What’s the difference between a Lada and a golf ball? You can drive a golf ball 200 metres.
That’s just one of a number of jokes made about the Russian car brand over the years thanks to a range of models that became the butt of much ridicule from motorists who regularly referred to them as ‘skips on wheels’.
But they might not be laughing when they see that a 40-year-old Lada Niva is set to sell for a staggering £75,000 at one of the most acclaimed auctions of the year.
The £75k Lada: This Niva 4×4 – despite its rickety state – is set to be sold at one of the UK’s most prestigious auctions of the year
Collectors are set to battle it out for this rickety looking off-roader next month at the RM Sotheby’s London sale in Battersea.
It will be sold alongside a 1961 Aston Martin DB4 GT that featured in The Wrong Arm of the Law starring Peter Sellars and Rod Stewart’s former 1971 Lamborghini Miura – both of which are estimated to reach seven-figure sums – at one of the UK’s biggest auctions of the year.
So why is a Lada being sold there? Especially one that’s in such poor condition.
It’s because this 1979 Niva is one of a few that competed in arguably the most testing race on the planet – the Paris-Dakar Rally – and is believed to be one of the most collectible in existence.
The plucky little Lada was bought by racer François Jeanson and his son. It was then specially prepared for the 1981 installment of the endurance race.
In preparation for the arduous journey across some of the toughest terrains in the world, he fitted it with a plastic bonnet, doors and boot, larger capacity fuel tank, additional protection for the front and rear bumpers, extra lights and a beefier suspension.
The 1979 Lada Niva was used to compete in the 1981 Paris-Dakar Rally, though it failed to finish the event
The car still sports the racing numbers from the event. While it didn’t make it to the end, one Lada Niva famously crossed the line in third place
Inside, only the front seats remain and much of the interior has been stripped away to save weight
Issued with number 167 – which is still visibly carries today – it was one of a dozen Nivas entered in toe race that year, which started at the Place du Tracadéro in Paris.
Of the 170 cars, 15 trucks and 106 motorcycles that entered, just 59 made it to the finish – and it was a Lada Niva that famously crossed the line in third.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t this one, as Jeansons’ Lada dropped out part-way into the race.
Incredibly, the Jeanson family retained the Niva until 2009 when it was bought by its current owner, who has now decided to sell the 4×4 in its unrestored, original condition.
RM Sotheby’s, which is famous for selling multi-million pound Ferraris and other super-desirable classics, expects it to sell for between £50,000 and £75,000 when it goes under the hammer on 5 September.
The car was prepared for the 1981 endurance rally with a larger capacity fuel tank, additional protection for the front and rear bumpers, extra lights and a beefier suspension
Mechanical failure prevented the car from finishing the race. Some 291 vehicles entered the 1981 event, though just 59 finished
Covered in cobwebs, leaves and dirt and still bearing the stickers – and bruises – from the race, it has been preserved in original condition in an Austrian barn for the last decade
Covered in cobwebs, leaves and dirt and still bearing the stickers – and bruises – from the 1981 rally, the Niva is about as far from what you’d usually find being sold by the prestigious auction house.
In fact, it’s the first Lada RM Sotheby’s has ever auctioned.
If a buyer is looking to renovate it back to its original glory, they’re going to have to put in plenty of effort – and resources – to make that happen.
The wheel are rusty, the tyres flat and it has been gathering dust in an Austrian garage for the best part of a decade.
Despite its tired condition and lack of performance, it is still expected to sell for around £75,000.
RM Sotheby’s usually sells hugely collectible – and expensive – Ferraris, Porsches and Lamborghinis. This is the first time the auction house has offered a Lada to the highest bidder
It’s hard to believe that this car could cost around the same as a brand new Range Rover
Before the race, the Lada had a plastic bonnet and boot lid fitted to reduce weight so it could cross the sands to Dakar
Felix Archer, car specialist at RM Sotheby’s, said: ‘The life led by this plucky Lada is undeniably fascinating, thinking back to the car’s journey on the famous Paris-Dakar rally in 1981.
‘The transnational race is renowned as gruelling and tough, which speaks volumes for the character and resilience of this small 4×4 that took on one of the hardest racing events in the world, all the more challenging under older race rules.
‘In the car’s current state, it’s almost untouched since its participation in the Paris-Dakar race.’
RM Sotheby’s auction listing added: ‘If the Paris-Dakar rally was a Goliath of an event, this Lada was its David, facing seemingly impossible odds in one of motorsport’s most gruelling events, where one of its brethren finished third.’
The Lada Niva was the fruit of Russian car manufacturing during the Cold War and first went into production in 1977
Various versions followed, of which many were sold in the UK, like this Crossback variant
The Lada Niva, past and present
The Niva was the fruit of Russian car manufacturing during the Cold War.
While Russian-built cars held little attraction to those west of the Iron Curtain, the nation needed a durable vehicle that could cope with the country’s punishing terrain.
The Niva was born in 1977 and, with an all-wheel-drive system was described by its designers as a ‘Renault 5 put on a Land Rover chassis’.
In 2010 the Niva was offered to UK buyers for the first time in almost 15 years.
It looks almost unchanged from the original, comes only in left-hand drive and with a 1.7-litre petrol engine or the choice of an LPG conversion to make it more fuel efficient.
Prices start from £10,799 – including first year tax and a two-year warranty – and there’s also a VAT-exempt commercial version for £7,995 and a modified two-door pick-up for £11,999.
In the same year it was made available again to Britons, Russian President Vladimir Putin bought a customised Niva for himself.
Finished in a fetching camouflage paint job and fitted with an upgraded Opel (or Vauxhall in the UK) engine, he described it as ‘a simple, reliable and highly practical car’ while chatting to a group of students.
Vladimir Putin pictured with his Lada Niva 4×4 in 2010. It featured an uprated Opel engine
The Niva was offered for sale again in the UK after 15 years away from the market
It was fitted with a UK-spec speedo and some of the components were replaced with Italian and American parts
All UK models are retrofitted with new speedos and headlights to meet Vehicle Certification Agency standards and some parts – mostly electrical – have been replaced with components sourced from Italy and the US.
The man responsible for bringing it back to the UK is London-based businessman Mark Key.
He decided to import the robust 4x4s after having noticed there were plenty of new Nivas buzzing around in Alpine ski resorts while on his holidays.
When the manufacturer’s return to the UK market was confirmed, he said: ‘Lada stopped bringing Nivas into the UK in 1996 because they couldn’t get right-hand-drive models any more and the carburettor they were using didn’t meet the emissions standards.
‘But I felt that we were missing out in the UK on something that should be good value.’
For £75,000, there can’t be many other Ladas as valuable as this Paris-Dakar survivor. Other than President Putin’s own, of course.
SAVE MONEY ON MOTORING