Curbside Classic: Lada Niva Pickup Truck

Sadly, the Lada Niva SUV is no longer a common sight on Canadian roads. They sold in moderate numbers during the 1980s and 1990s, but rust, neglect and parts-supply issues have significantly reduced their numbers. The pickup variant always was uncommon, and is properly rare now. There is almost no documented history to be found on how they came about, but there are two competing theories…

Before we jump directly into the pickup version, perhaps a quick primer on the regular Niva is in order. The Niva’s development started in the early 1970s, with the goal of designing and building a cheap-to-build-and-run-off-road vehicle. The first prototypes look rather Jeep-like and feature foldable fabric tops and body-on-frame construction. The attempt to create a more civilized vehicle resulted in a redesign, with a closed, more car-like body and unibody construction.

The Niva (2121) was Lada’s first attempt at the in-house design of a vehicle not directly based on a Fiat. Sure, the engine and gearbox were carryovers from the Fiat-based models, but the all-new suspension and chassis designs rather recalled a scaled-down Range Rover. You don’t have to squint much to see it, either. The Niva has coil springs all around, independent suspension up front. and a live axle with a five-link setup at the rear–just like the Range Rover of the time. It was certainly a step up from the rather brutish contemporary 4x4s with the typical leaf springs at both ends.

At the time, the Niva was also different for having full-time four-wheel drive and three differentials: One at the front, one at the rear and a middle one that could be locked via a lever in the cabin. The transfer case offered both high and low ranges–pretty impressive specifications for a vehicle introduced in 1977, let alone one from the Eastern Bloc. This is no modern soft-roader style SUV; although a bit crude on-road, it definitely comes into its own when the pavement ends. Still, that crudeness has its charms, as the Niva gained a reputation for robustness and easy serviceability.

The most commonly-seen Niva is the familiar three-door SUV, but there have been different variations for different markets, and that’s where it gets very confusing. There’s an extended-wheel model, which gave rise to a five-door SUV model, an extended cab four-seater pickup, and a van. There were also a larger variety of similar models produced by coach builders for such specific uses as ambulance service, and even armored trucks built for bank deliveries.

There was also a two-door convertible, usually called the Cabrio. It was available in several markets including Canada, and I’ve managed to see a handful of them. From what I’ve been able to gather, the convertibles were converted at a tractor factory in Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia) and then shipped back to Russia for final finishing and rustproofing, thus making them even more rust-prone than regular Nivas. A rather curious body kit was inflicted on quite a few of them.

New Zealanders had their own pickup variant, which was created in the simplest imaginable manner. New Zealand Motor Bodies, in Palmerson, would cut off the rear of the body and then weld on two big frame rails then suspended the rear axle with leaf springs. The result was a generic box that looked like it was sourced from the utility trailer on which it was then placed, but nevertheless had a somewhat cab/chassis look. The model was called Taiga, and quite confusingly since Taiga was also the Niva’s name in other markets.

Not to be outdone by its neighbor, Australia had its own Niva pickup (or should it be ute?), but one with a much more interesting back story. In the late 1980s, the Australians had a huge agricultural surplus with the Soviet Union and were looking for creative ways to equalize it. The trucks were converted to pickups in Martin, Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia), at the same tractor factory that had converted the convertibles. Having just lost their contract to build Soviet tanks, they were eager for work.

There was no change in wheelbase, but in order to permit reasonably-sized payloads, 50.5 cm in length was added behind the rear wheels. The pickups also received an upgrade to Michelin tires instead of the Russian tires they wore out of the factory. The trucks were imported by Louis Dreyfus to Australia, where they were sold at an $AU7,000 loss and enjoyed tax-exempt status to qualifying farmers. Unfortunately,  they arrived right about the same time an Australian TV program had done a Suzuki Samurai/Consumer Reports-style hit job on the front-wheel drive Lada Samara. The demand for all Lada models dried up almost instantly, and only a single batch of around 200 “Beaute Ute” pickups were produced.

Now we get to the Canadian Lada Niva pickup and the two competing theories. According to the first theory, they and the Australian pickups were converted at the same Czechoslovakian plant. That would actually make a lot of sense, as the company was already producing  pickups and one would think that knocking out a few more wouldn’t be an issue. However, this theory presents some possible problems.

First, the taillights are different, although market differences would dictate the use of a rear cluster already approved for that market. I can’t quite place the Australian cluster, which looks vaguely but not quite VW van-like. The origin of the Canadian treatment is much clearer; it is sourced from a Chevrolet/GMC Astro Van. Surely, Lada Canada could have shipped a case load of taillights to Czechoslovakia, but the Austrailian truck’s less well-integrated lamps produce a much different-looking tailgate. In both trucks, the area around the rear window also is different, and there’s definitely more of an angle on the Australian truck where the cab ends versus the more severe cutoff of the Canadian version. There is also a slightly indented ridge at the top of the Canadian box that’s absent from the Ute. Why would they make these changes on such a small number of conversions? For this reason, the Czechoslovakian source seems a bit unlikely for the Canadian truck. Romania has been tossed around as a possible source for the truck, but I wonder if it’s just a case of people mistaking one old Eastern Bloc country for another.

The other theory is that they were built right here in Canada. Volvo had been building cars in Canada from CKD (Complete Knock Down) kits at the Halifax Autoport, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, since 1963. Lada Canada had set up shop practically next door and began assembling Nivas in Canada during the late 1980s and early 1990s. These pickups were sold from roughly (nothing seems to be exact with Canadian Ladas!) 1990 to 1992, so the time frame fits. It makes sense that as long as the facility was turning out regular Nivas it could easily have done likewise with pickups. Production numbers are unknown, but likely in the couple-hundred range.  Even when they were new, the pickups always were much rarer than other Niva models, and today probably a mere handful survive.

The Canadian pickups retain the stock, rear coil spring suspension. Like their Australian counterparts, they have the standard wheelbase with a few inches added behind the rear wheels. Better watch how you load the bed though, as too much weight at the very rear would undoubtedly produce some very interesting handling characteristics.

All the pickups came standard with the same carbureted 1.6-liter OHC four-cylinder engine used in the regular Niva, rated at 72 hp and 93 lb-ft of torque. Transmission choices were either a four- or five-speed manual.

All pickups have the earlier-style dash with separate gauges, but the Canadian version included the nicer cloth seats and sunroof of the Cossack trim level.

I spotted this particular orange pickup a number of years ago at a mall parking lot. I managed just a single shot then, but fortunately I saw it once again outside a local Lada specialist shop. Shortly after that, it was sold to a caring owner who moved it up north to Edmonton. Given that Niva means “wheat field” in Russian, a home out in a prairie province seems appropriate. Very seldom does one of these pop up for sale, and so they remain a very rare find.