I’ve always been rather ambivalent about automotive museums. On the one side, it saddens me to see all those lovely classics stand dormant while all their mechanical components slowly seize up, rubber hoses and bushings dry out and electrical systems fail. But on the other hand, it’s such a convenient way of experiencing a vast collection of beautiful classic cars in one place.
Throughout this past summer and autumn, we’ve featured several classic car museums here on ViaRETRO. The biggest and no doubt most impressive, was when Tony took us along to Mulhouse in France as he walked the many, many rows of exquisite classics on display at the enormous Cite de l’Automobile – better known by its original name, the Schlumpf Collection. Subsequently, Michael took us on a tour of two factory museums, as he visited first BMW Classic’s new headquarters in Munich and then the Volvo Museum just outside of Gothenburg. And of course back in May while spending some time over the pond, I took the opportunity to visit the Shelby Heritage Center in Las Vegas. All of which had me thinking: Of all the car museums I’ve seen in my life, which did I enjoy the most?
Well, it required quite some consideration on my behalf, but controversially I’m going to say that it’s got to be the Retro Auto Museum on the outskirts of Moscow; which has apparently changed name to Muzey Moskovskiy Transport since I visited the place some five years ago. A Russian car museum you ask in astonishment…? Well, yes! Granted, it’s neither the biggest nor the most atmospheric car museum I’ve experienced. I’ve also seen classic cars much rarer and more valuable at other museums. And the presentation of their displayed cars could have been better executed too. But considering my view on car museums and that I would much rather see these cars out on the road where they belong, I visit car museums to experience classic cars which I simply would not see if I were to stay clear of museums altogether. And on that note, the Muzey Moskovskiy Transport is a winner!
This is where I should probably confess that I have a bit of a closet-fascination of old East Bloc cars. Despite having owned an early eighties FSO Polda 1.5ME many years ago as my winter wheels while I was a student, I certainly wouldn’t go as far as saying that I’m a proper East Bloc enthusiast. But they’re positively alien when compared to all the Escorts, Amazons, MGB’s, Mustangs, Giulias, 911’s and 240Z’s which we always encounter in Western Europe and the US – and that to me is an attribute. Strolling through the multiple halls of Muzey Moskovskiy Transport I was repeatedly confronted by yet another classic car which I had only previously seen on pictures, and which I really knew very little about. Intriguing and enlightening…
Walking through the museum, it quickly became obvious that the Russians feel the same way as I do – being drawn to what is unusual for them. They had clearly been trying to display as many Western cars as possible, in an attempt to make the museum more interesting for their regular Russian crowd of classic car enthusiasts. I understand their motivation for doing this, but even so, I will breeze over the Alfa Romeos, Lancias, Jaguars, Corvettes and beautiful pre-war Cadillacs and Mercedes-Benz on display. Frankly, I’ve seen them before and I will no doubt see them again elsewhere.
However, there was one European car which I simply must point out: the ever so bonkers 1959 concept car Ghia Selene, which was designed by Tom Tjaarda during his very early career. This one-off is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. With a cab-forward design taken to the very extreme, the two front seats are placed in front of the front axle, with four opposed seats in the main body behind them. The whole contraption was meant to be rear-engined, though apparently an engine was never installed as it was purely a show car. Pure Jetson Family! Sadly, it was in need of a little tlc as the metallic silver-blue paint was flaking off in places and the wheels wore a terrible set of cheap, modern, plastic wheel trims. Even so, it was a real treat to see this jet-age one-off concept car in the flesh. I’m intrigued as to how and why it ended up in Moscow…
But besides the Ghia Selene, what really kept me at the museum for almost a full day, was of course all the old local Soviet marques such as GAZ, Moskvitch, UAZ, VAZ (better known as Lada outside of Russia), Volga, and Zil. We just weren’t exposed to these marques where I grew up, and they’re also remarkably absent from our classic car scene nowadays. Sure the Ladas and Skodas were popular as cheap means of transport back in Denmark and some other European countries up through the seventies and eighties, but that was really it. Which perhaps also explains why my knowledge on all of these East Bloc vehicles is somewhat limited. But they’re different, unusual and I really like them!
But let’s take a couple of steps backwards and start outside the art-deco styled – but slightly run down – halls of the vast museum. Already as I approached the buildings, there were various classic cars scattered around the courtyard. A few Europeans, a sole Japanese Datsun Gloria, and plenty of old Russian metal in various states of disrepair. I can only presume that they were destined either for future restorations or perhaps as parts cars in the case of those too far gone. Several early Moskvitch and GAZ lured me in with their slightly clumsy fifties styling. A rather beat up and heavily faded green little 2-seater city car, which I couldn’t recognise as anything I had seen previously, had me fixated for a while. Does anyone know what this peculiar square-cut, rear-engined car is?
