The BMW M10 lookalike engine my Lada transmission told me to buy

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Matthew Anderson

The usual growling in the bowels of my Lada Niva’s gearbox recently became louder … rattlier … thrashier. Its previously endearing mechanical whine gradually grew to the point that it began exciting new resonances in other parts of the vehicle. Lucky for me, I was able to order a new gearbox for less than $500, along with a tracking number to check every 15 minutes. After all, an idle mind would just mean more shopping online for parts.

The usual suspects for such adventures.

Like my cat who brings me live bats, birds, and mice now after I gave him a treat for killing a horsefly, these damn algorithms have figured me out and will offer a steady stream of long-dead things for me to buy. The 1958 Moskvich 407 I recently dragged home is in constant need of extra bits, which means daily online searches and more fuel for The Platforms.

Before long, I agreed to purchase the remains of—get this—a rear-ended-and-Camino-ized East German-export-market Moskvich 412. The prior owner, who sold the various bits for 120 euros, was an 80-year-old gentleman living on a farm in Thuringen, a few hours away from my place near Stuttgart. Why did I double down on Moskies? This car has the holy grail of Soviet four-cylinders: the UZAM-412, which is an alloy-block 1.5-liter four-cylinder allegedly reverse-engineered from the fabulous BMW M10. The engine made its debut in 1967 under the hood of the Moskvich 412.

Though there are a number of key differences that suggest the Bimmer motor was more inspiration than outright blueprint, the similarities between the two engines are sufficient to warrant close consideration. The slanted position (okay, they’re 10 degrees different), the near-exact displacement and power output, the recognizably Bavarian finned aluminum oil pan, the hemispherical combustion chambers and valve arrangement, the five-main-bearing crank, and the rough bore/stroke ratio make a convincing case.

Compared with the outgoing, Opel-based OHV motor Moskvich used, the UZAM-412 engine was a massive leap forward. It was like acing the final exam after getting Ds all semester. The initial, M115 version of BMW’s venerable M10 (used in the BMW 1500) was the supposed starting point for the Soviet four-cylinder. Talented designer Igor Okunev’s handiwork for the 412 included an aluminum block with steel liners, a split exhaust manifold, and—my favorite touch—a hand prime handle on the fuel pump. (The handle is potentially a great upgrade for my 407 … but more likely garage art.)

Yeah … I can’t read any of that.

The 412 was located three hours away so, of course, my plan was to tow it home with my ailing Niva. With 83 hp and a basically half of a Soviet sedan-cum-pickup to load, this was a Goldilocks scenario—the trailer had to be no larger or smaller than absolutely necessary. It was, blissfully, perfect. My wife and I loaded up for a family road trip with the dog, tools, snacks, water, and the requisite transmission anxiety. I had over-filled the gearbox with thicker oil in a vain attempt to help curb symptoms. I use this method—overfilling thicker oil in something making horrible sounds—extremely sparingly after once launching a connecting rod in the direction of a jogger (and in the process starting a moderately-sized fire) on Stadium Boulevard in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In this case I felt it was justified. Fire response is fast here in Germany, and running on the Autobahn is strictly verboten. I committed to leaving the transmission in fourth gear as much as possible to relieve the long-suffering bearings. Beyond that, I prayed to the patron saint of countershafts.

What a boozehound. Can’t even pass Frankonia without buying a case.
New backdated chrome mirrors, preferable to flimsy tow mirrors. Not the best 9 euros I’ve spent—but among the top ten, anyway. Matthew Anderson

Driving the Lada on the highway at 110 kph (69 mph) with a trailer requires a Nostradomical amount of foresight for hills, wind, and the roughness of the pavement. Every single factor matters. Being nice to the gearbox also meant fourth gear at 4100 rpm, and thus a colossal noise and vibration. The racket meant our dog’s bathroom request went unheard, leading to the Niva’s back seat and passenger area filling with urine. Quick break.

Other coincidental factors influenced our delayed arrival time. Assuming that it must be the guy we were arranged to meet, we followed a mustard yellow Moskvich and then navigated to the provided street name, only to find out we were in entirely the wrong town. Upon our late arrival at our intended destination, the situation proved simply impossible to explain to all five thickly dialected men, so I pulled out my ever-useful language barrier card.

In a way, it was sad to remove the most modern piece of machinery from this barn.

The trailer was just the right width, and the old boys already had the heavy parts—the subframe carrying the engine and gearbox—halfway up on a lift. It slid right in at a slight angle on a sturdy, rather indispensable dolly. I experienced a vivid flash-forward day-terror of the subframe digging into the floor of the trailer, myself tugging hopelessly as the rental company’s return deadline came and went, and vocalized my dire need for the dolly.

For that, I paid dearly—twice. Once with cash, and a second time with my remaining dignity as I overheard one of the old men guffaw to two others that I was willing to cough up 50 euro for a clapped-out dolly. Clearly, these guys had never paid late trailer fees.

These guys were on hand to mock me but took a break to load the motor.

One of the fellers there felt compelled to make it a better deal and invited me to whatever I wanted out of the junk pile. I scored a few gems. Where to keep this massive, growing inventory of parts that belong to cars I don’t own? Better question is how long until The Platforms serve up a Moski 412 with missing front fenders, grill, radiator, engine, gearbox, subframe, gas tank, and instrument cluster. Until then, I’ll relish the space I have; I’ve got a Lada Niva transmission to install.

The longer you look, the better it gets.


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