The recent confirmation that a replacement Lada Niva is to finally hit the road in 2025 has brought about a wave of nostalgia for the rough and ready Russian 4x4, which first saw service in 1977. In those days, of course, the Iron Curtain was very much in full effect, with Soviet Union-backed regimes in place all over Eastern Europe. These countries produced some very different vehicles to what we were used to in the West – not always, it must be said, to great acclaim. Here we look back at the Niva, and six more of the most iconic cars from the Eastern Bloc. They weren’t all great to drive, but they have earned their place in the motoring history books...
To give you an idea of how long the Niva has been around, it was launched in Russia in the year that Britain joined the Queen in celebrating her silver jubilee (25 years on the throne). 2022, of course, will mark her platinum jubilee (70 years). Yes, the Niva has been charming buyers for an astonishing four-and-a-half decades, during which time the iconic off-roader has resolutely refused to follow the whims of automotive fashion (or even embrace enhancements that might improve its efficiency and refinement). The news that a new version is to be launched has brought about a spate of tributes to its astonishing longevity, where its no-compromise approach to delivering great-value off-road ability has been highlighted. But amid all the teary-eyed nostalgia, it’s worth remembering that it hasn’t been sold officially in the UK since the mid-1990s – and even then it was considered a car that was well off the pace, whose sole saving grace was its cheapness.
In the years since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, the Trabant has become as much a symbol of East Germany as the Berlin Wall itself. But don’t let the nostalgia fool you. The Trabant was a ghastly piece of engineering. Designed as a car for the masses in the DDR, it was introduced in 1957 and clearly prioritised style over substance with a unibody chassis, weak two-stroke engine and a lack of basic features – including seatbelts and a fuel gauge – although its subsequently derided duroplast body was innovative for the era. Although different versions – including the Universal ‘estate’ (below) – were offered over the course of its 33-year-lifespan, improvements and updates were rare, and a top speed of 60mph and appalling polluting emissions highlighted its limitations. Few mourned the passing of the Trabi when the German people called time on communism in 1989.
Once upon a time the countries of Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and North Macedonia existed under the banner of Yugoslavia. And Yugoslavia’s contribution to car manufacturing was the cheap and cheerless Yugo 45, a small family car produced by Zastava from the late 1970s that was essentially a shortened version of the Fiat 127 sold under a variety of different names in different countries. The 44bhp Yugo’s failings were many and varied – it was flimsy, prone to rust, slow (0-60 in 14 seconds) and unreliable. The fact it spawned a book “The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History” tells you how it was widely perceived, and despite an attempt to inject some desirability with a ‘sportier’ 55bhp GLS (pictured), it is remembered fondly by virtually no one.
It looks like a Fiat. And it’s called a Fiat. So, what’s this car doing in our article? Well, this wasn’t just any old Fiat – this was a Polski Fiat, built under licence by Poland’s Fabryka Samochodow Malolitrazowych from 1973 for 27 years at a plant at Tychy in the south of the country. The car was almost identical to the Italian firm’s 126 – which was heavily based on the iconic 500 – and quickly became a popular choice for Polish families, due to its affordability, with nearly 2.4 million made in total. Waiting lists could sometimes stretch to two years, and a sign of its popularity was the fact it gained a nickname, the Maluch – roughly translated it means ‘little one’ or ‘toddler’ – that became common parlance among everyday Poles. In fact, looking back, it’s fair to say that the Maluch reached a status few cars ever achieve, becoming a genuine cultural phenomenon.
Fiat has a lot to answer for. After the Polski Fiat 126p and Polski Fiat 125p saloon, the next offering from the Polish manufacturer, now called FSO, was 1978’s Polonez, which shared the same chassis and used the same engines as the 125p, albeit with minor tweaks. One nod to modernity was a more contemporary hatchback body, which was penned by the legendary Giorgetto Giugiaro and one-time VW Group design boss Walter de Silva, while the name was derived from a Polish dance – polonaise – and chosen in a poll by readers of the newspaper Zycie Warszawy (in a rare show of democracy for the country at the time). On the plus side, the Polonez, although basic, was spacious and generally safer than other Eastern European cars of the era, although one Jeremy Clarkson was unimpressed by its arrival in the UK, reflecting in 1996 that it was the “worst car in the world to actually drive.”
The ‘Skoda joke’ is an automotive cliché for sure, and it’s undeniable that cars from the Czechoslovakian firm were a target for comedians in the 1970s. However, while it’s true that the involvement of the Volkswagen Group from 1991 had a transformative effect on the company, it would be unfair to dismiss everything produced before then as worthless. A good case in point was the Estelle, a not unattractive, rear-engined, rear-wheel-drive small family car which found around 120,000 UK buyers between 1977 and 1990. It was hardly the last word in comfort, but it was good value, easy to maintain and durable (as was demonstrated by its regular success in RAC rallies of the time). In hindsight, it’s not hard to conclude that the anti-Eastern Bloc thinking of the Cold War contributed to the Estelle’s unfavourable reputation, because it was a cut above some of the other cars here.
Another contribution from East Germany, the 353 – or the Knight as it was known in the UK – was a medium sized family car that went on sale in the mid-1960s (despite being based on a design that dated back to 1938). It was fitted with a 1.0-litre two-stroke engine, and gained fame – or notoriety, depending on your point of view – for having only seven moving parts (three pistons, three connecting rods and one crankshaft), making it easy to maintain. This contributed to its success throughout the Eastern Bloc countries, where its performance (0-62mph in 12 seconds), space (there was comfortably room for four) and efficiency were considered superior to many other Iron Curtain offerings. More than a million were built during a production run of 25 years, but the car never took off in Britain, despite being sold at an extremely low price here.