Cold War classics and British curiosities
Exploring Peter Frost’s Eastern Bloc rarities and home-grown oddities
Peter Frost is a walking, talking encyclopaedia of the rare, the obscure and the unconventional vehicles to have come from behind the Iron Curtain.
From Tatras to Trabants, and Wartburgs to Zaporozhets, his collection of Cold War classics is unrivalled in the UK – not to mention his home-grown collection of rare cars and motorcycles, such as the virtually unknown AF Spider and DMW Deemster.
The fact that his most “ordinary” car is a 1993 Skoda Favorit LXi Estate – and there are only two of that exact model left on UK roads – provides a glimpse into the motoring mind of a man who likes to be different.
Having previously told the story of his passion for idiosyncratic motors, here we take a closer look at some of the rarest cars on UK roads.
Cold War classics
Place of origin: Zaporizhia, Ukraine
Engine: Air cooled, rear mounted, 1197cc, V4
Power output: 40hp
The VW Beetle wasn’t the only rear-engined, air-cooled “people’s car” in Europe; say hello to the Zaporozhets ZAZ-968, Soviet Ukraine’s attempt at a car for the masses.
Nicknamed the Zapo in the Eastern Bloc, the 968 was designed to be easy to maintain and featured a simple V4 engine cooled by the air drawn in via scoops, often referred to as “ears”, on the rear wings.
A sturdy little car built to cope with the country’s poor roads, the Zapo was available with factory-fitted modifications for disabled drivers missing different limbs, often sold at a discount or given to veterans with war-related injuries.
Peter’s 1971 car was already in the UK, listed on eBay complete with an MoT, and just 50 or so miles from his home.
“So I bought it, got in it and drove it home” he says. “It arrived here with smoke pouring from the brakes and in a not very happy state.
“When I went over the car numerous bodges were evident, and it became obvious that the MoT pass was rather ‘borderline’ to say the least. I stashed it away in my workshop and spent some time working on it and collecting bits for it.
“It’s been a bit of challenge getting parts – it’s taken a couple of visits to Ukraine and to Crimea to go shopping for bits for it.
“A friend in Ukraine who also owns a Zapo very helpfully took me shopping to an old car parts market in Kiev. When I visited Crimea I asked the receptionists in the hotel where I could buy parts and they laughed. Then they introduced me to the old porter who knew exactly where to find them.
“I’ve also bought parts from Germany (Zapos were sold in East Germany), had help from someone in Russia and someone in Hungary, so it’s been a bit of a team effort.
“It’s probably unique; I can’t think of any other cars that have got an air-cooled V4 engine, let alone mounted in the back.
“I like it because it’s very different and it’s quite fun to drive around, even if it is a bit noisy and slow and quirky. An example of quirkiness is all the gears are in the wrong positions so you have to concentrate a bit to drive it.
“Around this area there are quite a few people who originate from the old Soviet states,” says Peter. “They tend to get quite excited when they see it. When I go shopping in it, it’s not unusual for me to be waylaid by someone from Latvia or Ukraine or Russia who wants to have a chat about it and, at times, they’ve even wanted to sit in it.”
In total, nearly 3.5million air-cooled Zaporozhets vehicles of all models were manufactured between 1960 and 1994.
The early 965 model was briefly imported into the UK in the 1960s with probably little more than the motor show cars making it over here.
Plans, which never reached fruition, were in place to export the 968 to the UK and there is in-built provision for a right hand drive version. Only a handful have been imported in recent years so they are as rare as hen’s teeth in the UK.
Wartburg 1000 de luxe (311 or 312)
Place of origin: Eisenach, East Germany
Engine: 992cc, three cylinder, two stroke
Power output: 45hp
A handsome four-door saloon, the Wartburg 1000 was manufactured in the Eisenach plant previously run by BMW before the Soviet occupation of East Germany.
“You can tell the quality,” says Peter, edging his immaculate 1963 model out of the garage.
