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Italian cars and Soviet steel

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#1 dmj

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Posted 23 November 2002 - 21:49

Probably slightly OT, but not entirely unrelated to topics usually discussed here, recent problems of Fiat Auto prompted me to start this thread. It is relatively common knowledge that implementation of lower quality Russian, or better to say Soviet steel was one of key reasons in declining of Italian car industry. Apparently, Italian cars didn't rust more than others until Italian manufacturers started using cheap but low quality steel imported from former USSR. After that, they developed strong tendency to become eaten by rust in first few years of existence (Lancia Beta, Alfasud...), also gaining bad reputation they never fully overcome... As a distant consequence of it, Lancia brand will probably disappear very soon, immediately after GM or anyone else takes over Fiat Auto.

Of course that it isn't full and only reason behind demise of Italian cars, one can also point to dry climate that logically led to taking less care of rust protection than, let's say, German or Swedish manufacturers... Doing business with heart instead of brain is also too common case in Italy, as we all know it (and I do believe that quite a lot of us like that kind of approach...), but that thing with Soviet steel often intrigued me, so I would like to know a few things about that.

When exactly Italians started to use imported Soviet steel in car manufacturing? I believe it was around 1970, but it would be nice to find out exactly when – and why. Was it related to ever so strong Italian Communist party? It is well known that Agnelli family never supported them but also always carefully avoided direct conflicts with Communists. It could be related – Soviets mostly considered Italy as some kind of should-be Communist country, and relations with Italian Communists were mostly good (even new town built for manufacturing licensed Italian cars marketed as Lada or Zhiguli was named after Palmiro Togliatti). So were Italian Communists key factor in choosing Fiat to motorizing USSR with Lada cars, and in getting steel in exchange for royalties and given technology? IIRC, Soviet steel was indeed a kind of compensation in Lada deal...

Other question is why they used it at all, if they knew it doesn't meet quality standards (and they surely could see it from the beginning)? Was it just Agnelli's greed? I presume that steel had to be very cheap but effect of gaining bad reputation really ate any profits in long term, through lower sales and lost confidence, reflected in fact that Italian cars, apart from very exotic ones, had to be underpriced for several decades, if they were to sell at all. Other thing, for how long they actually used it? Did they stop using it later, after rust scandals of mid-Seventies? Was Alfa Romeo also using it?

This would be a fascinating story to tell (almost as good as one of fateful Lancia family) – including Agnellis, Soviet chairmen, possibly Italian Communists, probably full of strange and hidden political decisions, public scandals and wrong market decisions... If there is a book on this subject, I’d like to know. If there isn't I'd like to see it published one day... But I am afraid that not too much will be left of Fiat empire by then. Probably just a few cheap Fiat models and some Opels labeled as Alfa Romeos. And Ferrari in Bernie's ownership...


#2 Vitesse2

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Posted 23 November 2002 - 22:31

As I understand it, the Russians used the steel in part payment for the Togliattigrad plant. Interestingly, the US appears to have underwritten the deal and may have provided some of the machinery.


go to document 114


go to document 134

A Google search under Togliattigrad brings up all sorts of things!

#3 dmj

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Posted 23 November 2002 - 22:47

Thanks, Richard, fascinating reading. Especially the fact that Lyndon Johnson had a Fiat convertible... :lol: I also think steel was payment for Lada project but would like to find out more on asked questions... Although documents you found probably negatively answer my guessing of PCI's involment in that deal... It had to wait for Bruno Giacomelli to restore links between PCI and Russians... :rolleyes:

#4 Barry Lake

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Posted 24 November 2002 - 04:53

Great subject dmj! I hope TNF regulars don't complain. I would like to see more of this type of discussion/research.

I had long been aware of the problems the Italians had with the Soviet steel, and that it stemmed from a deal for a factory built in Russia. But I never really got into the nitty-gritty of it all.

Mention of Lada and barter deals with Russia reminds me of when I was in New Zealand for their world championship rally in 1990. Denny Hulme was driving the clerk of course, or was Car '0', in a Lada. He told me the NZ importers didn't pay for them with money, they paid in milk and eggs. He said, "I hope the eggs are rotten, because the cars are!"

Having said that, I tested a Lada Niva on an incredibly tough off-road course once - one that stopped a lot of highly regarded vehicles. Vertical climbs up rocks and all sorts of things. Despite short throttle pedal travel that made driving awkward, the Niva sailed through with amazing aplomb. Long and supple suspension travel made it like a mini Range Rover (also far better off-road than 'purists' would like to believe). Then, on a relatively smooth gravel road, the entire battery carrier and battery fell into the engine compartment. Brand new car with very few km on the clock! Good car off road, but you wouldn't want to own one.

