In 1980, much of the world worried that the United States and Soviet Union were hurtling towards World War III. Tensions between the superpowers hadn’t been as strained in over a decade, and the soothing years of détente seemed like a distant memory. However, in that very year, a Soviet-built car came within a bear’s whisker of being marketed in the US. The unlikely saga of trying to sell Ladas in the United States spanned eight years and included many of the regulatory and logistical pitfalls common in attempts to export cars to another country, plus an extra dose of geopolitical crises and rancorous politics.
There are no certainties when dealing with international trade between arch enemies. Cultural differences, delicate diplomacy, politics, global economics and other complex issues all converge unpredictably in such situations – and the effort to bring Ladas to the US featured all of these. Sometimes they worked to the deal’s benefit; often times not. But the fact that this deal almost succeeded is quite remarkable, and is a testament to the unique business savvy of one man: an American entrepreneur named Ara Oztemel.
Ara Oztemel is hardly a household name, yet he controlled parts of US-Soviet trade for decades. Most of this trade occurred in raw materials and went unnoticed by the public, though that doesn’t make Oztemel’s achievements less fascinating. Born in 1926 to a well-to-do Armenian family in Istanbul, Turkey, Oztemel came to the United States as an 18-year-old, eventually enrolling at Boston’s Northeastern University to study engineering. During his college years, Oztemel turned to entrepreneurship to help make ends meet – starting an electroplating business that he sold several years later for the hefty sum of $83,000. Following a few years of working for large corporations, Oztemel sought to jump a few rungs in the supply chain and enter the murky business of importing chrome ore.
Chrome ore, or chromite, is a ubiquitous raw material in industrial economies (an ingredient in stainless steel, among other products), but one for which the United States has no domestic source. With US chromite use having soared during and after World War II, efforts to obtain stable supplies of the mineral took on a sense of urgency.
Oztemel initially named his company Greg-Gary International, after two of his children, and in the early 1950s concentrated on importing South African chrome ore. Over time, his geography expanded to Turkey… and then to the Soviet Union. The USSR contained massive chromite deposits, however the once-significant Soviet exports of the mineral hadn’t yet recovered after the war, so Oztemel landed at the right place at the right time. The Soviets were hungry for western currency, and chromite was a logical way to get it. Soviet trade quickly became the bulk of Oztemel’s business, and in 1965 he renamed his company the Satra Corporation (Satra being a contraction for Soviet American TRAding).
During the Cold War, Soviet-Western trade was no simple matter. Due to a baffling amount of regulations, distrust, bureaucracy and currency concerns, such trade often took place by barter, product paybacks… or by financial complexities like “switch dealing” or using “clearing dollars.” Oztemel mastered all of these. Furthermore, Soviet authorities preferred dealing with decision-makers, which was why negotiations with large western corporations often failed when the westerners had to consistently check with their superiors before proceeding. Oztemel was his own boss, and didn’t have that problem. Consequently, he and a handful of others had US-Soviet trade all to themselves.
Though its core products were raw industrial materials, Oztemel’s Satra Corporation would trade in anything for which there was a reasonable market, and in 1966 the firm added a new product to its repertoire – Soviet-built hydrofoil watercraft. This wasn’t completely random, as the Soviets were quite proud of their hydrofoils. In fact, six years later when Richard Nixon presented Leonid Brezhnev with a Cadillac Eldorado at the leaders’ Moscow Summit, Brezhnev reciprocated with a hydrofoil. Despite that pride, Satra’s efforts to sell hydrofoils in the US fizzled, but the company gained valuable experience in marketing Soviet-made consumer products.
At the same time as Oztemel expanded his business into durable goods, he also expanded into arts and culture. Satra took a leading role in introducing Americans to Soviet film and art. The company bought English-market distribution rights to War and Peace and Anna Karenina, sponsored Russian art exhibits and also traded in Russian art. Such cultural exchanges helped Oztemel curry favor with Soviet officials, which in turn benefited his core business. Additionally, unlike many western businessmen, who assumed their Soviet counterparts were taciturn, humorless ideologues, Oztemel appreciated not only their business acumen, but also their interest in culture… and fun.
Yes, fun. Oztemel often threw parties for his Soviet colleagues, both in London (where he spent considerable time) and Moscow. Once, he brought a New York jazz band (including harmonicist Toots Thielemans and double bassist Milt Hinton) to entertain the trading elite at Moscow’s Intourist Hotel. Oztemel, himself a talented saxophonist, joined in, delighting the crowd. Most western business executives would never dream of partying with the Russians in Moscow. This was yet another way in which Oztemel was able to endure and prosper in a very complex business environment.
Due to his ability to tread where most Americans dared not to, Oztemel was occasionally hired by US companies wishing to do business in the USSR. This involved some high-profile projects, such as brokering a deal between Mack Trucks and the Soviet government in 1971 to supply equipment and know-how for the new Kama River (Kamaz) truck factory. In this case, negotiations took 15 months to reach a tentative agreement, yet ultimately collapsed due to resistance from the US military. Of course, in the mercurial world of negotiating deals between dualling superpowers, failures were inevitable, but the Kamaz project showed that Satra – no longer just a dealer of chrome ore – was willing to spend considerable time and resources in pursuing highly challenging projects. This wouldn’t be the last time.
Selling consumer goods abroad became a priority in Soviet economic planning because the USSR government desperately wanted western currency, in order to (among other things) pay for corporate expertise in establishing new manufacturing facilities. With Soviet rubles being valueless internationally, the Kremlin eyed the foreign sale of Soviet-made products as the best way to obtain hard currency. Vehicles formed a crucial part of this trade. The USSR’s early-1970s 5-year Plan called to double the nation’s auto production, largely through exports.
Soviet trade with western Europe was percolating by 1970, but the United States – with its vast consumer market – held unignorable appeal. And while the truck plant deal failed, the future held promise for US-Soviet trade. President Nixon’s détente campaign, which sought to normalize east-west relations and liberalize trade, promoted “an open exchange of goods and people.” In fact, shortly after the Mack deal fell through, US Commerce Secretary Maurice Stans met with Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin to discuss improving US-Soviet trade. It was probably clear at the time that whatever form such trade would take, Ara Oztemel would be at the center of it.
At the time of the Stans/Kosygin meeting, Satra Corporation controlled half of all US chrome ore imports, had 300 employees worldwide, and counted some of America’s most notable corporations (for example, IBM and US Steel) as its clients.
Importantly, at around the same time, Ara Oztemel had begun dabbling in Soviet auto exports – taking control of the UK’s small Moskvich distribution network in 1969.