Named after the castle that overlooks the factory, the Wartburg 311 (the numbering system another clue to the BMW heritage) featured a free-revving two-stroke engine allied to a rugged, if slightly old-fashioned, chassis design built to cope with poor roads damaged during the war.
The cars received a major upgrade in 1962 which included increasing the engine size from 900cc to 992cc, and the car was renamed the 312 for export markets, but was still known as the 311 at home in East Germany.
Peter took delivery of his car in 1992, the day his ex-wife went into labour with their daughter.
“It’s always easy to remember how long I’ve owned the car,” he says.
“My car was originally shipped to Poland to be the official, chauffeur-driven car for a factory. Eventually, when it was retired from official duties it was given to the chauffeur.”
It came to the UK when a late friend of Peter’s who had a Polish wife brought it home from a trip abroad.
“It was then UK registered and spent a fair amount of time driving backwards and forwards to Poland delivering dry cleaning fluids and supplies to a dry cleaning shop they were running.
“The car drives very well, especially for a car of this era. It’s only got a 992cc three cylinder two stroke engine but because it’s a two stroke it produces the same amount of power as something like a 1500cc or 1600cc four stroke.
“It doesn’t have much trouble in modern traffic – it’s fairly sprightly. Years ago I used to have BMC cars as well from the same sort of era, and this car handles and drives much better than those cars.
“You can happily drive long distances in it, it’s smooth and makes a nice noise as well.”
Later models introduced from 1965 featured a newly-designed chassis and frame, which would be used for the succeeding 353 model.
Place of origin: Kopřivnice, Czechoslovakia
Engine: 2.5-litre, rear-mounted, air-cooled OHV V8
Power output: 105hp
The striking, streamlined Tatra 603 is an astonishing vehicle, a large luxury saloon built in Czechoslovakia exclusively for the use of senior Communist party officials and leading industry figures.
Peter’s car, his most recent acquisition and current renovation project, was used in its homeland by the head of the steelworks in Vestec near Prague, chauffeur-driven of course.
Originally manufactured in 1961 with distinctive triple headlights, it returned to the Tatra factory for a total rebuild in 1973, when it was restyled – as was the practice – with the quad headlights of the third generation model.
Considered state-of-the-art at the time, the 603 owes its streamlined, swooping design to the legacy of Paul Jaray, a pioneer of automotive aerodynamics in the 1930s.
The rear-mounted, air-cooled V8 engine weighed only 180kg, allowing for a 47/53 front/rear weight distribution, which no doubt helped it secure 60 wins in national and international rallying.
Exported to central and east European countries allied to Czechoslovakia at the time, as well as China and Cuba (Fidel Castro was an owner), it was rarely seen in the west.
Peter bought his car last year from a doctor in Bristol, who brought the car to the UK.
Place of origin: Příbor, Czechoslovakia
Engine: 3.5-litre, 4-cylinder, rear-mounted, air-cooled, DOHC V8
Power output: 165hp plus
The successor to the 603, the T613 was designed by Vignale – yes it does have a hint of a (very) large Fiat – with the engine moved forward from its predecessor into a position above the axle to improve balance.
Produced from 1974 to 1996, the Tatra’s V8 had grown to 3.5-litres and featured four overhead camshafts and twin double-barrel carburettors.
Dual circuit servo assisted brakes and McPherson struts at the front with semi-trailing arms at the rear completed a very modern set up.
Peter’s 1990 car was an export model destined for but never delivered to North Korea, specially ordered with a high compression engine and raised seats.
While many were used by government officials and industry bosses, the 165bhp power unit also lent itself to police and rescue use.
“They acted as safety cars at the Hungaroring, and some were used as taxis, by the police and breakdown services,” says Peter.
“It was very much a luxury car and it produced a reasonable amount of power for the time.”
In the early 1990s, Tatra tried to break into the UK luxury car market with the hand-built T613-5, and Jaguar development engineer Tim Bishop was given a brief to develop the car into a rival for the BMW and Mercedes of the time.
The engine was modified to meet emissions standards, with a catalytic converter, computer engine management system and multi-point fuel injection boosting power to more than 200bhp with a top speed of 138mph and impressive claimed 0-60 time of 7.7 seconds.