#5 cabianca

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Posted 24 November 2002 - 06:38

It is my understanding that this quality control problem had to do with the Italian unions, which were, and are, Communist party dominated. I'm not sure that the steel came directly from Russia, but that's certainly possible. I have heard that the steel used was reprocessed stock (done in Italy), making for more jobs for Italian union members, but also creating a lesser quality of steel, which led to the rust problem. Certainly Italian cars seemed more prone to rust than other Continentals, but was this just in keeping with their overall quality, which was far from that of the competition, with the possible exception of the English. Agree that this is a fascinating subject.

The Italian industry's problems were hardly limited to rust. I remember going to Alfa once to drive the then-new V-6 Sedan. It was a fabulous car. Unfortunately, by the time they figured out how to air condition it, it arrive in the U.S. four or five years after the original target date, by which time the competition had been through two model iterations and the Alfa was no longer competitive. I think the same fate has befallen the new Maserati, only now arriving, years after it was intended. So far, it has proven to be absolutely sale-proof here. Maserati promised several arrival dates over a period of years. Each time I would call sources at the US Department of Transportation, only to be told that none of the required paperwork had been filed, and therefore the car was at least six months away from being allowed to be imported. I don't mind being told in an Italian restaurant that "the chef doesn't do it that way" when I make a special request, because the food is so good. But that kind of thinking doesn't work in the world automotive market. None of the intended market for Maseratis in America has any knowledge whatsoever of Maserati's heritage and so many of Maserati's competitors have cars that do everything better for a lesser price that it's hopeless.

#6 Rainer Nyberg

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Posted 24 November 2002 - 12:42

Not only Italian cars suffered from corrosion during this era. Dmj mentions German and Swedish cars, I remember that Volkswagen types like Polo, Golf and Passat also suffered quite badly from this. Up here in the north were roads are sprayed with salt during winters, corrosion was quite common in most cars. But especially those 1975-78 cars really suffered, even Volvo and Saab were affected. The typical corrosion could be found around the wheel arches and lower body parts, but during those years, you could find corrosion on the middle of the trunk lid or on the roof.... That suggests to me inferior materials, and it was suggested during the mid or late 1980s, that the sheetmetal was indeed of East European origin, it had something to do with the carbon content.

#7 dmj

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Posted 24 November 2002 - 14:02

I agree that rust protection was really a great problem throughout the world in time we are discussing here, but Italian cars were undoubtly most notorious for that. I also agree that there were a lot of other things that affected italian Industry (remember trying to sell a 4 cylinder executive luxury car, Lancia Gamma, to market that simply wouldn't accept anything with less than 6 cylindres? And engineering that car so that engine area is too cramped to squeeze anything bigger in - so that mistake couldn't be solved later...) But I'd still like to know more about original subject. And I wholeheartedly agree with Barry that I'd like to have more threads with general motoring and car industry themes here...

#8 marion5drsn

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Posted 24 November 2002 - 18:41

I don’t believe that carbon was the only problem it is more likely to be the lack of chromium and other real rust resistance metals mixed in with the steel that would cause rust. Salt on the roads only adds to the problem. You’re got to remember that all the car manufacturers have trouble with rust in areas where salt is used on the roads. Also the design of areas on the car that don’t allow salt to be washed away rust even faster than when the design helps gets rid of the water/salt combination. M.L. Anderson

#9 dretceterini

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Posted 24 November 2002 - 22:40

FIATs problem in north America wasn't only rust, but also a poor dealer and service network...

#10 BRG

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Posted 25 November 2002 - 12:37

This all smacks of revisionism. To blame FIAT's rust problems onto the USSR is a bit too easy. Let's give credit where it is due - FIAT's legendary build quality!

Basically, steel will not rust if it is properly coated so that oxygen cannot get through. On a car, that is done by a variety of means - various treatmetns and coatings, layers of paint, underseal and so on. I suspect that it was the quality (or lack of it) of these processes that was FIAT's problem, along with poorly thought out designs that failed to eliminate rust generating pockets in the bodywork, rather than the quality of the steel itself.

Of course, at the time, others were also still suffering rust problems. Japanese cars were seriously rust-prone until 10 or so years ago, although they had exemplary mechanical reliablity (unlike FIAT). Presumably they weren't using Soviet steel?

