A light-hearted look at Ladas in the Caucasus, their history and how they played a part in my teenage years
Lada outside an apartment building in Shushi, Nagorno-Karabakh
I don’t really have an obsession with cars. Alloy wheels, chrome by the tonnage and supercars such as Ferraris and Lamborghinis do very little to float my boat (*) but during our time in the Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh) I started to develop a mild fixation with the Lada and other Soviet-built cars from that era and I wasn’t sure why?
(*) Although I was once the proud owner of a Volvo P1800 Sport. Inherited from my father, it was a bright red 1967 coupe model that was not very easy to drive but it looked the business. I sold it seven years ago when Kirsty and I left the UK to travel to Kathmandu and beyond …
My bright red Volvo P1800 Sport
Then it suddenly dawned on me. In a way, the Lada was a pivotal part of my teenage years. You see, it is not strictly true to say that I was never into cars. Like all teenagers with a brand new driving licence (four attempts at getting it mind you) and an irrepressible urge to drive, drive, drive, I wanted a car of my own. A Ford Capri was the ultimate dream back then but heck, a Citroen 2CV, Ford Escort or even a Fiat Panda would have done. Anything to get me and my mates mobile. Well, almost anything … there was one set of wheels that were a massive ‘no, no’; a jalopy with such a stigma attached to it that even if I had been offered one for free, I wouldn’t have accepted it. And that was the good old Russian manufactured Lada.
I grew up when Lada jokes were rife. The Russian heap was the pariah of the car scene in the mid-1980s and as an 18-year-old, there were only a few scenarios potentially more embarrassing than the thought of owning a Lada (*). Simply imagining the grief I would have got from my mates if I had picked them up in a Lada was enough to make me break out in a cold sweat. In all likelihood, I probably wouldn’t have had any mates left if I had greeted them in such a manner. As for pulling girls, well I could forget about that in an instant. I would have been better off flashing my bus pass!
(*) The ‘few scenarios’ basically boiled down to failed sexual exploits that your mates somehow got to find out about, and your mum discovering stuff she shouldn’t have when tidying up your room!
Of course, for the parents who invariably had to stump up the cash for their son’s first motor car, the price tag attached to the Lada made it an appealing proposition (they were very cheap). Luckily my parents didn’t latch on to this. My first car, kindly donated from the Bank of Mum and Dad, was a Citroen Dyane. No Ford Capri, that’s for sure, but at least it wasn’t a Lada. I had mates who were in a state of despair and having one sleepless night followed by another because their parents were considering a ‘reliable and economical’ Lada for their son’s first driving experience. I am grateful to my parents for many things, but none so much as the fact that they never inflicted a Lada on me.
For a modern take on the above, think Simon’s yellow car in the British television show, The Inbetweeners, and watch the following tribute to the Yellow Peril on YouTube. Granted it’s a Fiat and not a Lada, but the essence is the same. It’s very funny and if you are of a certain age, British and male, you will certainly identify.
Of course, all the above is slightly tongue in cheek and the ramblings of a once-18-year-old who was paranoid at the thought of potentially losing the little bit of street credibility he thought he had (*).
(*) In the name of fashion I wore leg warmers, a white cricket jumper tucked into my trousers with braces over the top and highlighted my hair. I probably didn’t have any street cred to begin with!
The Lada is probably a great car (to some!). It certainly seems to go forever and the whole (lack of) reliability notion which has been the brunt of so many jokes is no doubt unfounded.
In many former Eastern Bloc countries (Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland for example), Fords, Toyotas and the like are replacing the trusty Lada and you don’t see so many on the roads anymore. But in the Caucasus, the Lada is still very much alive and kicking. Outside of the big cities, the Lada is the dominant workhorse, transporting people and goods from one place to the next. We also had our fair share of rides in them. From a shared taxi crammed to the hilt with burly Georgians (and us!) between Tbilisi and the mountain region of Kazbegi to a 4WD Lada driven across country from one church to the next by the local priest in Armenia’s stunning Debed Canyon. We probably wouldn’t have seen half the places we did in the region if it wasn’t for the faithful old Lada.
I guess in a way, driving around the Caucasus in so many types of Lada was a kind of therapy for me. I was exorcising my Lada demons and it seemed to work. I no longer look over my shoulder to see who’s watching or start pacing up and down in a frantic manner at the thought of getting into a Lada anymore although I must admit, I’m glad I didn’t bump into anyone I knew and I still wouldn’t want to own one!
For your viewing pleasure, here are some of the many Ladas and other Soviet-era cars that we spotted during our time in the Caucasus.
Mr and Mrs Lada in Stepanavan, Armenia
Beaten up Lada in Sighnaghi, Georgia
Yet another beaten up banger. This time in Shushi, Nagorno-Karabakh
This 4WD Lada in Shushi (Nagorno-Karabakh) definitely looks drivable
Showroom special outside a garage near Mt Ararat, Armenia
Estate Lada in Sevan, Armenia
Lada outside an apartment building in Shushi, Nagorno-Karabakh
Another estate, also spotted in Sevan, Armenia
Sevan in Armenia is a good place for Lada-spotting. Here’s the Jesus estate version
Action Lada in the Hunot Gorge, Nagorno-Karabakh
Cosy Lada, all tucked up for the night in Goris, Armenia (left) and the “I ain’t going anywhere in a hurry” Lada in Ushguli, Georgia (right)
Spotted in Dilijan, Armenia
For your amusement, here are a few of the Lada jokes I remember from my teens:
What do you call a convertible Lada with twin exhausts?
What do you call a Lada at the top of a hill?
What’s the difference between a Lada and a golf ball?
You can drive a golf ball 200 metres
What do you call a convertible Lada?
What do you call a Lada driver who says he has a speeding ticket?
And the list goes on …
And finally …
I’m not going to bore you with a million and one facts about this fine Russian export. Everything you need to know (should you want to know it) can be found on Wikipedia.
There’s a Lada melons there! My favourite which we dubbed the ‘Melon Pantry’ – Get it, everyone??