It was the height of the Cold War. Scientists on both sides of the Atlantic were building bigger and more powerful rockets. The Soviet Union had just sent the first human to space. Space was the next frontier. Cars, by comparison, seemed archaic. But, for the USSR, a Soviet mass-produced car was a matter of national pride.
Italy to the rescue
In 1966, the Soviet government entered into a partnership with the Italian car manufacturer, Fiat, to create the Lada. Modelled on the Fiat-124, the Soviet version had to be significantly reworked to handle the harsh terrains and freezing winters of the USSR. The result was the Lada 2101, a car that would become an icon for drivers around the world..
The first Lada rolled off the AvtoVAZ manufacturing line in 1970. Unlike the Model T, it came in two colours, blue and red - the patriotic colours of the RSFSR flag. The car was an instant hit. The keys to its success were its affordability, reliability, and simplicity. Even when it did break down, it could easily be repaired by its owner in their own garage. The wait list was several years, unless you knew someone high up in the government. Despite the wait list, AvtoVAZ launched its first advertising campaign later that year. The results are simply spectacular.
A car for the rural areas
A year later, the designers at AutoVAZ were given the directive by the Premier of the Soviet Union to design a truck for rural areas. Like the original Lada 2101, the Lada Niva’s clamshell hood and rear three-quarter section leaned heavily on another Fiat design, the 127. Before entering production in 1977, the Niva was put to the test. It was driven through the Ural Mountains, across the barren and lunar landscapes of Siberia, as well as vast deserts of Kazakhstan. It not only survived, but thrived.
Like the original Lada 2101, it was also a hit. It captured more than 40% of Europe’s 4x4 market. The Lada brand became one of the Soviet Union’s most profitable and renown exports. The cars which were “made for export were of superior quality compared to those made for the Soviet market”. They were made of thickened metal, had a reinforced transmission and a better battery. “In 2002, it was awarded zero stars out of a possible four by the Russian ARCAP safety-assessment program. The reviewer noted the very rugged body of the car as the only positive aspect in terms of safety.”
Note: I drove a Lada Niva in the Caucasus Mountains in the North of Azerbaijan. It is hands-down the most entertaining vehicle I’ve ever driven.
The Lada legacy lives on…
The Lada outlived the Soviet Union. Not just the cars manufactured during the Soviet reigne, but the brand too. With more than 20 million vehicles sold worldwide, even today it commands 20% of the Russian passenger car market share. The company was bought by Renault in 2017, who plan to revamp the brand.
Built spaces tell us the stories of the civilisations that shaped them. They’re products of their time; windows on the politics of the past. Architecture isn’t just art, it’s anthropology. Architecture Across the Ages takes travellers to some of the most important – and most often overlooked – architectural sites across Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Visit Uzbekistan’s towering turquoise mosques, see how Georgia shook off Soviet rule with cosmic-inspired superstructures, and witness the rebirth of Turkmenistan with its audacious white marble city. Learn more