Sadly, the project was still-born, and only four or five made their way to these shores.
Place of origin: Zwickau, East Germany
Engine: Air cooled, 600cc, two cylinder, two-stroke
Power output: 26hp
To anyone with an interest in the cars of eastern Europe, the Trabant 601 needs no introduction.
The most famous of the two-stroke motors to come from the Eastern Bloc, the Trabant was East Germany’s “people’s car”, with more than 2.8 million cars coming out of Zwickau.
Derided in the west for its smoky engine and Duroplast body that’s often confused for cardboard, the 601 was immortalised when TV footage showed East Berliners crossing the border to the west at the fall of the Berlin Wall in November, 1989.
Peter’s Trabant was built in that very month, and he’s a staunch defender of the car that has attracted more myths and misinformation than almost any other.
“Misinformation tends to have a habit of taking on a life of its own, and once something appears in print or on the internet it just gets copied willy nilly and people believe it’s true,” he says.
“They’re not as smelly and smoky as people make out. They’re a lot cleaner than people have you believe, very economical to run, good around town and easy to park.
“As a lightweight four-seat people’s car – compare it with the bubble car, and the things that were around at the time in the east, it was a real big step up in the same way the Mini was a big step up in the west.
“I compare them with things like Morris Minors and 2CVs, which I’ve driven. I think they compare very well with that sort of car. That’s the sort of market they were aimed at – a people’s car, cheap, efficient transport.”
Read more about the Trabant 601 and Peter’s experiences of the car.
Wartburg 353W Tourist
Place of origin: Eisenach, East Germany
Engine: 992cc, three-cylinder, two stroke
Power output: 55hp
Sold in the UK in the late 60s and early 70s as the Wartburg Knight, the 353 featured cuboid modernist styling when it replaced the 312 in 1966, and went on to become a big seller in eastern Europe.
More than 1 million were produced in a long production run between 1966 and 1988, with about 19,000 UK owners taking the plunge on the mid-sized, two-stroke East German saloon, tempted by the low price and comparatively high spec.
The estate version, called the Tourist, cost less than a Morris 1100 Traveller and came with two-speed wipers, a cigar lighter, reversing lamps, and reclining front seats.
It was also fitted with a freewheel, designed as a fuel efficiency measure and to protect the engine from oil starvation, it also did away with the need to use the clutch between gears.
The 992cc engine was developed from the tried and tested unit from the 311 and 312, now producing 55bhp and good for 80mph.
Peter has owned his 1986 Tourist for eight years, and uses the car regularly as a practical load-lugger.
“It’s an interesting and rare vehicle, but probably not as exciting as the other cars,” he says.
“It’s very useful – you can throw a lot of weight in the back and the engine, which is surprisingly strong, will deal with it.”
With long service intervals and an engine boasting only seven moving parts (yes, really), a common saying among owners was that “one drives a car but only maintains a motorcycle”.
Wartburg soldiered on after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but reunification eventually did for the marque in 1991 when the Eisenach Works produced its last car.
General Motors built a factory just outside Eisenach, where some of the former Wartburg workers were employed to make Opel cars.
Velorex Model 16/350
Place of origin: Solnice, Czechoslovakia
Engine: Jawa 343cc, two-stroke, two-cylinder, air-cooled motorcycle engine
Power output: 16hp
The chances are, unless you’re a regular traveller to the Czech Republic, you’ve never seen a Velorex three-wheeler on the road.
Designed for disabled motorists, the car was born out of post-war Czechoslovakia’s need to provide transport for these people in much the same way as the little blue AC and Invacar three wheelers were used in the UK.
The Velorex model 16, an evolution of the even more basic Oskar three-wheelers, was one of the more successful, with nearly 13,000 produced between 1963 and 1971.
The early cars were initially powered by an adapted 175cc Jawa motorcycle engine, which had grown to a 350cc twin by the time the model 16 was introduced.
