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Official Ladas in the Communist era

10/05/2013 05:54 | Comments: 

Contributing editor

Sipi is a fairy who hangs above us like a huge, ever-smiling, men’s fragrance-smelling umbrella. He can be called anytime, anywhere to lend a helping hand, and he’ll be there in an hour with one of his Transits for sure. A dangerously maniac car collector (the street in front of his house is full of his vehicles), a radio-control and model car freak, Sipos is a Swiss knife made of human flesh. Totalcar is just one job amongst his zillion occupations, but he endears it the most. Lives with a girlfriend and two dogs.

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When a foreigner entered the country in the Iron Curtain-years, he was expecting Russian T-72 tanks to roam the streets for keeping order. Not these miserable Ladas… But wait.

There are lots of things you just don't think about - they simply are. Objects around us – parts of our everyday routine that exist unnoticed. We don't even recognize their shape or colour, not even if they surround us in umpteen numbers.  We tend to only realize the role those objects once played in our everyday lives when we suddenly get face to face with one of them long after they have disappeared. Cars are exactly like this.

I have never felt anything for Ladas. Yes, they were everywhere in Hungary in my early years, but my father never drove one, so I never got attached to them. It was in 2012, when we wanted to recapture the scenes and the atmosphere of the 1982 Hungarian movie The Vulture (Dögkeselyű) in a film shot of our own that I realized to what extent these cars were part of life and the street.

The main character of this social drama –Simon, a cab driver – who wants to take revenge on the pickpockets who stole all his fortune drives a Lada. Like all cabbies of the two state-owned Budapest taxi companies of the time. To complete his mission, he robs a driver of his Lada taxi to use it as a cover for another Lada, which he has stolen previously. Now he has a runaway car to flee from the cops on his trail. Yes, the officers chasing the stolen taxi and the ones trying to find Simon are driving Ladas as well, with nee-naws.

In those days there were lots of these Soviet cars made under Fiat licence in Hungary. Ladas (also known as Zhiguli in the Eastern Bloc) were popular in other communist countries as well - they were part of the street scene in Czechoslovakia and East Germany, too. In fact these cars MADE the street scene in the Soviet-Union. They used to be around in such huge quantities that you can still see some on the streets today, either as used and abused daily drivers or shiny nostalgic rides, but it takes special versions like rally cars – or taxis – to make people get emotional.

It would be impossible to summarize the history of the VAZ factory, the birth place of all Ladas in the Soviet city of Tolyatti, in a few words. But a number of facts might help to put things in perspective: the city of Tolyatti was named after an Italian communist leader, Palmiro Togliatti, and the biggest part of it was built for the people working in the Lada factory. Having its own power plant and over 90 miles of assembly lines, the factory was able to reach a production capacity of 700,000 vehicles a year. The first model, the 2101 was produced from 1970 for 13 years, and over 3 million cars have been sold of this series alone. Descendants of the first model were made until 2011 in Tolyatti, with over 17 million units. It was one of the best selling platforms ever.

It took a string of modifications to make the Fiat 124, the basis of all rear wheel drive Ladas, compatible with the harsh Russian conditions. After lifting the car up by 60 millimeters, using higher capacity heater box and so on, it became very sturdy and reliable, at least by the standards behind the iron curtain. Because of this and the big production numbers the car became immensely popular amongst state organizations, government authorities, and state-owned companies.

It was an object of desire for civilians as well, many of whom started saving up for the shiny new Lada. After they had made their first payment at the cashier of the only Hungarian car distributor, the state-owned – what else ­– Merkur Co., they waited for years to receive the notification that the ordered snow white car is available. Very few of them complained when they saw that all the cars on the huge lot were mustard yellow or frog green, if that was what the Great Soviet Brother had to offer. They accepted it. A hideous colour was not a good enough reason to wait for further 6-12 months.

From the late 70's to the late 80's all police officers were driving Ladas, but there are no well-kept original cars left to display in a museum or at events nowadays. Some cars have been transformed to police cars by civilian enthusiasts, but the one in our pictures was rebuilt by natural born officers whose first words were “serve” and “protect”. The members of the IPA (International Police Association) of Szombathely didn't just rebuild this car, they even got it registered as a police vehicle, which means they are authorized to use the blue lights and sirens. For civilians it is not easy to have a car with the word “Rendőrség” (Police) painted on the doors, but owning a period correct taxi can be the fulfillment of any Lada fan's dream.

