Automotive industry in Russia

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Early history

First automobiles seen in Russia were imported from Western Europe to Moscow and Petrograd during the late 1890’s. All belonged to some wealthy business and noblemen and, most of all, to the Imperial Family.

Russian automotive industry was born in 1909 when an industrial company from Riga, in present-day Latvia, started to produce a home designed car called the Russo-Balt.

For the next years Russo-Balt remained the only Russian car manufacturer until 1918, when Livonia gained independence from Russia. Since then Russo-Balt cars were renamed as Balti and production followed until the factory was destroyed in the early 1940’s as result of the Second Great War.

First years of SNORism

In 1923 the Russian nationalist party SNOR arrived to absolute power in Russia. For them it was a matter of national pride to Russia to develop its own automotive industry and, most of all, to replace the imported cars (mostly german Daimler Benz and english Rolls-Royce) which were used by the Imperial Family and the White Council.

In order to trigger national automotive industry cars and trucks imports were forbidden in 1924. It was supposed that it would make national industry to start developing home made vehicles. And so they did.

On that same year Avtomobilnoe Moskovskoe Obshchestvo (AMO), russian for Moscow Automotive Enterprise, launched its first truck, the AMO-1, named according to recently established model numbering for russian automotive industry.

On the next year two automotive companies appeared in Nizhni Novgorod: the Nizhegorodski Avtomobilny Zavod, or NAZ, launched its own car, the NAZ-1, and the Avtomobilny Zavod imeni Yevgeniya Molotova (AZiYeM) started to operate manufacturing steam engined large trucks.

Meanwhile the AMO was renamed Black Banner Automobile Plant (Avtomobilny Zavod “Chernoye Znamya” or AZChZ) and was assigned by the White Council to produce a new limousine for serving the power circles of Russia.

The AZChZ -2 (the AMO-1 was renamed now as AZChZ-1) was released in 1926 being a large and highly luxurious limousine which was presented as an achievement of SNORist regime.

A fourth automotive company appeared in Nizhni Novgorod in 1928. It was the Russian Adam Opel Automobile Plant (Russki Avtomobilny Zavod Adama Opela or RAZAO) being established with the assistance of Adam Opel AG from the Holy Roman Empire and producing german models by license. It manufactured the first mass production car in Russia, the RAZAO-1, which was in fact a contemporary Adam Opel. Over 25,000 were made during the next six years. But such was a much smaller number than the real best sellers of the period: the AZiYeM-2 and the AZChZ-3 trucks.

In 1932 RAZAO and NAZ merged forming a new company called Union Automobile Plant (Soyuzny Avtobilny Zavod or SAZ). Both the NAZ and the RAZAO models were then manufactured under new badge. First new SAZ model was released in 1934, the SAZ-3 (being former NAZ and RAZAO models renamed SAZ-1 and SAZ-2 respectively), a car based on Adam Opel mechanics but with local made design. This became the best selling passenger car in Russia during the next years. Its overall production was rather impressive, 230,000 units. Such car was much appreciated by those who could afford a car. By then SAZ was by far the largest passenger car manufacturer in Russia as AZChZ was making just few hundreds of cars per year. A second and larger new model was launched in 1936, the SAZ-4, which would be famous as the car of the Oprichniki, the political police. An SAZ-4 on the street always meant trouble.

First russian car export happened in 1935. AZChZ sold three of its new AZChZ -4 limousines to mongolian SNORist rulers. Regular exports only happened briefly from 1938 to russian partners of the Großartige Allianz and to SIS-ruled Nassland. Exports were halted by the coming war.

During the war

As in most of the belligerent nations of the Second Great War passenger car manufacturing in Russia was halted and converted to military purposes. During these years just a few dozens of cars were produced to the political elite (by AZChZ) and to the military officialdom (by SAZ).

In 1943, as result of the Operation Rhinegold on which the Holy Roman Empire invaded Russia, many industries were re-settled in areas far away from german advance. Most of the russian automotive industry moved from its so-called capital, Nizhni Novgorod, to Chelyabinsk, city which meanwhile was renamed as Tankograd due to its impressive tank manufacturing.

As the war was coming to the end both manufacturers made some prototypes in the late 1940’s, giving some clues of what could been the future post-war production. The only new automotive models launched during this period were some trucks which were often used for military purposes.

