Blast from the Past: The Lada

The Lada car was the butt of many jokes, but HELEN MCGURK has a soft spot for the box on wheels, which may have lacked comfort and safety, but had a certain quirky charm

By Helen McGurk
Saturday, 24th July 2021, 7:00 am
What a car! The humble Lada
What a car! The humble Lada

The jokes are myriad, their theme consistent. What do you call a Lada with a sunroof? A skip. Why does a Lada have a heated rear window? To warm your hands on when you’re pushing it.

But there was a time when Ladas were the car du jour among Northern Irish farming families. Unrefined and basic, the Soviet-era vehicle was a familiar sight on country roads. A neighbour, a gent who fashioned a belt out of bailer twine, had a bright orange one which resembled a mobile Jaffa Cake, smelled of sheep dip, and was used for the transportation of hay bales, goats, chickens, and whiskey-sodden pals.

An affordable workhorse of a car, the saloon version of the Lada was spacious enough to accommodate large families. I remember sharing the capacious boot with a clatter of children and a small, excitable Suffolk ewe as we journeyed to the local mart.

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The Lada Riva was a figure of fun for its boxy looks (a replica of child’s drawing of a car) and atrocious build quality, but enthusiasts loved it for its low price and potential for endless backyard tinkering.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has always been at pains to promote his country’s much-maligned car, but, rather hilariously, one such stunt backfired in 2011 after the new model he was given to test drive in front of the country’s media failed to start. Video footage of the incident showed Mr Putin anxiously trying to start the brand new cherry-coloured Lada but failing to do so at least five times. Mr Putin pronounced himself satisfied with the Lada Granta nonetheless, calling it “a good car”.

My experience of the ‘good car’ was of a rattly, unlovely, automobile with indifferent brakes and a basic, utilatarian interior.

The humble Lada was eventually pushed to the kerb in 1997, when tightening European Union safety and emissions regulations spelt the end for the firm’s ageing models.

But unlike the Lada itself, the wheels never came off the jokes, which are still going strong.