Do you know what car Kimi Raikkonen first drove?

The Lada Vesta – produced by Russian automobile manufacturer AvtoVAZ – entered top 100 most popular cars in Europe, even trumping the Hyundai Solaris. RBTH looks back at the iconic car’s history.

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The main assembly line of the AvtoVAZ Volga Automobile Plant in 1993. Source: Solomon/RIA Novosti

The AvtoVaz (VAZ) stands for the Volga Automobile Plant. It’s the largest Russian carmaker and its production lines have rolled out the likes of the Zhiguli, Niva, Lada Samara, and Oka series. The Soviets linked up with the Italians to build the plant.


Cars on a testing track in 1976. Source: German/RIA Novosti

In the middle of the sixties the Soviet government decided to create a “car for the people” by using advanced foreign technologies. The Italian Fiat 124 was used as a blueprint for the first Zhiguli VAZ-2101, which was able to withstand the harsh winters of the USSR.


Lada-Samara car model at the intermediate start during a race in an African desert in 1994. Mikhail Medvedev/TASS

The Soviet-Italian AvtoVAZ car plant was built in the late sixties in the city of Togliatti on the Volga River, named in honor of the Italian communist party’s leader. The irony is that Palmiro Togliatti organized major strikes at Fiat plants during the twenties that almost brought the Italian car manufacturer to its knees.


A car parade in the city of Togliatti marks the 50th birthday of Avtovaz in 2016. Source: Andrei Kholmov/TASS

Italian specialists worked on AvtoVAZ’s first run of cars during the early years of its existence. Soviet designers worked alone from the late seventies.


VAZ-2103 in Saint-Petersburg in 2016. Source: Alexander Demianchuk/TASS

On April 15, 1970 the plant was visited by Henry Ford II, the chief executive of the Ford Motor Company.


A Soviet police on display during a car parade in Togliatti marking the 50th birthday of Avtovaz in 2016. Source: Andrei Kholmov/TASS

At first, VAZ vehicles were supplied to other countries under its original name Zhiguli. But since the word was confused among consumers with the word “Gigolo,” the export name was changed to Lada.


Trabis and Ladas from GDR at the border crossing point between the former CSSR and Western Germany in 1989. Source: Global Look Press

It wasn’t only Fiat specialists who helped design Zhiguli cars. Porsche engineers created the body of the VAZ-2108 model. Porsche even offered to ideas for the VAZ-2101 and VAZ-2107 models, but they were rejected by Soviet engineers in favor of domestic technologies.


Lada strech-limousine in Havana, Cuba. Source: Reuters

Perhaps hard to believe, but the first car of famous Formula 1 race driver Kimi Raikkonen bought for himself was a Lada, and he restored the motor completely.


Lada car is parked at the construction site of Kaliningrad stadium in 2015. Source: Reuters

The Lada Kalina (Viburnum in Russian) sells well in Finland. However, its name was changed to the Lada 199, because “kalina” in Finnish means clang, rattle, and clatter.


A crawler transport vehicle made from a VAZ-2109 car by Andrei Romanov, an electrician from Omsk. Source: Dmitry Feoktistov/TASS

In the summer of 2010, Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin drove a Lada Kalina over 300 km on the new highway from Khabarovsk to Chita in Russia’s Far East.


A Lada Xray sport concept car on display at the 2016 Moscow International Automobile Salon. Source: Sergei Savostyanov/TASS

The Lada Vesta became the first Russian car to be equipped with the ERA-GLONASS (emergency response system) which sends out an SOS signal through mobile networks in case of emergency.


A Lada car drives on Havana’s seafront boulevard "El Malecon" in 2011. Source: Reuters

The NIVA VAZ-2121 is one of the most popular export models among VAZ cars. It’s shipped to over 100 countries. This is the only Soviet car that was exported to Japan.


Lada Sport Rosneft racer Hugo Valente takes part in a FIA WTCC race in Moscow in 2016. Source: Alexey Kudenko/RIA Novosti

Sometimes Ladas appear in Hollywood movies. One of the most recent examples is Atomic Blonde (2017) with Charlize Theron. Her character drives a Lada to escape away from KGB agents in eastern Berlin in 1989.


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