HAVANA, April 20th Landy is a stylish man. He has an ageing crooner’s slicked-back hair, the short-sleeved cool of a Miami Beach architect, and a terrible, terrible Lada car.
He’s my go-to chofer in Havana, which sounds a little grand, but it’s more economical than buying one of these babies, which will set you back £15,000. It’s also why, despite the windows having no handles (a wrench is passed back) and the rear seat containing a loose spring like an unkind proctologist, Landy fusses over it like a baby.
For this little blue car completes his look. On this island better known for its American incredible hulks, it marks him out as a member of the Ladaocracia, Cuba’s revolutionary Lada aristocracy.
It’s 50 years to the day since the first Lada ran off the production line in Tolyatti, a Russian company town – also known as Togliatti – on a bend in the Volga. That means it’s also three days until the 150th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, whose centenary that moment celebrated.
A collaboration between the Soviet state and Italy’s Fiat, the Lada was the vision of designers who set out to make these small cars virtually indestructible. The result was the Zhiguli, a bulked-up Fiat 124, that even poets have struggled to describe as anything other than “boxy”.
The body was toughened, drum brakes installed and clearance was heightened, all to help with the Russian roads and winters. More crucially, the car – renamed for the world as the Lada – was easy to maintain. The “classic” Lada became one of history’s most manufactured vehicles, with around 18 million built.
In the 1970s, Soviet support for Cuba was at its height. “The government gave Ladas to doctors, people working on the sugar farms, athletes, engineers, scientists,” says Hendy Cobas, of Cuba’s Club Amigos del Motor, which has 1,000 members.
This set the owners apart from those with the leftover Chevy Bel Airs and Ford Fairlanes from before the 1959 revolution. A friend recalls going to nightclubs and seeing the smarter set beginning to jump into Ladas at closing time: “You knew their parents or grandparents were someone important.”
Willy Hierro Allen, the 77-year-old editor-in-chief of the magazine Excelencias del Motor, recalls: “In 1978, I was running Transporte magazine, and it seems someone thought I deserved it. The vice-minister called and told me ‘you are going to have a car’. I felt really excited. The car was blue. I still keep it the same colour.”
Cuba’s extraordinary ability to soften and sentimentalise swiftly went to work on the utilitarian runaround. “Almost any Cuban can change the spark plugs, and most can swap the brake pads and fuel pumps,” says Cobas. “Ladas are members of the family.” It’s a sentence everyone here uses.
“I’ve seen modifications to the bodywork, new air inlets or extensions to make it closer to the ground, but, apart from music systems, these are always small,” he goes on. “We don’t feel good about making big cuts on a Lada’s bodywork, it’s like you are cutting somebody.”
It’s easy to understand why people look after them. The last classic Lada arrived in Cuba in 1988, but AutoCubana, Cuba’s version of Autotrader, lists models from 18,000 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) – about £14,500. Good ones sell for twice that. It isn’t loved, though; it’s the dearth of other cars. For that money, Cubans can buy an apartment in one of the best areas of Havana.
Following perestroika, Lada’s vast parent company, AvtoVAZ, went through the upheavals felt by many Soviet state industries. Production plummeted and corruption flourished.
While the classic Lada continued to be built, the wheels were coming off. In the mid-1990s, there were 130,000 Ladas registered in the UK, By 2018 there were just 179.
Countries were imposing carbon emission laws and the Lada couldn’t make the grade. Only in Cuba, with its estimated 250,000 Ladas, did the smoke refuse to clear.
“Here, we are responsible for caring for our cars,” says Hierro, the editor of Excelencias del Motor. “When you grow old your son comes saying ‘Dad, let me fix the car’, then your son has a son too, and with time he is the one in charge of the car. That’s how the Lada ended up becoming the car of the Cuban family.”
Sadly, as Landy and I head out to the highway, it may be the lingering smell of exhaust fumes that triggers my nostalgia. My first car was a Skoda, the Czech equivalent of the Lada. My dad bought it for me, saying – and I still hope he was joking – that he’d got it cheap because the previous owner had suffocated in it.
There’s only so much I can take. I have a second go-to chofer. Jesus is a more austere figure than Landy. He rents a modern Lada from the state, one of 320 built under AvtoVAZ’s new owner, Renault, that arrived here in 2017. It is an entirely different creature and, in truth, it’s far better for long journeys. As Jesus says: “It’s comfortable and has a large trunk.”
First published in www.theguardian.com