Hurry! You do still want that classic Lada Niva, don’t you?
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, 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. 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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
2006 witnessed a Niva sea-change. GM had temporarily taken over, 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.
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.
 These were soft top prototypes, based upon both Jeep’s CJ and Toyota’s FJ.
 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.
 Many customers thought the five speed box unreliable, retro-fitting a four speed.
 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.