Le Pas d’Acier

Two steps on the water.

BBC

Situated a thousand kilometres South East from Moscow on the banks of the historically troubled river Volga, lies an enormous industrial plant. Up to 650,000 vehicles wearing a handful of badges are built per year, the area having become known locally as the Motown of the East. But to understand the Autovaz plant, we must first rewind the clock.

Post-war Soviet engineering plans were huge; just one of which being the Kuibyshev Hydroelectric Dam (now known as the Zhiguli). Work began in 1950 and was completed just two years later but the dam’s construction led to the destruction of the city of Stavropol, necessitating a complete rebuilding and renaming of the city in due course.

Autovaz Togliatti plant. videohive

Earlier in proceedings, an Italian gent who had gained the ears of both Gianni Agnelli and Josef Stalin became instrumental in setting up a new Italian/ Soviet alliance. Palmiro Togliatti (1893-1964) was head of the the Partito Comunista d’Italia. Having lead an eventful political life, the former leader of the Italian resistance during the Second World War was made a Citizen of the Soviet Union in 1930.

Togliatti combined his Fiat knowledge with the Hammer and Sickle’s clout, bringing about the Autovaz empire. The deal witnessed Fiat trialling new production methods prior to their new ventures back home. The communists had the opportunity to bring fourth their version of the People’s Car in similitudes to the Citroën 2CV or Mini with their almost everlasting variant of the 1966 Fiat 124, the VAZ-2101.

Palmiro Togliatti. tp24.it

With the former Stavropol no more, the new factory and supportive community was situated close to the newly constructed city, and named after the Italian[1] in honour of his unstinting zeal – sadly never seeing the fruits of his negotiations. An army of 45,000 workers began building the plant in late 1966 at an estimated cost of £820M. The factory had several Italian parts and sub-assemblies brought in but came replete with foundry alongside glass and tyre producing areas, keeping most processes in-house.

Originally aiming for around 200,000 units of the 2101 per the year, the car’s brand name was Zhiguli, the badge consisting of a silver Volga river boat (similar to Rover’s Viking longboat) on a red background with a Cyrillic Togliatti superimposed. The Turinese badge makers however mistook the R for the Soviet reverse style, making the first several thousand badges most collectible.

Plans to supply environs beyond the Iron Curtain saw some unusually lucid thinking; even Russians struggled with the Zhiguli name; thus, for export markets initially, the name Lada moored in 1973, itself a type of boat used by Slavish pirates. The Russian word, lada meaning lovely, as in darling. 

Completed cars at Togliatti. urbain-trop-urbain.fr

The first cars to roll off the Togliatti lines coincided with Lenin’s 100th birthday anniversary, the 22nd April 1970. Just over 20,000 cars were built by that year’s end. In three years, a million variants of the 2101 had been made, 660,000 in 1973 alone. 1975 saw 750,000 cars exit Togliatti. Costing around 6,500 roubles at home (approximately $10,000 with a Ford Cortina around £1,000 in the UK) exports went far and wide – the UK receiving batches through Satra Motors Ltd Concessionaires in time for the 1973 motor show. 

The 1970s heralded subtle overall changes to the car; 2102 the estate version, the 2103 becoming the deluxe model with its decadent 1.5 litre engine. In a 1974 tie up with NSU, Autovaz was granted permission to make and sell Wankel rotary engines although with production taking another six years, it is doubtful many were made and sold. 

The outset of the eighth decade saw the Autovaz empire itself suffer at the hands of many a pirate. Early May 1980 saw the USSR suffer unheard of (and illegal) strikes. Thousands of Togliatti and fellow Gorki plant employees downed tools in a peaceful protest over food supplies to workers which the Soviet press conveniently forgot to mention to the outside world. Arrests may have been made but two full days of production was lost.

Ripituc

It is difficult to imagine scenes similar to Longbridge without the use of AK-47’s. Blame was resolutely placed at President Carter’s grain embargo, not to mention the Afghanistan invasion, and an exceptionally long winter, but no more strikes were heard of from the Russian Bear. While production numbers remained high and included a new model – the 1984 Samara hatchback in three door (2108) and later five door (2109) – problems of various natures loomed large.

Insignificant investments toward the latter end of the decade led to quality issues, poor supply of parts (often missing from completed cars), crippling debt and worst of all, loss of workers’ pay. As the Russian economic situation worsened, criminal gangs began to take over dealerships, often stealing cars from the factory. Corruption became rife as top managers helped cream-off the ever in demand cars, production figures dwarfing most rival manufacturers.

This links to an article regarding the massive problems faced, often reading more like a kind of Bourne spy film.

Final checks at Togliatti. (c) renaultgroup

The intervening years saw many attempts to steady the good ship  Lada including an early 1990s tentative toe into the water with a private western deal, a 1993 re-established Russian joint stock company and even a 2001 deal with GM. 2008 saw Renault bravely announcing a $1B investment into Autovaz, equating to a 25% stake which increased eight years later to the remaining 75%.

