Lada to make a comeback

No sh1t! So who'd buy one I'd rather walk

Lada, the car that spawned a thousand playground jokes, could be returning to UK showrooms. But will British motorists take the Russian marque to their hearts?

You have to pity any driver of a Lada who was unfortunate enough to find himself the target of that macho conversation opener: "So, what are you driving these days?"

Confessing to buying a car which had spawned its own brand of wisecracks cannot have been an easy experience.

But after a 13-year hiatus, the Lada could be returning to these shores.

The only good thing about them was that they came with a big toolkit
Honest John, motoring journalist

The Russian car giant that builds the Lada, AvtoVAZ, has struck a partnership with French carmaker Renault. Both companies are keen to reintroduce a new and improved version of the Lada to the UK as a "credit crunch cruiser" - a super-cheap car (it would cost £5,000) suited to our new era of austerity.

Steve Norman, vice president of Renault UK, reckons a new Lada could be on sale in Britain in around two years' time. "The UK was one of the few markets where the Lada was a success", he said. "I'm confident the time is right to bring it back."

But can a motoring brand that was known for churning out clunkily designed models with flaky reliability really reach out to the British buyer?

The Lada was first built in the Soviet Union in 1970. It was modelled on the 1966 Fiat 124 saloon, and though it looked boxy and tended to be painted in drab colours - grey-green was a favourite - it proved popular.


Nearly 20 million Ladas were built in the first 30 years. They were exported around the world, as far afield as Australia, Canada and Cuba. Sixty per cent of the Russian-built Ladas were sold outside of Russia, and its success was such that at one point in the 1980s the Lada industry became one of main raisers of foreign hard currency for the financially-challenged Soviet Union.
Lada Putin
If it's good enough for him... Vladimir Putin admires the 4x4 Vita

In Britain the Lada was a moderate success: 350,000 were sold here between 1977 and 1997. The cars passed through a giant rectification centre in a small town in Yorkshire where the basic, boxy Russian models would be upgraded for British tastes and legal standards. Grilles and wheels were replaced with better-looking versions and stereos and sunroofs were added.

There fan clubs devoted to the Lada, including the Lada Enthusiasts' Club and the Unloved Soviet & Socialist Register, a British-based cheerleading group for all Soviet-era cars.

At the high point of Ladamania in the 1970s, this Lada refashioning factory was getting through 300 vehicles a week.

But in 1997 the marque vanished from showroom as post-communist Russia's car industry ran into trouble. A tightening of carbon emissions standards in the UK means the old, cheaply made Soviet-era cars just didn't match up to the new green requirements.

And those playground jokes - What do you call a Lada at the top of a hill? A miracle. What do you call a Lada with a sunroof? A skip - can't have helped.

Anti-consumerist statement

So can the 21st Century incarnation overcome lingering anti-Lada sentiment and successfully return to the UK market? Or will they need to invest in some serious rebranding?
Lada snow
Reliability made owning one a frustrating experience

The cultural and design critic Stephen Bayley says the humour assaults on the Lada were unjustified.

"It was a very good car. It was reliable and it was virtually indestructible. I knew a French count who drove nothing else except his Lada."

Bayley believes the relative popularity of the Lada in the UK was down to two things - first, the car's robustness and longevity; and second, the fact that owning one of these fairly drab, rudimentary vehicles from the East allowed one to wriggle free from the consumerist pressure to buy a big flash car in order to show off.

"Car ownership is all about cultural modelling and making a display, it is all about buying a vehicle that apparently says something important about your identity. The great thing about the Lada is that you could free yourself from all of that.

"Once you got over the psychic humiliation of owning one of these Commie cars, you could escape the pressures and torment of having to say something about your status, your speed and your sex life through your choice of car. Owning a Lada was really a way of saying: 'My car is for driving, that's all'."

Austerity choice

But to the average motoring journalist, the lustre of making an anti-capitalist statement comes someway below driving experience.

Were they any good? Motoring journalist Honest John offers a glib dismissal.
Lada stilts

"The only good thing about them was that they came with a big toolkit," he quips. He strongly doubts Lada, which manufactures in Russia, could undercut rivals which are shifting production to Asia, where labour is cheaper.

"The UK is already a heavily discounted market and a lot of the budget cars sold in Europe can't be sold here because sterling has weakened. Add to that the fact that the average Russian car worker is going to expect wages that are double those in Thailand, and I can't see how it would work."

Paul Horrell, of the BBC's Top Gear magazine is also dismissive of the marqe: "It was square, boxy. It was slow. It rusted easily."

But he is willing to entertain the idea of a comeback, believing Renault's influence will make it a "very different car".

And Horrell points to how another laughing stock of a car, Skoda, managed to rescue its reputation - firstly by employing better engineering, and secondly by launching a "quite knowing advertising campaign" that played to great effect on its history as a joke vehicle.

Economics expert Daniel Ben-Ami is the author of a new book in defence of prosperity titled Ferraris For All. Would he settle for "Ladas For All" for the time being, as recession-related austerity kicks in?

"The Lada showed how poor the Soviet Union was at producing consumer goods," he says. "They may have been able to launch Sputnik into space but they couldn't manufacture a decent car to drive back on Earth.

"No doubt a new Lada will be much better than the original, but there are already plenty of cheap cars available in the UK. The fact that the Lada is being lauded by some as an appropriate car for 'Austerity Britain' is sad. I'm sure most people aspire to something better - even if they often can't afford it."

Had a Niva for 7 years. Taught me off-road driving and old fashioned vehicle mechanics - no computer-chips - the real thing. No engine muscle but go-anywhere driving, that is a Niva.
The Lada wasn't a bad motor for it's time, was just a rebadged Fiat 124, I know I know FIAT! But in the 80's was deffinately better than the fucking Austin Allegro! So can't really complain about sh1t cars in that respect.
Was easy to work on good solid motor, I'd buy one. T'was the Skoda Estelle that gave Eastern European cars a bad name. That was a pile of poo.
What was good too about the Lada is that it took Ford Cortina service parts IIRC oil filters etc. So were cheap and plentiful.
I can remember doing driver training at Leccy the scrappy on Hull docks that only broke Lada's and had the sign in Russian as all the ships crews from Russia came there for spares even took a few cars back with them
I can remember doing driver training at Leccy the scrappy on Hull docks that only broke Lada's and had the sign in Russian as all the ships crews from Russia came there for spares even took a few cars back with them
jarrod248 said:
I admit as a very poor student nurse I had a Lada Riva, made passing my HGV in a Bedford easy. Dead easy to maintain, gobbled up points, never let me down. I reveresed into something, just knocked it out with a hammer.
Yorkshire ripper walt. :D


Book Reviewer
Had a Riva and a Niva in Africa. The Riva was ok-ish, the Niva was brilliant. So good for the money even the British Army training team were using them

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