Production Ends 31/12/2023

Hurry! You do still want that classic Lada Niva, don’t you?

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The name stems from those areas the car was built to traverse, Niva being Russian for corn (field.) Also described as a “Renault 5 on a Land Rover” body by its designers, the Lada Niva will crisscross fields no more from 2024 so firm up that ushanka and take a trip back to the Soviet Union in the early 1970s.

Tasked by the Kremlin in 1971 with creating a rugged, capable vehicle, one which the many poor farmers cast far and wide along the Russian Steppes could easily use and repair, the loser of this particular design competition was the the AZLK Moskvitch. Yet the first Autovaz prototypes (led by Vladimir Solovyev) known as Krokodil[1], were deemed “too utilitarian.” A new, more civilised design garnered the internal type number 2121 consisting of a hard top roof and doors to keep the weather out, along with unibody construction, car-like looks, a 1600 cc petrol engine and permanent four wheel drive. 

Three years of heavy testing and comparisons against vehicles such as the Land and Range Rover (under Vadim Kotlyarov), in the Ural Mountains, Siberia and the Kazakh desert wastelands brought about the Niva, the first Autovaz to be made in Togliatti without Fiat assistance.[2] Sadly Solovyev died in 1975, with Pyotr Prusov taking over and gaining plaudits.

The Niva package was thus; body length at 3,740mm, wheelbase 2,200mm. Weighing but 1,150Kgs and only 1,680mm wide and 1,640mm tall, the ace cards being played in the suspension; independent coils front and five-link live axle, rearward. Ground clearance stood at 265mm. Shod with 175/80 R16 steel wheels clad in knobbly, home spun Voltyre VLI-5 tyres, gradients close to 60% and water depths of 600mm were taken with aplomb.

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High and low ranges and a locking centre differential helped mud and snow characteristics, ideal for typical road conditions found in the remote villages where Niva would ply its wares. Should smooth tarmac appear, a v-max of 130Kmh (80mph) and 28-35 mpg was achievable, naturally dropping if the 860Kg trailer were fitted – local fieldwork no doubt testing these limits. Brakes consisted of discs up front, drums aft. 

First leaving the production lines on 5th April 1977, Niva came fully equipped – with such as the 21 piece toolkit and the spare wheel under the (Fiat inspired) clamshell bonnet – far more important than effete safety features or indeed a radio. The 1,586cc petrol engine rattled out 93 foot pounds and 76bhp at 5,000rpm connected to a four speed manual gearbox (changing into what had been a European option top gear some seventeen years later). Ironically, those intended Soviet customers were made to wait as export markets were more lucrative – almost 80% of Niva’s left from behind the Curtain. 

Early Niva cabin. Image: The Moscow Times

Western Europe’s first look at the Russian workhorse came at the 1978 Paris motor show. The portentously extravagant rivals at Land Rover and Mercedes quivered not, leaving Niva to plough its own furrow, gaining a large slice of the SUV pie before the advent of their effluvium, exuding a no-nonsense appeal which only gathered momentum – Cold War chic was in.

Autovaz realised that maintaining demand required changes, although these were relatively insignificant; headlight wipers, a radio, seat belts front and rear, a heated rear window, along with deleting extravagances such as chrome ash tray and scuff plates. Dealers would often supplant more (at extra cost) to placate decadent Western tastes. Barring the 1994 gearbox change[3], the biggest changes occurred within the engine bay – Lada making the 1.7 litre petrol, 80bhp mill available the previous year in response to poor economy figures.

Police Niva in Bratislava, Slovakia. Image: The Moscow Times

Lifting the bonnet once well away from Togliatti, one may find a diesel motor from any given manufacturer. A year before the Millennium saw Niva’s offering factory fitted derv engines, courtesy of Peugeot’s XUD-9SD 1,905cc in-line four. A short lived venture due to Sochaux ceasing production in 2001 (with Lada still offering them six years on) and a poor reputation when compared to its petrol compatriot when used in the colder extremes of the domestic market.

For UK roads and tracks, Niva’s introduction was left-hand drive only for two years from 1978, the Autovaz plant swopping the steering wheel over from 1980. Sporting bold graphics, running boards, spot lamps and controversial bull bars, the Cossack could even be fitted with a sunroof. Public opinion over those often chromed front facing scaffold tubes turned darker; 1995 saw Lada offer a more basic trim, known as Hussar. This, akin to Lada as a bona fide importer was on ice too thin to traverse. Mainly due to EU engine emissions targets, Lada departed Britain on 3rd July 1997, only to return thirteen years later – more momentarily.

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2006 witnessed a Niva sea-change. GM had temporarily taken over[4], so the Lada Niva became Lada 4×4, also dropping the 2121 classification for the home market. Eight years passed when a concurrent model named Lada 4×4 URBAN ushered in a modern take on the original Niva which was still selling well. Styled as a contemporary SUV, the Urban (now steered by Billancourt) brought modernity, if not high safety standards to the scene. Wrested from The General by 2016, the Niva nomenclature returned with an added classic tag.

