Cheap and cheerful: Moskvich 1500 vs Wartburg Knight vs Lada 1200

| 3 Dec 2021
Classic & Sports Car – Cheap & Cheerful: Moskvich 1500, Wartburg Knight and Lada 1200

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As advertising campaigns go, this one would have had you choking on your salmon and prawn pancake.

Moskvich – overall champions in our very first year of racing’ shouted the headline.

And, if more proof were needed, importer Satra then helpfully listed all 29 UK rounds of the 1973 Group One Production Saloon Car Championship, in which its near-standard 412 had been victorious in all but one race.

Then you saw the price: £717.38. “But I’ve just paid £784 for a Mini 1000,” you might have spluttered.

In fact, it was the 412’s keen pricing that had secured those wins.

Classic & Sports Car – Cheap & Cheerful: Moskvich 1500, Wartburg Knight and Lada 1200
Moskvich’s prices struck a chord with British motorists in the 1970s

The classes were based on the list prices of the roadgoing versions of each car entered, and nothing at all to do with its engine capacity.

Hence, Tony Lanfranchi in his 1.5-litre Moskvich happily whipped the backsides of every similarly priced Mini and Imp on the track. No surprise that the advert signed off with: ‘Where’s the competition?’

And that competition was struggling.

The usual family favourites from Ford, Vauxhall, Austin, Morris et al had already been under threat from early 1970s Japanese imports, but now the Eastern Bloc countries had joined the fray, with Moskvich, Wartburg and Lada all offering mid-sized models at mini-sized prices – with a plethora of extra kit thrown in to boot.

Classic & Sports Car – Cheap & Cheerful: Moskvich 1500, Wartburg Knight and Lada 1200
This trio offered buyers of the 1970s tempting alternatives to the established marques of the time

How tempting must it have been for families on a budget to eschew the lure of a used base-model Cortina for a showroom-fresh five-seater packed with trinkets such as two-speed wipers, reversing lamps, coathooks and a locking petrol cap?

These were serious purchase considerations and, if buyers weren’t too badge-aware, such Cold War specials could easily hook them in.

They did, too.

Between 1969 and 1973, Moskvich alone sold 14,500 412s in the UK, including estate and van derivatives.

Classic & Sports Car – Cheap & Cheerful: Moskvich 1500, Wartburg Knight and Lada 1200
Name badges hint at the 412’s Moscow origins

Manufactured in Moscow by AZLK (Avtomobilny Zavod imeni Leninskogo Komsomola, which, I kid you not, translates as ‘Automobile factory in honour of Komsomol Leninist Communist Youth Union’), the 1500, as it was known, offered a tantalising package.

With its rather dated but capacious cabin, 80bhp from its single overhead-cam slant-four (a copy of BMW’s crossflow unit, originally used in the 1602, but with all-alloy construction), and independent front suspension with double wishbones and an anti-roll bar, you could easily see its appeal.

Throw in Cortina and Victor-rivalling pace – with 92mph and 0-60mph in a fleet 15.3secs – and it was clear why Mr Lanfranchi had it so easy on race days.

With the aforementioned generous equipment levels, plus a 12-month/10,000-mile warranty, it was no surprise that so many deals were clinched back in the day.

Classic & Sports Car – Cheap & Cheerful: Moskvich 1500, Wartburg Knight and Lada 1200
The Moskvich’s powerplant was a BMW copy, and offered impressive pace

Buyers would, however, need to be immune to the ever-critical British automotive press.

Motor road-tested the 1500 in 1973 and, while it applauded the car’s price-versus-performance ratio, it was rather more scathing about its style and dynamics.

‘The design and décor smacks of the shoddy mid-fifties,’ bemoaned the tester.

‘It’s a rather clumsy vehicle with vague steering and poorly damped suspension which causes it to lurch and roll excessively if you corner quickly.'

Classic & Sports Car – Cheap & Cheerful: Moskvich 1500, Wartburg Knight and Lada 1200
Motor’s road tester was scathing about the 1500 upon driving it

Clearly, Motor’s circulation didn’t extend to many Moskvich buyers – or, if it did, the 1500’s bargain price overrode their concerns.

With a name such as ‘Wartburg’, image probably wouldn’t have been front and centre in potential buyers’ minds, but the 353 did at least offer an engineering concoction that would have been intriguing to anyone moderately interested in what went on beneath its boxy but modern body.

‘Our’ 1967 test car is the oldest here, but the model remained largely unchanged in the UK until right-hand-drive sales finished in 1976.

