Everybody Wants to Know Why (I have 5 Ladas)

Lately, people have been asking me Why? a whole lot. They used to ask the same question when I owned only three Samaras... now that I have four and a Niva, they ask even more.

Depending on how long I can keep their attention, I tell them the story with all of the details, or the 25 minute abridged version or the 45 second Reader's Digest summary. I love telling the whole story best because it's loaded with great people and I can still remember all of their smiling faces. To borrow a phrase, and you'll hear me saying this a lot these days... You meet the nicest people in a Lada!

So here goes... Why do I own 5 Ladas...

Well, explaining why I bought the first one is easy - I'm a spend-thrift and I wanted a cheap car. Up until now, I'd never spent more than 300$ on a car. Okay, okay, so I bought a couple for 700$ when I first got married but I was really trying to impress my wife - let's just forget about those because they really ruin my three hundred dollar story and I was so head-over-heels in love at the time that I wasn't thinking straight - go figure, more than 300$ for a car, I was nuts!

It's not so easy to find a 300$ car in Y2K. I searched high and low and found out that I couldn't even get a stinking Ford for less than a thousand dollars any more. Samaras had been on my radar screen for a couple of years. I had noticed them in the buy'n'sell magazines and had been wondering what the new generation Russian cars were like. I expected them to be weird and I wasn't disappointed when I finally found one and took it for a ride.

In September of 2002, our beloved Subaru finally died. The winter was approaching and we'd soon have to put the motorcycle into storage for the winter. An ad came up in one of the local French newspapers for a Samara. Yvette and I rode up to St. Jerome, an hour north of Montreal, to take the car for a spin. It was a wonderful Fall day.

We arrived at Ghislain's house. He has a great little place in the woods. He also had three Samaras sitting on his front lawn. Silly me thinks that this is a little odd, but what do I know, right? Anyways, Gertie, Ghislain's wife tells us that he'll be home from work in a short while, hands me the keys and goes back to doing her thing.

Yvette and I start poking around in the car. We're not very impressed, I have to be honest. Ghislain had bought this red '94 as a parts car from someone who had left it sitting in a dusty field for a while. The inside was a mess, the outside was a mess... when I started it up, the neighborhood was a mess under a huge cloud of black smoke. Oi!

After a while, I ran it up and down the gravel road by their place to be polite. I hadn't driven a standard transmission in 15 years so I never got out of first gear or reverse. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth at 5 km/h for 5 minutes... that was me. I'm sure that the neighbors were wondering why I was grading the roadway in a dull, mottled red car.

So, I finished the polite thing as the sun was setting and we were getting ready to thank the lady and get on our way when Ghislain finally gets home. He sees my face and he's bewildered at why I don't think his car is anything special. He's knocking on fenders showing me that it's made of submarine steel and telling me how he's loved his for the past six years and he shows me his buckets of spare parts that he keeps in the back of the car so that he never gets stuck anywhere. He just couldn't figure out what was wrong with me... a city boy wanting a car that didn't need to have a spare everything in the trunk!

Ghislain's passion for the cars rubbed off. The more we listened to him, the more caught up in his enthusiasm we became. After ten minutes he had me convinced that I might be able to eke out a winter with the 5 tone (all different shades of burnt out, faded, washed out red) '94 Samara that he was selling. I asked him to take us for a ride on the highway so that I could see how the Russian marvel would perform at more than 5 kmh... that stopped him for a bit!

Ghislain drives trucks for a living. The Samara wasn't registered for driving on the road and he really didn't want to have any trouble with the law. I explained to him that I wasn't capable of taking the oddball car on the road myself as there was nowhere except the driveway in first gear or the highway at full speed and I didn't have anywhere to practice getting it up through the gears. I made him understand that we had to get out on the highway or else we'd be going home without the car. It took him a long, long time to capitulate.

So, we're finally strapped in and we're at the end of the driveway ready to jump into the hilly country highway. Ghislain is all revved up because he's doing something a little naughty - adrenaline is building up all around as I'm scared that the crazy Russian car is going to go bonkers on us and we'll have to change a carburetor or something five miles out in the middle of nowhere. And, of course, being a Lada, the stupid heater is blowing warm air at me already and I can't figure out how to shut it off.

We get our opening and Ghislain roars that machine out onto the highway! He's running it up through the gears and he's absolutely enthralled! He keeps saying "It runs better than mine! Oh boy, this is a nice one! Oh boy, I can't believe it...this one is better than mine!". He'd never taken the car out before! I couldn't believe it! He had bought this car without ever driving it.

