We are in the late 1970s. In the USSR, the state-owned company Avtovaz produces 700,000 cars a year in Togliatti, near the Volga, in the world’s largest car factory. Despite the Cold War, cars were exported all over the world, including Europe.
A few hundred Lada 2101, 2103 or 2106 from the old Fiat 124 models of the 1960s end up in European capitalist dealers. But one event will change everything.
The arrival of the first affordable modern 4X4 Lada Niva will make Lada a major player in the European market by the end of the decade. Success was immediate: Niva became the best-selling franchisor in France, much to the delight of Poch SA, importer of the Russian brand in Argenteuil.
End of Ladas square
Along with the Niva, Lada sedans are also enjoying great success in France. But at the beginning of the decade, the Russians know that, to move forward, everything will have to change.
First, Lada contacted Porsche in Germany and envisioned the modernization of the current series. Prototypes of the Lada 2107 reviewed by the German design bureau are born, but we have to face the facts: Lada cannot update the Fiat 124 indefinitely.
Russia’s Minister of Industry has yet to put his stamp on the front-wheel drive car project, while still being the country’s industrial project approver! A real revolution!
Pull or push?
To get there, the engineers will have to use all their diplomacy. No one in the ministry or the party believes in traction. The Russian automobile industry has always been a push, why should it change?
One day, while the project was dragging on, the chief engineer of Lada, Georgi Mirzoyev, personally went to the minister of automobile industry, Polyakov. He leaves with a deal to design a Lada tow truck.
Lada changes everything
In the humble Lada design office, Russian designers Viktor Kryazhev and Vladislav Pashko get to work and imagine an aerodynamic compact with 0.36 CX and modern volume. The front face incorporates a very original grille made of gravel-resistant composite materials.
The official name of the Lada Samara, the VAZ-2108, will be a four-meter sedan with a tailgate and will be available in several body styles. We can imagine three- and five-door versions, a targa, a van and an estate… but not all versions will see the light of day.
If the style is quickly frozen, Lada will be able to get a serious boost for the development of its future bestseller.
Porsche to the rescue
If we look carefully at Lada Samara, we can observe several details that remind us of Porsche. The outer door handles, the bends of the front seats or small roof vents act as spoilers and allow the rear axle to be loaded at high speed for better stability.
The reason for the cooperation between Lada and Porsche goes back to a meeting between Porsche director Ernst Fuhrman and Russian Industry Minister Viktor Poliakov in 1975.
Germany offers cooperation to the Russians to compensate for the damage caused in the war. Nothing is free, but Lada will have to pay the German engineers. So a group of Russian engineers came to Porsche in Germany: they stayed there from 1976 to 1978.
The Germans took over the project and made important changes, such as a front spar fixed as an extension of the floor, the design of the engine, the parameters of the drive mechanism and certain accessories. The future Samara tirelessly spins on the Weissach range.
Lada System Porsche
At the same time, Porsche is helping Spanish manufacturer SEAT for the Ibiza. A collaboration that will be seen in the final product with the famous “System Porsche” lettering affixed to the SEATs.
But at Lada, we refuse any mention that Porsche might design a part of the car. Samara is Soviet pride and must remain. Today, the Lada Samara sits proudly in the Porsche Museum in Germany.
Samara was finally introduced in Russia in 1984, and production began two years later. In 1987, the first Samara arrived by train in the east of France.
They go through the preparation center of importer Poch in Haguenau. Cars are tuned, inspected, sometimes become limited series. Some vehicles even need to be repainted or dismantled.
But with this Samara, the importer in France is playing big. After her release, Samara was well received by the French press. They criticize it only for the quality of internal materials. Selling from F39,900, the three-door Samara is a hit. At this price, even a Citroën 2CV or Renault 4 is more expensive. Between 1987 and 1990, Lada sold 30,000 cars a year, raising the brand to seventh place in France.
Great success and failure
The arrival of a 5-door version in 1988 would drive the point home. The Samara is available with three petrol engines, and the importer even envisions “sporty” body kits reserved for France. The GLS and GLX were quickly joined by a number of limited editions, including the ‘African Replica’, which took on the colors of Jacky Ickx’s Dakar-busting version.
Everything is going well, and 20 years before Dacia, Lada is the cheap price champion in France. However, the fallout will be terrible. In 1991, the USSR collapsed and left the manufacturer to fend for itself.
The quality is falling and Lada in particular is unable to improve their cars. The Samara shows the weight of the years, and the arrival of the first Hyundai and Daewoo priced at the same price marks the end of an era. Lada sales in France will continue to be dismantled before disappearing in France.
A few years later, Renault boss Louis Schweitzer would admit that he was inspired by Lada’s success in launching Dacia in Europe.