The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Dec 9, 2007

Russian Cars. Sigh.

About thirty years ago, the only Russian cars on the streets of Moscow were the triumvirate of Volga, Zhiguli and Moskvich. There was also the Zil, limousine to the apparatchiks and the self-important, and the Chaika, automobile for the KGB, but these were not as often seen. Boxy, foxy or with dust-proof joints, these were the objects of desire for every full-blooded Russian. As with most objects of desire, they remained tantalisingly out of reach for their ardent suitors, many of whom remained on waiting lists for years before finally getting their grubby little hands on one.

[Above: A Moskvitch of 1970s vintage]

[A Volga from the 1970s]

[A Zhiguli-LADA, perhaps the most recognisable Russian car]

Things appear to have changed a little since the fall of Communism. Flush with petrodollars, Russians have started to build automobile factories in right earnest, and - in keeping with the grand tradition of ripping off American designs - produce new entrants into a burgeoning market. Two examples are the Siber, named after the mighty Siber but pronounced oddly as Cyber, and the Patriot.

The former is a modification of the Chrysler Sebring, with higher clearance, stiffer suspension, and new lights, mirrors and bumpers. The manufacturer, GAZ, once known for its Volga and Chaika and Zil, wants to pitch this car at the discerning Russian consumer who disdains the cheap Chinese imports but can't afford either Korean or European cars. Interestingly, very little of the car is manufactured in Russia - most parts are imported from North America. GAZ intends to use its own large sales and distribution network as a launchpad for its ambitions.

The Patriot, an SUV made by the automaker UAZ, I am afraid, is a bit of a joke among the locals. You have to be a patriot to buy it, goes the cry among the great unwashed. It is far too expensive for those who might buy a Russian brand, while those who could afford it might just plonk for an import. The Russians, you see, have a deliciously nuanced sense of snobbery: they disdain and covet simultaneously.

Check out the following sites for some fascinating detail on the biggest intellectual property ripoffs in automotive history (well, the biggest until the Chinese got into the act).

1. Volga
2. Zhiguli - here and here (Russian), and here.
3. Moskvich
4. Chaika
6. Siber
7. Patriot


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