We are at the end of the 1970s. In the USSR, the state company Avtovaz produces, in Togliatti, near the Volga, 700,000 cars a year in the largest car factory in the world. Cars were also exported around the world, including to Europe, despite the Cold War.
Several hundred Lada 2101, 2103 or 2106, all from the old Fiat 124s of the 1960s, end up in European capitalist dealerships. But one event will change everything.
The arrival of the Lada Niva, the first accessible modern 4X4, 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, to the satisfaction of Poch SA companies, importer of the Russian brand in Argenteuil.
The end of the square Ladas
Next to the Niva, Lada sedans are also meeting great success in France. But at the dawn of the turn of the decade, the Russians knew it, everything had to change to move up a gear.
Initially, Lada contacted Porsche in Germany to imagine a modernization of the current range. Lada 2107 prototypes reviewed by the German design office were born, but we must face the facts: Lada cannot replaster the Fiat 124 indefinitely.
At a time when the party is still certifying the country’s industrial projects, Russia’s Minister of Industry has yet to put his stamp on a car project…with front-wheel drive! A real revolution!
Traction or propulsion?
To get there, the engineers have to use all their diplomacy. No one believes in traction in the ministry and the party. The Russian automotive industry has always produced propulsion, why change?
One day, while the project was going on, Georgy Mirzoev, Lada’s chief engineer, personally went to the Minister of Automobile Industry Polyakov. He left with an agreement to design Lada traction.
Lada changed everything
In the modest design office of Lada, Russian designers Viktor Kryazhev and Vladislav Pashko work and imagine an aerodynamic compact with a CX of 0.36 and modern volumes. The front face includes a very original grill made of composite materials, resistant to gravel.
VAZ-2108, official name Lada Samara will be a four-meter sedan, with a tailgate, and available in several body styles. We can imagine three and five door versions, targa, van and estate… but not all versions will see the light of day.
If the style is quickly frozen, Lada will benefit from a serious boost for the development of its future bestseller.
Porsche to the rescue
If we look closely at a Lada Samara, we can observe some details reminiscent of Porsche. The outside door handles, the pull tabs on the front seat, or even the small bump on the roof, which acts as a spoiler and allows the rear axle to be loaded at high speed, for to better stability.
The reason for the collaboration between Lada and Porsche goes back to a meeting, in 1975, between the director of Porsche Ernst Fuhrman and Victor Poliakov, Minister of Industry of Russia.
As compensation for war damage, Germany offers Russian cooperation. However, nothing is free, Lada had to pay the German engineers. 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 some important changes, such as the fixed front spar as an extension of the floor, the engine design, the running gear settings and certain accessories. The future Samara is tireless in the Weissach polygon.
Lada System Porsche
At the same time, Porsche is also helping Spanish manufacturer SEAT for its Ibiza. A collaboration that can be seen in the final product with the famous “System Porsche” inscriptions affixed to the SEATs.
But at Lada, we reject any mention that suggests Porsche could design part of the car. Samara is and must remain a Soviet pride. Today, a Lada Samara sits proudly in the Porsche Museum in Germany.
The Samara was finally shown in 1984 in Russia, before actually going into production two years later. In 1987, the first Samara arrived by train in eastern France.
They pass through the importer Poch’s preparation center located in Haguenau. Cars are repaired, tested, sometimes modified in limited series. Some vehicles still need to be painted or dismantled.
But in this Samara, the importer in France is playing big. Upon its release, Samara was well received by the French press. He is criticized only for the quality of interior materials. Sold from 39,900 F, the three-door Samara was a hit. At this price, even the Citroën 2CV or the Renault 4 are more expensive. Between 1987 and 1990, Lada sold 30,000 cars a year in France, raising the brand to seventh place.
Great successes and failures
The arrival of the 5-door version in 1988 would drive the point home. The Samara is available with three petrol engines and the importer has even imagined a “sport” body kit destined for France. The GLS and GLX were quickly joined by several limited editions, including the “African Replica” which took on the colors of the Jacky Ickx version taking part in the Dakar.
Everything went well and 20 years before Dacia, Lada was the champion of cheapness in France. However, the fall will be terrible. In 1991, the USSR collapsed and left the manufacturer to fend for itself.
The quality is declining, and especially Lada cannot build its cars. The Samara shows the weight of the years and the arrival of the first Hyundai and Daewoo, sold at the same price, marks the end of an era. Lada sales in France will continue to take off, before the loss in France.
A few years later, a certain Louis Schweitzer, boss of Renault, admitted that he was inspired by the success of Lada to launch Dacia in Europe.