|The 1980 Lada carried a sticker price of $4,288 f.o.b. Halifax. It weighed in at 1 060 kilos (2,337 pounds) and rode a trim 2 424-millimetre (95.4-inch) wheelbase.|
Canada has long been fertile ground for small cars, whether domestic or sourced from abroad. If the pint-sized cars were tough enough to hold up in our extreme climate and on our roads, we bought them. If they held up for a long time, we bought a lot of 'em.
AutoVAZ of the Soviet Union began exporting its cars to Canada in 1978. The product was badged as Zhugili in the USSR but export models were sold as Lada, the Russian word for 'ship.' Lada was sold in New Zealand, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, Britain and France. The sturdy little four-door sedans arrived in Canada on ocean liners that docked in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia and were unloaded by employees of the newly organized Lada Cars of Canada, Inc. with headquarters in Ajax, Ontario. That first year, a modest 1,000 units were sold. Records show 5,649 more Ladas were sold in 1979.:
Whether Zhugili or Lada, the car with the funny sounding name was actually the recycled Fiat 124 series that had debuted in 1966. About to be deleted in Italy because it was obsolete, the dies were sold to AutoVAZ. Fiat even helped build a new factory on the Volga River. Soviet engineers tinkered with the no-nonsense Italian econo-box, made it suitable for abominable Soviet roads and brought it onto the market in 1970.
|Lada was advertised as having an unusual “wide stance” among small cars. The front track measured 1 365 millimetres (53.7 inches).|
The car was a solid hit with Soviet consumers because of its fuel economy and tank-like ability to hold the road. Sexy it wasn’t but Russian drivers found its cavernous trunk, spacious cabin and seemingly inexhaustible ruggedness more than made up for its lack of looks. The car didn’t cost much, either.
This cutaway drawing of the 1980 Lada reveals how simple the car really was.
Canadians were equally impressed when they were introduced to the practical, low-priced, four-door sedan. The Lada represented the very core basic values of durability, performance, comfort and safety, all cherished hallmarks of thrift that were second nature to shoppers skilled at making the beaver on the back of a nickel howl in pain as it got pinched one more time.
It didn’t bother prospective buyers that Lada dealerships weren’t always big and glitzy like the ones in urban centres; it was not uncommon for farm equipment dealers or even well-established hardware stores to take on the Lada in small towns. This writer test drove his first Lada at a tractor dealership in the bucolic village of Perth-Andover, New Brunswick.
Even Lada's advertising appealed to the uber thrifty. “The Lada is built to last. It’s built with an extra thickness of metal so it stands up to the rigours of Canadian winters. It can take anything that our roads can throw at it, winter or summer, from the rough back tracks of cottage country to prolonged highway driving. The electrostatic primer dip, that all body panels go through and the Tectyl anti-corrosion treatment means it stands up to the salt and slush of downtown driving. And that means you’re buying a car that has resale value built in.”
The powerful police-pursuit 1.5-litre, four-cylinder engine was coupled to a four-speed manual transmission for the Canadian market. The mechanical team worked smoothly to zip occupants from zero to 100 kph in 14 seconds. Advertising boasted, “You’ll feel a little sporty and like putting a car through its paces. Let the Lada show you what it can do. You’ll notice a responsiveness you usually associate with higher priced sports cars.”
Advertising pushed the envelope even further. “You don’t get a high powered European sports car. The Lada isn’t priced that way. But then you don’t get a suburban 2-door either, although the Lada’s price might suggest that. What you get is a tough basic car that manages to combine durability and comfort with a touch of the excitement and responsiveness of a much higher priced sports car. What it all adds up to is a sensible car which performs like a lot more than a sensible car.”
Under the Lada's front-hinged hood lurked the tried and true 1.5-litre Fiat engine.
The instrument panel layout was typically European. Annoying to some Canadian drivers was ignition positions marked in Cyrillic script.
Inexpensive Lada carried thoughtful touches such as safety lights to warn oncoming traffic the door was open.
The list of extra-cost goodies was as short as a December day on Baffin Island. A leather-covered steering wheel, a wood or leather-wrapped gearshift knob, an AM/FM radio, mag wheels and coco mats made the list and that was it.
Typical of European automobiles, one could buy extra parts kits, useful for quick, emergency repairs alongside the road. The Tourist Travel Kit included a fan belt, spark plugs, rotor, condenser and other goodies. The Handyman’s Tune-up Kit included oil and air filters. The Cooling System Travel Kit included hoses. In case of defective parts or workmanship at the factory, the whole car was covered by a 12-month or 20,000-kilometre warranty.
Lada dealers also sold the Niva 4x4. It developed a cult following as the only off-road vehicle in the under $10,000 segment of the market.
Copyright James C. Mays 2006
All rights reserved.