ZAZ – the Soviet Mini Which Became the Ukrainian People’s Car
By Andy Bannister
ZAZ today sells the locally-designed Slavuta hatchback, an obscure and rather dated small family car little known outside its homeland. The company also assembles a range of models by other manufacturers.
Under the Soviet Union, however, ZAZ was the epicentre of that country’s small car production, and produced a series of promising-seeming models which, for one reason or another, all failed to live up to their export potential. As a result, the company is today one of the least-known global car manufacturing enterprises.
The ZAZ marque stands for Zaporozhsky Avtomobilny Zavod, or (roughly translated) the Zaporizhia Automobile Factory. Zaporizhia is an industrial city on the River Dnieper in central Ukraine, and the ZAZ company was previously an agricultural machinery manufacturing company.
Half a century ago, the Soviet Union was in its ascendancy, and still dreamed of outstripping the USA and the rest of the capitalist west in terms of living standards for its citizens. In those halcyon days, private ownership of automobiles was severely limited, with the majority of production being concentrated on the larger Moskvich and Volga models.
Ukraine was just another republic of the USSR, but Zaporizhia was lucky to be the chosen home of an experiment to produce a more affordable automobile for both the Soviet consumer and the export buyer.
Developments in Western Europe were being closely studied, and Soviet engineers were particularly taken with the 1955 Fiat 600, a small, affordable rear-engined Italian car which was clearly going to be a worldwide best-seller. It was decided to develop in Ukraine a communist bloc rival for the baby Fiat, suited to the conditions of the Soviet Union, which would also be a valuable earner of much-needed foreign currency.
The prototype for what became ZAZ’s first car model, the 965, rapidly took shape with some fairly Fiat 600-like proportions and styling cues, although the car was a truly Soviet design, as evidenced by its large wheels and high ground clearance to cope with the atrocious roads seen across the USSR. With two “suicide” front-opening doors and a V4 air-cooled 746cc engine, the 965 looked contemporary in the late 1950s.
For car-hungry buyers in the Soviet Union, the little vehicle – soon nicknamed the “Dnieper Cossack” (the Dnieper is one of the country’s great rivers, flowing from Russia itself through the city of Zaporizhia and on to the Black Sea) – was a revelation, the eastern rival to vehicles like the BMC Mini, VW Beetle and Citroen 2CV, a true people’s car available at a (relatively) affordable price, once the often-lengthy waiting list had been negotiated.
Whilst sales to the cold war enemy, the United States, were a distant dream, the cash-strapped democracies of western Europe were an obvious target. The 965 quickly made an appearance in Belgium, Holland and Scandinavia, but its impact was limited and a sales drive in the United Kingdom soon ground to a halt. The car was cheap but unsophisticated and had too many better-known rivals.
Soviet buyers, and those in other eastern bloc countries where car production was severely curtailed, soon mopped up most of the 965’s production, and it continued until 1969, by which time well over 300,000 had been made. Today, survivors have classic status.
By then, ZAZ engineers had already geared up for the company’s next great leap forward, the new rear-engined 966, an altogether more ambitious small car. Like a number of contemporary European designs – and unlikely as it sounds – its looks were inspired by the much larger American Chevrolet Corvair, although the 966 actually ended up a dead-ringer for a small German car of the era, the NSU Prinz, also a rear-engined offering. Many observers considered the new ZAZ a copy of the NSU, although this was far from the truth.
At launch back in 1966 the newest Soviet small car was a stylish little offering, although few at the time would have predicted a production life of nearly 30 years, by the end of which it would be a laughable anachronism which outlived even the mighty Soviet Union itself.
The 966 started life with an 887cc V4 which debuted in a later version of the 965, although it was also offered with a variety of other power units, including a 956cc Renault-sourced engine for a version sold in some countries as the Yalta 1000.
Despite a promising start, sales in Western Europe – where the car was sometimes called a Zaporozhets (or “Zapo” for short) – did not materialise as ZAZ had hoped, with most western importers preferring to concentrate on the bigger profits associated with the 1500cc Moskvich 412, another USSR offering. ZAZ did score reasonable success in Italy, however.
The 966 evolved into the marginally more powerful 968, but during the 1970s rear-engined cars were becoming decidedly old-hat, and the Zaporizhia plant had no choice but to concentrate increasingly on fulfilling demand from Soviet motorists and those in countries like Hungary. Unlike the more sophisticated Fiat-derived Lada, the USSR’s small car offering was fairly affordable in its homeland and had a much shorter waiting list.