Both Oztemel and the Soviet hierarchy saw export potential in a new car model, one for which the Soviet Union partnered with Fiat to build an enormous automobile factory in Stavropol, on the shores of the Volga River. The city itself was quickly renamed Togliatti (after Italy’s former communist party leader), and the 22.5-million sq. ft. factory with 90 miles of assembly lines started producing cars in April 1970. Within just a few years, upwards of 500,000 cars were produced there.
Officially named VAZ (Russian acronym for Volga Automobile Factory), the car’s various models were commonly known in its native land as the Zhiguli. The original VAZ 2101 above was succeeded by a half-dozen later models, all sharing the same basic configuration and remaining in production for over forty years.
The Zhiguli bore a strong resemblance to Fiat’s 124 on which it was based, but the cars were not identical twins. The Soviet car’s body was made of thicker, 16-gauge (though hot-rolled) steel, its suspension was raised and featured some heavier components, and while the 1500cc engine copied Fiat’s, it used SOHC heads in place of pushrods. Overall, a Zhiguli weighed 160 lbs. more than an equivalent Fiat.
VAZ set its sights on exporting this new car (called the Lada in most export markets), and Oztemel obtained distribution rights for three countries: the UK, West Germany… and the United States. At first, plans moved quickly; British and German sales started in 1973/4, but the US would be a tougher nut to crack.
There were ample reasons, however, for Oztemel to try and pull off this seemingly impossible venture. For one, promoting the sale of Soviet products in western economies would likely boost his own status with Soviet authorities, especially since many other traders were dismissive of the prospects of selling Soviet goods. For another, since the Soviets willingly sought western goods and technology in building new industrial plants, Oztemel likely concluded that a further expansion of the Russian auto industry would bring even more such deals, which naturally would favor his own company.
Prior to marketing a car in the United States, Oztemel imported another Soviet vehicle – a tractor. Satra began importing Minsk-built Belarus tractors to Canada in 1973, expanding to the United States a year later. These 4wd tractors sold for about half the price of an equivalent American tractor. But they were no-frills apparatuses, marketed as rugged machines built to withstand harsh Soviet conditions. The typical Belarus buyer was an independent farmer prioritizing value, and willing to think outside of the mainstream by owning a new brand. Satra hoped that a similar marketing formula would eventually lead to US success with Ladas. Belarus tractors proved to be somewhat successful; several thousand were imported per year, a fact that provided optimism for selling Soviet cars.
As an initial step leading up to automobile sales, Satra presented the Lada at the 1973 New York Auto Show. Preceding the show, Satra held a press conference, which didn’t quite go smoothly. First, the press event featured no cars. Then, a Soviet official started speaking in Russian, which none of the press understood. A translator soon took over, but it was probably better when no one understood what was being said, since the Soviet’s speech turned into a lecture on the superiority of Russia’s public transit system. Satra’s technical director then spoke, and did only slightly better. In explaining the difference between the Lada and Fiat’s 124, he said, awkwardly:
“For the American lady who buys color and upholstery [the Lada and Fiat] might seem identical, but technically the Lada has many improvements.”
Still, some interesting points were made. For example, the target price was said to be $2,500 – and the marketing strategy was to highlight the car’s value, fuel efficiency and durability (reminding customers that Ladas are built to withstand harsh Soviet road and weather conditions, similarly to the Belarus tractor).
At the Auto Show itself, actual Ladas were there, and the display aroused curiosity among showgoers, maybe because it also featured young women dressed in fur bikinis. Fortunately for Satra, there was no significant anti-Soviet activity at the show (which was very much a concern beforehand).
Satra showed not just Lada sedans and wagons, but also the UAZ 469 utility vehicle, though it appears serious consideration was only given to importing the sedan. At the time, Satra reported that it had ten cars in the US undergoing safety and emissions tests, and planned a 1975 introduction. Turns out 1975 was a bit optimistic.
When 1975 rolled around, there were still no US Lada showrooms. Satra said that the process of federalizing the vehicles caused the delay, which was entirely possible since emissions standards baffled many manufacturers. But other factors were likely at play too – such as the many complexities in US/USSR relations.
At the top of the list was the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which Congress passed in 1974 and that withheld “most favored nation” trade status from communist countries that restricted emigration. This was significant, since the US tariff on imported cars stood at 3% for most-favored nations, but 10% for those without such status. It’s quite likely that Oztemel chose to delay the Lada’s introduction in hopes that pro-trade officials within the federal government would succeed in easing the Amendment’s restrictions. If true, this turned out to be an unrealized hope, as Russia wasn’t granted normalized trade relations until 2012.
The Jackson-Vanik Amendment and its pro and con arguments reflected a larger debate in the United States regarding Soviet trade. In the pro-trade business camp was none other than John DeLorean, who at one point had expressed interest in managing Satra’s Lada-importing efforts. DeLorean summarized the pro-trade viewpoint by opining that “eventually this is one way we are going to achieve world peace – through international trade.” Others called this viewpoint naive in dealing with a nation they believed to be militarily and economically hostile to US interests. AFL-CIO president George Meany retorted, rather bluntly, that “we’re not interested in seeing American workers displaced by slave labor.”
Meany used polarizing language, but the challenges of importing goods from a non-market economy were very complex. Satra encountered yet more headwinds trying to prove that they were not running afoul of anti-dumping legislation. The problem was that in the early 1970s, Zhigulis were sold to Soviet citizens for about $7,000 – and the projected US retail price was less than half of that. On the surface, that seemed like the very definition of economic dumping (the act of selling a product in export markets for less than in the manufacturer’s domestic market). Of course it was incredibly difficult to determine the true cost of Soviet-made goods because Soviet domestic prices were not based on “costs” as western nations defined the term, but rather were based on the priority given to those goods by the USSR’s central planners. But the notion of dumping propelled adversaries to oppose Soviet trade even more, and Satra had to navigate this minefield too.
Meanwhile, between emissions regulations, safety requirements, and navigating countless political hurdles, the Lada’s US introduction kept getting pushed back. In 1975, Satra promised US Ladas by ’76. By 1976, that date was pushed back two more years, but planning continued. During this period, the firm set up the beginnings of a US distribution network, which included plans to build a $2.1 million assembly plant near the Port of Savannah, in Georgia, in order to install equipment specifically for the US market.
At first glance, Savannah may seem like an odd location, especially since Satra expected most early sales to be in the Northeast. However, it held a few advantages. For one, Northeastern longshoremen were known to occasionally refuse to offload vessels carrying goods from communist countries – Southern ports were less prone to this disruption. Additionally, labor costs were much more reasonable in Savannah as opposed to New York. But perhaps most importantly, Georgia was President Carter’s home state, and a facility offering 350 assembly jobs during the moribund late 1970s was no small matter.
