Jan 25 2010 Ian Johnson
Looking back on the Lada
THEY were cheap, cheerful cars and jokes about them raised many a laugh.
But the Russian Lada range was a deeply embedded favourite in the UK.
From 1974 the import of the Fiat 124-inspired Lada carved a whole new facet in the UK car trade. The cars were made in Russia at Togliatti on the banks of the River Volga by the famous manufacturer AutoVAZ and clicked in Britain with those who had never before been able to afford a brand new car and others who just wanted something that was cheap simple and could be maintained at home.
In some areas, the Lada achieved near cult status. These cars were the darlings of Glasgow taxi drivers and other manufacturers expressed surprise at how this otherwise outdated car with not exactly top drawer build quality could take off at such a rate.
Lada UK proudly trumpeted in the sales literature that 'Every vehicle is put through a series of stringent production checks and punishing performance tests before shipment to the UK.' But just to make sure these Soviet chariots passed muster the importers, Satra opened a massive UK centre at Carnaby near Bridlington where all vehicles were not only dewaxed after often punishing sea voyages but also subjected to a 40 point mechanical and electrical check with the emphasis on safety.
The importers sold the car with a two-year /50,000 mile warranty with a two-year roadside assistance package and there was even a Lada Care Credit Card to help spread the cost of servicing.
In addition there was Lada finance available and even Lada Cover, a low-premium insurance scheme.
There were a number of variations on the original theme and even the Niva 4x4 was available in the UK for a number of years. The Niva was a particular favourite of mine because it was a cheap and capable 4x4 with a 1,600cc petrol engine that could tackle some surprisingly rough surfaces. But it was very thirsty for fuel
In true Lada style one example I was driving stopped on a busy road. It turned out that it was out of petrol even though the gauge was showing half full.
Mechanical niggles and breakdowns fuelled the rise of the Lada joke. One of my favourites is 'Why does a Lada have a heated rear windscreen.' Answer: 'To keep your hands warm when pushing it after it breaks down.' Another is 'How do you double the value of a second-hand Lada? Answer: Fill the petrol tank.'
But this is how it was on Planet Lada UK. The owners put up with reliability issues, galloping rust and yesteryear design just to be behind the wheel of one of these cars. The marques popularity beggared belief.
When the old Fiat inspired shape was running out of shelf life, Lada introduced what was then claimed to be a quantum leap in style - the Samara. This was a curvy version of Lada thinking and although it was launched to the British press in a blaze of glory in Estoril, Portugal, it just did not have the attraction of the original, but it did sell well.
The whole Lada roadshow came to a shuddering halt in the UK in late 1996 when it was announced that the range could not meet the emissions standard required.
With the exception of some carefully cherished examples, the Lada fleets disappeared very quickly from Britain's roads. They were just not built to last. Some drivers mourned them and others said good riddance.
But they kept on going all over the world and in Russia the company has caught up with design trends and markets a modern range of cars.
Will Lada ever return to Britain? I certainly would not like to go on record as saying it could never happen because strange things happen in the motor industry and we may once again see the rise of this little Russian folk hero of a car on Britain's roads.