Post-war years

In the aftermath of the Second Great War the ruling elites and the wealthy in general wished for new cars to replace their old pre-war ones. Soon the Russian automotive manufacturers started working in new models of passenger cars alongside with new trucks and buses. Meanwhile a new numbering system was introduced to replace the previous confusing one.

Some pre-war models were briefly reintroduced right in 1949 while the production of new ones wasn’t yet ready.

First new russian car model which came out was the VAZ-411, made by a newly established luxury manufacturer (Velikokolchakski Avtomobilny Zavod or VAZ) from Veliki Kolchak (present-day Voronezh). But this model wasn’t neither Russian neither new at all. In fact it was made by machinery and parts taken from bohemian car factory Ta Rinkhófära Nesälstorfla Vákänpó by fugitive members of the Czech White Legion. The pre-war Rinkhófär Président R87 had then a second reincarnation which caused a long judicial process between the two manufacturers only finished in late 1950’s when VAZ finally paid compensations.

Other new car manufacturer was established in Petrograd, the Petrograd Automobile Plant (Petrogradski Avtomobilny Zavod or PAZ). This one was devoted in making small cars many of those for use by the many war handicapped. Later, in 1957, it would introduce the famous bohemian Frojt 2.33 (the Egg Car) which would be produced under license during many years and become the ever best selling passenger car in Russia.

AZChZ also launched a new limousine, the AZChZ-517, a much powerful car which became the first russian model capable of 100 mph speed. For parades it also was produced as convertible, the AZChZ -547.

AZiYeM and SAZ returned from Chelyabinsk to their home city, but AZS facilities in Chelyabinsk became a new truck factory, the Chelyabinsk Mechanic Enterprise (Chelyabinskoe Mekhanicheskoe Obshchestvo or ChMO) which later, in 1952, replaced Chelyabinsk by Tankograd from its name becoming then TMO.

Among the new models the most interesting and modern was definitely the SAZ-315, a newly aerodynamically designed large family car (possibly inspired by the bohemian Frojts). This car was a truly revolution as it was by far the most modernly designed and the first russian car to have turn signals, an electric heater and a built-in AM radio. All in an affordable and well built car. It soon became the russian best selling passenger car (300,000 units sold in eight years of production), first post-war mass production and the local “symbol of the success of Russian reconstruction”, according to propaganda.

In the countryside also the wealthy kulaks were interested in automobile transportation. Some of the military industries which provided the White Army with off-road vehicles started to produce similar vehicles for civilian use in the countryside as roads there were rather harsh. But once again was SAZ which was the most revolutionary when it launched the SAZ-355 in 1951, basically a four wheel drive version of its model SAZ-315. Today it’s considered the predecessor of the first luxury off-road vehicles which only appeared in Western Europe twenty years later.

This war a period of strong automotive expansion, but just for those who could afford a car. The poor masses at most just could drive trucks at work or being transported by buses.


CMAEC states

With the creation of the CMAEC, in 1953, Russia found a whole new large market for its exports. Cars and trucks were no exception. Russian automotive industry found in Central and Eastern Europe a growing market to export its vehicles.

It took just few years until Russian car and truck industries to dominate these markets, even in countries, such as Muntenia or Oltenia, with long machinery making tradition and local car brands. Some of these brands started to produce russian cars and trucks under license. Also russian cars were made under license in the RTC, although this country wasn't snorist.

As the other countries weren’t used neither to the russian numbering model system nor to the acronyms that were used by these imported brands they changed their names for exporting purposes. SAZ became Soyuz, VAZ became Veliki Kolchak and AZChZ became Chernoye Znamya, for example. The successful SAZ-315 became then Soyuz Pobeda for export, for example.

By the end of the 1950’s Russia was among the largest car making countries. Importing restrictions were partially abandoned in 1957 as the other CMAEC countries were allowed to export cars to Russia. But these cars were always sold in much smaller quantities than the russian made ones as imported cars were higher taxated in order to protect russian national industry. Consequently an imported car was always more expensive than its russian equivalent.

Western Europe

In 1957 the Salon du Automobile de Paris received for the first time russian made cars. At first people were rather interested in these cheap models and sales soon started.

