Partly because they were developed behind the Iron Curtain of the Cold War, and partly because few survive, you've probably not heard of, or seen any of these...
Delving into the history of the Soviet-era automobile is a fascinating exercise. You may expect most of the cars to be very utilitarian, or simply copies of Fiats, and in some instances you'd be right. But a number of gents were keen on the idea of more glamorous, sporty vehicles, too...
Let's set the ball rolling with a car you may have actually seen... in the 2006 Bond film, Casino Royale. First revealed in 1977, the 117 was powered by a 6.9L V8 and had a claimed top speed of around 200kph. The fuel consumption must have been atrocious. Featuring clean, almost Lincoln-esque styling, the 117 is quite a popular car with scale model manufacturers as an example of the Soviet-era car.
Moskvich 408 Tourist
As is the case with many a "special", the Tourist was based on a regular volume-selling model, in this instance the Moskvich 408, first introduced in 1964. Only 2 examples of the Tourist were built, featuring an aluminium body, electronically controlled fuel injection and a removable hard-top. Styling...
Sadly, the striking Laura, introduced first in January 1982, never made it into production despite gaining praise from none other than Mikhail Gorbachev. Looking a lot like a stretched Renault Fuego, the Laura was basically entirely hand-built by Dmitry Parfenov and Gannedy Hainov in their small workshop. Even the engine was designed and built by these two enthusiastic gents.
ZIL 112 S
I recently spotted this car during a visit to the Riga Motor Museum in Latvia. It's quite a stunner. Featuring striking styling (think mix of AC Cobra and Ferrari 250 TR with Scaglietti body) the unimaginatively named 112S sported a 6L V8 with 180kW... enough for a 250kph top speed!
ZIS 101A Sport
Another one of the impressively flamboyant designs to come from Russia, especially if you consider it was based on the conservative ZIS-101, a 7-seater limousine.
Produced in 1939, the 101A Sport featured impressively aerodynamic styling courtesy of a gentleman named Valentin Nikolaevich Rostkov. Power came from a 5.8L straight-8 that delivered 105kW. It is said that the car was personally approved by Stalin, but sadly only one was ever made.
Think 4x4 and Russia and you automatically tend to picture the Lada Niva, but the UAZ Hunter has quite the cult following, too. In fact, even though it was originally launched in 1971 and widely used by the military, it is still in production today! Think of it as Russia's Land Rover Defender, then...
Today you can buy your Hunter (Jungle Edition pictured), with a 2.7L petrol engine (99kW) or a 2.2L diesel (84kW).
At almost 6 metres in length, this dramatic-looking 3-seater sportscar weighed about 2.5 tonnes. Built in 1955, it was used in various races, and the lumbering giant with its huge single headlamp must've been quite a sight to behold! Three versions of the car, nicknamed "Cyclops" were built, with later versions using fibreglass to cut down on weight, and a 6,0L 8-cylinder engine for extra grunt!
Now here's something truly wacky. In 1951 Soviet aeronautical engineers were attempting to design a new type of vehicle, so designed a body from scratch, using aircraft materials such as duralumin and aluminium. The result was the GAZ Torpedo, featuring a tear-drop shaped body 6.3m in length but with a weight of only 1100kg. It was never mass produced but the prototype remains a museum piece to this day.
The Soviets also liked to go racing and this Moskvich G2 claimed several speed records in its time. Introduced in 1956, it featured an aerodynamic body (hard-top or spyder) and a 52kW 1.0L 4-cylinder engine. That's not a lot of power, but because the car was so slippery and light, it could achieve a top speed of 223kph!
The brainchild of Aleksandr Kulygin, the Pangolina was inspired by the Lamborghini Countach (not so that you'd notice) and made almost entirely out of fibreglass. It was introduced in 1983 and featured an engine borrowed from a VAZ-2012. Most amazingly, this one-off car still exists!