Ian Nixon’s ’76 Lada is basically a brand new car, taking the retro hammer-and-sickle and spinning it around with a modern stance twist…
Guilty pleasure. That’s a heavily loaded term, isn’t it? Because life is short, no pleasure, no matter how deranged or subversive it may appear, should be considered guilty. You either like something or you don’t. Simple as that.
Still, try telling yourself that when you walk through the front door to find your partner dancing around the house to S Club 7’s greatest hits. Or watching the godawful Mrs Brown’s Boys without any apparent sense of irony.
People, it has to be said, are strange. But we love strange. It’s what makes life interesting. And this strange sense of colours and shapes isn’t lost on Ian Nixon, the man behind this rather striking Lada. “I have my own business restoring classic cars,” he says. “We restore high-end classics such as Aston Martins and Ferraris, as well as rebuilding historic race and rally cars.
“I currently have one of the original works 1986 Computervision Metro 6R4s, which was on display at the Group B celebrations at the London Classic Motor Show at the Excel in 2016. I’m also currently restoring the Audi Quattro that Hannu Mikkola came second with in the 1982 Monte Carlo Rally. And we run a Corvette Stingray in the Goodwood Revival – all sorts of things, really.”
The logic of all this may well be starting to slot into place for you now. When a person spends that amount of their professional time elbows-deep in the sort of cars that are pie-in-the-sky to all but oil barons and lottery winners, it’s reasonable to assume they may appreciate a bit of mischievous downtime. A little R ‘n’ R with a down-and-dirty car that no-one would expect them to be mucking about with. Couple this with the years of skillful endeavor and a keen eye for quality componentry and engineering, and you arrive at this: possibly the best example of a Lada 2103 that you’re likely to find in the UK.
That, then, is why you’re seeing a Lada in Fast Car. This is very far from being your average Eastern Bloc plodder. This is something else, transcending its humble utilitarian roots to become something desirable, handy, rapid, entertaining and, most of all, something to confuse the traditional petrolhead. It’s a Lada. An entity we’ve been conditioned over the generations to believe is a comedy item, a bit rubbish. And yet this one is so clearly awesome on every measurable scale. Just how on Earth has Ian achieved this? And more to the point, what could possibly have inspired him to do it?
“As a kid, my grandmother’s next-door neighbour had a drive full of Ladas, and he used to let me help him fi x them. I’m sure a Lada was the very first car I ever put a spanner to,” he says. “However, I suppose the Lada story for me really starts back when I was heavily into the Lotus Cortinas and Sunbeams. I’d had all those cars, and really got what they were about and what made them so special. And then Top Gear made the Lotus Lada. It just stopped me in my tracks. When I think back to the knock-on effect that car has had on everything I’ve done since, I owe it a lot.”
This, for those not in the know, was a project carried out by the show back in 2002 whereby a Lada Riva was transformed by Lotus to become a quick, capable and desirable car. They reportedly spent 1,000 hours and a £100k on it! And in 2011, Ian decided to build his own replica of it, starting off with a full-race Fiat twin-cam just like the Lotus boys had, with the help of Guy Croft who was on the original build with Top Gear.
“I did a lot with that car, and met a lot of Lada people,” says Ian. “I even took it to Time Attack! What I learned about Ladas while doing the Lotus replica, and the diverse culture within Russia and Eastern Europe that’s going on with the Lada, compelled me to build this one. It’s not what I usually do, as I’ve never really been into the low-and-slow air-riders. But I was honestly bored to death of building fast cars and fancied doing something completely different. I had a few ideas based on other cars I’d seen, so I decided to import a Lada 2103.”
Now the Lada nerds among you (if there are any) will know that these cars were only badged as Ladas outside of Russia. The 1976 model we’re looking at here would be a VAZ 2103 in its domestic market. But it came from Bulgaria, via Germany, and made it to the UK in 2014.
“I’d seen a picture of a VAZ 2103 on the net, which I really liked, but always suspected was a Photoshop job, as I could never find any other pictures of it,” Ian recalls. “Anyway, I’d decided to build it and needed a base car. They never sold the 2103 in great numbers here in the UK and since most Ladas were shipped back to Russia in the ’90s anyway, it seemed an impossibility unless I imported one. So I bought this one in Germany, from a Serbian guy who’d imported it from Bulgaria.”
Ian A-framed it back to Blighty from Frankfurt, installed it in the workshop, and set about analysing just what he’d bought for himself. And it wasn’t too bad, as it turned out. The paint was pretty horrible. In fact, most of it fell off when he washed it. It’s not always a good idea to wash Ladas. But it was solid overall and ripe for mischief.
