"Cheap people pay twice", which was another way of saying, "Never buy a car for $300". These were the words of wisdom from Vladimir, a sardonic former taxi driver I worked with when asked I him about my “new” 1982 Lada. The car was a little rusty but it had been sold to me by another Embassy employee who assured me the car was in perfect working order. Everything seemed to be in the right place. The faded green plastic safety kit was intact. I had been given a collection of weird looking oblong fuses. At least the tires looked new.
Contrary to what most people think outside Eastern Europe, a Lada is not a specific car but a company, like Ford. I bought a Lada Zhiguli, which was a boxy standard four door based on the old Fiat 126 that looked like cars produced in places diverse as Turkey and China. Other Ladas include the cheap, hardy and very uncomfortable 4x4 two-door Nivas along with various other models usually referred to by a number such as a 5, 6, 7 or 9, which look more modern but still feel like 10 year-old Hyundais. These cars give a whole new meaning to the phrase "sloppy clutch". Fit and finish were unknown. Believe or not, Ladas felt like Mercedes compared to the truly tinny Oka, which sold for $1,500 new. Also popular were the large but still cheap old fashioned looking Volga sedans, which sported oddly modern looking head and tail lamps. There were plans to modernize what's between the lights but that was a couple years off.
Fortunately, although Russian cars were unreliable, they were very easy to fix and parts were easy to find and were dirt cheap (a fender cost $30). I found this out when I blew a fuse because I turned on the windshield wipers after washing the car in the cold. Although I freed up the wipers, the frozen motor had blown the fuses. Unfortunately, this problem was only the start. On a long trip outside town on a cold winter day I found out that the heater did not work. I never did fix it.
My Lada was a chance to join the Russian car subculture where guys buy Lada mud flaps for their small cars -- and sport racing stripes. My vast array of mechanical problems either brought sympathetic replies along the lines of, "Yes, sounds like my car" or, "You idiot. Why is a rich guy like you driving this piece of shit"? The car drove so poorly that I did not know I had a flat tire until I driven 10 minutes from home. When I pulled over to discover that my tire had been slashed, I also found out to my horror that the jack was no good and the spare had lost its air. To make matters worse, the whole thing happened during a very intense late night snowstorm that filled the roads with a foot of snow.
A little later, a truckload of totally drunk but friendly cops drove up in a military style UAZ jeep, which was probably the most uncomfortable vehicle ever invented. A very bored police lieutenant took charge of the situation and used his AK-47 to gesture to both his subordinates and me. It was pretty unnerving being pointed at with the business end of an automatic rifle, but I was grateful for any help at this point. He then decided to drive off to find me a tire "from somewhere" as he put it. After 20 minutes he reappeared with the worst looking tire imaginable. The thing looked like they had glued two different ones together and parts of the steel belted radial stuck out. I supposed the protruding pieces of radial might help me keep my grip on the road. After tipping the cop $10, I was on my way until two other GAI pulled me over "for something" twice in five minutes.
I eventually had to get rid of the car because my mechanic refused to let me drive it. He said that the floor was in danger of falling out, which was a potential safety problem. As a result, I had to dispose of the car which cost me than it was worth because I could not just leave on the side of the road somewhere. Since it was an embassy car it was not officially in Russia and would need to re-exported, destroyed or sold to another diplomat (sounds like friendly thing to do). My taxi driver friend said that at least I was spared having the drive the car in April, which is when cars break down because the cold generally kept the ones with the shaky radiators working.
Note: This is only a partial excerpt of the book, which is available on request. I will be adding photos to this page in the near future.