11 February, 2009

…. and now for the subject of Ladas.

Looking back on my time in Russia, I feel it is time to pay homage to that most ubiquitous of motor vehicles - the Lada. Originally a ruggedised Fiat 124 which was manufactured under licence by the Soviet AUtoVaz factory, Ladas have been available to the Russian motoring elite since the late sixties.

The name Lada, incidentally was originally just the export name for the Soviet built AutoVaz Vaz cars but over time it was adopted as the Russian local market name too.

Today, a Lada is to the average Russian what Holden or Chevrolet is to an Australian or North American driving public.

It is the classic western suburban working class man’s vehicle and as such, is a prime piece of machinery for the average male youth to spend all their time and money on “hotting up”.

Whether it’s simply a new set of seat covers, hub caps, fluffy dice or glow in the dark windscreen wipers, all the way through to hot motors, mag wheels and body kits, there is no such as a Standard Lada.

Cheap and ubiquitous, easy for the home mechanic to repair - yes, that is Lada below laying on its side whilst having a new floor pan welded in where the old one rusted through,

virtually indestructible and able to run on a variety of fuels (as low as 70 octane) and roads, the Lada is embraced by the proletariat and government officers whilst simultaneously snubbed by the nouveau riche and oligarchy.

The Volga, by comparison, was the vehicle for soviet bureaucrats and as such is still an aspirational vehicle, either as a stepping stone to the ultimate prize - an imported western vehicle; or as an end in itself – a smooth 6 cylinder limousine placing you one step higher on the social pecking order than the heathen Lada owner.

..... or maybe you're just a taxi driver?

However, the price of freedom for Russia’s alienated and frustrated youth has a much darker side.

Unable to afford the price of entry into an imported vehicle, your average Russian working class youth drives his vehicle as if he were a speed demon.

Never warmed up, poorly maintained with dodgy worn brakes, shock absorbers and bald tyres, and driven flat out at all times with absolutely no mechanical sympathy it is little wonder that Ladas grow old before their time.

I had the unfortunate experience of spending time in just such a Lada in St Petersburg.

The owner (of whom I have changed name and gender to protect their identity – let’s call her “Alice”) arranged to meet me downtown in St Petersburg upon my arrival from Moscow. After waiting for 1 hour I received a call to say that the Lada had broken down and they couldn’t get to our rendezvous point. I asked where they were, and what their car looked like. Somehow I managed to retrace my steps 5km back along the road and spot a pale blue Lada looking forlorn at the side of the road within its owner standing nearby with their head in their hands.

After an explanation of the symptoms I quickly determined that the starter motor was probably jammed (yes, I was unfortunate/foolish enough to own a couple of Fiats myself back in the seventies) I asked for the wheel wrench, gave the starter motor a couple of hard taps to free the engagement gear and stood back to watch as the surprised owner turned the ignition switch to hear their Lada roar back into life.

Alice then suggested I follow her the 8km through downtown St Petersburg back to her parents spacious apartment where they very generously hosted me for 3 nights.

Well, I’m not exactly the slowest driver around and the Burgman has rather sprightly acceleration compared to any four wheeled vehicle, never mind a Lada, but Alice seemed determined to lose me enroute. Belching clouds of smoke from the oil seeping past the badly worn cylinder linings and valve seals, the Lada erupted away from every traffic light, crossed multiple lanes of traffic without signalling, screeched around corners and squealed its worn tyres under maximum braking.

I had witnessed many, many instances of poor driving in Russia but Alice took the cake. Never mind Peter in Irkutsk who thought that his Honda City only had two speeds – stopped and flat out, or the crazy WRX driver who missed me by centimetres when he ran me off the windy two lane mountain road whilst overtaking a line of traffic over my side of the double white lines at a speed in excess of 150kmh. No, Alice was most definitely numero uno on my personal list of the worst Russian drivers.

We were half way back to her apartment when she tried to run her fourth red light, unfortunately the driver in front of her decided that they didn’t wish to do the same and the inevitable fender bender occurred. After examination of the damage to their respective bumpers, roubles changed hands and both drivers departed the scene quickly in order to avoid the involvement of the local traffic police (in Russian, DGA) who would shortly and inevitably arrive like vultures at the scene to ensure they shared in this exchange of roubles.

I figured that after this incident Alice would slow down somewhat, but no, it was as if a Fury had entered her body and taken leave of her senses, as she proceeded to wring out what little life was left in the Lada enroute to her home.

The following evening Alice offered to take me on a tour of St Petersburg. Reluctant, but not wanting to cause offence I experienced my most frightening nightmare on wheels ever.

For starters, it was wet night in St Petersburg. Nay, not just a wet night, it was stormy with water flooding across the roadway out of clogged gutters and storm water drains. I thought that Alice, being a an accomplished tertiary educated engineer would understand the basic laws of physics, including the reduced coefficient of friction between wet roads and bald tyres, but alas not. Initially we visited sights around town and were unable to get up to speed because of the traffic conditions and constant red lights. However, around 9pm, when I thought it time to call it a night, it was suggested that I be taken to the mouth of the Neva River and from there across the Gulf of Finland to Lomonsov where Russia meets the Baltic.

Well, a badly tuned, worn out Lada does not have much in the way of acceleration, but Alice made sure she made use of every single one of those worn out ponies in a life and death struggle to pass every other vehicle. Although we only ever reached a maximum of 120kmh (75mph) in those wet conditions, I was literally sitting in a death trap. Never in my life have I been more terrified (even in Chinese driving conditions) and I clung to my seat with my eyes closed waiting for it all to be over, whilst Alice proceeded to dodge and weave her way around all other vehicles on the road. Once we reached our destination I breathed a sigh of relief but knew I could not relax as we had to return the 30kms back to St Petersburg.

On the way back, Alice’s inner demons took over and if anything she seemed more furious than ever, violently slamming the gears down and breaking loose the wheels under deceleration, as I prepared for the inevitable.

Finally it happened, a pedestrian crossing lay ahead, the lights turned red and people dashed out from the side of the road in the rain. Alice didn’t seem to care, however, and proceeded through, at the final second spotting the woman in front, screeching to a halt and gently knocking her over.

At this point I just wanted to awaken from my nightmare and could do nothing but watch as the lady picked herself up off the ground and Alice took off as if nothing untoward had occurred.

That night, Alice and I had a long chat about her frustrations and how she shouldn’t take them out on the road, but to no avail. The following night Alice wanted to take me out on another tour of St Petersburg but I managed to find a suitable excuse which would not offend my Russian hosts, whilst allowing me to avoid another night of terror.