By late 1979, Satra still considered US Ladas to be about a year away. Though four years of delays may appear to represent hesitation or disorganization, all indications point to Oztemel and his company still being serious about importing them. Satra went on a hiring spree, and even leased the entire 31st floor of New York’s Celenese Building at the Rockefeller Center as its headquarters. Plans coalesced regarding timeframes for constructing the Savannah plant and establishing a distribution network, and it seemed that a solution was finally at hand for meeting EPA pollution standards. Meanwhile, Oztemel noted that he hoped to sell 5,000 Ladas during the first year, building up to 50,000-60,000 annual sales within five years.
But then the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
After the Red Army crossed the Afghan frontier in December 1979, years of détente between the superpowers evaporated immediately. At first, Oztemel – a veteran of countless US/Soviet crises – was publicly unconcerned, saying “We have experienced the ups and downs quite a few times.” This time, however, was different. The Lada Plan’s defeat would come by the end of 1980, ultimately done in by the most prosaic of enemies – politics.
1980 was a US presidential election year, and it seemed as if every politician wanted to appear to be tough on the Russians. This was particularly true for Democratic congressmen trying to distance themselves from the increasingly unpopular President Carter. One such politician was Indiana Senator Birch Bayh, who was facing a tough re-election bid. Representing an auto-producing state, Bayh found the soon-to-be-imported Lada to be an easy target. In May 1980, he introduced a Senate bill to prohibit imports of Soviet motor vehicles. That legislation generated little support, but Bayh didn’t lose sight of his target. Experienced politicians have many ways of getting what they want.
As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Bayh held influence over various agencies’ budgets. In September 1980, he and fellow Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri (another Democrat who was facing re-election) co-sponsored an amendment to the Environmental Protection Agency’s 1981 budget prohibiting the EPA from spending any funds to certify that any Soviet-made vehicle met US emissions regulations. This crafty bit of legislation infuriated President Carter, who saw it as legislative intrusion on executive branch policymaking. But the bill was less about policymaking than it was about senators striving for an anticommunist image in an election year. The Appropriations Committee passed it 11-to-4. Incidentally, Bayh lost his re-election bid; Eagleton won his.
Satra executive Carl Longley called the EPA budget amendment “politically motivated,” which of course it was. But politics prevailed in this game. An aide to Senator Eagleton summed up the political angle by saying that importing Ladas would be “the wrong message to tell the Russians, after Afghanistan, that our markets are theirs for the taking.”
Shortly thereafter, the Satra Corporation’s plans to import Ladas collapsed. Satra disposed of its Savannah property without building the plant, laid off the staff it had hired to manage Lada, and moved out of its Midtown Manhattan high-rise offices in favor of an Upper East Side townhouse. Yet the closeness with which the Satra/Lada plan came to succeeding begs the question: What would have happened if Ladas actually had been sold in the US? The answer can’t be known, but insights can be gained by looking at our northern neighbor, where Ladas were sold during this period.
Canadian Lada sales began in late 1978, capping a six-year effort by importer Peter Dennis, who had a background working for several European car companies. Dennis’s operations and marketing plan largely paralleled what Satra had planned in the US – a car-preparation facility was established in Ontario, initial sales were limited to a handful of large cities (Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal), and the cars were marketed as economical and durable no-nonsense vehicles. Lada’s initial price of $3,425 made it Canada’s cheapest car. Initial results were encouraging: Sales were brisk, and within two years, Ladas were sold through 43 dealers and were back-ordered in many parts of the country.
But sales rapidly plummeted due to a stagnant product and growing ill feelings toward the Soviet Union resulting from both the Afghan invasion and then the 1983 downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007. What really gave the Lada its knockout punch was increased competition, both from Japanese brands and also from Hyundai’s entrance into the Canadian market.
Mr. Dennis’s Lada importing company went out of business in late 1985… as a last-ditch effort he attempted to shed any Soviet association and eponymously market the car as a Dennis Signet, but it was futile.
Surprisingly, another importer picked up Canada’s Lada torch less than two years later. Erhard Weitler, a West German oil broker, figured that the new FWD Samara might reverse Lada’s fortunes in Canada. As a commodity broker with no automotive experience, Weitler bore several similarities to Ara Oztemel, and he likely took on the Lada distributorship in order to boost his status with Soviet authorities. Regardless, he saw only modest success, and Lada disappeared from Canada in the late 1990s.
Chances are that if Satra’s plans to sell Ladas in the United States had gone through, the brand would have endured a similar fate as it did in Canada. US auto reviewers who drove Ladas during the 1970s and ’80s were not terribly impressed. Popular Mechanics said that “Russian engineers have retained the worst features of the Fiat 124… and added a few of their own.” Road & Track noted that while the Lada offered decent passenger room and standard equipment for its price, the car drove sloppily and wandered all over the road.
While in 1980, some American consumers could have been persuaded to purchase a 15-year-old, sloppily-handling Fiat manufactured by what increasingly appeared like a belligerent country, such a product could hardly have been expected to thrive in the competitive US economy-car market. Yugo’s experience a few years later offers a similar caution – despite a remarkably low price, it wasn’t considered competitive with even used Japanese imports. And even in countries where Ladas achieved decent popularity, such as Finland, sales tanked during the 1980s as competition passed it by. Perhaps the last-minute political torpedoing of the Satra Corporation’s plans to import Ladas was actually a blessing in disguise. It’s unlikely that the American Lada would have lasted for long.
Looking back decades later, it seems remarkable that a Soviet-built car came so close to being sold in the US market. It was all a strange journey, lasting nearly a decade, ending in disappointment, and nearly forgotten today. While the presence of Ladas in the US car market wouldn’t likely have made much of an impact, it sure would have been interesting to see how Soviet car sales fared. But in place of that, we can at least enjoy the rather fascinating, and overlooked, saga of how such a circumstance almost happened.
These sold remarkably well in the UK such that they became the butt of many jokes.
“Could I get a windscreen wiper for my Lada?” “Yes, sounds like a fair swap!”
“Why do Ladas have a heated rear windscreen? To keep your hands warm when you’re pushing it”
“What do you call an upside down Lada? A skip”
Would have been an interesting historical footnote if Ladas were sold in the US, perhaps the engine would have been enlarged to about 2-litres.
Did the rear-engined Skodas and other Eastern Bloc cars ever make their way to the US?
While the US did have the pleasure of receiving an Austin badged version of the Morris Marina, albeit not the Australian Leyland Marina versions with the 4/6-cylinder E-Series engines.
