Lada Niva. Buyers Guide
Fancy something different, but want something cheap and cheerful? David Symonds gives Lada Nivas the once over for us...
PHOTOS BY DAVID SYMONDS
In the early 1960’s, Soviet cars were hopelessly out of date and few and far between. On July 20 1966, the USSR Council of Ministers decided that a modern car manufacturing plant be built. A suitable location was near the Kuybyshev hydro-electric power station on the Volga, where it was decided that all components were to be manufactured on site and that the annual capacity of the car plant would be 750,000 cars!
A whole town was built to service this factory, named Togliatti after an Italian Communist Minister who was the driving force (sic) behind the Russian government and Fiat.
All the technology at the new car plant came from Fiat and the factory became known as The Volga Car Factory or VAZ.
The first cars to come from this place were Russian-ised versions of the fiat 124 - that we came to know and love as the Lada.
Now. the area once known as the USSR is a tough old place and as such it is tough on vehicles. Weather can be so extreme as to almost drive you mad: if you don't believe me. try a little excursion from the Ukraine to Siberia and then pop down to Mongolia (or watch The Long Way Round).Forget the old jokes about Ladas: they are tough as old boots.
In 1971 VAZ and the powers that be decided there was a need for a light weight 4x4 that could be used by civil, military and civilian markets with as little a variation as possible on the factory conveyor belt as it were. The first versions were powered by a 1.3-litre Fiat-derived engine and were convertibles, however this soon changed - primarily as the winters in Siberia err on the chilly side!
On the 51*1 of April 1977 the first VAZ 2121 left the production line. This was the version that came to the UK in 1978. known as the Lada Niva
In basic form, the Niva had a carburetor fed, 1600cc, overhead cam. four-cylinder engine (again Fiat derived), producing a snadge under 80bhp and 95lbs/ft of torque; a 4 or 5 speed manual transmission, and fulltime 4WD. There were no free wheel hubs and the transfer case differential could be locked on the fly. The Niva could cruise at 80 mph while consuming liquid gold at a respectable 28.5 mpg. Its towing capacity was rated at up to 860 kg (1900 lb).
Coil springs were located at each of the four corners, with independent in front and a superb 5 link mounted live rear axle.
Differential ratios varied between 3.9:1 and 4.3:1 depending on the model. Ground clearance was excellent at 235 mm (9.25 in) and deep water wading was a very useful 510 mm (20 in). The Niva was also one of the first genuine off-road vehicles to feature a monocoque chassis. Before it was introduced to the UK. it was referred to by some in the motoring press as the ’Russian Range Rover’. Far from being blasphemous and punishable by a slow and unpleasant death, this is actually high praise - for both vehicles!
If you find one today, you'll find the brakes (disc front, drum rear) in a Niva are servo-assisted dual-circuit style and the clutch is hydraulic. The turning circle, at just over 36 feet is more than adequate, while the nice low center of gravity makes for more than reasonable handling. Cargo space is about 0.50 m3 (17 ft3), (or 1.33 m3 (47 ft3) with the rear seats folded down). The spare tyre is located in the engine bay under the bonnet and - like all Ladas - a 21-piece toolkit is also supplied for do-it-yourself roadside maintenance. Well, you would have, wouldn't you?
An upgraded version known as the Cossack was also available, featuring large body decals, roof rails, running boards, alloy wheels, and on some versions a sunroof, steel bullbars, spotlights, a rear-mounted spare tyre and semi-bucket seats. Don’t get too excited, that's all we can say...
In 1995. Lada UK introduced a facelifted version of the Niva Cossack alongside the basic Hussar model. Whereas the Hussar had the original 1977 trim, the new Cossack - featured a new Rover-designed grille and other body kit items, and gained soft nudge bars at the front in deference to public opinion against bullbars. Both models received the same new 1.7-litre engine and a new, deeper tailgate, which extended the rear opening to the level of the bumper - a vast improvement over the original model's high lip.
Niva imports to the UK ceased in 1997 due to the importers having difficulty in sourcing the CM fuel injection unit required to satisfy ever-tightening UK emissions regulations.
SO WHAT ARE THEY LIKE TO DRIVE?
On-road - not bad actually! In fact, allowing for modern driving styles and speeds, the Niva is very livable with. Handling is fine, especially in the wet. The permanent 4WD helps immensely and you can really give the vehicle some beans into the corners, with some very positive results. It is understandable why so many Nivas became clubman's rally cars and why they were so popular for European endurance rallying.
