Low bar: Buying the Lada 2111 of my childhood dreams

“Why are you so insistent on hiking way out there?” my wife inquired as I showed her the map. During the time of stay-relatively-far-away-from-others orders here in Germany, hiking remains a key method of burning off the alcohol and extra snacking. My extended route accounted for these caloric overages. “Well, it’s pretty in the Black Forest … and there is something I want to check out while we’re out there,” I explained, speeding through the second part.

“It’s some horrible car, isn’t it?”

Granted, I clearly need to work on my scheming tactics.

Lada 110 development, including SVX-like windows. VAZ

I will add that it wasn’t just any horrible car—it was the horrible car I’ve wanted since I was 12. After seeing its wacky, upright proportions in police livery on an online Russian news broadcast (I had friends, I promise, it was just raining out …), I started researching this thing. It turned out to be a Lada 110, the first car AvtoVAZ launched post-communism. The results of my studies were horrifying: a road test in which the alternator caught on fire, panel gaps which a German publication characterized as large enough for a child to lose their hand in, and wipers that would fling themselves into the bushes. The development was started in 1990 under USSR control but ran more than five years after countless issues navigating the switchover to capitalism. On the other hand, several parts of the development were outsourced to Porsche Engineering. I guess they got the bugs worked out—Lada 110s serve as reliable transit across the former Soviet Union and they still crank them out in Ukraine today. What’s not to love?

Medium-speed pursuits at worst, especially chasing an Aleko. Flickr/FastPhive

Well, for one, the 110 (VAZ 2110) was not available in the American market in any capacity. A handful of prototypes were imported to Ontario in the mid-’90s to see if they’d be attractive to thrifty Canadians who had presumably damned their rusted Hyundai Stellar and Pony beaters to hell. Who knows if they still exist? It didn’t matter anyway. I can say from experience that importing a less-than-25-year-old Lada across a rural Northeastern border crossing wins only the ire of U.S. Customs. But here in Germany, it was game on to live out childhood dreams! I found a Lada 2111, which is the wagon variant, from the last model year of import to Germany—2006. It had dueling LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) and fuel tanks, 80,000 km (50,000 miles), and in Snow Queen Silver (yes, that’s actually the name of the color). It was overpriced by a factor of three but nevertheless a curiosity worth looking at.

Lada and conveniently placed barn.

After a wonderful hike through the wilderness, the sun was setting fast on the road to the location in the ad. Going to look at an overpriced Russian station wagon … in the dark? Always a grand idea, especially with my detestable track record of buying basically everything I look at. Even better when a barn obscures half of it. Better still when it sports a country line dancing club sticker on the back. I too could be a Moonlight Dancer. I had a quick poke around underneath, noted the 50 percent that I could see as darned solid, thanked the lady, and told her I’d let her know for sure tomorrow. But I was probably out. There’s no chance we’d find an agreeable price anyway, so why bother test drive it?

With favorites from Merle Haggard-looking, Wailin’-wheel-bearing Jennings, and Robert Earl Keen-to-make-a-deal. Matthew Anderson

Later that night, I thought about it just enough to only consider the positive aspects. My fair, but absolute lowball offer followed. It was promptly rejected. An again-too-high counteroffer was submitted by the seller, briefly considered, and ultimately rejected. I slept like a baby knowing I did the right thing in not buying it. A new morning would bring new offers and potentially bad decisions! I woke up to a text from the Frau with the car saying it could be mine with a way-back full of spares for 800 Euro ($960). That I can do!

Even the exhaust is rattling with excitement.

I took a day off work to go grab The Moonlight Dancer. My wife, whose blood has been tested and confirmed as liquid patience, drove me an hour-and-a-half into the sticks. By the barn, once again dark, it occurred to me that in seeking a deal, I basically checked nothing and had ignored every piece of unsolicited advice that I give others when they’re about to look at a car, such as:

  • Sit in it
  • Start it
  • Make sure the red genie lamp goes out
  • Drive it
  • Check the fluids for milkshakes
  • Think about if you actually like it

I did none of that. I was hence a little freaked out as I handed over the cash and looked back at my wife, still behind the wheel of her Panda, headlights illuminating the deal. Suddenly, I, a foolish buyer, had the title, keys, and a vague hope this car will make it home without catastrophe.

Optics of carbon fiber were apparently described over the phone to the design department. Matthew Anderson

I touch the security dongle to its home base on the dash, turn the key, and it fires up. A brief lifter tick subsides to a silent idle. There is a slight exhaust leak somewhere behind me, but leaks where flanges aren’t don’t scare me too badly. I depress the large plastic rocker switch left of the tach, and the left headlight illuminates. I push in the clutch for what feels like half the distance back home and engage first. The cable-operated clutch gradually releases and eventually bites when my knee nearly reaches my ear. The motor and gearbox find the end of their broken mounts, finally transferring torque to the drive wheels. I’m off. No grinds in second and a very rev small drop to third gear feels great. The space-age info center surrounded by factory-fake carbon fiber confirms that some lights aren’t working. Either someone is bowling in the cargo area or there’s a wheel bearing on the way out.

The rorty 16-valve motor drowns everything out when I put my foot into it. Not overly confident in the curves, the 100 kinda feels like a Buick Century with the 4A-GE motor from a Toyota MR2. Temperature stabilizes just under Normal and there is no obvious dimming of electrical accessories. Success?

My anxiety subsides, but navigating the tight, dark, and unlined routes with one headlight through the Black Forest is headache-inducing. We hit the autobahn and cruising is comfy but loud with that wheel bearing, full depth Mud & Snow tires, and an exhaust leak. But I’ve settled into my soft seats, made from pristinely patterned sweatpants material, and I settle the car at 130 kph (81 mph) with the ’80s trapezoidal wheel lightly jiggling in my hand for remaining next hour home.

After a light (ok, fine) elbow-cracking scrub. Matthew Anderson

The experience is the value I expect from an 800 Euro crapcan, however, this was an emotional purchase that cannot be justified with logic or reason. Twelve-year-old me is still there within, pressing all of the buttons and extremely excited about the utter weirdness of this ordinary car. I count myself lucky that as a young boy with Corvair collage instead of Lamborghini posters in his room, I set the bar very cheap.

You guess the neighborhood reactions. Yes, the American guy is very weird. Matthew Anderson
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