What was your dream car when you were a teenager? For a lot of us from America, cars like a Supra or an E30 were the cars to get, It's all about that nostalgic feeling. Many of us also think of the golden age of gearheads in America and the muscle cars, longing for the days of finding a '69 Charger at a bargain lot for $600, slapping some go-fast parts on it then taking it down to Porky's for shenanigans.
That phenomena is very much so a product of the American car market. Go to Europe or Japan and you get a completely different nostalgia people have for cars. Now lets toss a wrench into this equation, what if you grew up behind the iron curtain? In the Soviet Union there was a completely different crop of cars, it was literally a different world and that legacy stands in Eastern Europe today.
Enter the subject of this feature, Yuriy Gula. Yuriy grew up in Ukraine and would see these all over the place as a kid. As an adult he longed after his current car for the same reasons we long after our cars, that nostalgic feeling and the impression the body lines left on you as a child. What is his car do you ask? It is an 1978 Lada VAZ-2101.
Back in the early 70's when Lada's parent company Autovaz launched this project, they got the rights to produce the Fiat 124 for the Soviet markets. At the time it was one of the best European cars on the market. The Fiat 124 was the equivalent of an Italian Datsun 510 or a cheaper BMW 3 series, a sports sedan that everyone could attain. Once Autovaz got their hands on it, they made some modifications to make it more suitable to the harsh Russian climate, attempts to prevent rust and make it more reliable.
While Yuriy was growing up in Ukraine, these were the car everyone had. He always was wishing to get one in good condition and knew one day he would make it happen. After he came to America and had a nice amount of money saved up from his day job, he decided that it was time to stop having his dreams be dreams. Yuriy called up a friend of his in Chicago who specializes in importing Russian classic cars and told him what he wanted. His friend came back with a perfect red 2101 that had just finished a complete restoration.
The car was not cheap, Yuriy paid what most would pay for a good example of a '60's American muscle car but, instead of blending in with everyone, Yuriy wanted to have something special to him. Something that people would break their necks and say "what in the world is that?"
Frankly, he knocked it out of the park. While a stock Lada would have done the trick, a set of airbags and some choice modifications sent his car to the next level.
The car sits on a custom air suspension kit assembled during it's restoration in Ukraine. An earlier "horned" rear bumper was placed on it to give it more of a classic look but the builder retained the clean front bumper and rectangular turn signals. Speaking of horns, since the car has an air compressor, it is also fitted with an air horn off of a Russian Kamaz dump truck, in case you didn't already see it coming down the street.
To make it more his own car, Yuriy sorted out some extra exterior components including the headlight accents, roof rack, chrome mirrors and wiper arms. Other than that, the car stays true to it's original form. Why mess with perfection? It's rolling stock is a variation on the OEM fair. A set of white wall tires which, when combined with the white wheels on half moon hubcaps, blend together for a prime era correct look.
Inside of the car, Yuriy wanted to keep the OEM+ look so he could get the full classic 2101 experience but with some touches that accentuate the car. The stereo was replaced with a modern Pioneer deck and had upgraded speakers hidden inside the car as to not sully the original lines of the door cards and dashboard. A wicker steering wheel cover also adds to the 1970's European motif.
One of Yuriy's most prized modifications however is the shift knob. These were hand made in Soviet prisons where the inmates would take flowers or other designs and encase them in a glaze. Today these are very rare and highly sought after, usually running well over $100, if you can even find one. A good friend of Yuriy was able to find this and gifted it to him, it's safe to say Yuriy will likely take it to the grave with him.
So what is ownership like for a 40 year old Soviet car in America? Honestly, not all that different from owning a more popular import like an R32 GT-R. The car has been really reliable, especially when compared to it's Italian counterpart and, since the car was made in various iterations for 66 years, parts are still widely available for it. The Lada specific parts take a bit longer to attain due to shipping but the car's relation to the Fiat 124 does help a lot with miscellaneous parts like bushings and such. As long as he's on top of maintenance, it's nothing that will hold Yuriy back from taking it out to shows. Overall, the Lada is pretty easy to own and drive relative to how avant-garde it is.
If it wasn't for the Cyrillic dashboard, it wouldn't feel any different from driving any other early 70's European sports sedan. The power of the car isn't anything to write home about relative to newer cars, it's about as fast as a Mk1 Rabbit but it gets up to highway speed without a problem and can keep up with it's peers in the corners. These aren't the sort of car you buy for outright speed, of course most classic cars aren't in that bracket. This car exists to break necks and give Yuriy that feeling he had as a kid seeing these roll down the street.
The car has loads of personality to it. The appeal of the Italian lines look beautiful but it has just enough Eastern European flair to make it a little more special. While plenty of people around the world muck around with these, shoehorning V8s into them or ruining them with cheap mods, Yuriy loves the car for what it is. He owns one of two 2101s in Minnesota and enjoys every second he has in it.
Rebuilt 1.2L VAZ-2101 Engine, 4-speed Manual Transmission
Pioneer head unit, Custom mounted hidden speakers and mounts, Kamaz Air Horn
Early Chrome Bumpers, Horned Rear Bumpers, Curb Feelers, Chrome Mirrors, Chrome Wiper Arms, Headlight Covers, Lada Roof Rack, Ukrainian Vanity Plate
White Wall Tires, Custom Air Suspension System