Ride quality isn't too disgraceful either, with the very compliant rear end being more than up to the job, with or without a full load. Braking is a planned operation however, unless you spend the time improving the front brakes. The engine can sound a bit harsh at the top end of the rev range, but remember this is a fiat lump, designed in the late 50‘s so don’t expect miracles. Steering should be positive - don’t expect power steering - and you can feel every nuance of the road. Feedback, we call it. in the trade.
Visibility is excellent unless you want to see the instrument panel - but then who looks at the clocks all the time? Towing on the other hand is a chore; with less than 100 lbs/ft /lb of torque it never was going to be good. In fact, let's face it and be honest; towing in a Niva is bloody awful.
But it’s off-road, where the Niva really excels. In the hands of the right driver there is almost no other unmodified 4x4 on the
market that can match the Niva’s ability.
OK, yes. it does have independent front suspension, but it is less of a hindrance and more of an excuse for driver error. What the front fails to provide in the articulation stakes, the rear easily makes up for. The low-ratio gearing matches a reasonable tyre size range to perfection and oddly enough that little 1600cc power plant is a perfect match for the weight and gearing of the vehicle. This is a real giant killer and has the ability to embarrass many so called ’hard core’ off-roaders.
MAKING IT UP
Modifications? Now, this is a personal bug bear of mine. Here we have a ridiculously cheap, superb little vehicle: easy to fix, easy to modify and easy to maintain. So why do so many Niva owners insist on bodging their vehicles? The parts are available. For example. TJM - one of the worlds best aftermarket suspension manufacturers (like OME but cheaper, better and prettier), make a Niva 30mm lift kit. with heavy duty springs and shocks. The cost to you is about £350 inclusive of VAT but not allowing for delivery. That’s heavy duty gas shocks, heavy duty springs, a box and some wrapping - so why bodge one of these excellent little vehicles with something less substantial I ask you? They deserve more respect. OEC4x4 make a really good simple front winch mount that will take a decent winch like a Warn M8000 or a Superwinch EP9. It is possible to modify a Southdown snorkel to fit (not a length of drain pipe for goodness sakes!); there is also talk that Richard Feam at SuperPro will sort you out with bushes for the suspension. OEC4x4 are doing a range of decent recovery points... the list goes on - hell, even Safety Devices make an internal cage and I expect Protection and Performance would be happy to make one up as well.
Engine mods are simple, from decent carbs and 'head work' to engine upgrades. The Fiat 2.0-litre twin cam fits in very easily, as does the Lancia Volumex supercharged lump.
I have seen the Ford V6 slotted in rather well and our friends in the EU actually had factory fitted 1.7- and 1.9-litre Peugeot Diesels! All three of my Lada Nivas have been heavily modified - primarily for endurance rallying or trialling. I have to admit. All three have had versions of the Fiat twin cam lump fitted in their time - one 1600cc, one 2.0-litre and one Volumex (which was quite fun!). All have had spring changes, cages and underbody armour - but the true advantage of owning a Niva has been the fact I've been able to afford this on the money I saved on the vehicle purchase!
SO, WHAT GOES WRONG?
All in all problems are not so bad. bearing in mind the lack of hi-tech bits and pieces you're starting out with.
- Expect rust - but not necessarily that appalling Land Rover type rust that dissolves vehicles. Nivas are made from Russian steel, which might not be brilliant as most of it is reclaimed from places like Italy, but it is thick. Having said that, check everywhere; especially the structural areas • remember this is a monocoque vehicle.
- Look to load points on the suspension, inner and outer sills, inner wings, front slam panel, bulkhead, fuel tank mounts, door pillars, boot floor, footwells - in fact just look everywhere!
- Some replacement panels are available and others are simple enough to repair - but you need to know where to draw the line.
- If the vehicle has been off road extensively check the transmission tunnel and the area around the transmission mounts. This was prone to cracking or splitting on some model years due to the lack of shims between the tunnel and the transmission causing stress points! If you plan on giving your Niva a beasting. loosen these mounting bolts so there is a small amount of free play, then bounce the suspension a few times, check the gaps between the bolts and the mountings and shim accordingly.
This is a real giant killer and has the ability to embarrass many so called 'hard core’ off-roaders
Radiators on Nivas, especially the later aluminum and plastic versions are pretty damn useless. When used off road they happily fill with mud. which is then a sod to get out of the fins. Trust me on this.
I know. The radiator is barely adequate when functioning well, so when filled with mother earth it will cause overheating - which in turn will pop the head gasket.