In a morbid sort of way it is unfortunate the likes of the Austin Maxi, Austin Allegro and Austin 18-22 Princess / Austin Ambassador were never sold in the US. Especially since the E-Series was apparently designed to be compliant with US emissions standards and originally intended to replace both the B-Series and C-Series, meaning the aging engines in the Midget and MGB/MGC could have been replaced.
An even funnier thing would be a BL advert that is a reverse of the Austin Metro ad meets Mars Attacks, themed instead on a British export invasion of the US (and Eastern Bloc) with the Maxi, Allegro and Princess / Ambassador.
Also a pity US regulations were not more aligned with Canada’s to allow some version of the Mini to be sold as was the case in Canada, perhaps even a North American version of the Mini Clubman.
Mars Attacks meets a reverse of the Austin Metro ad
The rear-engine Skoda didn’t make it to the US, but it did to Canada. I’d occasionally see one on visits to Vancouver in the early 80s. Ca. 1960 I saw a New York Times article saying the then current (front-engine) Skoda was going to be sold in the US. I doubt that many were. Around that time frame I saw a Wartburg at a car show, but I’ve never heard of them being imported here.
In the mid-80s there was a Wall Street Journal article about the Dacia, a Romanian Renault 12 clone, being imported to Canada. I’d like to see that story get the CC treatment.
I saw a few during my shady used car days. The Skoda was, in my opinion, a pretty cool car. For one, the fit and finish was way better than any Lada ever was. The cars had plenty of room in them and the front trunk was big. The side hinged hood was just too rad. I drove on once and it actually went down the road well but in typical 1960’s style, it was neither fast nor quiet.
Fantastic piece, Eric. Exhaustively researched, engagingly presented. This is why I keep coming back to this site.
Eric, this was outstanding. All the drama, intrigue, and frustration came through clearly.
Mr. Oztemel sounds like a fascinating man. His ability to navigate all manner of choppy social and political waters was a true talent, as was his ability to find lucrative, if obscure, markets.
Had the Lada been imported here on the original schedule, I agree with your assessment it would have not been successful. It would also be interesting to know the ultimate trajectory of the Belarus tractor as I can’t help but think it would also be a barometer of how the Lada would have fared.
Now, to know what happened to the Eldorado Nixon gave away….
Brezhnev was evidently quite a car enthusiast, and strongly hinted to Nixon that he’d like a Cadillac. I remember reading that after taking possession of the Eldorado, Brezhnev took Nixon for a rather long drive in it too. Later, when Brezhnev visited Nixon at Camp David, Nixon presented him with a Lincoln Continental sedan as well. I don’t know what ultimately became of Brezhnev’s cars; hopefully someone here knows.
The story of Nixon’s hyrdofoil is more unexpected. Nixon gave it to the Coast Guard, which used it as part of the security fleet protecting Nixon’s “winter White House” in Key Biscayne, Florida. Later, it was transferred to the Fish and Wildlife Service, and it remained in active federal use until 1982. It was then transferred to the City of Ogallala, Nebraska, where it was used for several years as a patrol vessel at the Lake McConaughy State Recreation Area.
And, most surprisingly of all, Nixon’s hyrdofoil still exists, and is located in… Mid Missouri. It’s at the USS Aries Hydrofoil Museum in Gasconade County, about 10 miles west of Hermann. I had no idea, and will definitely visit this place sometime. A good overview of Nixon’s hydrofoil is presented on the museum’s website, here:
Good grief. I’ve been within a few blocks of it while driving through on Route 100. Next time you are in this neck of the woods let me know and I’ll take us.
Incidentally, the town of Gasconade also has some other history. In a politically motivated move during construction of the railroad, many civic and political leaders in St. Louis wanted to travel to Jefferson City. This was in 1855. The bridge at Gasconade wasn’t quite ready for travel but they went anyway. The bridge collapsed, killing 43 of those aboard.
This is in the same town of 220 as this hydrofoil. What a small world, kind of like me looking at a house directly across the street from your brother-in-law.
Definitely — let’s plan on going there sometime! I’ve been to Gasconade only once… I took the kids to the Gasconade County Fair one year.
Lincoln survived and is on display in Riga Motor Museum. There is also another car from his collection in exposition – Rolls Royce, crashed by Brezhnev in Moscow, 1980. Car is in original unrestored condition with wax Brezhnev behind the wheel.
and here is Continental photo
Regarding the Belarus tractor, done on a five minute quick search: The company has been back in the US since 2014 under the MTZ brand name (seems there’s some legal copyright problem using the Belarus name), and still provides parts for the older Belarus models.
I couldn’t come up with a firm date for the original company’s withdrawal, but did run across an ad for a VA farmer selling a claimed 1997 Belarus. According to a couple of other short articles, the brand has a pretty good reputation and is finding its resale values increasing as farmers lock for simpler machines with CPU’s.
We got them here in the ’70’s, something about our wheat for their tractors, I believe. Oddly enough, they didn’t have too bad a name, and, believe it or not, I’ve driven one about 5 years ago! It was a quite sizeable three cylinder turbo thing that my former cousin-in-law found on his property, and managed to get going. (I drove it a whole 600 feet, for reference). It had aircon and power steering, but apparently, it was all these non-essential bits on these which practically never worked from the beginning, which is why, despite the general solidity, they all ultimately fell into disuse.
He sold the old girl about 6 months ago, actually getting a bit of money for it. You know what farmers are like: if it’s broken, keep using it till it stops.
And then weld it up again and continue.
Very nicely done – this was all new to me, and an interesting tale it is. This would have been a tricky proposition under any circumstances. A decade or two earlier would have eliminated many of the technical issues as there were no safety or emissions regs that required compliance. But, there is no way a Soviet car could have sold here during the peak of the cold war or Viet Nam. So by the time the political window opened (briefly), the compliance thing was a problem.
I remember that 1980 election – Birch Bayh lost his seat to future VP Dan Quayle. Bayh’s son Evan eventually became both Governor of Indiana and a Senator. I attended the same bar exam review course as his wife Susan.
Absolutely fascinating article. Also, for me, the main reason I check in to this site every morning.
I have vague memories of Erie, PA having a Belarus tractor dealership in the mid-70’s. Very much like the local Renault dealer: A rundown ex-gas station out in the boonies with uncut grass surrounding it. The Belarus dealer had 5-6 tractors in stock (double what you could count on at the Renault dealership), and wasn’t surrounded by parted out vehicles.
Pretty pathetic when a Russian tractor has a more impressive dealership than a French automobile.