These early sales figures seemed quite promising but soon Western Europeans discovered that the cheap prices had too many costs. Most of the russian cars became known for being badly built and low reliability. The Egg Car from PAZ, best selling russian model in Western Europe, was too far away from the quality standards of the original one from Ti Frojt Motorverki. Soon a tremendous bad image emerged, often instigated by western european brands’ advertising campaigns. From a promising start sales went to downfall. By the early 1970’s not a single russian brand was being sold outside the SNORist states except in Greece, Nassland and the RTC, where they were able to keep a good image among drivers.

Although well deserved to some of the brands such was terribly unfair for some of the manufacturers. Soyuz were as much reliable as any contemporary Mercedes Benz and Chernoye Znamya were as much luxurious and well built as any Rolls Royce of this period.


From the 1960’s to the 1980’s russian automotive industry seemed to had stagnated. After their glorious days in the 1950’s, when russian cars often were rather modern and innovative, the following decades made them more conventional and uninteresting.

Without proper internal competition the usual lifespan of all russian models became much longer than in the other major car markets. Each brand seemed to have monopolised their market niche and without competition there was no need for real innovation. Even so new models were launched but all in new seemed to date back at least ten years earlier.

In 1966 the largest tank maker in the world, the Zavod imeni Koshkina or ZiK (literally Plant named after Koshkin) and former Zavod imeni Vissarionova or ZiV (literally Plant Named after Vissarionov as it was known before the devissiarionovisation process) adventured successfully to passenger and light commercial car industry. In passenger car market it finally filled the existing gap between PAZ and SAZ and in just two years became the second largest car manufacturer of Russia surpassing SAZ.

A new model numbering system was introduced in 1977 and all cars, buses and trucks which were already being in production adopted new numbers.

Possibly the most innovative car of this period was the SAZ-3411, the first ever made russian 2 seater coupe for non-racing use launched in 1975. Until then snorist authorities always considered sports cars as too individualistic and contrary to what was expected from Russian people: to be a big family with many kids who should be educated under the principles of the SNOR and the Orthodox Church.

By this time Russian regime was more bureaucratic and its members more interested in their own good than really SNORist and the launching of this car reflected such. Even so the car itself became a popular TV star in Russia from a series starring David Hasselov on which the hero and his talking car were fighting the internal and external enemies from Russia (communists, atheists, foreign spies and all kinds of enemies of the Russian way of living according to official version). The coming of clerics to power during the 1970’s and the turning to more strict religious principles halted abruptly the production of the SAZ-3411 and other coupes meanwhile launched by ZiK and VAZ. Russia had lost then its best looking passenger cars of this period.

From the fall of SNOR to present-day

The end of snorist rule brought also the end of the imports restrictions. These were harsh days for the native brands. The down market brands (PAZ and ZiK) saw themselves competing to a horde of second hand cars imported from Western Europe and Japan (to the western and eastern areas of Russia respectively) as average Russian drivers weren’t wealthy enough to afford a small new imported car.

Were among the luxury brands that things got worst. Those who were wealthier could buy a new car and suddenly the market was invaded by foreign brands which some were surrounded by a mystic aura, such as Rolls Royce, Daimler Benz, Adirondack or Winton. SAZ, VAZ and AZChZ were completely outdated by that time and the richer could always spend some more to drive a foreign car with undisputable pedigree.

SAZ and VAZ found their sales volume to decrease dramatically. In 1995 VAZ bankrupted and its industrial facilities were acquired by korean Hiendai Motors and since then they assemble low market Hiendai small cars. On the other hand SAZ was saved by its long established strong name as it was kept as the major taxi cab in Russia and the usual car of police forces.

But to AZChZ things weren’t that bad. It even increased its sales volume. Before their limousines were just for the higher ranks of the government or of the Orthodox Church. Now anyone who had enough money could buy one. Lots of regional SNOR nostalgic leaders bought AZChZ limousines so as the central government kept this brand as their official supplier. Besides for Russians driving an AZChZ gave a similar status as driving a Rolls Royce.

By the end of the 1990’s Russian brands finally started to react refreshing their models and launching new ones. SAZ moved downmarket launching a series of smaller cars while PAZ and ZiK moved upmarket launching bigger models. Also AZChZ launched a small new car, for them small meant a car with less than twenty feet long.