All is not lost though as OEC4x4 can source heavy duty replacements if they have the original - www.OEC4x4.com
Brakes can be interesting - they seem to be prone to giving up unless well maintained. A simple strip down is required: check all the moving parts move and all the non moving parts don't. New discs can be easily sourced, or the originals can be re-machined. Interestingly enough www.syncrospares.co.uk- the VW Syncro people can machine your discs, balance them and even drill and groove them for reasonable money. Replace the brakes pipes with braided steel hoses as a matter of course - again OEC4x4 can do this for you. Despite all this work don't expect the brakes to ever be superb - it won't happen!
Bushes, sadly, don't last long if the vehicle has been used off-road, despite the original bushes being made from the hardest rubber I have ever come across! Polyurethane bushes are still too hard and will cause suspension mount distortion rather than simply falling apart like the originals. I am told that Richard Fearn at SuperPro can source bushes to fit Nivas -this wouldn ‘t surprise me as Richard seems to be able to do this for virtually every vehicle under the sun! SuperPro is almost as soft as rubber is meant to be. but they last as tong, if not longer than Polyurethane bushes. Richard can be found at www. superpro. eu. com
Now, bear in mind that shock absorbers, especially the originals, can also suffer over time. Either replace the whole kit and caboodle (springs and shocks) with a TJM (or simitar) kit or replace the shocks. OEC4x4 supply TJM or you could try ExplorerUK for shocks.
Check for rust. Where?
Everywhere, is a good place to start...
- The Front Differential Mount is a cast unit that bolts onto the side of the engine block, if abused it will crack around the mounting bolt holes. Always check. It’s not difficult to replace the unit but it can be a pain to find a good one at the breakers.
The 1600cc engine is. as mentioned before, a Fiat unit built in Russia. It comes i from the family of superb Fiat OHC engines and is more robust than a small round farmer from the High Tyrol. It can be caned to within an inch of its life again and again (in typical Italian driving fashion) as long as it gets clean oil regularly and is cooled properly. Maintenance is always the answer to engine longevity. However, these engines were rarely set up properly when shipped form Russia so it is worth spending time and a bit of money on getting it professionally tuned. The 1700cc injection unit is simply a bored and stroked version of the 1600cc but with CM injection added - nice and simple, easy to source parts and again when set up properly runs well.
Many a long, dark evening can be spent discussing the benefit of first world electrics, rather than some Eastern Block bodging that had to pass as current conductors. The electrics in a Niva can be worse than those in its Land Rover contemporaries! Unlike Land Rover however, where you know they wilt cause problems at some time in their lives, the electrics in a Niva may be absolutely fine. Luckily they are straight forward and easy to fix or modify. Just remember if you don't understand electrics, get a professional to do it!
ODDS AND ENDS
The dash controls and switches are awful! live with them or replace as you see fit.
The seat mounts on the front seats can crack under duress - check! The good news is. they're easy to weld back up or replace.
A major point to check is that the engine sub-fra me has actually been welded in place. Don't laugh - often in the later years of manufacture this was just tacked into place and then piled with sealant. A quick poke with a screwdriver will confirm if you have problems. A morning's work with spanners and a competent welder will see this problem sorted.
Just recently I have been following a 1986 Niva Cossack on ebay. This vehicle has a 2" lift. Colway MT’s, internal roll-cage, bucket seats, harnesses, full rally wiring, nicely tweaked 1600cc engine and allsorts of spares. It is rust free due to a full body restoration not so long ago. (so the text says), however the front diff mounts have cracked - a replacement is part of the spares pack, the brakes need ‘work’ and the radiator is leaking. That’s no more than a day of work for a reasonably competent mechanic and a numpty for additional help. The radiator can be re-cored and improved for about £100. At the moment, or. as this goes to press anyway, there are 6 days to go and it has failed to reach its reserve - the bids are at £320.01. If I was bidding for this I would go up to £750 as it has hundreds of pounds of add-ons and - if the pictures do it justice - the work is superb. Worth it. Every penny.
What else is on ebay? A good question, because it’s fast becoming ‘the alternative forecourt'; you just need to bid with a little common sense in your fingertips, that's all.
-> A 1996 1.7i Hussar - so as fully loaded as it gets in Lada Niva language -four days to go and it sits at £225.1 would expect this to go at around £800.
-> A lovely white Niva Cossack, so base spec, with 1600cc carbed engine, but with a genuine one owner and 25.000 miles since 1990!! 0 hours to go and it sits at £406.00 and no reserve!
-> A 1992 Cossack in Blue, needs some work for MOT (tread carefully here), reserve not met at £205.00.
Once you have bought a Niva, it is almost definite that you will need to get the
spanners out. So you will need to budget for things like rolling road sessions to set the engine up properly, or for those items that you can't do at home and will need a garage or specialist for. Luckily for any prospective Niva owner all the parts manuals (in PDF!) can be found on the web! Best of Luck!