Junkyard Classic: 1988 Lada Samara – The Modern Lada

1988 Lada Samara

Historically Lada made a reasonably good business selling a variety of rear wheel drive saloons and wagons based on beefed up Fiat designs. By the 1980s these rugged but rear wheel drive cars were looking seriously dated in a predominately front wheel drive market. The development of a more modern front drive hatchback actually dates back to the 1970s, but took until 1984 (and later in many markets) for it to appear. A storied German make even helped out in the development of the engine.

Creative Commons photo from http://www.flickr.com/photos/21069276@N03/4783588418/in/photolist-8hH9bo-7NXata-7NXaA8-7NY1wP-a9or5g-a9rf61-fjqx4X

Creative Commons photo from http://www.flickr.com/photos/21069276@N03/4783588418/

The Lada Classic term covers a whole range of cars and keeping track of names and variations can be very confusing due to each market doing its own thing. Roughly speaking the original VAZ-2101 Lada saloon was introduced in 1970. The VAZ-2101 was a collaboration with Fiat based off the 124 but re-engineered to be cope better with the conditions of Eastern Bloc nations.

1991 Lada Signet

It was replaced in the western world market by 1981 with the more widely recognized and boxy looking  VAZ-2105 (4dr saloon), VAZ-2104 (wagon) and VAZ-2107 (deluxe) which was more commonly known as Riva (UK), Nova (Europe), 1500 (Canada) or Signet (1500) as well as a variety of names on the home market. Mechanically they are almost identical to their predecessor only gaining refinements like slightly larger engine, timing belt and eventually fuel injection.

These were quite successfully sold to people who either wanted a new car with a warranty for the lowest possible price or aspired to drive a Volvo 240 series but couldn’t quite swing the purchase price. In Canada (and I suspect Europe as well) starting in the mid 1980s the Koreans, especially the Hyundai Pony and Excel, were stealing a large part of this market while the East European Skodas and Ladas started to decline in popularity.

Samara range

The answer to declining sales was seen as a more modern front wheel drive hatchback in the Volkswagen Golf mold. And like the Golf with the Beetle, the Samara didn’t replace the older, dated car, but was sold along side it. While the Niva had been a mostly in house development it still used Fiat derived engines and gearboxes so the Samara became the first model developed completely independently from Fiat. For body styles Canada got both the three and five door hatchbacks. The four door saloon was available as well and was often called the Sagona depending on the year and trim.

A Samara convertible was also sold in small numbers for a handful of years and was likely converted after leaving the factory. Several body kits were offered as dealer installed options and differed depending on the market. The home market offered a neat Dodge Rampage style truck as well but they sadly didn’t make the trip to Canada.

Lada Samara nose

The car’s molded plastic “grill” was a bit of a controversial feature when introduced. Often derided as cheap and ugly importers often swapped it out for a more conventional grill. Also note the seamless conversion from European to North American style license plate mounts.


1988 Lada Samara engine

The Samara might be most famous for its engine. It’s an overhead cam four cylinder engine available in a variety of different displacements depending on the market. Canada got the 1.3 and 1.5L engines with 65 and 75hp respectively while a 1.1L version could be had in other markets. A two barrel carburetor was the initial fuel system with a GM-sourced throttle body injection system used later. Doesn’t sound all that special does it? Well in truth it isn’t, but it was developed with help from Porsche and some Samara even had little badges under the hood stating as well. The home market even offered a rotary engine rated at 140hp that was almost exclusively used by law enforcement as a pursuit vehicle.

Lada Samara ad 11


Lada Samara ad 22


Porsche’s involvement didn’t extend beyond the engine so the Samara’s handling is best described as modest. Chassis wise the Samara was pretty standard for the class with struts up front and a beam axle on coil springs in the rear. Front discs and rear drums handled the braking the the whole car rode on 13″ rims. Those rims were one of the only carry overs from the old car and still retained the Fiat 4x98mm bolt pattern. Steering was handled by rack and pinion that will nicely weighted didn’t offer a lot of feedback.

Samara Rally

The Samara even had some motorsport involvement mostly in rally form. Lada Canada built a factory backed rally in 1993 from this 1991 fuel injected Samara. It remains active to this day.


1988 Lada Samara interior

This interior was rather filthy but more or less intact which leads me to believe that it was stored for a long period before finally scrapped. While the mechanical bits tended to be reasonably solid, the Samara’s low price point was most evident inside. The overall look is reasonable enough for the era but some of the plastics used were of extremely low quality. I know on my own Niva ownership experience that some of the interior panel moldings were made from shockingly thin and brittle plastics.

1988 Lada Samara rear

Coming around the back I think we can see what caused the demise of this particular Samara in the form of some damage to the rear hatch. While Samaras were a mainstay of Canadian scrapyards fifteen years ago they show up only very occasionally now and the owner probably felt it wasn’t worth sourcing a replacement hatch. Samara sales came to a halt in 1997 for the Canadian market when VAZ’s looming bankruptcy caused supply issues obtaining the GM sourced fuel injection units. The Niva lasted an additional year because Lada pulled out of the Canadian market for good.