A Look Back: Classic Cold War Era Cars of the CCCP and the Eastern Bloc

by James Kraus

Coat of Arms of the former USSR (CCCP)

As a light rain falls outside on a chilly and moonless night in Berlin, I find myself sitting in the front room of the Café Adler on the corner of Friedrichstrabe and Zimmerstrabe, just a few meters from what was once Checkpoint Charlie. Men and women crossing through this notorious portal once faced life-changing or indeed, life threatening circumstances. Visitors to the East sometimes found that they could check in but not check out.

I invite you to throw on your trench coat, turn the collar up and join me for a glass of Kirschwasser as I travel back in time to the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Philby Affair and the Portland Spy Ring.

Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin. 19 August 1961

While literary and cinematic secret agents of the West like James Bond and John Drake travelled in sleek and sporting Bentleys, Aston Martins, Sunbeam Alpines and Mercedes SL’s, real life undercover operatives mostly drove around in much more prosaic machinery more suitable to the fictional Harry Palmer and George Smiley.

Nowhere was this truer than in the Eastern Block where agents had to get by with vehicles generally several years behind their Western equivalents. Here is a sampling of the vehicles that were at their disposal.

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Russian KGB

Depending on the mission at hand, operatives of the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB) had a number of vehicles from which to choose. For light reconnaissance work or information gathering, a low level agent carrying little but a 7.62 Torkarev sidearm could utilize a light and manoeuverable Zaporoschez.

Zaporoschez G-200

Zaporoschez G-200

The Zaporoschez ZAZ G-200 was powered by a 750cc V4 air-cooled rear-engine, and was roughly the size of a Fiat 600.

If First Directorate Department IV and V operatives had to enter the West toting ricin pellets, umbrella guns and other tools of the trade, they would most likely rely on a roomier and more powerful Moskvitch or Volga to execute their mission.

Moskvitch 407

Moskvitch 407

The Moskvitch 400 Series were initially powered by 1220 and 1360 cc pushrod inline fours. In the late 1960’s, the 412 was introduced, powered by a 1500 cc engine with an overhead camshaft and pent-roof combustion chambers derived heavily from the design of the 1963 BMW 1500. The 400 series was one of the best known of the Eastern Bloc cars. In addition to being marketed in Western Europe, the 412 was entered into major international rallies, finishing 20th and 22nd in the 1968 London-Sydney Marathon and 12th in the 1970 London-Mexico World Cup Rally.

Because of its relative commonality in Western Europe, an agent driving a Moskvitch could easily rendezvous with deep-cover assets on long-term assignment from Directorate S (intelligence acquisition) or Directorate T (scientific and technical resource branch) without drawing undo attention.

A larger alternative to the Moskovitch was the 2.5 litre GAZ-21 M Volga.

GAZ 21 M Volga

GAZ 21 M Volga

If a small team of agents armed with PPSh-41’s with 35-round magazines was needed to carry out an assassination or other wet work and enough luggage space was needed to extract the evidence, they would likely requisition a larger GAZ-13 Chaika (Seagull) with its powerful 6.0 litre V8, pushbutton-controlled automatic transmission and enough luggage space to accommodate the remains of two or three ex-enemy agents.

GAZ 13 Chaika

GAZ 13 Chaika

The extravagantly baroque Chaika was also an appropriately flamboyant showcase vehicle with which to ferry agents in style to the Glienicke Bridge outside Berlin for high profile prisoner exchanges with the West.

Approach to Glienicke Bridge in the early 1960’s. U.S. spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers and American student Frederic Pryor were exchanged here for Soviet intelligence officer Vilyam Fisher on 10 February, 1962.

A small number of mid-range GAZ 24’s were built specifically as KGB pursuit vehicles with a 5.5 litre version of the mighty Chaika V8 in lieu of their normal 2.5 four inherited from the 21 M.

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East German Stasi

When Stasi (MfS) agents entered the West through the very crossing at which I now overlook, they often crossed the border behind the wheel of the infamous two-stroke Sachsenring Trabant with its bodywork constructed of Duraplast phenolic resin reinforced with strands of cotton fibre.

1963 Sachsenring Trabant P 60

1963 Sachsenring Trabant P 60

The acrid exhaust of the two-stroke engine would handily serve to keep following vehicles (usually Mercedes 180 Pontons, driven by West German BfV agents) at a far enough distance to easily miss a package tossed out the window at a secluded dead drop.

Wartburg 312 Coupé

Wartburg 311 Coupé

A step up was the Wartburg 311. The 311 had plenty of space for a couple of Karabiner S carbines or an SVD Dragunov sniper rifle with telescopic sight and extended stock. A three-cylinder 2-stroke engine powered the Wartburg, driving the front wheels. The chassis was well designed, with upper and lower A-arms in the front and semi-trailing arms at the rear combined with a rear anti-roll bar.

Stasi agents on a really tight time schedule would prefer carrying out operations in the more powerful Sachsenring P240.

Sachsenring P240 in the 1966 film, "Funeral in Berlin"

Sachsenring P240 in the 1966 spy film, “Funeral in Berlin”

The P240 was powered by the prewar Horch 2.4 six-cylinder engine.

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Czechoslovakian Státní Bezpenost (StB)

The Tatra 603 was the most technically intriguing Communist Bloc vehicle. The Tatras were often used by high level StB controllers to travel from headquarters in Prague to rendezvous with field agents in Vienna while toting 7.65 Skorpion vz. 61 machine pistols and booby-trapped microfilm canisters.