MotoriOnline

Returning to Blighty, 2010 saw an independent importer reintroduce Niva. Sitting ever-so-slightly differently from the 1977 original, patient yearners can specify them in such beautifully named hues as Baroque Raspberry, Nessie Green, Coriander Bronze or Putin Camouflage. The wheel though, resolutely on the left – no option. A new, Dacia-derived Niva should surface sometime soon; the old cornfield darling succumbing to the scythe forty six years from its ice encrusted inception. Still want one? Plant those seeds, soon.

[1] These were soft top prototypes, based upon both Jeep’s CJ and Toyota’s FJ.

[2] Although Fiat’s 124, 5 and 7 played parts, the Niva’s body, front suspension and four wheel drive derived from Autovaz. Porsche, too breathed upon the gearbox.

[3] Many customers thought the five speed box unreliable, retro-fitting a four speed.

[3] There was already a Chevrolet-branded model with that moniker.

 A nine minute, Russian language, black and white film showing Niva development and testing 

Editor’s note: A Lada Niva was used to transport goods and personnel in the Russian Antarctic Expedition from 1990 to 2001. More than 2.5 million examples have been produced since 1977.

Data sources: ranwhenparked.com/ Groupe Renault/ Moscow Times.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

21 thoughts on “Production Ends 31/12/2023”

  1. Your last opportunity to buy a Seventies’ car brand new.

    Weren’t we looking for small pick up trucks a couple of days ago?

    Someone in our village drives around in a Niva four door – before he bought it I didn’t know they made such a thing

  2. Dave, me neither until I saw Scarlett Johannson driving one in “Black Widow”. BMW social media advertising made a deal of her in the same film product placing some sort of car they make but I can honestly say I have no recollection of that.

    1. The C-pillar looks weird and I would have preferred steelies, but otherwise I like that Niva pick up truck. Thanks for sharing it here, Dave. I never knew it existed.

  3. I grew up in a small village where the local garage had a Lada dealership. Hondas, AMC’s and Yugos were also sold. The Niva was always a bit rare, but you did see them around. Maybe it’s nostalgia, but I always had a soft spot for the Niva. Alas, I’ve never driven one.

    As of 2019 new Nivas were available in Germany for € 11.990. Due to the tax system linked to CO2 emission compared to vehicle size (length x width) the car tax on the Niva was a whopping € 37.101, pushing the Niva to € 50k. Four times the price. No wonder the last new Dutch Niva was sold on March 7th 2017.

  4. Good morning, Andrew, and thanks for a nice retrospective on possibly Russia’s only truly innovative motor vehicle. The Niva may have been crude and utilitarian (and I certainly wouldn’t want to crash in one) but it fulfilled the need for which it was designed perfectly. The only significant bodywork change to the three-door came in 1993 when the rear hatch was enlarged down to bumper level.

    The five-door has something of the ‘cut-and-shut’ about it. It looks as though they cut the roof of the three-door in half and inserted an extension panel over the rear doors:

    1. Good morning all – a new Niva would be quite tempting if available with a low CO2 diesel engine….. But off on a slight tangent (Daniel’s fault!), I wouldn’t want to crash in any car. Surely the whole driving process should be based on avoiding having a crash in the first place? Human nature being what it is, the entirely laudable, and proper, work to protect everyone IF it all goes pear-shaped have had the unfortunate side effect of drivers believing all will be well WHEN the crash happens and abdicating responsibility for their actions in the process.
      Next safety feature a big spike in the centre of the steering wheel pointing at the driver’s chest? I’ll get my coat….

    2. Good morning John. You’re absolutely right, of course. I wouldn’t want to crash in any car and try to drive accordingly, but one can be the safest driver in the world (I’m not, by the way.) and still be involved in a serious crash, thanks to another’s error or recklessness, which is where passive safety comes into play.

      Thankfully, I have only been involved in one serious car accident in sixty years as a driver or passenger. I was in the front passenger seat of an original Mini. The driver pulled out from a side road directly in front of a Renault 16. My last memory before being knocked senseless by a blow to my right temple (which fractured my skull) from the driver’s elbow was the parcel shelf shooting upwards in an inverted ‘V’ as the driver’s side of the car collapsed inwards. Not much passive safety at work there!

      Is there any reliable empirical evidence that drivers are more inclined to drive recklessly because they are in a car with high levels of passive safety? I know about the stereotypical (caricatured?) Range Rover driver trying to barge everyone out of his way but, in my experience, I’m just as likely to be tailgated by a callow youth in an ancient Corsa when out in my Boxster.

