THEN AND NOW: RUS­SIA'S 4X4 CEL­E­BRATES 40 YEARS

to the 4x4 world cel­e­brates 40 years

4WDrive - - Contents - By Kris­tian A. Kennedy

It is per­haps one of the great ironies in au­to­mo­bile his­tory that one of the pre­cur­sors of the com­pact SUV/ cross­over was a ve­hi­cle man­u­fac­tured 40 years ago on the other side of the Iron Cur­tain dur­ing the Cold War. In April, 1977 the VAZ-2121 Lada Niva rolled off assem­bly lines at the Volga As­so­ci­ated Au­to­mo­bile Works (Av­toVAZ) in Toly­atti, Rus­sia. Still in pro­duc­tion to­day, the Niva out­lived the Soviet sys­tem that con­ceived it, and be­came not only one of the most suc­cess­ful Rus­sian­made ve­hi­cles but also one of the best-sell­ing 4WDs in Europe. Fa­mously de­scribed by Av­toVAZ de­sign­ers a “Re­nault 5 on a Land Rover chas­sis,” the Niva is said to be one of the first SUVs built with a uni­body frame. To­day, the uni­body com­pact cross­over is an auto in­dus­try main­stay.

A prod­uct of Soviet-era pro­le­tar­ian func­tion­al­ity, the Niva was man­u­fac­tured to be a low-main­te­nance work­horse that could ne­go­ti­ate the USSR’s for­mi­da­ble ge­og­ra­phy -- from the re­mote­ness of the Eurasian steppe and the Siberian taiga, to the moun­tain­ous ter­rain of the Urals and the deserts of Cen­tral Asia.

The ve­hi­cle was named “Niva” (“field” in Rus­sian) to iden­tify it as an off-road ve­hi­cle. But like the KHL hockey team named after a farm equip­ment fac­tory (Trak­tor Chelyabinsk) and ubiq­ui­tous de­pic­tions of ears of wheat and hard­scrab­ble sickle-wield­ing peas­ants in Soviet art and pro­pa­ganda, the name ‘Niva” was prob­a­bly also a re­flec­tion of the Soviet en­thu­si­asm for col­lec­tivized farm­ing.

Out­side Rus­sia, the Niva was a reg­u­lar -and a win­ner -- at off-road ral­lies. It was used

as a fleet ve­hi­cle at the Rus­sian Belling­shausen re­search sta­tion in Antarc­tica and for a time held the record for al­ti­tude climbed by a ve­hi­cle after as­cend­ing Mount Ever­est.

The Niva has a 1.7 litre, four cylin­der en­gine, a five-speed man­ual trans­mis­sion, an in­ter-axle lock­ing dif­fer­en­tial and two gear ranges. In 40 years, Av­toVAZ has made few mod­i­fi­ca­tions to the orig­i­nal de­sign. Some no­table changes in­clude the in­tro­duc­tion of the five-speed trans­mis­sion in the 1980s, a fuel in­jec­tion sys­tem in the 1990s and pow­er­steer­ing after 2006. The ex­te­rior de­sign has scarcely changed at all since 1977. Per­haps the most ob­vi­ous dif­fer­ence is the larger ver­ti­cal tail lights that adorn later mod­els. In April of this year, Av­toVAZ an­nounced a lim­ited pro­duc­tion run of 1977 units to com­mem­o­rate the ve­hi­cle’s 40th an­niver­sary.

Lada first en­tered the Cana­dian car mar­ket in the 1970s, dur­ing a pe­riod of EastWest thaw, with its 4-door sedan, the VAZ 2107. A mod­i­fied Fiat 124, the VAZ 2107 is the au­to­mo­bile most Cana­di­ans as­so­ciate with the Lada brand. The car was sold in Canada as the Lada Signet, the name­sake of ve­hi­cle im­porter Dennis Signet. The Signet’s pres­ence in Canada was enough to earn it pass­ing men­tion in former Prime Min­is­ter Pierre Trudeau’s rem­i­nis­cences on Canada’s trade re­la­tions with Soviet Rus­sia. A “low-price, no-frills fam­ily au­to­mo­bile,” he called it, not­ing the “mixed re­views” it re­ceived from driv­ers in Canada. By the 1990s, Canada would re­ceive its first im­port of the Lada Niva. Although Lada Canada is no more, a few Ni­vas can still be seen on Cana­dian roads and ev­ery now and then, some­where in Canada, a Niva goes on sale on­line.

The Niva I own was one such on­line pur­chase. I first came across the Niva in my in­ter­na­tional trav­els and wanted one of my own. For me, the ve­hi­cle’s ap­peal rested in its rudi­men­tary de­sign and its dowdy in­te­rior fea­tures. BBC’s Top Gear put it per­fectly when it spoke of the Niva’s ap­peal be­ing its “anti-hero at­trac­tion.” A lime green ’97 Niva, it’s free of mod­i­fi­ca­tions to date, save a pair of 4x4 fog lights.

What is it like to drive one? The Niva is not a ve­hi­cle for 4x4 en­thu­si­asts look­ing for the com­fort and ease of a con­ve­nient cross­over, a daily drive that hap­pens to be a four-wheel drive. Be­hind the wheel, the Niva owner must de­velop the au­to­mo­tive acu­men of a clutch-whis­perer. Amid the din of en­gine noise on a paved high­way you can al­most hear the ve­hi­cle groan­ing Nyet! Trans­fer­ring from smooth as­phalt to a pot­holed dirtand-gravel road in On­tario cot­tage coun­try, the Niva re­dis­cov­ers fa­mil­iar ground and is in its el­e­ment as the dacha jeep Av­toVAZ de­sign­ers en­vis­aged it to be. Jerky steer­ing and un­gain­li­ness give way to clunky agility. High clear­ance and short over­hangs fa­cil­i­tate the Niva’s abil­ity to climb and de­scend chal­leng­ing ter­rain, while in­de­pen­dent front sus­pen­sion and a light­weight body with a curb weight of a mere 1210 kg aid off-road ve­hi­cle trac­tion where larger, heav­ier 4WDs may fal­ter.

While OEM parts are not easy to find lo­cally, after-mar­ket parts are avail­able from sup­pli­ers in Europe and oc­ca­sion­ally in North Amer­ica. In an age when 4WDs are kit­ted out with driver as­sis­tance tech­nolo­gies even Ni­vas fresh off the assem­bly line are spar­tan by com­par­i­son. Like the so­cial­ist so­ci­ety that de­signed it 40 years ago, the Niva is a long-run­ning make-work project -- it’s no ac­ci­dent that the Niva comes with an owner’s tool set!

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