Meanwhile, the engine is heating up and the warm air is now hot air. I'm fiddling around with knobs and sliders as Ghislain is having his little moment of excitement. As we top 130kmh, I'm starting to lose consciousness from the slight smell of gas and the dry sauna that we're stuck in. As far as I can figure, this has been the worst car I've ever been in and, although I'm impressed that it rides pretty well, I'm figuring that it's time to start spending 400 or 500$ on a car after all these years!

Finally, we get back to Ghislain's house. After a few minutes of fresh, cool air, I regain consciousness and find myself nodding Yes to Ghislain. As I start listening to myself however, I'm happy to hear that I'm telling him how great his car is... for somebody else. I guess I was nodding Yes out of kindness... thank God! Except that I was watching him become sad... this wonderful, animated, excited, happy giant was becoming unhappy because his passion hadn't made it through to the knucklehead boy from the city. I couldn't stand seeing him like that. I started listening to his persuasion about 'a little bit of paint' and how he thought that I would be able to fix this, that and the other 327 'tiny' things that were wrong with it.

So, ten minutes later, I've decided that there's very little to lose if I buy the car. At worst, I could sell it to the junkyard for 50$ and lose 250$ right? Most people pay that monthly for a car. I decided that if I could keep it running for two months, I was still doing better than most people. What the hey! Okay! We shook hands, we signed paper, I left a deposit. And Ghislain, the enthusiastic salesman managed to get me to cough up 450$!!!

I went back up to bring the car home a week later. I brought a few tools, wire, tape with me just in case. I said goodbye to Ghislain and Gertie and started to head home. It was the middle of the day and the highway was clear so I had plenty of time to re-learn how to drive a manual transmission again. The gas gauge was reading low so I stopped for gas five minutes down the road from Ghislain's place. As I'm filling up the tank and looking around, I notice that there's a pool of coolant underneath the car. I look under the bumper and can't believe my eyes... the coolant is coming from my new car! Five minutes!!

I popped open the hood and found that one of the nice, rusty Russian radiator clamps had broken. And, lucky me, for some reason the garage at this gas station was not open for business on Tuesdays (what kind of luck is that?). I look around and notice the telephone repair man using the pay phone. I take a short peek into the back of his van and notice he's got a whole stack of trinkets in there. I show him the clamp as he finishes his call and by sign language he tells me he'll give me one when he's done. Another lucky break... okay so maybe the first one was actually an unlucky break but who's paying attention anyways? Actually, are you still paying attention? Maybe I should have written up the Reader's Digest version?

A few minutes later we're on the road heading home. We get to a straight stretch and we're rolling at full speed so I don't have to do any more shifting. I start fiddling with this and that. I try to shut down the thin stream of hot air. Lucky me, I figure out how to turn the heater on full blast. Unlucky me, I never figure how to shut it back down again. So, for the next forty-five minutes, I'm sitting in a car that's radiating heat through the firewall and blowing hot air through the heating system. This was no fun at all on a balmy October afternoon.

By the time we reached Montreal, I was ready to give the car away. I weighed five pounds less from fluid loss... I couldn't hear because I had all the windows open for an hour... my arms and neck were stiff and achy from tension and driving a manual transmission again... I was dirty from fixing radiator clamps! Egads! I couldn't believe how stupid I was to buy this thing. I would have given the car away if someone had shown any interest at all. Yuck... boy did I ever hate this thing!

Two days later, I visited a couple of used car lots. No, I wasn't considering selling it! I was looking to replace it! The only good candidate was a five tone Japanese Chevy for 1500$. I couldn't figure out how they put Honda doors on a Lumina and why they used a green hood on a red car so I decided I should maybe try to live with Sputnik Bob for the winter... he had a very well working heater, the winter is cold, maybe it would work out?

I started tinkering on him the next day. Changed a few radiator clamps. Figured out how to fiddle under the dash and turn the heater valve manually. Clamped a new pair of vise-grips to the driver's side window crank. Bolted in the hydraulic hatch struts from my sister's old Mustang. Replaced the windshield pump and the squirter nozzles from Subaru. Convinced the locksmith to cut a spare door key from a modified Subaru blank. Adjusted the handbrake. Adjusted the handbrake again. Adjusted the handbrake yet again. Changed a couple of fuses. Changed a couple more fuses. Changed some more fuses. And finally, tada, a car that ran fine for another week!

Then, I went looking for the local Lada dealer to get a line on parts...

(continued in part 2)