Classic  Ladas are around every corner in Baku. 1200s, 1500s, Nivas and Rivas, and a smattering of shonky Samaras. You can find them in rush hour  jostling for position on the streets of the F1 circuit, trundling in the suburbs, and lounging on the cobbles of the fortified Old Town.

August is Monterey Classics, and Concours at Pebble Beach. There, chaps in Panama hats blather on about 100 point restorations of rare machines commissioned by a bloke who makes posh polo shirts. Instead of heading west to photograph another limited edition supercar something, we went east to Baku, Azerbaijan, to spotlight old Ladas living a life less celebrated.

Azerbaijan has come a long way since its time as a republic of the USSR. You won’t find a statue of Lenin or Trotsky, and many old Soviet tenement blocks have been knocked down or invigorated with fresh stone facades, so that downtown Baku feels more like an old world European city, rather than a monolithic, soviet workers cooperative.

The heart of the revitalized city, perched on the Caspian Sea, delivers decadence with shopping malls, a Rolex store, and Lamborghini and Bentley outlets. There’s, a lively café society, classy hotels and the obligatory “Irish” pub. It’s hard to spot signs of the communist past until you spy the darlings of Tolyatti mixing it with Mercs and VWs in the traffic. In Baku. Classic Ladas may just be the last soviets standing.

I spent a couple of hours snapping various models for your delight , despair, or incredulity, depending on your stance on bargain basement proletarian transport. I found  a couple of bonus communist classics along the way. including this GAZ (or UAZ) van dressed up as a school bus. Parked outside a bar, it’s repurposed as a shed to store beer.

The many Ladas of Baku come in all guises. Some are clearly past their prime and just hanging onto life, others are carefully preserved or  restored. Owners range from old boys running the grandkids around, to youths wanting bargain wheels to get about town. Some are cherished by a segment of society who get misty eyed for the communist way of life, a time of free health care, a free flat, propaganda, long queues, and the opportunity to nark on your neighbour for owning a pair of Levis: A misdemeanour that would earn you a visit from someone far worse than the fashion police.

This is a Gaz Volga, one of the late versions, a 3110, built long after the Soviet Empire days, when the KGB got a corporate makeover and became the FSS. The Volga soldiered on for years after the CCCP era but the mere sight of this one had my elderly cabbie whispering ‘KGB car’ out of the side of his mouth. Definitely not a Soviet era motor, but the DNA and infamy of the black Volgas persist, and intentional or otherwise, it’s still able to give off sinister vibes. 

Ladas don’t suffer the same fate. We love an underdog, and old Ladas qualify. Impossible to mistake for luxury motoring,  they look their shabby best packing a roof rack, and wearing distressed patina.

After Azerbaijan gained its independence in the early nineties there was an influx of used Mercedes and VW into the country. You can find some lovely smoker barge Mercs still cruising the streets and the odd E30 BMW too.

The Old Town of Silk Route fame requires skilful dodging of the usual tourist trap tat. Azerbaijan goes large on rugs and sheepskin hats. Otherwise it;s an excellent place to take in quiet streets,  ancient buildings and some classic Lada action

Also popular are these Turkish built Tofas Dogans.

Essentially revised Fiat Regattas built in various specs. Tofas started out producing warmed over Fiat 131’s They exported to all the post Soviet era “Stans” as well as Azerbaijan, Georgia and Macedonia. The Dogan came in various engine and trim levels, latter models were fitted with 1.6 Fiat Tempra engines. Favoured by tuners, they make for a sporty alternative to the larger Lada community.

A quick poke around the suburbs found some renovated Soviet apartment blocks including one complete with classic CCCP style mural. Plus, more Ladas. looking picture perfect at the shops and down the pub.

 A quick peek at 2023 ‘How Many Left’ puts UK figures at just a couple of hundred licensed Ladas of all types. With its F1 street circuit, glass towers and luxury outlets, Baku is leaving the past behind, but  the old Ladas seem to be holding on, for now. To celebrate their continued existence I grabbed a genuine communist era stopwatch from a junkshop, and used it to time the old soviets pelting past the F1 pitlane.

Its little over three decades since ‘made in CCCP’ stopped being a thing. Back then, the suggestion of a Formula One race in the city streets would’ve been enough to earn a visit from the Volga crew. The stopwatch was very much like the Ladas. Its rudimentary workings bore no trace of frippery, marking time with an unrefined clatter. Its appearance rejected any hint of bourgeois style. Its controls were clunky but functional. It did its job, no more, no less. You could say the same for old Ladas. Lampooned in the West for their crude, perfunctory nature,  these humble, three box, no frills motors have a subversive appeal. It’s never going to take honours at The Quail, but it does have merit as an alternative retro/niche/cult/budget classic.  In a time of squillion dollar Pebble Beach posing, a classic Lada is an ironic choice for the dissident classic car enthusiast. 


Images  Steve Swanson

About The Author

Steve Swanson

Steve turns any opportunity to write about cars into a roadtrip. It's seen him ride shotgun in a Bentley Blower with Clive Cussler, and cross paths with automotive YouTubers in Canada and the US. His work has been published in Magneto, Classic Cars, Classic American and some magazines that no MotorPunk reader has ever heard of. When he's not writing or driving you can find him kicking tyres at seedy auctions and hawking junk optimistically described as Automobilia

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