Normally, when we think of Soviet cars, we think of boxy, utilitarian cars that people waited years to get. We don't usually think of fun, despite the somewhat ironic way many of us covet these cars now. But that almost all changed, with a little known side effect of Perestroika that included fun cars. Cars like the LuAZ Proto.
In the late '80s, Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union and ushered in the era of Glasnost and Perestroika — new policies of openness and transparency that we're finally loosening the iron grip of the Soviet state. During this period of experimentation, Gorbachev wanted to encourage young auto designers, and encouraged the establishment of a small unit at the national automobile research labs, known as NAMI.
This six-person team, based in Leningrad, was tasked with coming up with a small jeep-like vehicle for rural use, and the Ukrainian LuAZ plant would build it. In a move unusual for the Soviets but reflective of the new policy changes, this team would be competing with a LuAZ factory team.
Two members of this team, Dmitry Parfenov and Gene Hain, were personally selected by Gorbachev because of the work the did developing their own Soviet sports car, the Laura. I'll cover that fascinating car more soon. Oh, and that small group seems to have developed into this car armoring firm as well — that'll also be worth investigating more.
The resulting vehicle, named Proto in what can only be a very prescient attempt to make Google searches more difficult, was clearly the result of the heady feelings of independence and freedom in the air, because it's anything but boring and utilitarian.
In some ways, it reminds me of a smaller, more versatile Vehicross: modern, and while not traditionally sleek, having a very high-tech sort of aesthetic about it. The mechanicals were largely from what was available: the engine was a MeMZ-245, an 1100cc 53 HP four, though the transmission was all-new. It was a six-speed, unusual for the time, with the first two gears being ultra-low for offroad use, and all four wheels were driven, the front two right off the gearbox without a transfer case.
There were McPherson struts up front and a De Dion axle at rear, with rubber bushings isolating the differential from the chassis to keep things smooth. The body was made from pressed steel panels with plastic outer skins — essentially the same dent-resistant process Saturn was using in the States.
But it was the novel design that really made this a fun car. There was the capable-robot overall look with novel placement of things like indicator lights, and the design was remarkably flexible. The roof panel over the front seats could pop off, and the whole rear roof could be removed as well, like a camper top on a pickup, leaving a very open four-seat jeep-like vehicle.
The seats could fold down to make a pair of sleeping cots, or could be folded out of the way entirely to make a sort of tiny pickup truck, complete with drop-down rear tailgate.
From the perspective of a fun car for people who like doing outdoorsy, active stuff, the Proto's design was hard to beat. About the size of a Suzuki Samauri with even more flexibility than a Honda Element, low power, sure, but light, good on gas, and easy to deal with either in a city or the back woods. I'm not kidding, I'd love one of these.
Sadly, the progressive spirit didn't quite manage to filter into every cranny of the old Soviet state. When the single Proto prototype (made of protons for protection and protocol) was taken to the state-run testing center in Moscow, the car was sent back a week later, no testing performed.
No reason was given why the car wasn't evaluated or tested, and the project died there. It may have been felt that LuAZ would not have been able to put the vehicle into production, but no official reason was ever given.
So, that was the end of the Proto story. Personally, I think if the Russians ever want to make headway into larger international markets, a vehicle like the Proto is the way to go. The Lada Niva is possibly the closest thing to it, and likely enjoys the most outside the Eastern Bloc success of any Russian car. A modernized, flexible, small, cheap, and fun on/off-roader like the Proton would be a novel and interesting way to break into new markets without massive competition.
I'm also available as spokesman. I'd look great lounging on that hood in a speedo.