Tatra 603

Tatra 603

The 603, with its 2.5 litre rear-mounted air-cooled V8 and all-independent suspension was a good choice to hustle along either highways or war-ravaged back roads.

Skoda Octavia Touring Sport

Škoda Octavia Touring Sport

If an agent wanted a more discreet vehicle, a variety of Škodas were available, like this 1963 1.2 litre twin-carburettor Octavia Touring Sport. Škodas were noteworthy among small front-engine rear-drive cars for featuring independent rear suspension.

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Polish 2nd Directorate Wojskowa Stuzba Wewnetrzna (WSW)

Agents of the WSW shouldered 9 mm CZAK P-64 sidearms and slid into trusty FSO Warszawa 202 and 223 sedans to get the job done.

Warszawa 202

Warszawa 202

The 200-Series were powered by 2.1 litre 4 cylinder engines and were available in the original fastback (202) or later notchback (223) body styles.

If you are in the mood to immerse yourself into the gritty cold war milieu of the fifties and sixties, I can heartily recommend watching the aforementioned Funeral in Berlin along with The Ipcress File of 1965, both starring Michael Caine as agent Harry Palmer, a character created in the espionage books by Len Deighton. These films were produced by Harry Saltzman (of James Bond fame) and were meant to be a tougher and more realistic series of spy films. They were.

Two others bear mention: Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) with Richard Burton, based on the John le Carré novel and The Quiller Memorandum (1966) with George Segal and Alec Guinness, based on the book by Adam Hall. Porsche aficionados in particular will enjoy this one as Quiller (George Segal) spends a good bit of time driving around Berlin in a Ruby Red Porsche 356B T6 Cabriolet.

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14 thoughts on “A Look Back: Classic Cold War Era Cars of the CCCP and the Eastern Bloc

  1. I remember James Bond getting picked up at the airport by Jack Wade in the rear-engine Zazporoschez ZAZ in Goldeneye!

    I will second the recommendation of The Quiller Memorandum. It is a top notch thriller. Shot in widescreen color, it really captures the atmosphere of early-sixties Berlin.

  2. There is another interesting but little known 1960’s spy film series starring Ken Clark as CIA agent Dick Molloy.

    They were low-budget versions of the Bond films but enjoyable on their own. They had sexy women, great soundtracks, and made the most of numerous European shooting locales. Try to find Mission Bloody Mary (1965) first. If you enjoy it, try From the Orient with Fury (1965) and Special Mission Lady Chaplin (1966)

  3. There was also the big Russian 7-liter V8 ZIL-111 used by members of the Supreme Soviet and the Politburo. It was built in limousine and cabriolet versions, many being armored. A turquoise 111 Cabriolet was used to parade Yuri Gagarin (the first human in space) around Moscow in 1961 when he returned from orbit.

    At the 2001 G8 Summit in Italy, Vladimir Putin rolled into town in none other than the black 1963 ZIL-111 formerly used by Nikita Khrushchev, immaculately restored down to the period correct whitewall tires!

  4. Putin seems to be somewhat of a classic car enthusiast. Recall that back in 2005, he and George Bush drove around Moscow in a restored Volga 21. The press reported it as a 1956, but based on the grille, it appears to be a 1958 or newer Series 2 with the M-21 OHV engine.

    Here is a photo:

  5. Since the base GAZ 24 weighed only 1300 kg, it should have gotten on quite well with the 5.5 V8 under the bonnet. A KGB version of the 300SEL 6.3!

  6. Another interesting and little-known 1960’s spy film is Hitchcock’s “Topaz” which takes place in New York City, Paris and Denmark. It covers the Cuban Missile Crisis, Russian spy rings and more. It was based on the Leon Uris novel and features French actresses Claude Jade (from François Truffaut’s “Stolen Kisses”) and Dany Robin as tasty ‘60’s eye candy.

  7. That’s a brief overview!

    Consider the Opels too – BXS initially used Humbers before moving on to Opels, Range Rovers and Mercedes G Wagen to tour East Germany.
    By the late 1960s, Stasi narks tried to follow them in Wartburg 353’s.

    But in the Federal Republic, SOXMIS was using Opel Rekords then Asconas to tour West Germany and tried to avoid being detained by the White Mice in diverse cars, ranging from Humbers, Vauxhall FD 3300 Victor saloons and later on, Mk2 Granadas…

    As you may imagine, I’ve spent a fair bit of time researching this…oh, and prior to the GAZ 24 with 13 motor, there were 564 GAZ M23’s built, which was M21 with 13 motor… still on single exhaust system to not give the game away… 0-60 came down from 21 secs to around 13 – very fast indeed for a CCCP-built car.

  8. There was a rear-engined Škoda, the 1000MB. I imagine MB stood for Mlada Boleslav, where it was built. But a Czech coworker once told me that in Czech, the words for “little pains” begin with the letters MB. So the joke was that it stood for 1000 little pains.

  9. Great site. In the Quiller Memorandum it is George Segal, not Alec Guinness who drives the red Porsche.

  10. I have a railway video shot in the former East Germany in 1988 and one scene shows a Wartburg 311 coupe in mustard yellow and black, filthy dirty and it’s two stroke engine coughing and spluttering. The video was filmed by Eisanbahn Kurier of Freiburg.

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