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.
Wow – you Canadians get all the fun stuff. I do not ever recall seeing one of these in the U.S. There is something about this little pickup that I find oddly appealing. But I would have to get myself one of those Russian fur hats to wear while driving it. And vodka for after.
That’s one of the advantages of NOT being one of the leading players in the Cold War. Can you see trying to sell a Lada anything in the US in the late 1980’s, much less earlier. It’ll take one hell of an ad-man to come up with a sales pitch that would effectively be based on (or in opposition to), “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
I could see the hard-core right wingers throwing rocks thru the showroom windows and vandalizing units on the lot at night . . . . . . and of course the lefties wouldn’t buy because cars are environmentally evil anyway.
But what a cool TV ad campaign it could have been – the tough little Lada truck pulling down one wall after another. 🙂
Don’t forget Jawa-CZ motorbikes!
The only bikes that I know of that use the gear selector for the kick starter. Owned one and loved it.
I could really enjoy using one of these little pickups. Look the size of the subaru brat (the first ones) which I would prefer. This would make me pretty happy though.
I remember there being a Lada dealer in my hometown in Atlantic Canada in the ’80s. I think it may have lasted a year or two until it was replaced with a used car dealer.
All the rumours I heard about Ladas growing up had to do with their shoddy build quality. There were the usual stories of radios sliding out of the dash when a new Niva was driven off the lot for the first time. I don’t know if they were true or not, but I do know that not too many were sold in our area. The Samara was even more rare.
I have seen a few Nivas around in recent years, but I have not seen one for sale in ages. The tinworm has claimed most of them, I’d bet.
These are nifty. They seem like something to be driven by Fisher-Price “Adventure People.”
My one Russian history course was long ago, but isn’t Cossack an odd name for what looks like the cushy high-zoot version?
The folks doing the naming were probably counting on not many people knowing what Cossack means.
The Cossack name was used in several other markets too as the higher trim level. Often the importer created the higher trim level not the Lada factory. In the UK the base version was called Hussar for a time which is a Hungarian light cavalry.
Hussars were badass. A good name for a 4×4.
I remember looking at Nivas with my Dad, during one of our frequent Sunday afternoon car lot jaunts.
I remember that the dealer had them all rust proofed on arrival and they were coated with slimy Oil Gard. Not that it helped much.
Thanks for the very informative write up; I really didn’t know a Lada about the pickups. The Lada Niva was undoubtedly the most successful home-grown Russian car; they were very popular in the Alpine regions in Europe; there’s still a fair number around. It was an unbeatable combination of performance and price, and with a rather timeless look. A genuine mini-Range Rover.
What does `im Limousinen-Charakter’ mean?
“With the qualities of a sedan”. In other words, a genuine cross-over!
The communists were three decades ahead of Western marketroids. Wow! Although I usually
hatestrongly dislike crossovers, I think I can make an exception in this case. 🙂
A4x4dable. I love it.
The base 3 door Niva was all over the country side surrounding Beijing when I lived there in the mid-90s. I’m pretty sure they didn’t offer the Cossack version there, way too upscale, and I never did see a pickup. I would have loved to drive one, to compare it to the BJ2020 Land Cruiser ripoff that got to drive occasionally.
I’ve had a number of Ladas since I moved to the UK from the US- Rivas, ‘Fiat 124’ style 1500, a Niva and a Samara.
The Samara was an unmitigated disaster- incredibly poor seats that have no thigh support and a ridge under your butt, a shifter angled the wrong way, cheap plastics, and rust traps to name but a few of its problems.
However, the old Ladas were very good cars- if you accept that they were basically products of the malaise era. Sure radios slid out and trim wasn’t screwed on, but a few hours with a screwdriver and the new owner could rectify most faults themselves such was the maintainability. Added to this was the UK Lada dealer network’s ability to bend over backwards for its customers, which made these some of the best selling cars of the 80s.
Anyone who appreciates working on their own car would love the Lada. It was designed so that any repair could be made on the roadside as quickly as possible to avoid frostbite. Everything was accessible, and all bolts could get a wrench on it without having to remove another part.
The Niva in particular remains very popular here, as it is actually far more capable than Land Rovers and Range Rovers due to its size. Yet, its width gives it a stability and solidness that Suzukis lack. Even the suspension parts were made of forged steel instead of pressed steel like most cars and trucks. You can still buy them new on the other side of the tunnel in France for about £8000 or so. Sadly, although the thickness of the steel prevents them from rotting out like the Fiats they were based on, the rust traps remain and they love to rust in the parts that are difficult to fix- door pillars, windscreen surrounds and roofs/gutters.
The hatred of these cars- in the UK at least- was due to a combination of the fact that they were often purchased on finance by poor families who didn’t have the money to do even basic oil changes and washes, which led them to look scruffy early and the (much less prevalent than in the US) anti-communist sentiment. Those who purchased one with their own money and was able to do their own work could have a very reliable car that would last years for next to nothing. Sure they were rough around the edges, but I honestly do not think the build quality was any worse than a K car, X body, or Fairmont- let alone anything from British Leyland, Renault or Fiat. My ’93 Riva replaced an ’88 Austin Maestro, and I can honestly say that the Lada was far more solid than the tinny and brittle Maestro ever could be.
