Daily Express


As it celebrates its 50th birthday, the classic clunky Soviet car is still selling millions around the world. Just don’t expect any mod-cons…

- By Matt Warren

GROWING up in the early 1980s, Lada jokes trundled through my childhood like the cars themselves. What do you call a convertibl­e Lada? A skip. What do you call a Lada at the top of a hill? A miracle. Even then, the gags seemed slightly unfair – perhaps they were the product of ColdWar rivalries.

Yes, those early little Soviet runarounds were anything but spectacula­r, but many British marques of the time were equally clunky.

This was, after all, the age of the Austin Allegro, the Morris Marina and Del Boy’s Reliant Robin three-wheeler, cars so embarrassi­ng a whole generation of children elected daily to walk to school.

Now Ladas are as much a rarity on Britain’s roads as those Allegros, Marinas and Robins. But perhaps Lada is having the last laugh. In fact, as Lada celebrates the 50th anniversar­y of its first car, the VAZ-2101 Zhiguli, the Russian brand is still going strong in much of the world. Despite all the childhood jokes, I even drive a Lada 4x4 myself.

The first VAZ-2101s, modelled as a people’s car on the Italian Fiat 124, rolled off the assembly line in Togliatti, Russia, on April 19, 1970 – three days shy of the centenary of Lenin’s birth. And in seeming defiance of American motoring giant Henry Ford’s reputed claim that customers could have cars in any colour “so long as it is black”, the first

PERFECT MATCH: Matt and his Lada 4x4

six models came in the more cheerful hues of blue and cherry – echoing the flag of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.

Between 1970 and 1988, 4.8 million of the clunky little cars made their way on to the road, with aspiring owners in the USSR sometimes waiting up to a decade to collect their keys. In 2000, it was named Russia’s car of the century, and more than 100,000 are still registered in the country today, many refurbishe­d as collector’s items. In the UK,

Lada became best-known for its later Riva sedan and Niva 4x4 models. Tougher emissions laws halted sales in the 1990s yet a handful still remain in Britain – mine among them.

Neverthele­ss, Lada lives on and continues to sell millions of updated, modern models in Russia and other parts of the world.

My first, hands-on experience of a Lada was in 1992, when I hired one in the pretty, old Bulgarian town of Veliko Tarnovo.

I was hitchhikin­g through eastern Europe and decided to spend a weekend at the wheel of my own car, rather than waiting beside a sunbaked road hoping for someone to share theirs.

It was a VAZ-2015 (known in the UK as the Lada Riva), the small, proudly bland saloon that seemed to keep the region moving at the time. The rental smelt of stale cigarette smoke and, in this case, seemingly had been very badly looked after.

While the little 1.3-litre engine ran sweet when you had your foot on the gas, it cut out every time I braked. What followed was a rollercoas­ter ride through the picturesqu­e surroundin­g hills.

On any descent, I’d move my foot off the accelerato­r to brake, the car would stall, and I’d careen, freewheeli­ng, towards the approachin­g hairpins while desperatel­y trying to restart the engine. The experience

 ??  ?? Picture: TORBEN WARREN

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