One amusing thing about those 1970s-era Belarus tractors is that not only were they painted red (really… couldn’t the communist tractor have been painted in any other color?)… but they were repainted red. Evidently, the original Soviet paint job was judged to be too poor for even a bargain-priced tractor, so Satra did a quick repaint on each one before they were sold.
Yet another follow up to that was in the post-Soviet collapse, an effort was made in the early 90s to bring that UAZ-469 over again, along with the van variant UAZ-452. MotorWeek even reviewed them!
I think this attempt was a bit smarter: the ancient and crude UAZ was to be marketed specifically as a retro-throwback for people that missed old CJ jeeps. They were even going to swap in a Buick 3800 to replace he wheezy but simple 2.5L carb’d Volga mill.
This attempt fell through, but take a look at how Ural motorcycles took off as a wealthy guy’s play thing. It’s funny because Urals with sidecars have long been rural workhorses across Russia and former Soviet states, but as used cars became more available throughout the 90s the “old guy wearing a tanker helmet hauling potatoes to market in the sidecar” became less and less of a regular sight.
A friend had a Lada car. My memories on that car are not very clear, but I can comment that it ran better and provided greater reliability than another friend’s Renault Le Car. Otherwise, the Lada was an unremarkable car, I think that person kept it a few years, and was very happy to get out of it and into a Fox body Mustang.
Another interesting development that happened across Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was that eager Russian entrepreneurs came in and snapped up ALL the export Ladas including RHD ones from the UK, as well as both East and West Germany, etc, and re-exported them to sell to car-hungry compatriots. The Ladas were generally considered to be rubbish by Europeans and had depreciated to basically scrap prices. The Russians on the other hand generally held a belief (that I think is somewhat true), that the export cars were better screwed together than what was sold domestically. The truth in that may be all those local shops that did the final market-specific pre-sale prep also gave the cars a good once over to correct quality issues from the factory. These early Russian re-exporters were also operating on the principle that there would be more demand for these familiar home-grown makes due to familiarity with repair/maintenance and likewise a fear of where to get parts or service if one were to take a gamble on a European make like a nice used VW Golf or Opel Kadett.
Very quickly this fear was overcome and very soon there was a massive wave of used European makes coming over. It was a revelation to Soviet car owners to get behind the wheel of even a fairly plebian Golf, the interior quality and features, the dynamics, etc. Lots of neat nostalgic articles on the car runners of the early 90s, and the horrible crime that fed off this business across Poland, the Baltics, Belarus, and Russia (and sometimes inside of Germany itself).
I have to think that the Lada falling farther and farther behind the contemporary cars from the West would have doomed it, no matter what success Satra may have briefly enjoyed, had its plan to import Ladas to the USA succeeded.
I remember seeing exactly two Lada Samaras in the 90s in Upstate NY. Canadian plates of course, one near a trailhead in the Adirondacks, the other at an apartment complex in Ithaca. It was so weird to see them on American roads just being driven as normal cars.
What an intricate web of a tale, and very well told too, Eric.
Australia was blessed by fate when the Lada Samara made an overwhelmingly embarrassing appearance here in 1988, just shortly before it sank into immediate and disgraced non-existence.
A most famous local racing driver by the name of Peter Brock had won many races driving for Australia’s Own, the (100% American) GM Holden. On the back of his fame, he set up a company which sold modified V8 Commodores, and despite slightly dubious ’80’s body kits, they were indeed thoroughly sweet motors. They could not make enough of them, and Brockie made some serious coin from it all.
Alas, as it the tale so often goes, he fell over at the height of his fame. He had a burst of new-agery, which proved incurable, and insisted on fitting a Polariser to each of his Holden-backed cars. This Polariser was a box of crystals, that aligned the I-forget-whats of the thingymajigs in the cars: it was, in brief, a load of bollocks. Holden said “No” – they didn’t want useless lawsuits and general mockery, despite making the J-car Camira – and instead of snapping out of his crank-induced torpor, he walked.
But now he was possessed of an unused facility, and no cars. So, somehow or other, by some hook and probably a crook, he became part of a plot to import the Samara. Turned out each import had to be all but rebuilt at great cost in that facility to be saleable, and yet still they were dire. They got an appalling name faster than they got to 60, which despite the quality, was about 12 seconds or so.
I saw them up close. They were for sure comically bad.
Still, some poor bastards fell for it, and in the great tradition of these things, some of the plonking machines lasted for unfeasible years after the local demise, which, ofcourse, was only a year or thereabouts.
The brand is cursed, probably rightly. Renault can’t make it make money to this day, thus joining, it seems, a long list of those turned red in embarrassment and ink by the red who would’ve been best to stay under the (Russian) bed.
Nice article, thank you. I remember the Ladas sold in Canada. They did well for about 18 months until the 1979 Afghanistan invasion, which was an unpopular move. Some Lada owners found their cars vandalized by upset Canadians. Owners took to replacing the Lada logos with Fiat badges, hoping the vandals couldn’t tell the difference.
I will add, my Russian emigre friends tell me the Afghanistan invasion was as unpopular with many Russians at the time as it was in the West. Most knew it was hopeless military adventurism where young men would be drafted and sent to die for no gain. The fact the move torpedoed valuable international trade only added to the tragedy.
At the time, Canada also received other Eastern block cars for a short time, such as Dacia and Skoda. But the feeble Ladas were clearly better. I agree with the article, Lada’s competitive advantage was a very low price. The introduction of the superior Hyundai Pony displaced it from that bottom feeder market. However that market itself collapsed in the mid 80s, as buyers grew tired of these poor quality cars in this segment. Had Ladas been sold in the States, they’d likely suffer the same fate.
I never drove a Lada but I sat in some new ones at the Auto Show. They smelled terrible and reminded me that vinyls are made from petroleum that once was rotting algae. They also seemed to be missing their shocks. You could make them bounce wildly by pushing the suspension down.
Soviet production did make some excellent consumer products, such as timepieces. Had the Lada been made like Poljot and Wostok watches, and Majak clocks, they’d have done much better.
Both you and another comment below reference the Ladas smelling bad. I wonder if that was common? Never heard of that before.
I didn’t know about the Soviet timepieces – very interesting!
Wow, another impeccably deep and well-researched accounting, on yet another very disparate topic. This was extremely interesting, I remember always being interested in reading about the latest Lada, (along with other eastern bloc cars), whatever was available on the UK market back in the early-mid ’80’s through reading CAR and the like and was always somewhat curious as to why nobody had ever tried selling them here.
This was so comprehensive (but not stiffly academic) and so well illustrated! Thank you. I award the author the CC Pulitzer for automotive history.
