After Renault announced its departure this week from the Russian auto market amid the country’s war with Ukraine, Moscow’s mayor announced its factory will be used to restart the defunct Soviet-era Moskvich car brand.
Little known outside the former Soviet Union and its satellite countries, Moskvich was founded around 1930 and operated until 1991. As with many car brands from Communist bloc countries, Moskvich struggled with quality problems. The Muskovich 408 of the 1960s, which had a 50-horsepower engine, was even cited by Soviet officials for numerous defects, according to the book “Cars for Comrades” by Lewis Siegelbaum.
The author describes it, simply, as a “terrible car.”
Despite these persistent issues, the Soviet government entered into an agreement with French automaker Renault, to modernize the factory and increase output to 200,000 cars by 1975, according to the book. Production ended as the Soviet Union dissolved and Western automakers, like Renault, moved in. A portion of a former Moskvich factory reopened in 2005 as a joint venture between Renault and the city of Moscow.
Renault had also owned a controlling interest in Avtovaz, parent company of the popular Russian car brand Lada. In its statement this week, Renault said that controlling interest was sold to the government of Russia, while its controlling interest in the Moscow factory, where Renault vehicles were made, was sold to the city of Moscow. Renault left open the possibility of a return to the Russian market later.
“The foreign owner has decided to close the Moscow Renault factory. This is their right, however, we cannot allow the several thousand strong workforce to find themselves unemployed,” Moscow’s mayor Sergei Sobyanin, wrote in a blog post, which was translated by CNN Business. “Therefore, I have made a decision to record the plant as a city asset and resume the production of passenger cars under the historical Moskvich brand.”
“In 2022, we are turning a new page in the history of Moskvich,” Sobyanin added.
The company will try to keep all the plant’s current employees working there, the mayor wrote. The factory will also try to get most of the cars’ parts from Russian firms. The factory will begin by producing conventional gasoline-powered cars but, as some point, will switch to making electric cars, according to Sobyanin’s blog post.
Sobyanin did not specify what vehicle models would be built under the Moskvich name at the former Renault factory in the near future, however.
Moskvich traces its roots to what are considered some of the first Soviet-designed cars from the 1920s and 30s. Following World War II, the company began producing cars under the Moskvich name, which means “Muscovite,” or a native of Moscow.
Today, about 200,000 Moskvich cars are still registered in Russia, according to the Autostat analytical agency.
Generally speaking, cars produced in the centrally controlled economies of the Soviet Union and its satellite nations were not known for their quality.
Some cars made in Communist bloc countries, such as the East German Trabant, found cult followings in the West. The Trabant’s body was made from a material called Duroplast that resembled plastic but was made from a mixture of wood pulp, cotton fiber and resin.
Even still, turnarounds are possible. Škoda, which was made in then-communist controlled Czechoslovakia, was taken over by the Volkswagen Group after the fall of the Soviet Union. Now headquartered in the Czech Republic, it has become one of VW Group’s most popular and profitable brands.
CNN Business’s Mark Thompson and Reuters contributed to this story.