Lada 21053 (Riva): hero of its time & space
Virtues and vices of the big red “tovarisch” from behind the Iron Curtain. Part 2.
Lada 21053 Export variant with its stunningly stinking leather seats made an indelible impact on my attitude towards cars. Specifically towards Soviet-created and Russia-further-produced cars. For those, who haven't read the first part of my story, consider pressing the link: drivetribe.com/p/my-childhood-thriller-lada-21053-e0w_cr3AQlCHDidNcx5pWw?iid=CkQenCgBSa6Nt6uUXp6rJA
You may ask: “What's the point of writing this? One more story of an undistinguished guy who has something to say about his dad's car.” You will be right. However, look at this story as an insight into how the motorization looked in '90s in the post-iron-curtain space. What were drivers' problems and challenges. What features were cool (tuning) and what not (ricering). How the cars were driven (racing). Apart from this, every sentence I write here bursts with sparks of memories in my head. So, it is also a way of self-digging and self-expression.
Let's start with “vices.” My cousin, once a proud owner of a yellow 2106, used to say that Lada's are the cars where if anything fails you have no idea where to start your searches from. Surely, this is an exaggeration, but still... Lada's of '80s did not have ECU's; they had, instead, a huge variety of different mechanical regulators and indicators which could go wrong. And they were going wrong with time and distances covered. That is natural, actually, for any vehicle. The quest with Lada's was to find the ultimate root of the problem in a wide field of probabilities.
As for our car, speedometer and odometer were out of service since I remember myself. The speed-pointing-needle impotently lied below level “zero.” 92K km stalled on the clock. These were the vehicle’s “major failures” from my biased child’s perspective; I wanted badly to observe changes in speed-and-distance every time we drove anywhere. Depressing. What was even more depressing is that we never fixed gauges. There was neither time, nor money to buy and replace a couple of tiny plastic gears. Apart from this, my father was able to “feel” the speed right; remember, having reached 90 km/hour the car wanted to “fly”.
Actually, the issue with gauges has just led me to an interesting deduction. The spares for any Lada were affordable and available. But few were buying them as long as their vehicle could move: money was usually spent on other goods. In 1990s, after the final collapse of the communism, a shift of consumerist priorities took place in the society (here you may have a look at the Maslow’s pyramid). On the one hand, people faced a harsh inflation along with interruptions in supply of basic goods or commodities (f.e. food, clothes, electricity, healthcare). On the other hand, they struggled to maintain a comparatively high living standard, as well as not to forfeit their comparatively advanced technological culture. Therefore, in our case, buying and installing tiny plastic gears was not a priority. The same as fixing the range of other minor faults: cabin lights, door handles, passenger’s door lock, radio, fender turn signal lights, handbrake warning indicator, leaking shock absorbers (what made the rear of the car “dance” all the time). The list may be continued. And it will be continued further in the text.
One of the first modes my father installed on the car was a huge horn. From GAZ-21 “Volga,” if I'm not wrong. It was so damnly loud that ears vibrated inside if you stood in front of the grill. To make the horn roar one was to press a small red button near the heater. I guess, horn was a cool ricer feature as for 1980's. However, I also think that it had some practical value: my father was a doctor and sometimes he needed to rush through the traffic. The car also had a recognizable red cross on its windscreen.
Black side skirts were another custom mode. They looked really great on our “tovarisch” and I was proud of this. Surely, they made the car go faster... my guess is extra 25HP. However, there was a problem. After market side skirts did not fully fit the car: the jack mount was hidden behind them. There existed no way, actually, to lift the car and replace the wheel without warping side skirts. And they eventually cracked. My pride cracked with them.
The car had also its technological charisma. To charge the accumulator my father usually unscrewed six caps on the top and only then mounted clamps. The acid boiling “inner world” could be easily observed (though, I was never allowed to do this). Then there was the four-speed gear box with a huge leaver. It “softly chinked” every time you changed gears. Sound of a gentlemen opening an umbrella. I also enjoyed looking at vibrations of the carburetor; it reminded me a heavy-breathing viper-kind monster who was getting ready to jump. The windscreen washer tank reminded women breasts in a corset (at least this was my pubertarian association). The engine sounded irritatingly loud in the cabin; regardless of all my curiosity, I heard nothing of my parents' talking on the front seats. The design of the steering wheel was also catchy – wide, solid, thin, with a “triangular” signal button. The same was the design of the steel discs; they looked typically “Ladish.”
The car was very rust-resistant what constituted a notable advantage in the Eastern European driving conditions. Imagine a layer of snow-salt-mud mixture on asphalt instead of a road in winter. The car could also boast with a certain off-road pedigree; I remember cruising to school in it through 20 centimeters of snow which had fallen during the night. This said, Lada’s paint easily cracked under the sun. If I’m not wrong, we had to re-spray the car three times between ‘90-‘98.
The experience with big red “tovarisch” taught me one important thing: not everything what is imperfect is bad. The rattle of a glove-box led, the chink of changing gears, or the vibration of unscrewed plastic trim... The magnificently faulty radio with its incomprehensive sound distortions… The squeaking seats... All these imperfections were perfect! They constituted the charming and memorable features of this particular vehicle. However… the stinky leather seats were a bold exception, yes.
We exploited the car ruthlessly. We carried in its trunk much heavier things that it was constructed for (i.e., several packs of concrete and glaze for a new bathroom). The trunk was unexpectedly spacious, by the way. At the same time, we tried to cut the maintenance costs. Cheapest service stations, cheapest spares, and only forced repairs. This ended up one day in driving on an icy road with almost no brakes. The only front right wheel could break properly. A very harsh and dangerous ride that was. The car swung every time my dad pressed the pedal. Traffic lights became a nightmare. Luckily, we reached our destination safely... let’s omit the fact that on the final braking the front bumper hit the fence.
To conclude, big red “tovarisch” might have been a better car. More fun-to-drive and passenger-friendly. But it was not. In our turn, we could have cared of it more. We could pay good money for a good service. Or replace all faulty things before they caused other faults in a domino effect. But we did not.
The car was the hero of its times. Under-engineered, under-maintained, and over-exploited.
P.S. My father says that the car can still be seen on a road. Hope, the new owner fixed handbreak warning light. At least it.
P. P.S. Matt Parsons can be reached here: www.behance.net/Matthew_Parsons_SA