I grew up knowing the threat of the USSR and learning contempt for all things about it. But it was certainly exotic for a midwesterner and I was curious.
I attended the Expo 67 in Montreal and went to the USSR pavilion. That was the first introduction to the forbidden fruit. During 1979 I bought several Russian made 1/43 scale die cast model of various Moskvitch and Volga cars at Polk Hobbies in New York. Probably just like the real thing, these model cars were inferior to high quality Solido and Gama models from the capitalist west. The paint was bad; the opening doors/hoods broke.
In 1989 in Valpariaso, Chile the first taxi to show up at the rank at the hotel was a Lada – like the ones here. I skipped it for the next one in line. That was a well used but familiar to me mid-’60s Oldsmobile sedan. That’s my Lada experience.
Thanks! This article took a ton of effort, but has been very rewarding.
I love your story about the Soviet scale models… I can definitely see that being the case!
GREAT ARTICLE! Best thing ever published at CC!
Belarus tractors were popular among Oklahoma farmers. A good machine at a good price. But I never stopped to think about the organization and political maneuvers that brought them here. Fascinating!
Let me chime in late to the chorus in singing the praises of this most excellent look into this chapter. I do remember reading about the plans to import Ladas, and wondering. It would have been another sad chapter if they had actually gone ahead with it.
IF they’d somehow managed to import Lada’s on the original schedule, the Germans would have been serious competition for them, not to mention ToyHonDat:
The base 1973 Beetle Sedan still cost $1780, but the Sunroof Sedan now cost $2299. The Super Beetle increased to $2459 and the Cabriolet jumped almost $500, to $3050.
Since the VW was well known and established, Lada would have faced some serious headwinds and would have suffered the fate already mentioned upthread…but there would have been a Lada community, a collective of enthisiasts – if you will, that would have helped those who drove them into the 80s and 90s. We’d be eagerly reporting sightings here on CC!
Great story! A woman who worked with my mother had a red Lada. With an acknowledging grin, she called her “Russian limousine.” It became her trademark. She didn’t much like it but it was excellent on country roads in rural Alberta where we lived. I remember that it had an oddly rubbery steering wheel and a funny smell.
The windshield wiper blades on the 1970 Zhiguli in the exhibition appeared to have been removed for theft prevention.
As far as I know, windshield wipers were a scarce commodity in the USSR, and drivers often put them on only when needed. It was evidently common to see parked cars without wipers (like you said, theft prevention). It’s amusing that the exhibition car would likewise be without wipers too.
I’ve heard this account before as well, and I thought to myself “Was it prevention here, or…”
Last year toyota had a whole bunch of cars set up in the hockey rink at west edmonton mall and I was sitting in a new tacoma when a toyota employee came along and removed the gearshift knob and the nav chip. He said those things are stolen all the time even at the dealers. Way back in the 80s met a gal at a bar and we left in her Lada. It was in Winnipeg and it was about -30 and it started up right away. That cold is hard on all cars and back then before most cars had fuel injection not all were guaranteed to start.
Very interesting story.
I wonder what Popular Mechanics would have considered the worst features of the Fiat 124, after taking into account the age of the parent design. Apart from the rust and the stupid fuel tank location it (the Fiat) was a very good car in its day.
One cool thing about a Lada was that the hole in the middle of the front bumper was for hand-crank starting.
They sold Ladas in the Netherlands when I lived there, but they were a bit of a left field choice. I think they were considered better built than other cars assembled by involuntary socialists, with the exception of those from FSO in Poland. For some reason Ladas were incredibly common in Jamaica while I was stuck there in 1997. It seemed like about two-thirds of them were being parted out to keep the remaining runners in cab service. They were probably gone by the year 2000.
I enjoyed this article very much.
Never rode in a Lada, but a friend of mine, a dairy farmer, bought a Belarus tractor and then became a minor dealer in them. Don’t believe he sold too many of them. But he raved about them.
Splendid work Eric! I enjoyed this very much.
Ladas were quite common here, around 1980. Belarus tractors are still being imported, sold and serviced here through this company: https://fsandela.nl/tractoren.html
I find it interesting too, that Belarus dealers use the same silhouette logo now that they did 45 years ago:
Impressively researched and written article. I have no doubt that the likelihood of Yugo like quality burdened further by anti-Soviet sentiment would have doomed this in the ’80s.
I was in my college cafeteria when it was announced that the USSR had shot down the Korean airliner. There was a sense of stress in that era that we could end up at war with the Russians.
How cool! local, labour, national, and international politics…transcultural parties…fur bikinis…this story has it all! I laughed, I cried; it was better than “CATS”! Seriously: great research and writing.
Very occasionally one still sees a Samara in Canada. Slightly less infrequently one sees a Niva. Here’s a photo (not a great one, sorry) of two 7″ round headlamps used as original equipment Lada Niva headlamps. The upper one is a Soviet-made item of comically crude design and poor build quality. If you look carefully you can see “CCCP”, spelling out “USSR” in Cyrillic letters (last four characters of the bottom line of lens markings). The lower lamp is a vastly better Czech-made item with unusual lens optics.
Thanks Daniel… I’ve never seen Cats, but I’ll take your word for it!
Looks like the Lada on the display stand at the 1970 Chemistry Exhibition has those headlights. I had heard a story that Soviet drivers would often drive without headlights at night — I’m not sure if the reason was as a leftover habit from WWII days, or as a cost-saving measure (i.e., not burning out headlights), but folks who traveled to the USSR in the 1970s found the practice rather unnerving. So it seems as if night visibility wasn’t exactly a priority there….
People, you are just like children! You are discussing your fantasies which are very far from the reality!
Lada 2103, e.g., was much better and reliable that the majority of the same-class Western cars!
(I was driving Ladas for 18 years in the USSR and a lot of different Western models for the last 26 years in North America).
In many countries it was established and/or legally required practice for many years to drive at night in built-up areas with front and rear position lights (“parking” and “tail” lights in US parlance), and only turn on the headlamps out of town. This is where the colloquial term “city lights” for the front position lights comes from. The (faulty) idea was that headlamps were too glaring for use in cities.
Fascinating story, Eric. As seventeen chariots mentioned, our neighbours to the north get some really horrible dreck just because it’s cheap. Our Canadian friends seem to favour the ultra stripper vehicles which is why the skoda, and dacia, and nissan micra and current value package grand caravan sell there but not so well here. The hyundai pony was much worse than the excel yet canadians bought it and hyundai chose to launch there rather than come here and be laughed back to Korea immediately.
I cannot imagine that, however cheap, there would have been any enthusiasm for a fiat built by the Soviets. That’s like putting chocolate sauce on tuna salad if you ask me: perhaps the Soviets could build a good car, but it wouldn’t have started with a fiat. Americans weren’t overly keen on fiats built by Italians either. If lada lasted 6 years in Canada, I can imagine it lasting about 6 months here. Even the Yugo was somewhat modern looking and car like. By the time this thing arrived here, it would have been really outdated looking.
As I mentioned in a comment below, I think there may have been a niche (but dedicated) market for the Lada Niva. A small, and rugged four wheel drive.
It is more expensive to live here, because we have a stronger social safety net, and price leading cars and trucks always had a market. Not that folks love buying base or cheap/inferior cars.
Fascinating story – a great read.
I remember the Moskvich being on sale here in the UK in around 1971-72 and being intrigued by this odd car. My father was not at all keen and I remember him telling me that they had a very poor reputation and that the dealers (Satra) would not take back their cars as a trade-in on a new purchase. I didn’t know what he meant at the time (I would have been around 10 years old) but it’s something I always remember.
That explains the Lada ad in Road & Track back in the early 70s. This was my first encounter with Russian cars, followed by a Car & Driver article a few years later.
Thank you all very much for the comments here. I’m awfully glad that folks like this.
I can’t exactly recall just what got me started at looking into this topic, but it quickly fascinated me, and at some point, I realized that very little had been written about it. So I just kept researching and diving down new rabbit holes. Digging up the pieces took quite a while, but it was enjoyable, and it’s satisfying to know that the end result sheds some light on a forgotten piece of history.
how did you access those photos?
Mr. Oztemel, thank you very much! Glad you enjoyed the article. Which photos are you referring to?
I didnt see your reply until now.
I was referring bv to the picture of the Northeastern band.
We have many others that you could have used.
Thanks for a well written account.
That picture came from one of the Northeastern University yearbooks (either 1948 or ‘49… can’t quite remember which). Ironically, I never could find a more recent high-quality picture of him to use. Those from newspapers were awfully grainy, as was one from The Economist. But I liked the band picture because it presented an image different than from a strictly business perspective.
Again, I’m glad you liked this!
Excellent article and research Eric. My recollection of Lada’s presence in the Canadian market, was that the Lada Niva was the model that had the greatest legacy, with a small cult following here. CC contributor David Saunders is likely the best Niva expect, but if you were going to spot a Lada in early 80s Canada, excellent chance it would be a Niva. Their rugged four wheel drive capabilities and agility gave them a small and dedicated following here. I do think there would have been a similar small base in the US that would have affectionately appreciated their affordability, and durable simplicity, in regions with less than ideal weather or road conditions.
I was in high school at the time, and winters were harsh. One teacher at my school drove a Niva, and it was always in the teachers parking lot, regardless of how bad the weather was.
Now that’s a concept that’s foreign here in Virginia! Schools here of course close at the mere mention of snow, but about five years ago we got an unexpected 3-inch snowfall one morning, and it occurred too late for school to be cancelled. People completely freaked out, and only about half the teachers showed up that morning. Amusingly, my kids still talk about how much fun it was to go to school in the snow. It’ll probably never happen again here.
yes, the niva is a special vehicle! in some ways it reminds me of a amc eagle. put a car body on a small 4wd chassis.
also, say what you will about lada vs. hyundai quality, but when was the last time anyone saw a hyundai pony in the wild? there are still plenty of old ladas soldiering on…
p.s. great article eric.. i think tatra and you are the kings of the deep dive!
Eric, you wrote an excellent essay. It is much appreciated. On a personal note, I met Ara at the home of my wife’s paternal uncle in Hamden, Connecticut. He and his cousin Vahan were friends of my wife’s uncle. So, as I read your article it took on a personal interest. In those days Automotive News was reporting on the progress of Lada coming to America. I think your retrospective is better than what they reported.
Thanks – and it’s interesting to hear your personal experience. He seemed like a fascinating person; I would have loved the opportunity to meet him.
Superb article — all new to me, very well written and illustrated.
The Soviets really shot themselves in both feet with that Afghanistan business. If they hadn’t done that and Chernobyl, they might not have collapsed in 10 years.
It’s hard to imagine Ladas being sold in the US during the Reagan administration. But then they were sold in the UK under Thatcher.
Thank you again for writing this thought-provoking post! Curbie nomination guaranteed.
It is indeed hard to imagine Ladas being sold during the Reagan administration, but another political aspect to this is the effect of the Watergate scandal. Nixon was an enthusiastic proponent of Soviet trade, and during his administration he was able to fend off legislation that tried to restrict such trade… specifically the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. Senator Henry Jackson battled mightily with Nixon over the issue, but Nixon was always able to keep him at bay.
However, once Nixon resigned due to Watergate, President Ford did not carry Nixon’s free-trade mantra nearly as enthusiastically. Within months of Ford becoming President, Congress passed the amendment, and Ford signed in in Jan. 1975. He had little interest in fighting Nixon’s battles on this topic.
Without the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, my guess is that Oztemel would have been able to bring Ladas to the US market in the mid- to late-1970s. Along the way, Jackson-Vanik built up a very strong alliance of interest groups that supported it, which accounts for why the amendment endured for so long.
“If they hadn’t done that and Chernobyl, they might not have collapsed in 10 years.”
Those events were merely symptoms of the miasma that had set in IMO. Mumbling increasingly senile Brezhnev, rot was very much set in. That’s how Gorbachev came to be, he was supposed to be the (relatively) young energetic reformer and that initially held a lot of appeal. But it was the speed and degree of those reforms that ended up being the undoing of the whole system, as I understand it.
Thanks for an interesting and insightful article. I grew up in Odessa, Ukraine and we had a 1972 Zhiguli. It was considered the best Russian made car at the time, and what the article doesn’t mention, the waiting time to get one was several years, so speculators would charge almost double. Ronald Reagan even had a joke about it. Also, it wasn’t $9000 in the ussr, it was 5500 rubles with an average salary of 130 rubles /month. You could get arrested for possessing any foreign currency back then. Besides, the government would much rather get the dollars than practically giving it away. From what my father told me, he replaced the engine twice and many suspension components in the 150k km we had the car. It had a decent handling on the firm side with no power steering, a close ratio 4 spd trans and could top 145 km/hr, not that many roads allowed it. It was the car I learned how to drive with, so for several years I compared everything I drove to it. After coming to the US and driving an Olds Cutlass and a Chevy Chevette, I decided on a Fiat 131 for the obvious reasons. It was actually less reliable than our Zhiguli aka Lada, but lots of fun to drive. It was a WRC champion at the time, but just like Lancia, Renault, Peugeot and Alfa, Lada wouldn’t stand a chance in the US, not that they were in the same class, they were all just too unreliable.