#11 ian senior

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Posted 25 November 2002 - 13:02

I'm glad Rainer reminded us that not all German cars are bulletproof. The early front wheel drive VWs were appalingly badly made, with porous body work being every bit the equivalent of the much maligned talian cars. And it was not just the body, the mechanical bits lef lots to be desired too. I remember my girlfriend's father owning a 3 year old Golf that looked and sounded like a 20 year old veteran. In an attempt to show some respect for the thing, I said "these diesel Golfs are quite good , aren't they". Only to be told, through gritted teeth, that it was in fact a petrol engine under the bonnet.

#12 Garagiste

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Posted 25 November 2002 - 13:46

Mid 70s British cars were very nearly as bad as the worst Italian ones. VWs though? I'm not suggesting that they were entirely rust free, but compare the numbers of early Golf and Polos still on UK roads against Lancia Betas or Chrysler Sunbeams. OK they may have sold better in the first place, but still. When did you last see a Chrysler Alpine or even an Austin Maxi? They used to be everywhere and I've not seen one moving in years.
The Beta really was the rot-box par excellance mind you. Lancia's reputation never recovered in the UK, IIRC the last one officially imported was the Y10.

#13 st59cz

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Posted 25 November 2002 - 15:47

With massive employment of carbon deep-drawing sheet for frameless carbodies, automotive engineers had not changed corresponding design and rust-proof of its cars. Or fairly: when I build make Volvo PV544 from shetts like for Alafsud it can be rotten in one winter too...

#14 BRG

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Posted 25 November 2002 - 18:05

Originally posted by Garagiste
When did you last see a Chrysler Alpine or even an Austin Maxi? They used to be everywhere and I've not seen one moving in years.

There were some nice (or rather, well maintained) Maxis at the Classic Car Show at the NEC in Birmingham the other week. Mind you, the guy on the stand (the Old BMC Owners Club or some such name) was amazingly prickly and defensive - he wouldn't let anyone near them if he thought they might be going to laugh at the wretched devices. Although, to be fair, I don't think that the Maxi wasn't a bad car in rust terms. It was the appalling engine and even worse gearchange that killed it off and I think most went to the scrappers with mechancial ailments rather than terminal rust. It was actually an extremely roomy and practical car - with a decent motor and transmission, it could have been the British equivalent to the Renault 16 .

Originally posted by Garagiste
The Beta really was the rot-box par excellance mind you.

IIRC, the Beta suffered a really specific and disastrous rust problem. The body would look OK, but the area where the engine mountings met the chassis rusted through completely leading the engine to actually fall out. This damage was completely uneconomic to repair, so you had to scrap what still looked like a quite presentable car from the outside. Understandably, Beta owners were unhappy about this!

#15 dmj

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Posted 25 November 2002 - 21:25

Basically, whole Beta scandal emerged when Lancia tried to buy back all troublesome cars, them being too expensive to repair under warranty, and newspapers found about it.

#16 Simpson RX1

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Posted 26 November 2002 - 00:08

[QUOTE]Originally posted by Garagiste
Mid 70s British cars were very nearly as bad as the worst Italian ones. VWs though? I'm not suggesting that they were entirely rust free, but compare the numbers of early Golf and Polos still on UK roads against Lancia Betas or Chrysler Sunbeams.

Oh I think the problem went a bit further back than this - proper rust proofing didn't arrive in the UK until the 80's.

Back in the 60's, a colleague of my Father's bought a new Vauxhall Viva HA ('65 ish) and, two weeks after purchase, leaned on the bootlid and fell through it; the only thing holding the panel together was the paint! Also bear in mind that in 1964/65, 1 in 3 of all cars sold in the UK was an Austin 1100/1300 - where are they now?

On the subject of German cars, I'll concede that there aren't too many Sunbeams and Betas around now, but then how many were sold relative to Golfs and Polos? When I started in the motor trade in 1984, I was told to check Golfs very carefully for rust (bearing in mind that even the oldest was only 8), and Passats and Scirrocos were twice as bad!

To be fair, I think the biggest problem is that the UK is one of the very few countries to use salt on the roads. The European manufacturers didn't know how to cope with this, but desperately wanted to sell cars over here; Britain isn't known as the Golden Goose for nothing!

#17 Kaha

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Posted 26 November 2002 - 12:39

The Lancia Beta didn't rust more than other cars of that era.
"The Great Rust Scandal" was mostly due to the PR-fiasco from the Lancia importer.
(Compare to Audi that managed to kick them self out of the American market simply because one of ther customers manged to press the throttle instead of the brake!)

All mid '70s (massproduced) cars rusted badly. This was largely due to that new manufacturing technics allowed the body to be made from larger steelsheets. This caused for odd placed weldings and "rust pockets" (that allowed water and dirt to get in). This combined with a general decline in design quality, workmanship and poor material quality, really caused a severe increase in rust damages in the '70s.