Luckily there are several lunatics who are not satisfied by owning a car in mint condition. They are looking for something special. Fans of the two sole taxi companies of the late 70's, early 80's can discover exciting details on the two cabs we used. It's really astonishing how a few stickers and period correct accessories can transform a normal car.

Sourcing the right accessories and decoration is not easy, neither for the taxis, nor for the coppers' car. The type of revolving beacon on the patrol car hasn't been in use for decades, so finding one in decent condition takes a lot of effort. The flashing lights and the sirens, by the way, were both made in Hungary. The beacon was a copy of a Polish model, but the electronic siren was developed and made by a Hungarian company, Elektris.

It was such an excellent product that a lot of ambulances and fire trucks of volunteer fire brigades are still using them, and even the Volkspolizei of East-Germany fitted their cars with the same electronics and speakers, although they had a different sound pattern. The very first Hungarian Lada patrol cars of the 70's were fitted with a motorized siren, producing the typical wailing sound.

Police cars in Hungary were painted blue-white or white-blue, with a huge RENDŐRSÉG label on each side. This text in italics was painted with the help of a reusable stencil. Even the number plate of the patrol cars showed the special status of the vehicle, starting with RA or RB. But Jake Elwood of the Blues Brothers would have no luck searching for cop motor, cop tires, cop suspension or cop shocks. These cars were stock, but they were made before the invention of catalytic converters for sure – and even years after it became wide-spread in other parts of Europe.

The brick-sized, portable VHF radio, the uniform, the cap, the shoulder belt (aka growth preventer) were parts of the officers' personal equipment, but the patrol cars were also fitted with a radio. Early ones had a telephone receiver, but the one we used had a conventional microphone and a separate speaker. Officers using the black or grey phone receiver to communicate with the operator must have looked weird.

Taxis also had built-in VHF radios, which are very hard to find these days. But the most sought-after item is also the most important equipment of any taxi: the taximeter. These mechanic machines look good enough to be displayed on a shelf, but the real thing is when you see one working in a cab. Because of the real clockwork inside, they even keep ticking when the car is at a red light, and the numbers on the display jump with a loud clap as time passes or miles go by. Everyone who took a taxi in those days remembers the atmosphere of a well-heated Lada and the ticking of the taximeter.

There were other taxi-typical things, too. Every cab had a sticker on the dash reminding the passengers to buckle up. The cars of the Főtaxi and Volántaxi had no built-in car radios, so the drivers who wanted to listen to music kept a portable Soviet Sokol radio in the cabin. For extended playtime two 4.5 V lantern batteries were attached to the radio by rubber bands. There was another reason for this too; the 9 V battery that was designed to prove the Sokols originally was not available in Hungary, or if it was, its price put it out of reach. Beside the sound of the taximeter and the crackling radio those cars had another special feature: a typical smell. It was the odour of the Soviet vinyl mixed with the scent of the Wunderbaum (Little Trees) air fresheners stacked in the cabin for years.

Cars of the Főtaxi could easily be identified by the red and white checkered stripe on the sides and the front of each cab, while Volántaxis had their oval logos on the doors and the hood. Real experts pay attention to details even when attaching the taxi sign on the roof: the ones of Főtaxi were oval, whereas those of the Volántaxi were rectangular, later replaced with huge boxes, making identification easy even from hundreds of meters.

Even an immaculate Lada doesn't necessarily draw people's attention on the streets of Budapest, but the two old taxis were special enough to make everyone want to take pictures. The patrol car was popular as well, but old habits die hard - people approached it cautiously, as if they were still thinking it's best not to have anything to do with the police. There is one version I really miss, though: a red and white painted estate of a fire chief officer would be a real public favorite, but these cars only exist on faded photographs.

Let's not forget another beautiful Lada estate reminiscent of an era gone by. The police and taxi companies still exist, but unfortunately there is no Hungarian National Airlines anymore. The white Lada estate with the old-school Malév design was originally meant to assist Malév's marketing efforts, but the airline went down in early 2012. Malév is gone, but the replica of the Lada of the Ferihegy Airport's (now Liszt Ferenc Airport) traffic controllers remains. It is not just the paintjob that conjures up the old days, but the special license plates that are only valid at the airport, and a beacon like the one used on police cars, only with yellow dome.

Preserving or replicating such vehicles is more than just a hobby. These cars are parts of history; they help to recall times long gone by and make it easier to understand the difference between then and now. They present an entertaining way of teaching history to the next generation. This is why it is really important to look after and keep old cars and trucks in working order so companies and organizations can preserve something of their past. People who spare no expenses and sacrifice their time and energy to actively save such memorabilia deserve all our appreciation.

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