In 2002 Russia increased for the first time in ten years its passenger car production. Not only local brands had finally restarted to increase their sales but also by then several foreign manufacturers already had established factories there. Also SAZ established a joint-venture with Adam Opel AG to assemble their cars. Somehow a return to their origins.

Today Russian automotive industry still grows. Local brands are now often participating in foreign auto shows in order to be known outside. PAZ and ZiK are having some success by exporting their cars to developing countries while SAZ and AZChZ are making strong advertising campaigns to return to foreign markets and find their place among the restrict club of the luxury brands.

Model numbering systems

One of the distinctive characteristics of Russian automotive industry is the models numbering system. In fact Russia was the only country in the world to establish a common system among all local brands.

First of all model numbering systems was established in 1924 in order to standardise the automotive production. This first system was rather simple: the models were named with their factory acronym followed by their model number.

In time this system showed itself as rather confusing as a larger number wouldn’t necessarily refer to a larger vehicle and often different brands used same model number. By the late 1930’s the regime started to think in a system replacement but the coming war gave them other priorities.

A second numbering system was finally established in 1950. According to this new system the vehicle model consisted on the manufacturer name followed by a number with three digits. Each manufacturer was assigned with a number. A smaller number referred to a smaller car and manufacturers were assigned to produce cars for each kind of citizen. PAZ and later also ZiV were assigned for the downmarket level, and SAZ, VAZ and AZChZ (by this ascending order) were assigned to upper levels of society. This can be considered somehow as predecessor to Consolidated Motors Corporation brands ranking which became effective few years later.

For trucks and buses were used numbers with four digits. Each manufacturer had their first two digits (second always a zero) followed by other two.

These first digits were assigned as follows:





AZChZ -5 (or 50 for their trucks)






Beside the brands there were some other less important. Usually these were subsidiaries of the companies as above and used same first digit as their mother companies.

The second (or third digit among trucks and buses) referred to the type of vehicle as follows:

1-passenger car

2-station wagon

3-panel van


5-off-road vehicle


7-truck and pick up truck

8-semi-trailer truck

9-dump truck

0-tank truck

Third digit was factory model number. This digit is commonly used to distinguish a model and all its variants together.

As an example, the famous 1950 Soyuz Pobeda as it was called for export. In Russia it was launched as SAZ-315. That meant it was a SAZ passenger car and fifth model from this manufacturer. As the Pobeda was manufactured in several versions it became SAZ-325 as station wagon, SAZ-335 as panel van, SAZ-345 as convertible (few made and today a desirable collector item) and SAZ-355 as off-road vehicle (also rare). People commonly refer to all these variants as SAZ-5, just like during early numbering system. But such denomination is unofficial.

The third numbering system was inaugurated in 1977. Now it consisted in the manufacturer name followed by a number with four digits (for trucks and buses five digits). Coupes were added to convertibles in their numbering.

As before first digit referred to manufacturer assigned number which was kept unchanged. Second digit referred now to engine capacity (among passenger cars), weight (among panel vans, pick ups and trucks) or to length (among buses). Third digit to type of vehicle (numbered as before) and fourth digit to factory model number. This was the final numbering system. With the fall of SNOR many of the russian automotive makers abandoned this system, especially those from the Republic of Petrograd and Novgorod, a pro-western russian republic. On the other hand makers from Muscovy and Chelyabinsk kept the numbering system, definetely a reflection of their snorist sympathies.

Engine capacities were divided in the following classes:

1-less than 1 butylka

2-1 butylka to 1 shtof (or 2 butylkas)

3-1 shtof to 2 shtof

4-2 shtof to 1 chetvert

5-more than 1 chetvert


1 butylka=half shtof=624 ml, 1 shtof=2 butylkas=1.23 litres, 1 chetvert=3.08 litres

Weights were divided as follows:

1-less than 75 puds

2-75 to to 125 puds

3-125 to 500 puds

4-500 to 875 puds

5-875 to 1250 puds

6-1250 to 2500 puds

7-more than 2500 puds


1 pud=16.3805 kg

Lengths were divided as follows:

1-less than 16 feet

2-17 to 25 feet

3-26 to 32 feet

4-33 to 40 feet

5-more than 40 feet

Some cars survived from the 1950 numbering system to the 1977 one. As an example the PAZ-112 (produced between 1956 and 1984), the russian licensed version of the famous Frojt Egg Car. In 1977 it became the PAZ-1112 which meant it was a PAZ model, with less than 1 butylka of engine capacity, passenger car and second model of this manufacturer.

