Cars of Eastern Europe – The Definitive History
By Andy Thompson
Haynes Publishing – £35.00
How do you double the price of a Skoda? Fill it up with petrol!
Have you got a wing mirror for a Skoda? Ok, seems like a fair swap!
So the collection of jokes on Skodas continue, until that is, you read this altogether wonderful and (surprisingly) interesting book, Cars of Eastern Europe – The Definitive Story. For once having done so, you too, might glean a certain respect for the actual subject of such a derided quip as: What do you call a Skoda with a sunroof? A skip!
Okay, so I was initially drawn to this book by its exceedingly fab, retro cover. That, and the fact that I live in Berlin, where Trabants made in the former GDR can be seen dotted around the city as a sort of regal remembrance to that once great divide between East and West. It wasn’t until I actually settled down to read through this most informative and comprehensive of books, that the world of the automobile, pronounced an entire new meaning.
To be sure, lifelong car (and van) enthusiast, Andy Thompson, has herein written a very well researched chronicles on every type of East European vehicle imaginable. Its 409 pages will no doubt appeal to a variety of enthusiasts and kooky car buffs alike; as throughout, the author bequeaths readers with an array of historical facts, combined with each individual country’s economic situation and dilemma.
Lest one forget that a great deal of Eastern Europe was considered to be in freefall decline for many years. It had after all, forsaken much of the initial Industrial Revolution for that of Political Revolution. As such, by the middle of the twentieth century, its motor industry (with one or two exceptions) was still very much a cottage industry. The ever elongated battle between Capitalism and Communism sparked many a period of political turmoil, revolution and of course war, which inevitably shaped both the growth as well as the decline of Eastern Europe’s respective car industries. This is brought to bear on numerous occasions throughout. In the fourth chapter, ‘East Germany’ for instance, Thompson writes: ‘’Geographically, East Germany started life somewhat at a disadvantage to West Germany. It was a much smaller country, both spatially and numerically – just under half the size and with a quarter of the population. Those factories inherited by the new country were, like much of post-war Germany, not in particularly good health. Zwickau, for example, had been heavily bombed during October and November 1944 by the British and Americans, half of the local car works being turned to rubble. And there was the thorny issue of reparations to contend with. The Soviet Union in particular was extremely keen to make sure that the Germans paid for the damage the USSR had suffered at the hands of the Nazis armed forces. At first they simply shipped anything of value back to Russia – in 1945 and 1946 entire factories and railway lines disappeared on the back of east bound trains.’’
With this in mind, it’s hardly surprising the East European motor industry was way behind that of France, Italy and ironically, West Germany. This is made more than evident in the book’s final chapter ‘Romania,’ where, under Ceausescu, the country’s: ‘’exports took precedence over all else and Romanians faced shortages of power, food, and consumer goods. Motorists in 1981 had to make do with just 30 litres (six gallons) of petrol a month. During the severe winter of 1984-85 private motoring was banned altogether. Not that there were many cars to buy. Between half and three-quarters of all Romanian car production was exported to anywhere that would take them. There was little thought given to long- term brand building or after sales service – the priority was to shift the metal and get as much hard currency for as quickly as possible to pay back the international banks […]. The Dacia saloon and estate, named the Denem, arrived in Britain in 1982 and were promoted with perhaps the most underwhelming advertising line of all time: ‘’The very acceptable Dacia Denem’’
Succinctly divided into chapters by country (Bosnia, Serbia and Slovenia, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania), Cars of Eastern Europe – The Definitive History is awash with inviting photographs – old and new/colour and black and white. Thus prompting nostalgia, ridicule, amazement and ultimately, such interest that even my girlfriend had to actually read the book – instead of merely thumbing through its pages.
Naturally, there are a number of dry facts and figures that may be considered essential for the car/motor enthusiast. We are after all, talking Haynes: yer car manual gods, so indeed, why not?
In all, a very absorbing book, that is a sure-fire credit to Andy Townsend. Not only does it invite and inform, it also evokes and amuses. What more could you possibly want from non-fiction?