Tuesday 1 May 2012

1971-1988 Lada 2101

"More and more people are discovering the special qualities and excellent value for money of the Lada. No other car in its class offers anywhere near as much..."

A common stereotype of Cuba contains sandy beaches, happy people, cigars and big american cars. But sure not everything is what it seems to be. Cuba's automotive landscape, for instance, is clearly dominated by other, newer cars, mainly from Russia, Korea, and recently China. But somehow, the elated visitor's brain manages the trick to completely exclude these vehicles from the picture and leave us with the cliché. It's an interesting phenomenon...

While most foreigners embrace the vintage Detroit Iron, some cuban choferes seem to prefer anything that was built on the other side of the Iron Curtain, when they can get ahold of these russian cars. There's a myriad of Moskovichs and Ladas populating the island, most of them used by government owned agencies or being granted to the most merited revolutionaries. But from time to time, some of these cars somehow find their way to the private market. Contrary to the American cacharros, spare parts are very easy to find in case something breaks, which makes the russian cars a smart choice for choferes that must rely on their cars. Well, this situation might change soon, because the famous Lada faces the end of it's production run. Lada spokesman Igor Burenko recently has stated: "Demand for the Classic has dropped a lot. It is time to say goodbye." And the end of spare parts supply will cause the same dilemma to the Ladas as to their big brothers from America.

But now say hello to the Lada 2101. Our pictured car, save for its bumper, looks pretty much the same as its "mother", the Fiat 124. Unveiled in 1966, the Fiat started a very successful career on European roads by being awarded "European Car of the Year" in 1967. For the time, the Fiat was quite advanced: compact outside but very roomy inside. Technically simple, the car was agile, economic and (untypical for a Fiat) pretty reliable. The soviet government soon choose the Fiat 124 for licensed production in the new established AutoVAZ factory. As usual in socialist countries, all economic decisions are politically triggered. Part of the decision for Fiat was the strong presence of Italy's communist party within Fiat. Even Stavropol-Wolschskij, the place of the new joint-venture factory, was renamed into Togliatti in honor of the former leader of the Italian Communist Party who had died in 1964.

Fiat invested in building the factory and the first "Shiguli" and "Lada" cars left Togliatti in 1971. Except for the different names (Shiguli for domestic and Lada for the export market), the cars were identical, but slightly differed from the original Fiat 124: the adaption to rough russian driving conditions included slightly thicker sheet metal for the body panels, a revised suspension and an updated engine with overhead camshaft, plus an auxiliary manual fuel pump and a starter crank in case the battery was drained in the cold. The Lada 2101, produced in the look of our pictured car through 1988, soon was exported in different versions to western countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Great Britain and eventually even found its way to Canada.

To pay back the Lada's licensing costs, Russia supplied Fiat with steel, which was the base for all Fiats and some Alfa Romeo cars that were built from 1971. Soon, this agreement backfired on Fiat: the high amount of copper in the Russian steel caused an intergranular electro-chemical reaction (in other words: severe corrosion) on Fiats and Alfas, and thus, eventually on Fiat's brand image, too...

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