V.I.S.I.T. – Don't Blame the Commies Edition

Many of you will know this car better as the infamous Lada, that bastion of Red Menace repression and Communist fearmongering that so gripped America during the years of Malaise and swamp rabbits. A product of the working-class proletariat, it is still a punchline for everything that went wrong with the Soviet way of life—a blight upon the Eastern Europe landscape, with all the luxury of solitary confinement; an ugly, squat little crapbox that hadn’t been improved or redesigned since Khrushchev aired out his shoes on a nearby desk. It served as a reminder of everything that wasn’t American: let your guard down, Strategic Air Command, and we’ll be driving these instead of our Gran Furys when the paratroopers descend upon Calumet!
Which is a damn shame. Because its forebear, the Fiat 124, was a gem of a car.

Like your grandfather, the Fiat 124 was once young, trendy, and exciting. It was launched, literally, from the back of a plane during its unveiling. (There was a parachute involved; no striking Turinese workers were injured.) It won European Car of the Year in its first year of production, 1966—which, given past honorees, seems more and more dubious every year. Chief engineer Oscar Montabone was given free reign from brass to start from scratch: the only thing he kept from other Fiats was the synchromesh gearbox. How advanced was the 124? It featured four-wheel disc brakes, a coil-spring rear suspension, enough room inside to make out to Italian Spiderman, and lightweight construction. This potent combination was enough to make stunt driver extraordinaire Remy Julienne claim: “it’s my favorite work car.” Hint: if you need an inconspicuous getaway car, spring for the wagon.

Don’t blame AvtoVAZ and the ghost of perestroika (by the way, this would make a great name for a noise-punk band) for the 124’s reputation: the Italian wundercar was built in countries as far away as India, Spain, Bulgaria, Egypt, Turkey, and especially Korea, as evidenced below:

So while the Lada connection may be obvious, the charming little Fiat wasn’t always a cheap-steeled symbol of Iron Curtain necessity and Borscht Belt wisecracking: it also spawned two of my favorite cars: the elegant, rally-winning Coupe, and the achingly beautiful Spider. Not bad for a car that’s survived 40 years and 15 million examples—including this one, sighted on Via Cavour, right across from the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. Your grandfather would appreciate that.

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  1. Maymar Avatar

    Whatever you like to call it, it lived on as the Lada Signet for years in Canada (well into the mid-90s). You could pick one up new for about 7 grand, so when my parents got $6000 for their wrecked Sonata, it was my first suggestion. They went with the much more logical used Grand Caravan.
    Still, I'd love to find a Signet (fat chance, I think that one LeMons team cleared out the last used one in Canada) and get it to perform like its Fiat origins suggest it should. I suppose it'd be easier to find a 124 and throw on the Lada badges.

    1. teargas Avatar

      No, we didn't take the last one. Maybe the worst one, but not the last. There are even some entering the US now. Czech out Ladausa.net.
      I have heard every Lada joke that can be told in English, but for as bad a reputation as they have, it served us incredibly well in LeMons competition. Slow, but incredibly reliable. Nothing broke in 24 hours and we'll be running the car again this fall.

  2. dukeisduke Avatar

    The only experience I have with 124 sedans is totaling one by T-boning a Chevy. The funny thing is, the car wasn't even mine; it was for sale, and I was test driving it for a friend. The fact that the brake warning light was on should have been a hint that it only had two-wheel brakes. Ah, the teenage years…

  3. engineerd Avatar

    I went to Russia in 1993 on a church mission's trip. I remember asking one of our translators, who had a Lada with the propane conversion, how they tell their cars apart. I mean, you would seriously see parking lots filled with Ladas which, no matter what year they were made, all looked the same. He said you just knew. I would have painted my car bright safety orange just to make sure I could tell.

  4. Lex Avatar

    Ah Ladas. They bring me a warm feeling of nostalgia. Some of the best times of my life have happened in Ladas. One of the best parts about living in Russia during the 90's had to have been gypsy cabs (any car that will stop, agree to a destination and a price was a cab). I've got a fair number of terrifying stories that came about by gypsy cabbing…which mostly meant riding in Ladas.
    My Austrian girlfriend's best friend had to get back to the airport. They didn't want to take public transport from on far end of St. Petersburg to the the other, nor did they want to pay the $50 it would have cost for a real cab. I even had a hard time flagging down a willing car. Finally a young guy in a Lada pulls up and agrees…maybe just because he liked a challenge or maybe it was me dangling a lot of money in front of him. There was a catch.
    The deal was that getting us there would net him $20. Getting us there in less than an hour got him $40. And if he could break the 45 minute barrier i'd give him $50. (with no traffic it was an hour drive; this was mid-Saturday afternoon) Unfortunately for the ladies, his trunk was full so all the luggage got piled into the backseat along with both females and we were off. Listening to him explain to his girlfriend why he'd be late without saying that he had basically accepted a bet from a crazy American was priceless.
    We spent a fair amount of time in oncoming traffic. We drove on the sidewalk multiple times. He even used the tram lanes…including playing chicken with an oncoming tram to pass another. He missed the hour mark by about 4 minutes and i gladly gave him the $40 because his effort was so honest and crazed. I spent the next two weeks seriously in the doghouse. I guess that the ladies didn't think it was such a fun ride…but i bet that they both still tell the story.

  5. Mazie Hirono Avatar

    This is absolutely epic Thanks for making this available

  6. free rewards points Avatar

    I never, ever would have imagined I would be required to know this thank goodness for the internet

  7. Roy Wreede Avatar

    wow amazing write-ups

  8. Xuan Ragar Avatar

    wow amazing write-ups