In time a fifth digit (or sixth among bus and trucks manufacturers) started to be added as the new models surpassed nine launched by some of the brands.

Major automotive manufacturers as in the 1980’s

During the 1980’s the major automotive companies in Russia were the following. There were some other much smaller, usually subsidiaries of the major ones.

Acronym Russian Company name English name Logo Foundation year Headquarters Products Notes
AZChZ Avtomobilny Zavod “Chernoye Znamya” Black Banner Automobile Plant AZChZ logo.JPG 1924 Moscow High luxury cars, trucks Known as Chernoye Znamya for export
AZiD Avtobusny Zavod imeni Denikina Bus Plant named after Denikin File:NEED LOGO 1955 Denikingrad Buses
AZiYeM Avtomobilny Zavod imeni Yevgeniya Molotova Yevgeny Molotov Automobile Plant AZiYeM logo.JPG 1925 Nizhny Novgorod Medium and heavy duty trucks World’s third largest truck manufacturer
SAZ Soyuzny Avtomobilny Zavod “Soyuz” Union Automobile Plant AZS logo.GIF 1932 Nizhny Novgorod Luxury entry-level cars Known for export as Soyuz. Best selling brand in Russia between 1932 and 1958.
BAZ Belgorodski Avtobusny Zavod Belgorod Bus Plant File:NEED LOGO 1935 Belgorod Buses
PAZ Petrogradski Avtomobilny Zavod Petrograd Automobile Plant PAZ logo.GIF 1950 Petrograd Small cars Best selling russian brand since 1958.
TMO Tankogradskoe Mekhanicheskoe Obshchestvo Tankograd Mechanic Enterprise File:NEED LOGO 1950 Tankograd Medium and Heavy duty trucks Known for export as Tankograd.
UAZ Uralski Avtomobilny Zavod Ural Automobile Plant File:NEED LOGO 1945 Yekaterinograd Light commercials and off-road vehicles both for military and civilian purposes Known for export as Ural.
VAZ Velikokolchakski Avtomobilny Zavod Veliki Kolchak Automobile Plant File:NEED LOGO 1950 Veliki Kolchak Luxury cars Known for export as Veliki Kolchak. Bankrupted in 1995.
ZiK Zavod imeni Koshkina Plant named after Koshkin ZiK logo.png 1938 Tankograd Small family cars and vans, tanks and military equipment Passenger car production debuted in 1966. As result of the devissarionovisation was renamed in 1961 after Mikhail Koshkin, a famous tank designer


The most ever produced russian car was the PAZ-112 (or 1112 after 1977). Three million units were produced which was a rather impressive number for a country where even small cars weren’t affordable by everyone. But such doesn’t seems that impressive when compared to ever best selling vehicles, the trucks AZiYeM -5 family model and TMO-2 family model of which were sold ten million and five million respectively!

Unlike some other russian brands PAZ cars were always called by its original name for export. PAZ means peace in Portuguese and Castillian, reason why it adopted a white dove as mascot.

In 1950 was introduced the new limousine for the White Council use, the AZChZ-517. In the front grille it had a chromed decoration seaming a moustache. Such was known secretly as “Vissarionov’s moustache” although was never confirmed if it was really inspired in the dictator’s moustache. “Vissarionov’s moustache” remained in all AZChZ models until Vissarionov’s successor, Andrei Vlasov, was replaced in 1961.

In 1960 AZChZ produced several prototypes for the replacement of the AZChZ-517. During many years it was told that the AZChZ-518 was chosen by a very unconventional way. At that time Vlasov was already suffering from alcoholism and some said he in person chosen the prototype by putting a glass of vodka in the capot that should not fall when the car was turning. Only it was possible in one of these prototypes, which soon went to production line. For decades this was somekind of russian urban legend which was confirmed as true after the fall of SNOR and the declassification of secret documents.

The digit 2 for car maker was kept vacant when the second model numbering system was instituted. There was a gap between the small PAZ and the much larger SAZ cars. Such gap was only filled in 1966 when the ZiK cars were introduced. Nowadays that VAZ doesn’t exist anymore there’s a gap between the SAZ and the AZChZ cars.