Day 29: Lada Power!

descending the Tahtakaracha Pass between Samarkand and Shakhrisabz in October 2015

If Chevrolet has a near monopoly on new car sales in Uzbekistan, Lada takes the top prize for pride in ownership, and raw Soviet aesthetic.  Few cars have maintained the same basic body style as long as the iconic Lada 2100 series, production lasting from 1970 to 2012, an amazing 42 years.  Not the only player in the Soviet automotive industry, but certainly the most prolific, vintage Ladas on Uzbek roads are also joined by the occasional Moskvitch and Volga.

Samarkand, March 2016, near the Shah-i-Zinda

There isn’t too much to say about the history of Lada, other than its origins in 1966 as a joint venture between the Italian automaker Fiat and the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Trade.  The cooperation is obvious when comparing the Fiat model 124 to the VAZ-2101, both cars appearing nearly identical at first glance.  Soviet authorities were less concerned with style than their Italian counterparts, and were much more interested in quick and efficient production, durability, and the ability to quickly deliver cars to the domestic market.  The “Russificaiton” of the Fiat 124 resulted in more than 800 design changes to make it compliant with Soviet requirements, mostly to do with durability concerns, passenger comfort, and safety.

Samarkand, March 2016

Production of the Lada 2101 lasted from 1966 until 1988, but was improved with the release of the 2103 with twin headlights in 1972.  The 2103 was not produced as long as the 2101, ceasing in 1984.  The 2106 which was introduced in 1976 was simply a modernization of the 2103.  Chrome styling elements were replaced with plastic, and the lighting system was brought up to European standard.  The 2106 also offered an improved engine compared to earlier models, and production continued until 2006, a 30 year assembly line for a single model with only minor changes with each series.  Other models in the series included the 2102 and 2104 station wagons, and the 2105 which was a further modernized version of the 2101 released in 1979.  From the 2105, the “luxury” 2107 was developed and released in 1982, continuing until 2012.

on the streets of Tahskent in April 2016

Driving around Tashkent today, the majority of cars on the road are white Daewoos and Chevrolets manufactured within the last 10 years.  There are also still quite a few Ladas, and the majority of those are in excellent condition.  Pride of ownership and camaraderie are a big part of the Lada lifestyle, a carryover from Soviet times when everyone who had a car, pretty much had the same model.  Ladas are go anywhere do anything vehicles, a testament to careful scrutiny by Soviet engineers in the 1960s who insisted on over engineering everything on the original Fiat 124.  With 42 years of production, the 2100 series Ladas are never lacking for spare parts, mechanics referring to the engines as like lego building blocks thanks to interchangeability.  Out in the regions, Ladas become even more common as not many are able to afford the luxury of a brand new car.  Loaded down, but built like tanks, its not unusual to see refrigerators, topchans, bales of cotton, beds and other heavy furniture tied to the roof.

Lada with roof rack outside Bukhara in March 2016

Taxi Ladas in the city are quite rare, but occasionally we’re lucky enough to experience a ride in the bone jarring back seat of one of these Soviet relics for a short trip across town.  What the former USSR lacks in antique car diversity, it more than makes up for in number of vintage cars still on the road.  Not quite the Havana of Central Asia, but still somewhat like a living museum of old cars, visitors might wonder what era they’ve been transported to when surrounded on the road by these vintage Soviet automobiles still chugging along more than 50 years after their introduction.

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Bukhara, Old Town at night, October 2017

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