Andrew Roberts looks back at a Soviet workhorse that found quite a few buyers in the capitalist West

Even before the advent of the Lada, the Skoda Estelle, and the Polski Fiat 125, relatively mass-market products for the Westerners, a select group of British motorists put aside any Cold War paranoia to buy the handsome Moskvich 412. Their neighbours may have questioned their patriotism but the 412 tended to appeal to the kind of motorist who valued durability above flag-waving, especially if the alternative took the form of a Morris Marina 1300 De Luxe.

Before the Second World War the Moscow Factory for Small Displacement Automobiles (MZMA) made unofficial clones of the 1930 Ford AA and the 1938 Opel Kadett but, when the Red Army arrived in Frankfurt in 1945, they discovered that Opel's Russheim works were relatively undamaged - with the complete tooling for the pre-war K38 Series Kadett stillin situ. All of the Opel tooling was shipped back and, by the following year the Moskvich (son of Moscow) works had launched the 400, which bore a very strong resemblance to a 1938 Opel Kadett. The 400 proved to be the mainstay of medium-sized USSR transport for 18 years, gaining a new duotone body-shell in 1956.

Western motorists remained largely immune to the Moskvich's charms until the debut of the all-new 408 at the 1964 Earls Court motor show. TheObserver's Book of Automobiles was moved to describe it as "a handsome car with sleek modern lines" but the vestigial tail-fins and quad circular headlamps disguised the fact that it still used the 1938 Opel-derived 1400cc engine.

This power plant was to prove a severe handicap in the USSR's desire for Western currency, together with the fact that the 408 weighed nearly 2 tons. The original British importer, Russian Cars Ltd of Byfleet, understandably struggled to sell a vehicle fitted with leaf-spring rear suspension and an agricultural gear change at the same price as a new Ford Cortina. However, the snappily named Automobile Factory of the Lenin Komosol (or AZLK) launched the square-headlamped 412, in 1969, which featured an all-new 1500cc 80bhp overhead-camshaft (OHC) engine.

In true USSR fashion Moskvich's cunning engineers had acquired some drawings of the BMW four-cylinder power unit and, at last, the Moskvich could travel at speeds in excess of 90 mph (although few sane owners would wish to do so as the 408's leaf springs and drum brakes were retained in the name of economy). At least the weight of the new model was now reduced to a mere ton, particularly as the 408 had proven too heavy for some of western Europe's road bridges.

The 412 also gained a new importer in the form of Satra Motors, whose pricing policy set the template for two decades of eastern-bloc imports. The cost of a Moskvich 412 was now reduced to that of a Mini, which allowed Satra both to retain a profit margin and to attract a new type of customer. Shrewd marketing types in their Jason King loons had realised that the average 412 buyer was unconcerned by the 1961 Hillman Minx body-style and the terminal understeer as they were far more impressed by the prospect of a Cortina-sized new car that came complete with two-speed wipers, reclining front seats and a radiator blind all for the price of a secondhand Hillman Avenger.

Such buyers also tended to be more interested in the 412's 21-piece toolkit and the starting handle than in the vagaries of fashion and the fact that "the choice of bright modern colours" invariably meant an especially revolting shade of orange. The 412's PVC upholstery may have proved biodegradable within a few months but, in a nation where the annual descent of two inches of frozen water caused the instant breakdown of all communications, it was refreshing to find a car specifically designed for a country where temperatures could vary from 50C to minus 60C.

The estate, van and pick-up versions were particularly successful. At a time when British Leyland was still listing the 1956-type Austin A60 van, a jobbing builder had the alternative of buying a 412 van fitted with a 1500cc OHC engine, a cigar lighter and a volcanic heater.

But the 412's fate in the UK was eventually sealed by a 1973 report in the Consumer Association'sMotoring Which magazine, which claimed that the Moskvich was less than safe. Even the most rabid supporter of the marque could not argue that the early 408, with its sharp-edged metal dashboard and its cast aluminum handbrake lever designed to kneecap the driver, was designed with passenger safety in mind.

The last Moskvichs were imported into the UK in 1976, but Satra had already commenced imports of the Lada 1200 some two years earlier. Two British concerns reputed to be very depressed by Moskvich's withdrawal were British Leyland (as the 412 was one of the very few cars that actually made the Morris Marina look vaguely dynamic) and Anglia Television (as, under the IBA's stringent rules on the value of prizes offered by ITV quiz shows, many editions ofSale of the Century featured Nicholas Parsons being forced to wax lyrical about the bright orange Moskvich 412 De-Luxe star prize).

Despite the introduction of the face-lifted 2140 - sans tail-fins and with fashionable black plastic bumpers - by 1976 the Moskvich's earning potential for Western currencies was extremely limited. Production of the 2140 finally ceased in 1990 as AZLK were now concentrating their efforts on the 1986 2141 Aleko, a FWD Chrysler Alpine clone, and by the middle of the decade Moskviches were being made on a "stop-start" basis. By May 2002 the sales figures for Moskvich were so dire that AZLK went into bankruptcy.

However, in the spring of 2003, the Moscow government and Renault signed an agreement to produce cars at the AZLK factory, though now less than a quarter of the plant is used for car production.

Search for used cars