By the 1980s, the 968’s Corvair-derived looks had been ham-fistedly squared off with plastic bumper fittings and rectangular lights, to create the by-now hopelessly-dated 968M model. This was never seriously sold in English-speaking countries, but I have a 1983 English-language brochure issued by the state-owned Avtoexport company in Moscow which described the car on the cover as “a midget car for distant journeys”. Inside, the charmingly old-fashioned prose concentrates on the ruggedness of the model, saying:
“The ZAZ 968M is quite simple which is the basic prerequisite for dependability and unpretentiousness in service. The standard tool kit includes all the necessary tools thus radically reducing the dependence on service stations and the operating expenses. The air-cooled engine will start readily at temperatures falling as low as minus 40 degrees celsius. Reliable service rendered by these cars in the frosty Russian winter is a striking proof that the ZAZ 968M is not a hothouse flower.”
As the 1980s wore on, the rigidly state-controlled USSR motor industry struggled to keep up with rivals in the west, its main problem being lack of investment and a glacially-slow attitude to model development, meaning promising early prototypes were obsolete before they could be fully developed. ZAZ engineers had decided in the 1970s that a front-engined front-wheel-drive small hatchback was the way to go, but by 1987, when the new ZAZ 1102 (or Tavria) finally took its bow, the car was already falling behind its key competitors.
Despite this, the Tavria had a notably sleek body and – together with Lada’s bigger Samara and Moskvich’s much bigger Aleko – was evidence that the USSR was developing new hatchbacks seriously intended to take on the Europeans at their own game.
By the time the car limped into production, two years after its debut, however, the USSR itself was itself approaching its death throes. This would cause havoc in a centrally-planned motor industry where the communist party effectively decided everything.
Initially a huge hit – Soviet demand for the Tavria far exceeded supply – the country’s economic and political problems soon interfered with plans to make a killing on the export market. The Tavria made it to the socialist countries of Eastern Europe, and a few were imported to France, but the car’s export promise went tragically astray. In the UK – a huge market for Soviet vehicles like the Lada – the car looked promising on evaluation but it was never even launched.
A major reason for this was the fact that, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, fraternal links between newly-independent Ukraine and Russia were severely under strain. Unfortunately for ZAZ, the new 1100ccc front-wheel-drive Tavria was hugely dependent on both Russian components and Russian sales. With these almost cut off, the promising little car almost went to an early grave.
ZAZ, never in its best days renowned for the quality of its product, persevered but only by buying in inferior quality parts from any supplier it could find, which hardly helped its reputation. With exports strangled and the economy in freefall, Tavria production plunged as low as 1,000 units annually by 1997 (compared to over 90,000 in 1994) and the future looked truly bleak.
The same year, however, ZAZ linked up with Daewoo of Korea, in a seemingly timely deal which would see the assembly of the Korean company’s Lanos, Nubira and Leganza models undertaken in Ukraine. ZAZ followed this up with the launch of a revised Tavria with 300 worthwhile (if hardly visible) improvements.
Unfortunately, Daewoo had badly overreached itself and quickly ran into financial trouble globally, and it was left to Ukraine’s government to rescue ZAZ and safeguard production at the country’s premier automaker.
The Tavria itself was gradually developed, with a 1300cc version, a small panel can, and a unsuccessful and ugly estate called the Dana. More promising was a bigger five-door, the Slavuta, and a Pick-up and Van.
Despite the ignominious demise of Daewoo, ZAZ held on to some of that company’s designs, and has developed the Lanos in sedan form with the ZAZ engine as the Sens, a model which has recently restarted the company’s exports to neighbouring Russia.
In 2007 the long-running Tavria hatchback bowed out after nearly 20 years of production, but the Slavuta and commercial vehicle variants remain on sale today. Sadly, though, ZAZ’s independent future now seems to depend on developing ageing Daewoo designs.
As well as this, the company is the Ukrainian assembly hub for a bewildering variety of other manufacturers’ vehicles. These include the Mercedes-Benz A-class, Lada Samara, Chevrolet Aveo, Opel Astra, a Chinese Chery microcar and some Indian Tata trucks.
Potentially, in a further-expanded EU, ZAZ could be a successful base for low-cost manufacturing for all these companies and more.
In that way, at least, the plans hatched long ago for Ukraine to be a major global car exporter, may eventually come to pass, even if the idea of producing a truly world-beating home-designed small car seems as strange in hindsight as the Soviet Union itself.
COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved