Page last updated at 11:34 GMT, Monday, 10 May 2010 12:34 UK

Can the Lada make a British comeback?

Lada showroom

By Brendan O'Neill

Lada, the car that spawned a thousand playground jokes, could be returning to UK showrooms. But will British motorists take the Russian marque to their hearts?

You have to pity any driver of a Lada who was unfortunate enough to find himself the target of that macho conversation opener: "So, what are you driving these days?"

Confessing to buying a car which had spawned its own brand of wisecracks cannot have been an easy experience.

But after a 13-year hiatus, the Lada could be returning to these shores.

The only good thing about them was that they came with a big toolkit
Honest John, motoring journalist

The Russian car giant that builds the Lada, AvtoVAZ, has struck a partnership with French carmaker Renault. Both companies are keen to reintroduce a new and improved version of the Lada to the UK as a "credit crunch cruiser" - a super-cheap car (it would cost £5,000) suited to our new era of austerity.

Steve Norman, vice president of Renault UK, reckons a new Lada could be on sale in Britain in around two years' time. "The UK was one of the few markets where the Lada was a success", he said. "I'm confident the time is right to bring it back."

But can a motoring brand that was known for churning out clunkily designed models with flaky reliability really reach out to the British buyer?

The Lada was first built in the Soviet Union in 1970. It was modelled on the 1966 Fiat 124 saloon, and though it looked boxy and tended to be painted in drab colours - grey-green was a favourite - it proved popular.

Cube(a)

Nearly 20 million Ladas were built in the first 30 years. They were exported around the world, as far afield as Australia, Canada and Cuba. Sixty per cent of the Russian-built Ladas were sold outside of Russia, and its success was such that at one point in the 1980s the Lada industry became one of main raisers of foreign hard currency for the financially-challenged Soviet Union.

Lada Putin
If it's good enough for him... Vladimir Putin admires the 4x4 Vita

In Britain the Lada was a moderate success: 350,000 were sold here between 1977 and 1997. The cars passed through a giant rectification centre in a small town in Yorkshire where the basic, boxy Russian models would be upgraded for British tastes and legal standards. Grilles and wheels were replaced with better-looking versions and stereos and sunroofs were added.

There are fan clubs devoted to the Lada, including the Lada Enthusiasts' Club and the Unloved Soviet & Socialist Register, a British-based cheerleading group for all Soviet-era cars.

At the high point of Ladamania in the 1970s, this Lada refashioning factory was getting through 300 vehicles a week.

But in 1997 the marque vanished from showroom as post-communist Russia's car industry ran into trouble. A tightening of carbon emissions standards in the UK means the old, cheaply made Soviet-era cars just didn't match up to the new green requirements.

And those playground jokes - What do you call a Lada at the top of a hill? A miracle. What do you call a Lada with a sunroof? A skip - can't have helped.

Anti-consumerist statement

So can the 21st Century incarnation overcome lingering anti-Lada sentiment and successfully return to the UK market? Or will they need to invest in some serious rebranding?

Lada snow
Reliability made owning one a frustrating experience

The cultural and design critic Stephen Bayley says the humour assaults on the Lada were unjustified.

"It was a very good car. It was reliable and it was virtually indestructible. I knew a French count who drove nothing else except his Lada."

Bayley believes the relative popularity of the Lada in the UK was down to two things - first, the car's robustness and longevity; and second, the fact that owning one of these fairly drab, rudimentary vehicles from the East allowed one to wriggle free from the consumerist pressure to buy a big flash car in order to show off.

"Car ownership is all about cultural modelling and making a display, it is all about buying a vehicle that apparently says something important about your identity. The great thing about the Lada is that you could free yourself from all of that.

"Once you got over the psychic humiliation of owning one of these Commie cars, you could escape the pressures and torment of having to say something about your status, your speed and your sex life through your choice of car. Owning a Lada was really a way of saying: 'My car is for driving, that's all'."

Austerity choice

But to the average motoring journalist, the lustre of making an anti-capitalist statement comes someway below driving experience.

Were they any good? Motoring journalist Honest John offers a glib dismissal.

Lada stilts

"The only good thing about them was that they came with a big toolkit," he quips. He strongly doubts Lada, which manufactures in Russia, could undercut rivals which are shifting production to Asia, where labour is cheaper.

"The UK is already a heavily discounted market and a lot of the budget cars sold in Europe can't be sold here because sterling has weakened. Add to that the fact that the average Russian car worker is going to expect wages that are double those in Thailand, and I can't see how it would work."

Paul Horrell, of the BBC's Top Gear magazine is also dismissive of the marqe: "It was square, boxy. It was slow. It rusted easily."

But he is willing to entertain the idea of a comeback, believing Renault's influence will make it a "very different car".

And Horrell points to how another laughing stock of a car, Skoda, managed to rescue its reputation - firstly by employing better engineering, and secondly by launching a "quite knowing advertising campaign" that played to great effect on its history as a joke vehicle.

Economics expert Daniel Ben-Ami is the author of a new book in defence of prosperity titled Ferraris For All. Would he settle for "Ladas For All" for the time being, as recession-related austerity kicks in?

"The Lada showed how poor the Soviet Union was at producing consumer goods," he says. "They may have been able to launch Sputnik into space but they couldn't manufacture a decent car to drive back on Earth.

"No doubt a new Lada will be much better than the original, but there are already plenty of cheap cars available in the UK. The fact that the Lada is being lauded by some as an appropriate car for 'Austerity Britain' is sad. I'm sure most people aspire to something better - even if they often can't afford it."


Below is a selection of your comments.

I bought a shiny new one, resplendent in beige, in 1975. Its only virtue was that it cost £800 and I hoped to run it at minimal expense for a year or so. But it had lifeless heavy steering, zero suspension control and an arthritic Soviet engine that took it from 0 to 60 in ... well, I never got there, a shock to a young lad believing he was getting a decent Fiat 124 ("looks like a BMW", my Dad said) on the cheap. Worse, rust began bubbling through after six months - clearly it had some elements of a Fiat of the 70s - so I got rid of it. I can't think there's any basis for re-engineering it into a car that a sane person would buy now, even at £5,000.
Malcol Roberts, London UK

As some who has been to Russia a number of times I can vouch for their reliability and their indestructibility. They are slow, engines are ropey and the exhaust smell is awful but they are cheap and easy to maintain. However over the last few years I have noticed fewer and fewer Ladas around as people have moved towards foreign cars.
Phillip Watson, Poole

Well Renault think enough of Lada. You can see the badge features on their F1 cars. So to have a car racing round a track at up to 190mph with a Lada badge on is surreal, maybe Renault have bigger plans?
Steven C, Coventry

I used to work in a garage years ago and we had a Lada that used to come every year for it's MOT. Well out of a lot of other cars we used to MOT the Lada seemed to be one of the best, the only thing that we had any problems with was the exhaust. It wasn't the best car to drive but it was reliable!
Lee Knowles, Clevedon

Years ago my ex husband and I had a new Lada - and we were the laughing stock of all our friends. However, it was cheap to run, reliable and never once let us down. I do admit to walking past it one day though when meeting with some colleagues who all had "posh cars" and pretending I was parked on a different street!!
Rose Jeeves, Hull

How much would a second-hand Lada be worth after one years' depreciation? Would it be worth buying when there are so many good cheap used cars around from much better manufacturers? I think only a dedicated masochist would consider one of these vehicles unless it was for a demolition derby. And God only knows what the Top Gear team would make of it. Mind you, the thought of Jeremy Clarkson in a Lada.....eh? Could there be a Lada series at Brands? Come on Stig!
Chris Dare, East Grinstead

I owned a Lada Riva for nearly 12 years, the longest I've ever had a single car and have often claimed the only reason I drive a Jaguar now is because I can not have a Lada. It wasn't the fastest car on paper perhaps, but 90MPH is still 90MPH. When something did go wrong it did not sit and sulk on the hard shoulder either, only happened twice (steering box and alternator) and both times it limped home under its own steam and could be repaired on the drive next day, all without the aid of the AA. As for comfort, I still rank it in the top three of the most comfortable cars I've owned, right behind Jaguar, Saab, my most recent vehicles and oh the bliss of having a heating and ventilation system that does what I tell it not what it thinks I ought to have! Warm feet, cool head. Why is that so difficult to comprehend by modern car makers?
Ray Gower, Bangor

I applaud the announcement by Lada/Renault. The profile of the typical Lada buyer in the UK was definitely weighted towards the mature, wise people who are less influenced by the rabid fashionistas and more by careful consideration of value - no doubt tempered by the fact that they were spending their own money. I would guess that the majority of the Lada detractors have never driven or owned one and therefore their comments are meaningless. Its a good 'opt out' vehicle, a two-fingered salute towards the idiotic moneyed set who seem to dominate our thinking (and our roads) and at such a price level as to be an attractive alternative to the small, mean hatchbacks mostly from Asia.
samuel kirkbride, Monmouth, Wales

I spent most of my formative years driving Ladas- in fact once I even had two at the same time- the joke amongst mates was that I had one for each foot! Hardy yes and easy to work on but the most abiding memory was the rust- they virtually rusted away within 6 years. Good memories though.
Matt Shelley, South London, UK

Anyone who doubts that Lada could be turned into a fresh success in the UK or elsewhere should have a look at the fortunes of Czech manufacturer Skoda. If Renault can do the same with Lada trick as VW did with Skoda, then they will truely have the last laugh.
Ben Fitzgerald-O'Connor, London, England

Originally an Austin A60 owner,The LADA was the only car in UK not made of foil.I Bought one in 1976 & it was still going when the snow stopped all but Land Rovers in the rural areas,it was solid &reliable and I often rescued the people who made those stupid jokes,all without any electronics.I would buy one tomorrow.
david, Northampton England

The Lada 4x4 was my very first car... it traumatised me so much that I haven't driven since.
CVA, Oxford



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