But of all the needy projects parked outside, by far the best in my opinion, was a fabulously stylish people carrier which I – just like the little green city car – have been unable to identify. Is it perhaps a GAZ of some sort? Regardless, the somewhat heavy-handed fifties design has real character and manages to make the big people carrier look both low and sleek when compared to other similar van designs of that period. While everyone seemingly loves the popular VW bus, I’ve always preferred alternatives like the DKW Schnellaster and the Chevrolet Corvair Greenbeier. But to my eyes at least, this wonderfully weird Russian creation has every one of them well and truly beat! I don’t even know its name, but I want one…
Proceeding back indoors, the Eastern Bloc theme obviously continued. There were a few Ukrainian-built ZAZ Zaporozhets – both of the first generation 965 which was very much inspired by the Fiat 600, and equally of the larger and squarer second generation 966. More genuinely Russian were of course the multiple beautifully restored Ladas, which is of course the Russian car best known to us Europeans. A green saloon with a red interior looked quite smart while the red estate was particularly neat too.
But while the Moskvitch is less known outside of Russia, there are those who will argue that it actually better represents the average family car for Soviet middle class who could afford their own means of transport. It all started in 1947 with the Moskvitch 400 which was basically a four-door pre-war Opel Kadett offered both as a saloon and as a convertible. Only seven years later Moskvitch launched the 402 which was an altogether different car and their first to be both developed and designed by Moskvitch themselves. Both technically and especially to look at, it was actually surprisingly comparable with period European products like the Hillman Minx, Ford Prefect 100E and Fiat 1100. The 402 was further improved into the 403 and 407, and even a rather purposeful looking four-wheel-drive version called the 410 with a vastly increased ground clearance. Then came the third generation of Moskvitch when the 408 was introduced in 1964, followed by the larger engined 412 three years later, and finally the reworked 2140 in 1976. It is perhaps especially this third generation 408/412/2140 which at least some of us in Europe can recognise. An interesting display was the three third-generation Moskvitch lined up next to each other as the 1 millionth, 2 millionth and 3 millionth car manufactured. The Moskvitch line-up was completed with their rare 415 Jeep and not least with the incredibly ungainly concept car C-1 which they displayed in 1974 as their skewed vision of the future.
Moving up another notch in Communist automotive society we come to GAZ. These are bigger, stronger and more luxurious cars than those from Lada and Moskvich, and to me at least, this is where I would focus if I were to add something Russian to my garage. The first after the war ended was the GAZ M-20 ‘Pobeda’, which looks largely like an oversized Peugeot 203 – but while us Europeans often have a tendency to believe that the Japanese and everyone else simply copied our designs as we like to think we’re so superior, it is in fact worth noting that the M-20 was introduced in 1946 – only one year after World War II – whereas the French 203 didn’t see the light of day until 1948. It’s actually quite a handsome design, especially when treated to a charming two-tone paint scheme. More importantly though, the M-20 was built to be virtually indestructible! Even more so if you opted for the four-wheel-drive version called the M-72, which was the world’s very first mass-produced monocoque four-wheel-drive car, and frankly looks brutally fabulous on big chunky all-terrain tyres. In 1956 the newer and better GAZ M-21 was introduced with a distinctly American-inspired design. This was also the first model to use the Volga nametag. At 4.81 meters in length it was quite a large car which managed to combine the ruggedness of its predecessor with more comfort and luxury. The model remained in production for all of 14 years, becoming an integral part of Soviet culture and an East Bloc legend in its own right. Still, it eventually became rather outdated and thus made way for the next generation: the GAZ M-24 Volga. This was a typical for the era three-box design, which while introduced in 1970 looked not entirely dissimilar to the five year older Vauxhall Cresta PC. While it’s nowhere near as charming as its predecessor, it was still a strong and rugged car built to withstand the rough roads and not least weather conditions of the USSR. The M-24 Volga was also developed into a big four-wheel-drive beast of a saloon, but only five cars were built – one of which stands proud in the museum!
Of course, no Russian car museum could ever be considered complete without their famous opulent limousines. These were of course reserved for government officials and presidents! ZIL is no doubt the best known here, but GAZ also managed to play a role in this exclusive market. Luckily there were several from either marque on display.
In stark contrast to these massive limousines, there was also a substantial display dedicated to Soviet motorsport. Considering the weather conditions which much of the country is often burdened with, it’s perhaps unsurprising that much of their motorsport history stems from rally. It was mostly Moskvitch and Lada which were represented here, and especially cool was the rather awkwardly proportioned Moskvitch 407 Coupé which was constructed from the regular 407 saloon purely with motorsport in mind. However, two open-wheel formula racers which I couldn’t identify (it didn’t help that every info board placed by each car was only in Russian!) proved that there was more to Russian motorsport heritage than merely dirt tracks…
Finally, down in the very end of the last hall of the museum, I came across their workshop. To one side was a fabulous and extremely rare factory convertible version of the GAZ M-20 ‘Pobeda’. If anyone should be under the illusion that Russian cars can’t be stylish, they need to spend a while appreciating this gem of a four-door convertible. To the other side, a M-20 taxi was receiving its last finishing touches to a full restoration, while a beautiful GAZ M-21 was having its engine fine-tuned. There was a bare shell from a UAZ 69 which had clearly just received a fresh coat of cream white paint before being reunited with its chassis and drivetrain, and a huge ZIM-12 limousine had its bonnet removed for some work too.
It’s this workshop, and knowing that they will slowly but constantly be restoring more cars and adding to the Russian heritage of Muzey Moskovskiy Transport, that makes me want to return now – five years later – for a second look. Who knows; they might even have gotten around to restoring that splendid fifties people carrier which was parked outside during my first visit…?