Two steps on the water.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
 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.