The main problem with the Beta was (as said before on this thread) that if it has started to rust is almost impossible to determine unless you tear parts of the car down. Equally if it has rust it is really hard to repair. On of the main rust areas are at the rear upper suspension mounts.
That said I know of several nice and rust free Betas.

#18 Simpson RX1

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Posted 26 November 2002 - 23:44

Sorry friend, they really did rot more than most others.

Italian cars of that period are about the only ones I've seen (and I've examined a few cars!) that rust in the centre of panels. When you are appraising vehicles for part-exchange, most have their trouble spots, and a few have places to look that indicate worse trouble elsewhere; only 70's/80's Italian cars have NO panels that are safe from tinworm!

The Beta is also about the only car I've come across where UK dealers were advised to check for rust on new cars fresh from the transporter.

#19 Kaha

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Posted 16 December 2002 - 11:53

Well, I do have a different experinence than you have.
I have known about 20 Betas through the years. Surely most of the rusted but not much more than any car of that era, and certainly not in odd places. They did rust in very typical places, that unfortunately was hard to see, and hard to fix. This killed off lot of Betas.
I do know a handfull of Betas still alive today (Including my fathers, wich is of the road due to mechanincal problem, but he intends to put it back on the road as his winter car :eek: )

I do believe that Sweden is one of the heaviest users of salt on the roads, in the world.
(Ok the cars that I have known are probably a bit more enthusiasticaly maintained than normal cars.)


#20 tyrrellp34

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Posted 22 February 2003 - 17:37

For more informations regarding Bruno and the PCI look here



#21 eldougo

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Posted 24 February 2003 - 08:31

:rotfl: :rotfl:

That said I know of several nice and rust free Betas. :rotfl:

You must have a -------------------------------------------------------------------- sence
of humour Kaha in 1977/78 i wanted to buy one an send it back to OZ .however a
saleman i know told me not to even think about it, they were the BIGGEST rust bucketin the
world bar none.An this guy would sell his Grandmother to make a quid.


Also i have had 3 FIAT 850 coupe,s over the years an they only began to rust in our dry
climate after 16 /17 years of service not bad for IRONCURTIAN steel. :up:


#22 Paul Newby

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Posted 24 February 2003 - 12:08

Being a past member of the local Lancia club I know of quite a few Betas that have survived, some relatively rust free. True, they are not as loved as Fulvias, yet the reason most are now being wrecked is because they are worth next to nothing and its uneconomic to fix the moderate amount of rust any 25 year old car would have. This is a problem shared with Alfetta GT/GTVs - Infact I was offered one for $300! - not long out of rego!

The Beta certainly did not suffer the front subframe rust that they suffered in England.

My experience with Italian rustboxes goes back 15 years. The worst was interestingly a Lancia (Flavia) 2000 where the subframe mounts were rusty and there were holes everywhere. What I continually noticed was how "good" cars deteriorated when left out in the weather for an extended period, or happened to be parked near the beach - this has cost me dearly. :( Also cars with "original" rust just bodged up are a nightmare in waiting! It becomes twice as hard and twice as expensive to fix.

The problem with Soviet steel is that no part of a car structure is immune. Instead of expecting rust in box sections like sills or known water traps, Italian cars have been known to rust in the middle of the roof (no sunroof.) But most 70's Italian cars that have survived are now preserved and looked after - like my 1975 Alfetta GT :wave:

#23 ianm1808

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Posted 24 February 2003 - 16:09

Regarding the Lancia Betas , as I remember those cars kept my Grandparent's garage going for a few years. They were brought to us , transporter after transporter , to be filled full of Endrust/Protectol. I seem to remember quite a few Allegros and Princesses as well.. You still see them occasionally wearing their little yellow Protectol stickers.

Thank god for BL and Lancia in the 70's. Paid for my first go-kart....

#24 Brun

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Posted 24 February 2003 - 20:43

German manufacturers had the same problem. Strangely enough, very few people remember this. In the 1970s, Audi built their 100 and 200 models out of Soviet steel, presumably because there was a steel shortage. Perhaps the Russian stuff was cheaper, too. And If I'm correct, VW also built many cars from bad quality steel. Anyway, these cars quickly started to rust. Since they were aimed at middle and high income customers, Audi really feared for the loss of its good name.

In the Netherlands, the importer bought back hundreds of these cars from customers at list prices. All those cars ended up in the shredder. They weren't even stripped for reusable parts. Which is one of the reasons that late '70s luxury Audi sedans are exceptionally rare over here.