One of the best (but not always well advised) parts of growing up is the freedom to acquire what was so cruelly withheld from us in our childhood. In 1988, my family went to the local new car auto show to research what would be the first car purchase since I’d been a toddler (my parents tend to keep vehicles forever). Exciting times indeed for me at least. Initially I had visions of a big American land barge with a V8 to replace our Datsun 510 station wagon, but those thoughts where quickly abandoned as my father had a self-imposed budget of ten thousand dollars Canadian. But among the sea of Escorts, Cieras, LeBarons and other dull stuff, I found an exotic foreigner that I fell hard for: the Russian Lada Niva.
The Niva which was unlike anything I’d experienced before. I remember climbing through the interior with its separate gauges each in its own pod and three sticks between the front seats. One stick was of course the gear shift and at the time I didn’t know what the other two stubby ones were for but they were exciting and fantastic (transfer case and diff lock if anyone is wondering). My father seemed interested as well but I suspect he might have just been humouring me. None the less, the memory stuck with me and I always admired Nivas from afar.
So it was the biggest automotive disappoint I had growing up was when my father finally brought home a shiny new 1988 Ford Tempo L two door sedan. The extent of its positive attributes was a five speed transmission, red colour, A/C and two doors for vaguely sporty styling. But I was crushed for what could have been.
But I learned to drive a stick shift on that Tempo (by then with an almost shot clutch) so I do have some retroactive fondness for it. But my crush on the Niva never really left.
Years and years later I finally acted on it, and got my Niva. Actually I got three of them briefly, as one I owned for mere hours as I stripped it before it was crushed. The first one was a 1995 with the higher Cossack trim level. This included sunroof, carpets, nicer seats, roof rack, alloy wheels and some body trim. More importantly being a 1995 it had the larger 1.7L engine with GM sourced fuel injection.
It was in very poor shape with smashed front window, half missing dash, poor tires, missing brake parts and a general dirtiness. I traded a beater K-car for it so I wasn’t in too deep yet. This of course led to the purchase of a second 1991 example which was reputed to have a good windshield (it didn’t) and new tires (it did). It also had an incomplete parts vehicle of its own. The snag was of course it was 500kms away and didn’t run. No problem! I’ll just drive up, strip the parts car, and tow the other down all in one day. A hotel stay would add a good additional percentage of cost to a Niva. Perhaps a story for another day but I did manage to do it all in one day with a huge help from the seller.
In the end I did end up fixing up the 1995 to quite reasonable condition. For those of you not familiar with the Niva, they are about the same size as a two door Suzuki Sidekick/Chevrolet Tracker. Despite their mixed reputation, mechanically they had quite good quality and for the most part were engineered well. The front brakes are a good example of that, with a three piston design. One piston operates any time the brakes are applied and the other two operate only when greater pressure is applied to the brake pedal, resulting in progressive brakes.
Suspension is very similar to the classic Ranger Rover with long-travel coil springs all around; independent suspension in the front and a five link live axle in the rear. The Niva features full time four wheel drive with a lockable center differential and a two speed transfer case. The engine and gearbox are Fiat based and the spare tire in the engine compartment is another Fiat inspired touch.
The interior on the other hand is best described as functional. The side panels used some of the thinnest, cheapest plastic this side of Happy Meal toys. One of my favorite features was the ability to hand start it via a crank handle. Yes, you can crank start one just like an old Ford Model T. I can’t think of another mainstream vehicle that featured fuel injection (1995-1998 in Canada) with a hand crank start.
So what is it like to drive one? Well given the short wheelbase, the ride is a not Cadillac smooth of course, but I’d say it was quite similar to the Ford Bronco II we owned years before. With no power steering ever offered, you have to use a little bit of arm muscle when parking, but it isn’t too bad due to the small size and relatively light weight. Power wise, with the 1.7i the trucklet was quite zippy at low speeds. It runs out of stream at higher speeds however. The carburetor feed 1.6L engine is certainly down a bit on power and smoothness compared to the injected engine.
My 1995 had a five speed gearbox compared to the four speed in the others which provides some relief from high revs on the highway. There are some tricks to keeping the somewhat fragile five speed alive however. Lada found themselves needing a fifth gear but instead of designing a new gearbox they just re-used the four speed casing and stuffed in a fifth cog. Lada owners generally overfill the fluid in the gearbox and avoid lugging the engine in top gear to keep it alive.
I got the parts truck running and cleaned up as well. Selling it was an interesting experience. Generally I’ve found the cheaper the vehicle you sell, the more oddball inquiries you get. Apparently the effect is doubled when you are selling a rough shape Russian 4×4. I had one lady who asked if I’d trade her for a huge supply of South American beads. Being more interested in cash I declined. After dealing with a series of loonies and flakes I finally sold it to a nice gentlemen who understood that non-functioning brakes meant he had to bring a trailer.
In an odd twist months later when I liquidated my left over pile of Niva parts, I sold them to a lady who bought my old Niva from her brother, and she was the one who had made the beads-for-Niva offer many months ago. Sometimes life is stranger than fiction. I still wouldn’t mind owning another Niva someday …