Cars in the socialist block

The Lada VAZ 2101 and VAZ 2103, whose everyday nicknames were „Zsiga 1200” (or Zsiguli) and „ezeröcsi”, were the favourite cars in Hungary for almost two decades. While propaganda films of the ’50s projected the vision of a limitless development of the communist block with gas-turbine powered cars, computer controlled or nuclear powered smart cars; in reality having a car (as a symbol of non-existent liberty) remained an unreachable dream for an average citizen.

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At the Royal Hotel (around 1960) - MKVM, CC BY-NC-ND 

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At the National Theatre of Pozsony (Bratislava) in 1959 - Fortepan, CC BY-SA

VF_21639.jpgAlthough the socialist block wanted to become independent from the western trade, saying that socialism can work without capitalists, in practice, replaceability of western supplies did not prove true. Regarding the number of cars produced, the supply of the eastern block could not keep pace with the demand, despite that propaganda slogans repeated – also in this field - “outracing the west” as a rival, as you can read it in this partial interview, in which an employee of the Trabant factory declared:

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“I risk the question: How many employees have their own cars at ‘Sachsenring’ (the world-famous Trabant cars are produced in this car factory of Zwickau)? (…)
‘I cannot tell it exactly, because we can purchase Trabants as production is progressing. We do not have as many as they have at the West German Volkswagen factory, but we will be able to satisfy domestic demands within a few years.’
‘Is this an official opinion or… ‘- I interposed, but then I saw there was no point in putting it this way.
‘Our opinion and the official opinion are the same. (…) We, German workers know that we will overpass the western workers in every aspect during the seven-year plan, even in the number of private cars.’ – Dunántúli Napló, 1959

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A Trabant at the Vigadó (1965) - Fortepan, CC BY-SA

VF_37_760.jpgThe constant lagging of car supply, compared to demand, is shown well by the fact that people had to wait usually 4-5 years for a car in Hungary. There were only seven thousand cars altogether in Hungary in 1947, sixty thousand in 1961 and 1.5 million cars in 1981. The communist principle of equality did not prevail in having a car either. For example, only a few people could buy the luxury car Škoda Felicia Cabrio. Naturally, famous actors and sportsmen could always buy cars. The biggest star of socialist cars was definitely the Lada, whose historical prequel was the development of Zaporozhets that was destined to become a “people’s car” in the Soviet Union, but finally it proved to be a dead end of the car industry.

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At the Royal Hotel (around 1970) - Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

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Cars in the car park of a restaurant at Lake Balaton - Balatoni Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

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A parking Moskvitch (1965) - Fortepan, CC BY-SA

Though the Soviets recognised that the engine of Moskvitch was out-dated and copied the engine of a BMV, achieving their aim – to make a people’s car – seemed rather remote. In order to realise their goal, industrial spying could not mean a solution (unlike their usual practice), because western cars were not designed to Soviet conditions. However, an ideal Soviet people’s car had to be adapted to the circumstances of the Soviet Union, which was poor in highways, and its weather and temperature were extreme.

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 Cars and pedestrians – life at the Keleti (eastern) Railway Terminal (1966)  - Fortepan, CC BY-SA 

126579.jpgThis must have been the reason why the Soviet communists decided that they would purchase a complete producing licence instead of copying the western models. They were lucky, when the communist-friendly government got the power in Italy. During the negotiations, Professor Vittorio Valletta, the president of Fiat, asked USD 130 million from the Soviet government, but they thought of only 40 million. Finally, Valletta could raise the amount by 8 million, however some said that was the business of the century, as the Italian government provided them with a loan of USD 1 billion as well to build the factory, whose main builder was also the Fiat Company.

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A proud driver with a Lada (1979)  - Thorma János Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND 

As the car of the Fiat failed the tests of the Soviet road conditions, it was necessary to develop and transform it. According to the version of the Soviet propaganda, sparkle-eyed Soviet Stakhanovite engineers received the Italian engineers with ready solutions, thus their help was not needed when they arrived. Despite that, another more lifelike story says that the Fiat undertook the transformation of the car according to the Soviet conditions from the start. This is how the prototype of Fiat 124R was born, which was already the Zsiguli 2101 practically. 

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Pedestrians and vehicles on Felszabadulás Square (‘70s) - Balatoni Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

A socialist organisation that was established in 1949, the Comecon controlled the trade and barter of different goods, including cars in the Eastern block. As of 1968, the Comecon divided production among the socialist countries in the frame of a so-called road vehicle programme. The Soviet interest enforcement must have played a significant role in the division. Due to the production of Lada, the Soviet Union’s interest was to hinder the oversupply on the car-market of the Eastern block. However, the poor capacity of the German Wartburg and Trabant factory productions did not mean competition to them, but the Hungarian car production, which had great traditions once, would have been too much for them.

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A parking Wartburg 311 on Szabadság Square (1965) - Fortepan, CC BY-SA

According to the recollections related to the work of Foreign Trade Minister Gábor Győző, the Soviet Union did not intervene dictatorially in the barter negotiations. He compared the negotiations that lasted for weeks between countries – in which he participated as well – to street-market bargaining, where a country’s needs were just as important as their surplus. Hungary did not produce too many kinds of goods that the Soviet Union needed; except for the Globus tinned food and Ikarus buses.

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Ikarus buses on the Budapest International Fair (around 1970) - Fortepan, CC BY-SA 

In exchange for these, Hungary received a lot of Zsiguli cars, but too expensively. In the beginning, a Zsiguli cost HUF 80 thousand in Hungary, which is equivalent to HUF 7-9 million today, this means the sum of an average salary of seven years.128007.jpgA reason for the high price was the fact that Hungary did not have a favourable bargaining position at the negotiations against the Soviet Union, an occupant world power. On the other hand, the Soviet car-making was probably not optimised cost-effectively, thus producing costs might have been high, and that was built in the price. The Hungarian trade was in shortage, which did not give people much opportunity to spend their money; and this could contribute to their savings for valuable things like a car. 

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At the Astoria Hotel (1959) - Fortepan, CC BY-SA

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A woman on an engine hood (1962) - Fortepan, CC BY-SA

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View of Tihany  - Balatoni Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

Choosing from one colour

The anomalies of a system built on top-down dictates, which neglects personal demands, are exemplified excellently with those burlesque-like scenes related to colour choice that was shown in a magazine article:

Buyer: ‘I have come to choose a colour.’
Merkur (customer service of the car sales company): ‘What colour car would you like?’
Buyer: ‘Claret.’
Merkur: ‘Unfortunately, we haven’t got claret cars.’
Buyer: ‘All right, then white!’
Merkur: ‘Presently, there is no white car in the consignment either, and I cannot tell when we will receive one.’
Buyer: ‘Could you tell me what colours you have then, please?’
Merkur: ‘Only green.’
Buyer: ‘But if you have only green why did you call me to choose?’
Merkur: ‘Because you have to sign this paper, if you accept the green colour.’
                                                                                                                          - Autó-Motor, 1971


Despite that a certain type of car in a certain month was made in only one colour, and other colours were not available in those days, the colour choosing procedure was an inevitable part of the car takeover process.

Károly Erdélyi

Translated by Zita Aknai

Sources

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