The Autovaz ballet had entered Paris. But no pas de deux or grand assemblé’s here, just cold commercial logic. 

Le Pas d’Acier (translated as A Steel Step) is a 1926 modernist ballet by Sergei Prokofiev centred around the Soviet industrial might. Coincidentally, both Prokofiev and Stalin died on the same day, – 05/03/53.

[1] Once more, spellings alter according to where one looks. The English translation of the city appears to be Tolyatti although Toliati and the founders surname are frequently used.

https://www.lada.ru/en/ Link to English version of Lada site

A link to Autovaz group video of the Togliatti plant

Data sources: lada.co.uk/ renaultgroup/ Washington Post.

Author: Andrew Miles

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

24 thoughts on “Le Pas d’Acier”

  1. Good morning, Andrew. Thank you for this insight in Autovaz. I mentioned it here a couple of times before, but there was a Lada dealership in the village where I grew up, so these cars were a common sight for the younger version of me. Ladas are no longer imported here and most of them have been sold to Eastern Europe, so now they’re a very rare sight.

    I never knew about the NSU deal with the Wankel engine, so once again my automotive knowledge has expended, thanks to DTW.

    Back in the days the Lada was the subject of many jokes. I’ll leave you with this one: Why does a Lada have a heated rear screen? Asnwer: So you won’t have cold hands when you’re pushing it. Now that I type this, I wonder if this is where the heated steering wheel started to become a thing.

  2. In the late Seventies a friend bought a Lada 2103, the Soviet version of the Fiat 124 Special with 1,500 cc and 75PS.
    The car was a bit over two years old and cost next to nothing to buy. It came with the full tool kit including grease gun, tyre repair kit, collapsible wheel chock, foot operated air pump and tyre levers. The tools alone must have weighed next to twenty kilograms. The former owner replaced the exhaust only to see that two weeks later the end silencer split along its longitudinal seam. A new exhaust cost nearly nothing.
    The car was astonishingly lively to drive and was fun on the road in a peculiar way.
    The owners manual had a special chapter on using the car at temperatures below forty centigrade. Take out the battery and store warm and dry, drain coolant and oil and heat them up on your oven before putting them back into the car. Use starting handle to crank over the engine a couple of times before using the starter. Then hurry up before everything freezes up. The heater in that car was very powerful at least in our weather conditions.
    It was impossible to tune the engine using modern tools like an ignition stroboscope gun because the contract breaker cam was so badly made that ignition timing would jump all over the place. But the distributor had a large knurled nut that could be used to adjust ignition timing to fuel quality in seconds.
    One day the driver fell asleep behind the wheel and crashed into the underride guard rail of a truck. The driver did not wear a seat belt but by lucky coincidence he had his arms in a position that they couldn’t bend and he pushed the steering wheel into a horizontal position, breaking the windscreen and bending the dashboard in the process. His arms were three centimetres shorter afterwards. The Lada had looked very tatty before but in this accident about ten kilograms of body filler fell off together with the mustard yellow paint, exposing healthy and shiny metal.

    1. Good morning Dave. Those comprehensive tool kits were a real feature of Eastern Bloc cars back in the day, when an owner with some mechanical knowledge could actually make running repairs to their car.

      Iincidentally, I think you might mean below forty Fahrenheit, rather than Centigrade, in your comment.

    2. I really meant Centigrade.
      My travel guide for Novosibirsk tells me that in January temperatures only occasionally are below minus thirty-four centigrade…

    3. One of my friends in Finland had a Lada for a while. At one point he forgot where he parked the car and due to the enormous of snow that hat fallen he was unable to locate it. I wonder how much alcohol was involved at this point. He waited for months until the snow melted, took the battery out, recharged it, put it back and the Lada started at the first attempt. According to my friend the same thing happened to his neighbor with a Volvo and that car refused to start after the snow melted.

    4. Ah, it was the missing ‘minus’ in your original comment that confused me…😨

  3. Good morning, Andrew. Thank you for an interesting history, well told.

    I love that image of the ‘lady cavaliers’ in their thigh-length white boots, which is wonderfully random! Lada’s UK advertising was rather prosaic by comparison, focusing heavily on the value proposition, this example from 1992:

    Our younger readers might be puzzled by the cut-off form at the bottom of the advertisement. Yes, that is really what we had to do to get further information in the pre-internet days!

    1. What a lovely piece of nostalgia that advert is. I think if I’d been a driver at the time, a Riva might actually have appealed to me in an odd sort of way.

  4. More interesting facts I didn’t know before Andrew. Never owned a Lada but a couple of with colleagues did. They raved about their durability and simplicity to work on. Another great article, thank you.