Manufactured by VEB Automobilwerk in Eisenach, East Germany (now an Opel plant), the Wartburg brand was named for the castle that sat above the works, and was originally founded in 1898.

Classic & Sports Car – Cheap & Cheerful: Moskvich 1500, Wartburg Knight and Lada 1200
The Wartburg Knight’s tiny two-stroke motor invariably results in meagre performance

The 353 – or Knight, as it was known only in the UK – had been preceded by the slow-selling 311, offered in Britain from 1964.

But the 353 marked a radical and more modern departure with its design, and continued to be powered by Wartburg’s well-proven three cylinder, two-stroke 991cc engine – similar in design to that used by DKW and Saab, but with no interchangeable parts.

It’s the least powerful of our trio, producing a meagre 45bhp at 4200rpm, yet the thirstiest, too, at 24.7mpg according to Autocar’s original 1967 road test.

The only front-wheel-drive machine in this set, the Wartburg is also unique in this company in having body-on-frame construction, with a separate perimeter-frame chassis topped by a unitary body with bolt-on panels.

Classic & Sports Car – Cheap & Cheerful: Moskvich 1500, Wartburg Knight and Lada 1200
The front-drive Wartburg is the most technically intriguing

A further differentiator was its independent rear suspension, located by semi-trailing arms, as opposed to the live-axle back ends of the Moskvich and Lada.

Originally imported by Industria Ltd, the Knight saloon and its Knight Tourist estate derivative found nearly 20,000 buyers in Britain and continued to be imported to the UK in lefthand-drive form from 1976.

From 1988, ever more stringent emissions regulations sounded the death knell for the two-stroke engine, and for the final three years of its life a four-stroke, 1.3-litre unit from the VW Golf took its place.

Incredibly, in the first years of 353 production a £7 million investment was made by Wartburg to source British parts for all cars made at Eisenach.

Classic & Sports Car – Cheap & Cheerful: Moskvich 1500, Wartburg Knight and Lada 1200
Almost 20,000 Knights were sold in Britain

Batteries, horns, tyres and upholstery, including seat fabric, door-card trim and roof linings, were all bought in from the UK.

But a subsequent volte-face by Wartburg, due to the political crackdown by the USSR on its satellite states, meant that after 1968 all materials had to be sourced locally.

‘Our’ car, being only the seventh or eighth example to be sold on these shores, is proudly part-British.

The last of these three to go on sale in the UK is arguably the best known.

Classic & Sports Car – Cheap & Cheerful: Moskvich 1500, Wartburg Knight and Lada 1200
The neat Lada’s engineering is unadventurous

Manufactured by VAZ (later AutoVAZ), the 2101, or 1200, started production in 1970 as part of the company’s new brand, Lada (Russian for ‘harmony’).

Built under licence from Fiat, the 1200 took the Italian company’s 124 design and adapted it heavily for use in its home market.

That meant no fewer than 800 changes to the Fiat’s package, the most significant being a swap of engine from Fiat’s ageing overhead-valve 1.2-litre to one developed for VAZ by NAMI (Russia’s Automotive Engine Institute).

While its displacement stayed the same, the bore and stroke dimensions changed and an all-new single-overhead-cam cylinder head was used, ultimately giving the Lada more tuning potential for future motorsport use.

Classic & Sports Car – Cheap & Cheerful: Moskvich 1500, Wartburg Knight and Lada 1200
The single-overhead-cam cylinder head was intended to bolster the Lada’s motorsport potential

And, like its compatriots from Moskvich and Wartburg, the Lada was made from a gauge of steel thick enough to survive Russia’s icy, salt laden roads, although it never boasted the last word in rustproofing.

As well as an increase in ride height – another change in an effort to deal with the chronically poor roads in its homeland – the suspension was reinforced, and the 124’s all-round disc brakes made way for drums at the rear, once again for greater durability and resistance to extreme temperatures.

So it was no surprise, then, that the Lada 1200 weighed in at 2105lb versus the 124’s 1863lb.

Classic & Sports Car – Cheap & Cheerful: Moskvich 1500, Wartburg Knight and Lada 1200
Increased ride height and sturdier suspension equipped the Lada well for Russian roads

The fact that there was a four-year delay between the 1200’s original launch and its UK debut was born out of the licensing agreement that Lada had with Fiat, which prevented it from selling in any territory where the 124 was still being marketed.