    3. Hello Daniel & John,

      In answer to Daniel’s question, there is some evidence that people compensate for increased safety by taking more risks, but it’s a complicated topic (risk homeostasis theory, no less). It’s thought people have internal risk thermostats, as it were, but they’re not all set at the same level and they change over time. I still wouldn’t recommend a steel spike, though, as you could be crashed in to by someone.

      https://injuryprevention.bmj.com/content/4/2/89

    4. I know it’s active, not passive safety but it’s a direct comparison between with and without: in the Eighties when anti lock systems became widespread insurance companies’ statistics showed that cars with anti lock had a higher accident rate than those without. Only massive pressure from politics could prevent them from asking higher insurance premiums for anti lock equipped cars.

    5. Interesting, Dave. I know that there are other factors- societal ones – that affect what happens. Countries which are new to motorised transport seem to have to endure years of high deaths until everyone learns what the limitations are. The fact that cars have a load of safety kit barely makes any difference.

    6. Every now and then I had the desire to buy a Lada Niva. The 2-door model, of course.
      The fact that this wish never became reality was due to all kinds of reasons. It wasn’t the lack of safety features.

      I don’t think much of all the safety features on cars.
      The reason is completely irrational and exclusively emotional.
      I don’t know anyone who died in a road accident. But:
      – I was sleeping in the passenger seat of a friend’s car on the way home from a party. He went off the road on the motorway without crash barriers, the car (Peugeot 204) overturned several times. We got out of the wreck unhurt.
      – my mother put our family car (Simca 1301) on its roof. Neither she nor my father, nor another passenger had any injuries.
      – a former friend of mine was involved in a rear-end collision on the motorway with her 2CV. A truck pushed her onto the car in front. The rest of the vehicle would have fit in a shoebox. My father, who had some experience due to his job as a body designer (at Porsche), saw the pictures of the accident vehicle and then said “based on the pictures, I would say not even a mouse could get out alive”. My friend had a broken arm.
      – a good friend and colleague had a serious accident on the motorway. Her fiancé, for whatever reason, went off the road and the vehicle hit a bridge abutment almost without braking. The driver was killed instantly. My colleague, six inches away from him, had a few bruises.

      These experiences leave their mark. Emotionally, not rationally.
      And I think when it’s meant to happen, it happens.
      When you’re on the grim reaper’s list, it probably doesn’t matter what safety features a vehicle is equipped with – or where you are.

      I probably also always wanted a Lada Niva because there is a cool (fake) logo for the Lada: https://m.media-amazon.com/images/I/41MvqUBjGvL._AC_UL320_.jpg

  5. Good Morning,

    Beautiful design an very practical vehicle. Here in Venezuela you can still see a lot running but not for the mecahnic that is a Fiat engine but mostly due for the steel protection , they really seem to never rust, maybe Russian steel is not so bad after all.

    1. A very good reference source but some oddly-presented factual information.

      It took a little working out who ‘Dante Dzhakosa’ was…

  6. Niva and Suzuky jimmny, both will disappear. What a pity. In small rural areas on the hills they are the best thing you can buy together with the panda 4×4.

  7. Great article – and the film mentioned in the footnotes is definitely worth watching. It made me feel cold watching one wade through a semi-frozen lake.

    I’m sad it’s going – they’re very capable cars. I’d love to know what they’re like to drive.

  8. I lived in West Cumbria in the mid 80’s and they were quite common amongst the farming community. I believe they performed admirably off road. Didn’t know they still made them though. Thanks for enlightening me again Andrew.

  9. Tim, you beat me to it about Cumbria. At some time in the past Lada’s HQ for Britain was moved (Or contract awarded to someone else) from Bridlington, East Riding to Penrith, Cumbria. Nivas seemed to become much in evidence as soon as you got passed Appleby -in-Westmorland travelling North. Almost as though there was a Lada faultline.

  10. I remember when the Niva came to Australia in the late 80’s – don’t think I ever saw one but the magazines tested them. As I recall the racing driver Peter Brock did checking and preparation of Ladas after importation, in the years following his split with GM-Holden – and there was quite a lot of remedial work to do. They also did some upgrades (eg EFI from memory), special models and accessories too.

    There was also a ute/pickup model made especially for the Australian market in 1990 – the vehicles were shipped to Czechoslovakia where the conversion was done (same place did convertible versions of the Niva). The added cost could not be recovered in the retail price, so only 200 were built, apparently sold at a loss.

    https://www.curbsideclassic.com/curbside-classics-european/curbside-classic-lada-niva-pickup-truck/

    Like some other readers, the Niva is an interesting vehicle, but not enough for me to own one!

  11. I would like to think that most vehicles, especially a Soviet made 4×4, would take a water depth of 60mm with a fair degree of aplomb.

    1. Well spotted, Andy. The sub-editor must have been on the sherry again. A written warning will ensue!

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