The streets of Cuba are littered with Ladas. Car guys, when they think of Cuban cars, usually think of lovingly preserved American cars from the 1950s, just like the ones they see at summertime show and shine gatherings. That isn’t always the case. There are plenty of old American cars in Cuab, and most of them look like they have been in continuous service for over half a century with poor OEM parts support. This street in the mountain town of Santa Clara is typical of what you would see in Cuba. A 1952 Chevrolet with a homemade grill and what looks like hand made rear fender trim is parked behind a Lada 1200, which is parked behind another nondescript 1970s car. But wait, the Lada is festooned with racing and high performance (and Canadian!) themed stickers and graphics.
This Lada is owned by an especially creative guy. When the average monthly salary is $60 (yes, $60, that’s not a typo), you need to be creative to even afford a car, to make that car stand out takes dedication. This car’s graphics are striking by themselves; the faux sponsor stickers detract from the pure excellence that is the stylized Canadian flag. If you click on the images here (and on all Street Parked articles) they open larger, blow these images up and check out the hand cut artistry at work on that maple leaf. The tack on plastic bits are less impressive at first glance because we see them in the bargain aisle at our FLAPS (friendly local auto parts store). However, think of the budget this guy is working with, that funky little wing with the brake light on it was probably a major investment. You have to admire this guy for his dedication to making his Lada stand out.
This model of Lada is mechanically very similar to a late 1960s Fiat 124, although the Lada was made from thicker steel than was the Fiat. In 1966 Fiat and the Soviet government entered into a collaborative agreement that resulted in the creation of a car manufacturer to be called AutoVAZ. AutoVAZ modified the Fiat 124 to be tough enough to survive use in the Soviet Union’s rugged motoring environment. These cars were very popular in Soviet era Eastern Europe, where they were branded VAZ-2101 and known as the “Zhiguli”. In export markets, like Cuba, they were sold as the Lada 1200. The agreement with Fiat allowed AutoVAZ to sell these cars anywhere Fiat was not selling the 124. When Fiat introduced the 131 (also known as the Super Brava or Mirafiori) and stopped selling 124 sedans, new markets opened up for Lada. These sturdy little sedans have been sold all over the world into the late 1980s.
I believe this car to be a Lada 1200 or AutoVAZ 21011 (the axtra ‘1’ due to the more modern looking bumper) built between 1974 and 1981. It has a 1.2 or 1.3 liter gas engine with a four speed manual transmission. The cool thing about these cars is that they are close enough to a Fiat 124 that most of the Fiat performance parts should easily adapt. A Lada owner could even go so far as to take the humble and egalitarian 60-some horsepower stock engine out and replace it with a 1.8 from a 124 Abarth Rally and double his power.
The owner of this car was happy to let me take a few pictures and check out the details. We chatted for a few minutes about how his friends helped him find the plastic parts and the Goodyear stickers, but that he had made the rest. He had very little English and my Spanish is nearly non-existent (and kept getting mixed with my horrid Italian all my time in Cuba), but we managed to have a genuine car guy moment. As I turned to leave I gave him a StartingGrid Samurai sticker. He looked a bit surprised, but said something about it being cool. I’m hoping that StartingGrid Samurai is on this car as the owner hoons this car on the winding hillside roads around Santa Clara.
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