Leather cloth bodywork was stretched over a tubular steel frame above a wooden floor, and various other Jawa motorcycle parts were adapted for use in the car.
Peter bought his 1967 350cc model in the late 1990s when prices were low – these days, a fully restored car might set you back nearly £20,000.
Peter says the Velorex, a two-seater capable of speeds well in excess of 50mph, was a product of its time and filled a motoring niche.
“It was intended for disabled people but ended up being used by all sorts of people because it was a cheap car to run,” he adds.
“It used what was available at the time. The company also produced, and still produces, sidecars and because they had a relationship with Jawa they were able to use both sidecar and motorcycle technology to make the car with the help of a few odds and ends sourced from old Skodas.
“It could be very cold in winter because the fit of the fabric, secured by turn-button fasteners, wasn’t brilliant – it was very draughty, and there is no heating!
“It has four forward and four reverse gears – the engine runs backwards for reverse – and this makes it as fast backwards as it is forwards.”
Place of origin: Biggleswade, England
Engine: Excelsior 328cc, two-cylinder, two-stroke
Power output: 18hp
Berkeley was one of the leading players in the British microcar boom of the 1950s.
One of Europe’s largest caravan makers with expertise in glass fibre construction, the company diversified into cars to fill the gaps in their seasonal traditional business.
After a successful run of four-wheeled micro-sportscars, Berkeley moved into the three-wheeler market in 1959 with the T60, using the same Excelsior 328cc motorcycle engine as the earlier SE328.
It was an instant success, sales aided by UK laws that allowed three-wheelers to be driven on a motorcycle licence, plus cheap purchase and road tax.
The Motor Cycle magazine described “a fascinating, front-wheel-drive sports car which combines economy with liveliness and superb cornering”.
Peter has owned his 1960 T60 since the end of the 1970s, and used it regularly for a number of years.
“I did it up at the time and used it for a fair while,” he says. “Then I was laid off work in the 90s when we were in the throes of a big crash so I stripped it down intending to rebuild it again properly.
“Then I found employment and had a child so didn’t have time to finish the work. Since moving here it’s had a few little bits done to it and it’s the next indoor project I’ll be working on.”
Year: 1970 (registered 1972)
Place of origin: Lincolnshire, England
Engine: 850cc BMC Mini
Power output: 34hp
Of all Peter’s cars, the AF Spider is the one most likely to both stop passers-by in their tracks and raise a smile.
Only 12 of the little three-wheelers were made by Alexander “Sandy” Fraser, an automotive innovator who worked for the Mini Cooper race team in the 1960s.
Based on a Mini subframe married to a hardwood frame, and featuring full-length wooden wings, Fraser constructed the prototype in his kitchen while he was off work with an ankle injury.
The body tapered away to a distinctive pointed rear end, while the BMC engine was left open to the elements, Morgan-style.
After positive road tests from both Motor and Autocar, Fraser formed AF Cars and went into production using a variety of Mini engines.
Peter, who bought his 1972-registered car (probably built in 1970) in 1982, says the car was simply too expensive to sell well.
“It was twice the price of a Mini,” he explains. “Mine is one of only about 12 made, including later Grand Prix models that had mudguards instead of the wooden wings.”
Peter bought the car from “somewhere in the West Country” having seen an advert in Exchange and Mart magazine.
“I had never heard of it before,” he admits. “I drove my 1955 Austin A50 down there, saw it and gave him the deposit there and then. The car had been left outside in a derelict condition, and it took me about six months to renovate it.
“From the point of view of great fun on a nice day it’s difficult to beat. It’s noisy, quick, handles well, and attracts a huge amount of attention.
“It’s the sort of car where if you pull up at traffic lights pedestrians stop to look at it and the lights have turned green again before they’ve crossed!
“Even if you are not feeling very happy, you go out in it and come back with a smile on your face.”
Peter also owns the original prototype that Fraser built in his kitchen, complete with a supercharged 1275cc Mini engine, and all the moulds and drawings necessary to produce the cars from scratch.
“I rescued the car from being scrapped and have everything I need to rebuild it,” he says.
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