I lived near this gas station when I was a kid. Ironically approx 10 years later a Lada dealer was open almost directly across the street from where this station was located.
Fascinating story, and top-notch writing!
Excellent read Eric! These deep dives are my favourite articles. I have a limited knowledge of Lada since they were sold here in Canada, but knew none of the history in the US. So thank you for an informative read.
One thing that should be noted, besides the politics there was another difference why Lada and other Eastern block cars were able to sell in Canada. At this time Canada had much less strict emission standards compared to US. This made it much easier for the cars to meet Canada’s emission standards.
I remember Ladas on the road quite well. We had a fair number of Signets in my part of Ontario. They sold well because of the low price, but they quickly evaporated due to their poor quality. While many Canadians bought more basic cars, my father included, many of us considered these Ladas and other Eastern block imports as poor cars regardless of their low price. My dad wouldn’t touch one with a 10 foot pole and I remember him disparaging the Ladas. This is ultimately why they eventually failed, they weren’t good cars and even the super cheap price didn’t make up for their deficiencies. As for the Niva, there was the odd one around, but they weren’t very common due to Lada’s reputation earned from the earlier Signets. I don’t recall any Samaras at all, but most of those ultra low price customers moved to Ponys by then.
I’m late getting around to reading this but I have to say, bloody good article!
Great research, history, context and consideration of the likely outcome. Yes, i suspect the Lada would not have succeeded even without the politics – no one ever claimed they were other than cheap to buy and strong. In reality, there wasn’t much Fiat in there either, by the time you’d added thicker steel, a different engine and significantly changed suspension. And what there was 1968, and maybe these going to be on sale in 1980…..in market that placed ease of use relatively high on the list. A Lada or a 3 year old Toyota or Ford? No contest really.
Yes, Lada did have some success in the UK, for the reasons above, and it was often localised around a good dealer or in fact the home of the importer. Eventually, though the UK became a net exporter of Ladas, as enterprising Russians re-imported old cars.
The Road & Track article called the Lada “an accident waiting to happen.”
What a great story. I never knew there was that much effort to bring Ladas to the US.
There was a company in Huntington Beach, CA, that was doing federalization of various oddballs and more than once saw Nivas cruise by my dad’s shop in this industrial park by Marina High school. More than one because they were all different and kind of ugly colors. Think peanut butter, tomato soup, and baby-sh*t green. This would have been around 1978-79 or so. Also saw a few G-wagens and assorted Euro-only cars which were all gray-market, pretty sure all imported by the same guys who had the Nivas.
The first time I saw a Canadian Hyundai Pony visiting the states, I couldn’t believe that a car with that much rust was still all relatively in one piece, aside from shedding bits of itself along the roadsides. But other than those Nivas I never saw any Iron Curtain cars on US roads.
Very interesting story, one I guess you could say I lived as one of Ara Oztemel’s sons (not greg or gary). My dad was a born entrepreneur and he loved all aspects of selling. He was an inspirational businessman. And he did believe that commerce could bestow what war and politics could ravish. In the end his love of the hunt cost him a lot. I am happy to see people remembering him in this light.
I’m so glad you found this interesting — it must have been very interesting experiencing this all first-hand! After several months of researching, I developed a tremendous respect for your father’s business acumen and perseverance.
Fun to read this again. The most amazing part of the story is that Malcolm Bricklin didn’t somehow involve himself in this deal, like he did in a few half-baked import schemes. Generally, that makes any story more entertaining.
I don’t know how many Canadians died on KAL 007, but at least one did: Mary Jane Hendrie of Ottawa. One of the news magazines ran a photo of her driver’s license, which had been fished out of the Pacific. I had thought the loss of life was very sad, but when I had a name and face to put to it, I cried.
Since Canada is smaller country than the U.S. in population, I assume this would have been a big story there.
I don’t know how I missed this article the first time around, and I can’t add anything to all the previous comments other than how much I enjoyed reading it! On a side note, though, watching how Lada’s seem to self destruct in YouTube Russian Driving videos, I see why a reference was made to them as “coffin” cars.
Reading this article a second time, it’s still the best CC article EVER. A masterful piece of history, mixing personality and economics and politics.
Thank you very much!
Very enjoyable article. Although I never knew anyone who owned a Lada, I used to go to Montreal on business in the 80s and they were popular for use as taxis, so I had many rides from the airport in them. Now you rarely see one around, but the Niva seems to have a bit of a cult following, so I do see one of them occasionally. In my town there was a Samara on blocks in a backyard, but it disappeared a few years ago.
About 5 years ago I was at a small-town fall fair that had a large car show. The majority of the cars were NA cars of the 60s and 70s, but there was one bright yellow Lada Signet, and it was almost certainly in better shape than new.
Not sure how I missed this the first time around but great article. I actually owned a couple Nivas and they seemed to be fine vehicles but the interiors featured the cheapest, thinnest plastic imaginable.
When I was shopping for my first car I was looking at an MG at a Subaru dealer that also sold Skoda. The salesman gave me the usual ‘just think you could get a brand new car for not much more’ spiel and I drove a Rapide (not sure about the spelling). It was the sportier fast back Skoda that they sold, rear engine with a five speed. Even someone who was shopping BL cars (also Fiat, mostly 124s but drove some 128s as well) in the ’80s was wary of having to do maintenance and get parts for these vehicles. I forget the warranty they came with but I was planning on keeping whatever I got longer than that and was never really tempted. It was not unusual to see a Lada at the time and as I recall they were rather better regarded than the Fiats they were derived from.
The Lada engine had roughly the same displacement as the original Fiat engine, but I think it was more oversquare.
Perhaps this is the best article I´ve ever read in CC. And there are a lot of great ones here…
Even in impoverished ´70s and ´80s Spain, East European brands weren´t very successful, and it was understable. Around 1989 my father and I visited a Lada “dealership” (barely three cars fitted in the showroom, and they sold Skoda and Dacia too) because he was interested in the Niva. That nasty and outdated interior, badly made from flimsy plastics, repelled him. Fortunately.
We heard bad news about parts availability, and that some workshops didn’t want to touch them.
I remember that 4×4 magazines showed advice about how to improve the Niva, swapping the carburettor to get decent mileage and driveability, replacing the very uncomfortable seats, choosing better and grippier tyres than the OE Russian Barums, etc..so basically the buyer of a Niva had to modify his brand new car in order to make it acceptable.
That said, the Niva hardware was tough and very advanced: unibody construction and coil suspension were pretty modern features for 1978, and sold relatively well in Western Europe.