When the 131 Mirafiori replaced the 124 in the UK in 1974, Lada quickly seized the opportunity to introduce the 1200 as a rival to the Wartburg and Moskvich, exploiting the design’s familiarity among British buyers.

You can imagine how that would have worked subliminally, too.

Sit in Stephen Floyd’s 1976 example and as far as the basic cabin environment is concerned (the slope of the dash top, the shape of the instrument binnacle and the large demister vents) you’re in a Fiat 124.

Classic & Sports Car – Cheap & Cheerful: Moskvich 1500, Wartburg Knight and Lada 1200
Fiat cabin architecture in the Lada is masked by Russian ’60s-style fittings

But facing you is a broad two-spoke steering wheel with a chrome horn-ring, which the Fiat version had dropped after its first facelift.

It’s only when you turn the ignition key that the smooth yet decidedly utilitarian sound of the NAMI ‘four’ percolates through the interior and you know this is a Turin-free zone.

Floyd, a serial Lada buyer who learnt to drive in one and has owned many since the 1980s, likes the rudimentary nature of the car.

“It was designed so that owners with no access to garages could keep the car running,” he says.

Classic & Sports Car – Cheap & Cheerful: Moskvich 1500, Wartburg Knight and Lada 1200
Well-stocked tool roll helped buyers to keep their Ladas on the road

Open the bonnet, and you start to see why.

A service light pings on and Floyd points out the priming lever for the fuel pump – perfect for starting in sub-zero Siberian climes.

There’s also a military-grade toolkit strapped to the rear of the boot, which includes essentials such as a starting handle, points adjuster and tyre pump.

To drive the Lada is to experience dynamics from another era – one that pre-dates the 1970s.

Classic & Sports Car – Cheap & Cheerful: Moskvich 1500, Wartburg Knight and Lada 1200
Steering and braking in the 1200 can be tricky, but the gearbox is crisp and the engine full of torque

Steering is very heavy at lower speeds, with lots of play off-centre when you pick up the pace, which you’re continually compensating for.

The clutch is relatively light, and the reinforced gears in the 124 Sport gearbox engage crisply through the short-throw and accurate gearshift.

With just 62bhp this is no road-burner, but the NAMI unit is torque-rich and slogs away happily up steep inclines.

Braking requires anticipation, since the rather dead-feeling pedal demands a concerted effort to haul the car to a halt.

Classic & Sports Car – Cheap & Cheerful: Moskvich 1500, Wartburg Knight and Lada 1200
Classic & Sports Car – Cheap & Cheerful: Moskvich 1500, Wartburg Knight and Lada 1200
The Wartburg’s cabin reflects its austere origins, with simple strip speedo and minimal switchgear

Step into the Wartburg after the Lada and, save the large two-spoke steering-wheel rim, square-faced instrument binnacle and the large, generously padded front seats, there’s a marked contrast – especially after you turn the ignition key.

The NVH characteristics generated by the Wartburg’s two-stroke engine are literally disturbing at idle, setting off resonances all through the cabin.

But as soon as you engage first and give the roller-topped accelerator a firm prod, the little triple becomes turbine-smooth, accompanied by a mellow and distinctive ‘baarp’ that’s completely addictive.

Gear selection, however, is not.

Classic & Sports Car – Cheap & Cheerful:  Moskvich 1500, Wartburg Knight and Lada 1200
Despite its awkward gearbox, the Wartburg Knight is great to drive

Tim Bishop and Michael Ryman’s beautifully restored example is representative of how the car would have driven when new, so it’s a shock to find that the wand-like gear lever manages to be at the same time vague, springy and notchy.

This stemmed from Wartburg having to hurriedly introduce a floor shift specifically for right-hand drive to meet demand, when all other markets retained the slick column change designed for the car.

An improved shift was available from 1969, but it was never the car’s strongest suit.

Gear lever aside, with the engaged freewheel offering clutchless changes, a pillowy ride and taut but low-geared steering, the Knight is a gem to drive – perhaps as much as anything because the experience is so unique.

Classic & Sports Car – Cheap & Cheerful: Moskvich 1500, Wartburg Knight and Lada 1200
Driving the Wartburg is made even better by its soft ride

Sarah Swan’s Moskvich is a facelifted ‘2140’ version of the 1500, which was never officially sold in the UK.

Registered in 1978, despite its ‘P’ suffix, the only differences of note were revised head and tail-lights and a new front grille.

Swan’s husband Bill is the 1500’s keeper today, and he explains that when Moskviches came to the UK, dealers were tasked with extensive fettling that would bridge the divide between what Russian buyers would find tolerable, and British buyers would not.

