I’m not even going to pretend like I’m not a sucker for a cute car. I am, and I don’t care who knows it. Whatever miserable set of bad ideas I have rattling around in my head that define my self-image, they allow me to appreciate a genuinely adorable vehicle, and this VAZ E1101 prototype may be one of the cutest goddamn cars I’ve ever seen.
What really makes this strange, mostly forgotten Soviet prototype so cute is that looking adorable or appealing in any way was never part of the plan. The friendly, puppy-like look of the thing is completely accidental—there’s no sense of self-awareness or narcissism here. The VAZ E1101 is cute in the same way a duckling or a kitten is: inherently and unaware.
The story of the VAZ E1101 starts with the Soviet entry-level, compact economy cars being built for the masses; well, there was really only one, the ZAZ Zaporozhets 965.
The ZAZ 965 was designed in 1958 at the Ukranian ZAZ factory, and came to market in 1960. It was roughly a copy of the Fiat 600, and, more generally, the Volkswagen Beetle. Like those cars, it took the rear-engine approach to packaging and economy, with a rear-mounted, air-cooled V4.
While this approach was working fine for not just ZAZ but Fiat and Volkswagen, there was something of a small car revolution happening in the world: in 1959, the British Motor Corporation introduced the Mini, with its transverse-mounted engine driving the front wheels. It was a clever and efficient package that would come to define nearly all small cars (and, indeed, most modern cars) in the future.
This innovation was even noticed behind the Iron Curtain (which I assume had some handy windows installed in it just to keep track of things like this), and by 1966 the Chief Designer of AvtoVAZ (known as VAZ, and perhaps better known to most as the company that built Ladas) was tired of seeing all those Renault 4s and Autobianchi Primulas and other BMCs with FWD, and decided it was time to develop one of their own.
Development of an all-new transverse, FWD platform began, and by 1968 they were ready to begin designing a body for their Soviet Mini. It’s interesting to see the body design coming along, because two versions were being devloped on opposite sides of the same model: the right half was designed by designer Yu. Danilov, and the left part by designer V. Ashkin.
Where Danilov was taking a pretty clean, conventional approach (it sort of looks like a scaled-down version of what Volvo would be building about a decade later), Askin was going sort of bonkers, with complicated ridges and creases and surface detailing. Here, look:
Kinda nuts, but kinda cool, too, right? Eventually, though, the less-daring people in charge of the project opted for the more restrained side, and work began on the actual prototype.
The pace seems a bit leisurely by modern standards, but this was the Soviet era, so don’t be too alarmed when you hear that it wasn’t until 1971 that construction started on the prototype. If it helps, in the interim, they made a “collapsible” wooden styling buck, which had to have taken a while.
The prototype used the transverse engine of an all new design, displacing about 900cc. It appears that a modified Fiat 850 gearbox was used, and instead of complicated CV joints like you’d expect to find on a FWD car, a pair of simpler universal joints were used.
Part of what ended up making this car so freaking adorable was that no suitably small wheels could be sourced, so full-size wheels from the larger Fiat-derived Lada 2101 were used, which gave the tiny car a big-footed puppy look, a key component of what makes this thing so weirdly appealing.
Along with the big wheels, the large round sealed-beam headlights happened to be the easiest, cheapest, and most readily available while contributing to the car’s innocent, wide-eyed look of wonder. All this, plus the the tall, airy greenhouse and hilariously stubby little trunk tacked on the car’s butt combine to form a brutal face-punch of cute.
The look of the car caused engineers testing the E1101 to nickname it“Cheburashka,” an unknown animal from a series of Soviet-era kids’ stories.
Extensive testing of the E1101 was undertaken, comparing the car to the Fiat 127 and 128. Eventually, based on these tests, the design of the E1101 was extensively revised, losing many of the most charming elements like the funny little trunk and becoming a much more conventional-looking small city car. It actually ended up looking a lot like a Honda 600, I think.
The FWD basic people’s car/city car project didn’t progress much beyond these prototypes, at least until the late 1980s, when the VAZ Oka went into production, finally achieving the goal of a cheap FWD car for the Soviet masses.
Still, none of those subsequent cars could match the raw squeetonium of that first little attempt. Look at that little stillborn Soviet!