KHRUSHCHEV’S FAVORITE PEOPLES CAR

 
Jokes aside, it’s been about 50 years since the first Zaporozhets automobile was manufactured, and about 40 years since the last one was sold brand new off the showroom floor. This ‘Soviet Volkswagen’ can still be observed noisily tooling down Kyiv streets or silently rusting away in city parking lots. Often the butt of jokes and a ‘Titanic’ style symbol of all that was wrong with the Soviet Union, the poor little Zaporozhets or ZAZ-965 was commissioned by General Secretary Nikita Kruschev in the early 1960’s.

Hard to believe the country that put the first orbiter into space also, and simultaneously we may add, developed the often scorned ‘hunchback’, a nickname coined for the ZAZ-965, due to it’s sloping hatchback. Reeling from the national pride generated by beating the United States in round one of the ‘Space Race’ and to punctuate the country’s postwar rebirth and vitality, Khrushchev wanted a car that all could afford, so the designers hastily went to work. As was typical for that time, large-scale production of the ZAZ-965 came only after the prototype was showcased to Khrushchev at the Kremlin. He was quite satisfied with the little machine, and especially pleased to find that the wide doors on the little egg shaped vehicle permitted his corpulent figure to nestle into the driver’s seat.

 
 
It was rumoured that during a ‘then’ recent visit to the Renault factory in France, he was embarrassed that he could quite fit behind the wheel of a small coupe presented to him as a gift. In this respect, the Zhaporozhets made an immediate positive impression on the Soviet leader, who declared it fit for production and the country’s first ‘folk model’.

The car for the average Soviet

To be a ‘true people’s car’ the ZAZ must be affordable, said Khrushchev so he insisted that the new car be attainable by the average Soviet, with some smart planning and savings. So the car was an immediate hit with the public! Not only was it cheap to buy, it was cheap to run, when it was running that is. Fuel-efficient compared to other Soviet machines, it’s tiny power plant sipped a mere 7 litres per 100km and was only 3.3 metres long so it coped well with infamous Soviet roads.
 
Still, the many weighty disadvantages were too serious not to be taken into account. For instance, the car’s slow speed and extremely loud engine noise impaired driving safety. Suicide doors made exiting the car on busy streets a hazard. The boot capacity created a storage and comfort problem, and worst of all, the bonnet loaded fuel tank was known to blow up during a serious front-end collision. Given the size of the car, most all collisions were serious. Customers also complained that the heater often failed and air-cooled engine was impractical for harsh Soviet winters and the car froze often in winter and overheated all the time during the summer. The initial euphoria over the cars’ affordability and newness was short-lived as owners soon realised this lemon spent more time up on the racks than out on the road!
 
 
The Zaporozhets fan club
 
However, ZAZ fans say the car was a big technological advance for it’s time and only later was it considered a total disaster. This is no place better emphasized than in the local classifieds where you will find a used Zaporozhets offered for no more than 500 bucks.
 
Despite the cars low public appeal, there are some who still consider it a precious remnant of the past and interestingly enough, those most intrigued and attracted to the old clunkers are young men.  The appeal is multi-faceted. To them the ZAZ is Soviet memorabilia, retro (which is currently in vogue) and the thrill in restoring this ‘legend’. In Kyiv there is a club devoted to the ZAZ and it’s proud owners who would never trade their Zaporozhets for any other car. The president of this club comprised of 18 active members and 28 friends is Yuriy Overchenko.
 
“Actually I fell for the ‘hunchback’ when I was a kid”, says Overchenko, “since then I knew that I would buy one someday. Once my friend asked me to help him choose a motorcycle. But I told him that for the same price he could buy a Zhaporozhets, it’s more than just a bike anyway. The friend agreed and since then I’ve driven his car until recently I bought one.”
Overchenko is now the proud owner of 1968 ZAZ-965A that was in such a state of disrepair at the time he was able to buy it for just a ‘C’ note motorbike.
 
 
Fine-tuning
 
Yuriy went right to work, spending many more dollars on fixing up his treasure, not only making it road worthy, but ‘tricking’ it out so that he could participate in motor rallies that are often held by the club. Club members spend a considerable amount of time and money fine-tuning their ‘hunchbacks’ increasing their appearance, technical parameters, and all around performance. Thus some of the newly modified Zaporozhets look like modern racecars and quite frankly, nothing to be ashamed of. A healthy mix of creativity and fantasy helps club members transform a one-time wreck into a dream car, via special paint jobs and body moldings.  Plastic surgery as it was, for their ZAZ. Sometimes, the beauty of these resurrected ZAZ cars is more than skin deep, for example when club members want better performance and higher speeds, engine modifications are necessary. A new and different engine for speed and the radiator of LUAZ 969, for example, to prevent the chronic overheating the car is known for.  Also, some have inserted the carburetor or wheels from a LADA Zhiguly in order to improve both handling and performance.
 
 
The original interior of a ZAZ was not only uncomfortable but impractical for rally cars so many in the club sport the saloon of a BMW or VW, and Overchenko recommends a small rally steering wheel since the original is so big, elbows are constantly hitting either the door or right passenger when turning. Of course as in many cars, a hi-end sound system makes a trip in a modernised Zaporozhets really enjoyable. One club member has a 130-decibel system in his car, and when turned on, the monster can compete with a jet engine.
 
 
The exotic taxi
 
“We have one funny guy in the club, he owns a ZAZ and has made an exotic yellow taxi of it by modernizing it, improving the capacity and remaking the design. He has a hundred soft toys inside and people have fun while riding in this car and they leave big tips. He used to work as a private taxi- driver in the provincial city of Vinnitsa and moved to Kyiv to make more money. Since he didn’t have an apartment nor a lot of money, he lived in his car for a while. So his taxi was his shelter, his home. Time goes on and he started going out with this really rich girl. The girl’s wealthy father likes him fine, but despises the old ZAZ!  He tells him all the time, “For God sake, please, get rid of this crappy car! I will buy you a Mercedes if you want, just don’t discredit our family!”
But he won’t listen”, beams Overchenko who stands behind his fellow ZAZ owner.
 
 
“Everyone must be peculiar”
 
“I would always find a person who has a Zaporozhets and so I would tell him about our club and invite him to become the member”, says Yuriy. Though most ZAZ owners are elderly people who would also like to keep that fact a secret, the majority of club members are young. The oldest being 50 year old uncle Volodya, who commands the authority respect of all the other members. For the young, this club is a lot of fun. Perhaps it’s the perfect way to rebel against their parents. Even as their elders condemn the ZAZ as an ugly, poorly built and dull car, their kids are spending all their spare time and money on making the car perfect. “You can drive an expensive BMW and in this town, nobody’s gonna notice you,”
says Yuriy, “but in a bright and modified Zaporozhets along the central streets – be sure, everybody will pay attention”, he beams.
 
The greatest thing about the Kyiv Zaporozhets Club is that all are welcome. Even if one doesn’t want to change his Zaporozhets, it doesn’t matter. “The main rule of the club,” says Yuriy, “is everyone must be peculiar”. Club members don’t seem bothered by the peculiarity of the ZAZ; in fact, their hobby gives them some sense of purpose and valuable friends.  What’s more is that since they spend all of their money on this troublesome car, they can’t afford bad habits and lead a healthy life. Peculiarity and charm is what their all hobby about.
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