So, in the fastidious style of his day job, Ian set about rebuilding the car, nut-and-bolt, from the ground up. It’s effectively a brand new car now. “You can buy everything for these cars,” he grins. “I have a huge Lada support network all over the world, in Finland, Russia, Serbia, Lithuania, Hungary. Advice and parts are in endless supply with these machines. They’re from a can-do culture so anything’s possible. Most of this car came in the post!”
As is the nature of a decent-quality jigsaw puzzle, it all came together very neatly, meaning Ian’s chosen modifications happened organically rather than heartbreakingly. It didn’t cause a lot of sleepless nights. The most notable and unusual change is the swap to air-ride: it’s a full Russian setup from Garage 1970, with airbags and control from Airmasters.ru. The kit uses a basic billet-alloy electric solenoid-block system with manual switch control on the dash, and the air tank is made from two Russian fi re extinguishers, cut in half and welded together! A simple setup, but it works beautifully.
“Some parts required a bit of fettling to make them fit and work, but in general we were using solutions that have been around for years,” he says. “We have a really good set of engineers in our shop, so there’s generally nothing we’d struggle with. Kev, our expert welder and fabricator, has produced some of the really best bits of it, such as the chin spoiler and the air gauge pod. Without him I doubt it would have turned out anything like as good. He’s able to bring these builds to the next level. I show him a picture or give a description and it appears like magic!”
The Lada offers an unusual mish-mash of styles, cherry-picked from such disparate scenes as JDM drifting, So-Cal VWs and Russian stance. Somehow it all works brilliantly. There’s more than a hint of open-shirted, hairy-chested 1970s Fiat pimp in there too.
“Yes, the styling’s a bit mismatched, but it’s current,” reasons Ian. “All the kids seem to love it, although they’re usually just drawn to the wheels and arches. I’ll do a few more shows with it, see where it takes me.”
And after that? Back to the Aston Martins and the 6R4s? Well, certainly, as that’s the bread-and-butter. But we have it on good authority that Ian’s got a Lada estate project on the go… with a Ferrari V8 in it.
You heard it here first. Ladas are so hot for 2017. And that’s definitely not a guilty pleasure.
TECH SPEC: LADA 2103
Repainted original VAZ Carnaby Blue with rear panel painted matt black; universal bolt-on arches; Russian roof rack; dog window vents; Russian Vihur boot spoiler; red 1500S badges; front airdam.
1,706cc Lada 8v; 2106 (1600) crank case; deck height reduced 1.5mm; 80.40mm Fiat 128/Uno pistons; 84mm crankshaft with ex-Juha Rajavuori race flywheel; Lada 2121 (Niva) 1700 modular head gasket; standard 2101 Lada head skimmed 0.8mm; Aerodynamical BMW E30 bronze valve guides; full-length Elring valve stem seals; A.E/Federal Mocal valves cut back 30 degrees with 3-angle seats; ported and polished with opened-up valve pockets and slightly blended short side radius; Finnish Folk Racing fast-road camshaft; twin Weber 40 DCOE carbs with 32mm chokes and Peter Havassy linkage; stock Lada 2104/5 5-speed gearbox.
9x15in Watanabe RS wheels – powdercoated gold with cut-back lips; Lada 2107 centre caps; 215/45 Toyo Proxes T1-R tyres; full Russian air-ride system from Garage 1970; airbags and control from Airmasters.ru; air tank fabricated from two Russian fire extinguishers; Master-Sport Keramik drilled and grooved front discs with fast road pads.
Standard Lada 2103 red interior; Chevrolet Impala SS bowtie steering wheel on Springalex boss; centre console modified to take air-ride controls and gauges; Russian aftermarket slip-on headrests.
I’d like to thank these guys, without whom this wouldn’t all have been possible: Kev the Bracket, for help with building the car; Tommi Huukha from Finland, who’s my number one Lada advisor with a no-shit Finnish attitude and always right about everything and very economical with the English language; Sergey Kiselev from Lada Moscow for advice and supplying some rare Lada styling/tuning parts; Denis Popov from Togliatti in Russia for parts supplying and general help in sourcing new Lada parts; Pera Kojot from the Wild Balkans, the go-to man when you need anything Fiat/Lada related that you just can’t get anywhere else. (If he hasn’t got it, you’re stuffed.)
Words Dan Bevis Photography Matt Woods