A top-end engine rebuild was not unusual, including lapping-in valves, among numerous reworks.

Classic & Sports Car – Cheap & Cheerful: Moskvich 1500, Wartburg Knight and Lada 1200
Engine rebuilds were not uncommon with the Moskvich

The problem was that most dealers ignored Satra’s advice, preferring to let the customer complain before putting the inevitable faults through as warranty claims.

You can only imagine the damage done to Moskvich’s already frail reputation.

You sit high behind the 1500’s small wheel, once again perched on a broad, armchair-like seat.

Chunky, unglamorous fittings abound, but a well-stocked binnacle includes gauges for amps and oil temperature, as well as the regular readouts.

Classic & Sports Car – Cheap & Cheerful: Moskvich 1500, Wartburg Knight and Lada 1200
This late Moskvich has the best-equipped dashboard of our trio, and the 1500 feels tough and unburstable on the road

An upright and slightly wraparound windscreen affords excellent vision and, while there’s no hint of audible zest from its engine, when you start to punt the 1500 down some broken Cotswolds roads there’s a sense of indestructability as you motor along, the mushy suspension allowing generous body movement as you row the rather wooden-feeling gear lever through its imprecise gate.

Drive any of these Eastern Bloc relics, even in the context of class standards from 50 years ago, and it’s easy to find fault – and to be unmoved by their lacklustre dynamics and performance.

But this is about fitness for purpose.

Honest, rugged, cheap and (relatively) low-maintenance, they provided a new-car panacea for buyers who would otherwise have been fobbed off with something from a used-car lot.

That they now recall a unique dimension to car ownership in the 1970s is very much a blessing.

Images: Olgun Kordal

Thanks to Cotswold Airport; Mel Holley; Kay Bennett


Factfiles

Moskvich 1500

  • Sold/number built 1969-’76 (UK)/ 500,000+ (total)
  • Construction steel monocoque
  • Engine all-alloy, ohc 1478cc ‘four’, with Russian-made carburettor
  • Max power 80bhp @ 5800rpm
  • Max torque 85lb ft @ 3-3400rpm
  • Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension at front independent, by wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar rear live axle, semi-elliptic springs; telescopic dampers f/r
  • Steering worm and roller
  • Brakes drums
  • Length 13ft 8½in (4178mm)
  • Width 5ft 1¼in (1556mm)
  • Height 4ft 10½in (1486mm)
  • Wheelbase 7ft11in (2108mm)
  • Weight 2665lb (1209kg)
  • 0-60mph 15.3 secs
  • Top speed 92mph
  • Mpg 26
  • Price new £717 (1973)
  • Price now £1500-6000*

 

Wartburg Knight

  • Sold/number built 1967-’76 (UK)/1,225,190 (total)
  • Construction unitary body with perimeter-frame chassis
  • Engine iron-block, alloy-head, two-stroke 991cc triple, with BVF 36F carburettor
  • Max power 45bhp @ 4200rpm
  • Max torque 67lb ft @ 2200rpm
  • Transmission four-speed manual, FWD
  • Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones rear semi-trailing arms, anti-roll bar; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
  • Steering rack and pinion
  • Brakes drums
  • Length 13ft 11in (4241mm)
  • Width 5ft 4½in (1638mm)
  • Height 4ft 10¾in (1494mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft ½in (2448mm)
  • Weight 2315lb (1050kg)
  • 0-60mph 25.1 secs
  • Top speed 71mph
  • Mpg 28
  • Price new £760 (1973)
  • Price now £1500-5000*

 

Lada 1200

  • Sold/number built 1974-’83 (UK)/ 2,710,930 (total)
  • Construction steel monocoque
  • Engine iron-block, alloy-head, ohc 1198cc ‘four’, with Russian-made twin-choke carburettor
  • Max power 62bhp @ 5000rpm
  • Max torque 66lb ft @ 3400rpm
  • Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension at front independent, by double wishbones rear live axle; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
  • Steering worm and roller
  • Brakes discs front, drums rear
  • Length 13ft 3½in (4073mm)
  • Width 5ft 3in (1611mm)
  • Height 4ft 7¼in (1440mm)
  • Wheelbase 7ft 9½in (2424mm)
  • Weight 2105lb (955kg)
  • 0-60mph 20 secs
  • Top speed 88mph
  • Mpg 30
  • Price new £999 (1974)
  • Price now £1500-5000*

*Prices correct at date of original publication


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