The heart of Lada
Around 1300 kilometres from Sochi – so no distance at all in Russian terms – there is the city of Togliatti, which is best known for being the home of Lada.
Togliatti is Lada-ville through and through. About 66,000 people work there, all with a deep sense of loyalty towards the company and each other. When the 2008 global financial crisis hit, Lada’s president Igor Komarov wrote to each of his workers to say that compulsory redundancies could be avoided provided that everyone agreed to take a small pay cut. All but 27 agreed.
The city is named after Palmiro Togliatti, the leader of the Italian Communist Party from 1927 until his death in 1964. Togliatti, a huge friend of the Soviet Union, was instrumental in tying together the collaboration between Avtovaz (Lada’s parent company) and Fiat, which led to the city formerly known as Stavropol on Volga being named after him.
This much, most people know. But what people don't know about is the special projects department. Tucked away in a Togliatti warehouse is a bona fide sports car called the Lada Revolution 3: designed to be the very first all-Russian supercar. It was created entirely in-house, with the intention of offering patriotic Russian sports car fans a home-grown product with avant-garde looks.
Squint hard and it even looks a bit like a Ferrari from some angles. This one-off special, powered by a two-litre turbocharged engine, was exhibited at the 2008 Paris Motor Show as a concept. It’s now gathering dust but it’s a real car that still goes and stops. The dream so nearly became a reality.
And it’s a dream that also has a genuine sporting pedigree. The ‘Lada Revolution’ concept that culminated in the road-going sports car actually started off with a one-make racing series in Russia, using bespoke sports prototypes powered by Lada competition engines.
This series was known as the Lada Revolution championship, which Vitaly Petrov raced in during 2004 and 2005 (winning the title in the latter year). Petrov then went on to race in Formula One from 2010 to the end of 2012 as Russia’s first driver in the sport, having witnessed the beginning of the current Pirelli era.
The origins of Lada in motorsport
The Russian Grand Prix as we know it only began in 2014, but the very first sporting Lada predates it by nearly 45 years. This was a rally car, based on the 2101 (a reworked Fiat 124), which competed on the Russian Rally Championship. But the breakthrough moment was 1971, when the same car took part in the Tour of Europe – its international debut – and won the teams’ classification.
Throughout the 1970s Lada competed sporadically but a dedicated competitions department wasn’t set up until 1977: before then it was mostly volunteers dedicating their spare time to special projects.
By then, however, the 1960s Fiat design was seriously showing its age. Lada’s rally team subsequently based its activities around the new Samara. The Samara featured heavily in regional and international competitions, particularly in Soviet bloc countries – in fact it was Markko Martin’s first ever rally car.
At the same time, Lada was also competing in rally raids: firstly with the iconic Niva 4x4 and then with a prototype also based on the Samara. The Niva finished second overall on the Dakar Rally in 1982 and 1983, as well as third overall in 1981. The Niva was also the first car to drive to the North Pole: a record that Lada set in 1998 and repeated in 1999. The Samara was somewhat less successful.
Now, the main competition focus for Lada is the World Touring Championship, where it runs with three examples of the all-new Vesta. At one of the most recent rounds of the series this year, in Slovakia, the car was on the podium with Dutch driver Nick Catsburg (who also won the 2015 Spa 24 Hours in a Pirelli-equipped BMW).
The implication is clear: Lada has the potential to win races and launch Formula One careers. Who would ever have imagined that, from a company that started off by re-making superannuated Fiats from the 1960s in the heyday of Communism, and has been rescued from the brink of bankruptcy on more than one occasion?
Perhaps that why there’s enormous national pride in Russia about the exploits of the Lada WTCC team – and why Lada is selling the all-new Vesta Sport road car faster than it can make them. It’s a fully-fledged, production sports car from Lada: the latest chapter of a story that started off with the unloved and abandoned Revolution 3 you see above.
The present and the future
Yet despite this seismic change Lada remains firmly embedded in the fabric of everyday Russia. Put simply, most people drive Ladas: as any visitor to the Russian Grand Prix will observe. For each headline oligarch tearing up the Moscow ring road on YouTube in his Lamborghini, there are thousands and thousands of ordinary Russian people. And yes, they all drive Ladas, in varying degrees of competence, roadworthiness, modernity and cleanliness.
In Togliatti, the HQ building is topped by a statue of a boat representing the Lada logo, as ‘lada’ actually means ‘sailing boat’ in Russian, as well as being a girl’s first name that roughly translates as ‘Goddess of beauty’. Make of that what you will.
The buildings are largely the same as those that were started in 1966, when the cold war was at its height and the first Soyuz rocket was launched into space.
But what goes on inside them these days is very different. The original Lada Revolution had a truly prophetic name.