A Civic it was not, but for a third the price of one, you really have to value soft touch plastics and good shut lines enough to take out a car loan at 15% interest in those days when your down payment alone would get you a Lada Riva or Niva outright.
Yes the same sort of sentiment existed here in Canada. The old rwd models are solid cars assuming you take them for what they are. The Samara … not so much. Apparently Porsche had some hand in the design of the engine.
We only occasionally see Ladas here in this part of Michigan, but I’ve always liked their size. They seem rather handy, and the closest sized 4×4 I can think of are the original S10 and Bronco II from Ford and GM. I had a couple of Yugos, and am a fan of 70’s Fiat styling, so I was pleased to learn that the Niva came from the same roots.
There was a company trying to sell Chinese assembled Nivas (I believe) locally for awhile back in the late 90’s – early 00’s; they were supremely cheap, but even though I had Yugos, I was afraid to take a chance on one of these for all of the usual reasons (lack of support, parts availability, etc.). I saw several around for a few years after, I thought it would be fun to grab one and stuff a S10 V6 drivetrain underneath, but I don’t have the facility to perform such a swap. And, as luck would have it, they all returned to iron oxide by the mid-2000’s or so, I haven’t seen one of the Chinese ones for at least 6 or 7 years now.
Now, if they could build one that didn’t rust…
Having owned a trio of Ladas, the last one being the Canuck pick-up, here is my $0.02:
I loved driving the Ladas. Fun, fun, fun, and great feeling on winter roads. And with the diffs locked? forget about it!
It’s true, loading up the box with half a yard of soil did produce some dodgy handling, as well as a pair of busted (stock) shocks. I got a replacement pair from a garage owner in ontario (don’t recall who/where) who was very familiar with them, and owned the pick up version himself. He told me that the conversion was an in-Canada order farmed out to a Canadian engineering firm (don’t recall which), and a total of 150 were made.
I heard the same thing from Julio of Pioneer Motors in Edmonton (about 10 years ago). I miss the fun of driving the Lada, but there’s no way I would think about getting another one: couldn’t afford the maintenance or down time! Sigh…
p.s. thanks for the post!!
Thanks for sharing your story. That is exactly the sort of confirmation I hoped to hear. The later fuel injected Nivas are apparently less maintenance intensive.
Interesting post, I’ve had a soft spot for the Niva precisely because of its concept and parts of its execution. I didn’t realise the Canadian version existed or that it was subtly different, nor for that matter the NZ cab-chassis version.
It was hinted at, but I understand that the vehicles imported to Australia were paid for with wheat rather than currency. They had an operation (Peter Brock after his fall-out with GM-H) to check and rebuild vehicles where necessary to make sure that drivelines were aligned properly for example.
The Suzuki Sierra/Samurai pickup was probably its main competition, with the Daihatsu Rocky I think being no longer on the market by that time. The Subaru Brumby/Brat was also available and had a bigger following. I think I have only ever seen one ute version of the Niva.
The handle on the hatch of the Canadian pickup is a Skoda part, which definitely supports the Slovak theory (funny how the squared-off back of the Canadian pickup looks a lot more modern than the rest of the car does).
Yes the Niva was imported into the USA around 1986-87 under the name DENNIS!. Not the UK fire and refuse truck maker but to hid its communist origins!. Can any one tell more about it?.
Once rode in the back of a Uk spec 91 Cossak version .Like 50mph sitting in a frame tent!
Nivas are still made and sold thru out the EU with an Opel engine to pass emissions.
UK imports are sold via a tractor dealer in London for around £10000 base with LHD.
RHD and LPG conversions extra.
These Nivas were quite popular here in New Zealand – although I must admit I hadn’t realised the cab-chassis pickup was a local concoction. Still see Nivas around regularly, and there’s always a handful to choose from on trademe. An uncle of mine bought a Samara new…and replaced it with a new Hyundai Excel within three months, which says it all about the Samaras really! The Nivas seem to have a fairly good reputation by comparison. A lot of our Ladas were received as payment for our dairy produce – I believe the official NZ retailer was the NZ Dairy Board at one period!
I had many rides in Nivas in Russia during the early 1990s, and one experience as the driver of one, and the earlier comment comparing them to a Chinese Land Cruiser knockoff is generally on the mark. They are crude steel boxes that ride brutally with their short wheelbases and bouncy off-road suspension, are deafeningly loud at any speed, and are filled with bare metal and the cheapest imaginable plastics — very similar to the FJ40 Land Cruiser that I have now. I would go to great lenghts to avoid being a passenger in one, but Russians respect them for their go-anywhere capability.
i talked to a dude in northern bc, he had two then, one he welded the rear axle solid = no differential at all. he used her for off road and hunting.
he loved them.
the failing of lada perhaps begin right after the shooting of the KAL 007 circa 83
The ‘Dennis’ name was the importer of Ladas to Canada, Peter Dennis.
After the late 1983 destroying of the Korean Air Lines jet that flew into Russian airspace, Lada sales dropped, and never truly recovered. And Peter Dennis thought a name change would work, however, very few Ladas received it.
As for radios sliding out of a Niva dash, that would have been a dealer installation; the factory never installed radios.
Yesterday while I was cycling in Brisbane (Australia) I saw that – Lada Niva.