culture of the west. Built to serve citizens, they hardly made for a compelling choice for consumers.
After the fall of the wall it was surely their fate to rust in peace, motoring oddities that deserved a place in political history, but not on the driveway. Though when has history been predictable? For what they lack in style, sophistication and speed, they make up for with an abundance of a quality that is infinitely more prized; character, in socialist spades full.
The most iconic of the communist cars is the Trabant, a basic, boxy East German saloon that has been immortalised on murals and a U2 album cover. The sight of these flimsy saloons pouring over the Berlin Wall was one of the most striking images of the 20th century. While West Berliners enjoyed luxuries such as CD players and electric windows, in the east of the city drivers still had to mix oil in when they filled the petrol tank. With a horribly noisy and hopelessly underpowered two-stroke engine, the Trabant was a car from another era, as if the wall had not just prevented access but progress, too. To reduce costs and recycle material it was made of waste cotton and resin, compressed into a Duraplast body. It wasn't a rival, it was a relic.
Almost as ancient and almost as odd were Czechoslovakian Skodas, Russian Ladas, Polish FSOs and Balkan Yugos. You would have thought such primitive cars would only flourish within the planned economies that built them but this was not the case and some models were surprisingly successful on the export market. Almost 20 million Lada Rivas, a boxy saloon based on a 1960s Fiat 124, were built and 60 per cent were sold abroad. However improbable it may sound, these Russian saloons served as taxis in Trinidad and police cars in Peru. Their main selling point was cost but they were also highly regarded for rugged reliability. They were so robust that many still survive. And people are beginning to take an interest.
Eastern European cars have, despite all of their flaws and shortcomings, become some of the most sought-after cars on the classic car market. They may not fetch six-figure sums at auction like an Aston Martin, or cause jaws to drop like a Jaguar E-Type, but for those with a modest budget and an eye for the eccentric, they have achieved cult status. From being the butt of jokes 20 years ago they are now highly desirable. When new, they could be bought cheaply, but their value is rising steeply.
In the 1980s, Russian manufacturer Lada ran an advertising campaign declaring "made for Siberia, not suburbia". That may be so, but these cars are some of the most coveted of the cul-de-sac. Seeking to understand this puzzling reversal of fortunes I met Andrew Hutchings, chairman of the Eastern European car club of the UK. He recalls how his passion for these cars was ignited as a young mechanic when a turquoise Wartburg estate, the big brother of the Trabant, drove onto the forecourt and into his heart. Now he can't imagine owning a conventional car. I ask him why communist cars are becoming so popular.
"The answer is simple; they're different," he says. "These cars get under your skin in a way that conventional classics can't match. They inspire devotion. There are still those who will turn up their nose, but their salesmen saloons are two a penny whereas a communist car stands out from the crowd."
Another factor in their popularity with classic car enthusiasts, he explains, is their practicality and ease of repair.
"Communist car design evolved at a different pace and a different way to those in the west. They were built to a standard, not to a price, and they didn't have to compete in a marketplace. One of their chief qualities is robustness. They were built in countries where garage facilities were limited or nonexistent and where the climate was far more extreme than the UK, so they are easy to work on and simple to repair. This no-nonsense, no frills approach is a real selling point." While a lack of finesse and features undermined their desirability when new, these aspects are less significant in a classic purchase, where quirkiness is just as important as quality. But this alone doesn't explain why there has been such a rise in demand for communist cars; after all, many western European cars are equally different and distinctive. The answer lies in a broader cultural interest in the communist era. Disenchanted with the boom-and-bust consumerist societies of the west, some look through rose-tinted glasses at a simpler system and consider trading their creature comforts for security and certainty. And the greatest symbols of this system were its cars.
"You don't have to be left-leaning and read TheGuardian to buy a communist car," Hutchings quips. "Ownership is not a political statement. The Germans have a term called 'Ostalgia', which means a misty-eyed reminiscence of life under communist rule. This has become more and more popular with the recent problems affecting the economies of western Europe.
"This affection has been reflected in an increased interest in the cars of the era. Demand is definitely growing. There is also a vibrant social scene for enthusiasts with a packed calendar of rallies, races and meets both in the UK and Europe. We are welcomed with open arms when we go to Germany."
But it isn't just eulogising enthusiasts who see the merits of these cars. Their charm and character has convinced many to trade in the conventional for the communist. Peter Danes, 33, from Exeter in the UK, is one such convert.
"There is something inherently British about supporting the underdog - maybe that's why I find myself drawn to cars unloved by the masses. I've decided to trade in my Nissan Micra for a Lada Riva. We used to joke about them in the playground but, with age, has come appreciation," he says.
"If you want a car that stands out, generates attention and has a real story behind it, then one from the communist era makes a great deal of sense. Keeping such a car on the road is more satisfying than prolonging the life of yet another Ford or Austin."
But those looking for bargains may need to think again, for with interest comes inflation. Just 10 years ago a Lada Riva would cost no more than Dh1,800. Now they can go for more than Dh18,000. I can't think of another classic whose value has increased tenfold in the same time period. Such is the fickle nature of fate and the vagaries of value.