  5. Fun fact: the Johnson administration seriously considered funding (via the US Ex-Im Bank) Fiat to build and purchase tooling for the Togliatti plant, but the rampant and wildly successful anti-communist campaigning of the GOP put paid to all this. Nixon put the final coffin. And all this, even though both US diplomacy and the CIA considered such a move to be advantageous for the US.

    1. Funny enough, I’ve just seen a Lada last week in Switzerland. No idea what model it was, some contemporary SUV or crossover type. As I didn’t see the plates, I’m not sure if it was actually a Swiss registered car.

      Other than that, Nivas can still be seen in rural alpine regions, just like old Jeeps or Land Rovers.

    2. Ah, this article repeats the “Soviet steel” myth. Of course, no source is mentioned for this. Interestingly enough, US diplomatic sources (the State Dept’s publicly-accessible archives from the Johnson and Nixon administrations) state that the Italians didn’t want to be paid in kind by the Soviets and that, when US funding (yes, the US were considering funding the AVTOVAZ project through their Ex-Im Bank) became impossible due to the anti-communist sentiment the GOP had spurred, Fiat funded it all OOP.

  6. Dear Andrew, thanks for this interesting story.
    In the post you mention the parts “often missing from completed cars”, and that reminds me about the policy of the then Spanish importer of Lada vehicles. This company bought the Nivas for 250,000 pesetas in the early ’90s (around 2,800 € in today’s money) ansd the retail price was one million pesetas (more or less 11,300 € of today). Why such a gap?
    Obviously the warranty costs were covered by the importer, not the factory, and the cars used to arrive not necessarily in a complete form. So the importer set up a workshop equipped with technicians and a wide stock of parts in the harbour of Santander, where the vessels arrived: the technicians checked, repaired and completed! the cars before being delivered to the dealers premises.

  7. Good afternoon Andrew. Thank you for another enlightening article. It takes me back to a time where you had to have some technical knowledge of how things worked to keep your latest purchase running. I have a vague memory of one of our football team members owning a Lada but I can’t be sure if all the bits were present at the time!

    1. In order to get a driver’s licence in the Soviet Union you had to show that you were able to change a tyre and do some elementary work on your car.

  8. On my travels in the former DDR I found quite a bit of Lada-love:

    The Chemnitz registered 1500 has a fine patina of age, the fastidiously-kept red Combi looked far smarter than when it left Togliattigrad.

    Despite recalling what seemed a grim and sinister regime, Ostalgie was everywhere. At a motorbike parking bay not far from the red wagon, a group of middle-aged men ignored modern BMWs, KTMs and Japanese bikes, and looked longingly at an MZ TS250.

  9. To try to sum up the Lada in a simple way: the people who switched from a Zhiguli to a similar class, younger Western car after the fall of the Berlin Wall – e.g. Escort or Kadett – experienced far less of an upgrade than those who exchanged their Trabant for a Peugeot 205 or even an entry-level Polo. Of course, nobody wanted to go back to the Lada after becoming committed towards a Western brand name (if not for logical, than for ideological reasons), but the Lada’s nimbus held up pretty well, possibly even better than that of Škoda cars which were considered superior by the general public for their sportier merits.

  10. I recall back in the mid-90s, one of those situations where you really wish you had a camera with you: a rather beat up looking Lada 2105 towing a much more recent mid sized Mercedes up a steep hill in Wellington!

    They sold quite a few here in NZ, I think we swapped them for butter. That was in the days before the automotive market was liberalised, resulting in all local assembly coming to a halt and a flood of used Japanese imports. For a while, Russian fishermen would buy used (both functional and non-functional) Ladas and ship them back to the homeland.

  11. I once chose this unlikely Soviet-Italian love affair as the topic for a class presentation in my Russian class and have been deeply fascinated with it ever since.

    Apparently, according to sources that I don’t recall exactly, part of the VAZ-Fiat deal was that the Soviet Union in return would supply Fiat with steel. However, the low quality of the steel that was delivered, was seen as one of the reasons for the Fiats built with it, dissolving into rust so quickly. I am not sure whether this is true . Maybe somebody knows more?

    I think especially the 2103 is a very pretty car and consider it a lucky fortune that the Fiat 124/125 were chosen as the vehicle (metaphorically and literally) to mass motorize half a continent. In most thinkable scenarios the outcome would have been considerably uglier…

    1. Good morning Lukas. Ah yes, the old ‘inferior Russian steel’ story that refuses to die! Here is a footnote to our recent ‘Going South’ series on the Alfasud:

      “The problem of premature corrosion has frequently been attributed to the supply of allegedly poor quality Russian steel, but this notion has been debunked by automotive historian (and DTW contributor), Matteo Licata. As published in The Road Rat magazine, Matteo shared the recollections of Achille Moroni, the Alfa Romeo production engineer sent from Milan to investigate the problem.”

      Apparently, there was nothing wrong with the raw steel. The corrosion issues were simply caused by poor production practices.

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