THE BEVERLY HILLS BARGAIN BARGAIN #4X4S #USA #Lada-Niva
How one reader managed to get a new Lada Niva from #Russia
, via Beverly Hills, and home to Stourbridge...
A five-year old Lada Niva is a rare beast in Britain, but this one’s arrival via the USA makes it all the more interesting. We meet its enthusiastic owner.
When it came to nononsense top-value 4x4s, the Lada Niva was at one time in a league of its own. Back in 1996, the last full year of Lada sales in the UK, you could buy an entry-level Niva for just £8395, undercutting even the (rather flimsier) Suzuki Samurai. It was a small price to pay for a Russian workhorse with real off-road ability, making it a popular choice among buyers who craved robust practicality rather than a trendy image.
The Niva hasn’t been officially sold in Britain since 1997, although a handful of brand new examples do arrive here each year thanks to the determination of an independent importer going by the name of Mark Key. The latest-model Niva can be supplied for £12,799 all-in, which means it still offers good value in a market now dominated by style-led crossovers and SUVs. So when we spotted the 60-reg example you’re seeing in the photographs, we assumed it was a Mark Key import.
Surprisingly though, it isn’t. In fact, the story of this particular Niva is a whole lot more interesting, a tale that begins with its owner’s previous Niva being written off by vandals: “I’d had an L-reg Niva as my everyday vehicle for about four years,” explains 40-year old Richard Barnes, a freight train driver from Stourbridge. “But while it was at a local garage in early 2010, having its brakes worked on, thieves broke in and set fire to the garage, destroying every car inside.”
Richard has always been a fan of cars from the former Eastern Bloc countries (which explains why he also owns a Trabant) and was determined to find a replacement Niva as soon as possible. However, as anybody who’s tried will confirm, finding an immaculate Niva for sale in the UK isn’t always an easy task: “I just couldn’t find a suitable replacement for my old Niva, until I spotted one for sale in the USA. It wasn’t in an auction but was simply listed with a buy-it-now price of somewhere around £5200.”
Finding a Lada Niva for sale in America is a rare enough event, this being a model that was never officially sold there. What made it even more unusual, however, was that this particular Niva was brand new, unregistered and had just delivery mileage. It was being offered for sale via Sixth Sense Productions, a Beverly Hills-based company that had acquired the Lada but – for reasons unknown – hadn’t included it in any of its film projects. The Niva was surplus to requirements, couldn’t be registered in the USA, and was therefore being offered to a worldwide audience via the power of the internet.
“There was a lot of forum talk about the Lada at the time,” recalls Richard, “with many people assuming that the whole thing was some sort of scam. I mean, what was essentially a brand new Niva being offered for sale in Beverly Hills did seem a bit unlikely. But I was determined to find out more, so I contacted Sixth Sense’s President, Richard Harding, who confirmed that the Niva 2121 was legit and that the sale was genuine. His company no longer had any need for the Lada, and so it was being advertised on eBay.”
Despite the fact that Richard was able to speak with his namesake in the US and confirm the legitimacy of both the vehicle and the company selling it, he didn’t make an instant decision to buy. A few days later, however, he did make an offer on the Niva once he’d ascertained that the vendor would even arrange container shipping of the car to the UK.
“My first offer was turned down,” explains Richard, “and as I was about to go on holiday, I didn’t have a chance to do anything else about it. Not until I was at the airport anyway, when after a few beers it seemed a good idea to get online and make a final offer of £4600. Much to my amazement it was accepted, and I headed off on holiday having just bought a new Niva – even if it was 5000 miles away.”
Much to Richard’s relief, the seller of the Lada was true to his word and, once the bank transfer was complete, arranged for it to be shipped to Felixstowe. Sixth Sense Productions even included the cost of the shipping within that final sale price of £4600, leaving its new owner with potentially the bargain of the decade – even with VAT and a small amount of import duty adding around 20 per cent to the total. But there was one problem: with this particular Niva not being to EU specification, registering it in the UK as a new vehicle was never going to be easy.
Lada fans will no doubt be aware that the Niva is still officially sold in some European countries, including France. Pop across the Channel, head to your nearest Lada dealership and you’ll be able to spend anything from €11,990 to €14,990 (which roughly equates to £8400 to £10,500) on a new Niva. And because your friendly Lada dealer will be registering it in France as a fully approved EU-compliant vehicle, you’ll be able to drive it back to Britain and register it with the DVLA without any difficulty. But Richard’s car was different, being a non-EU model with virtually nothing in the way of paperwork. In fact, the only document that came with the Lada was an invoice from the seller to prove the purchase price… and that was it. With it never having been registered for the road anywhere in the world, there was no ‘logbook’ and no official certification whatsoever.
“As soon as the Niva had passed through Customs at Felixstowe and I’d paid the fees that were due, I had it trailered back to my home in the West Midlands,” recalls Richard, “carrying out as much research as possible into how to register it and use it in the UK.” The answer lay in an SVA (or Single Vehicle Approval) test, a system designed for imported vehicles that are less than 10 years old and which haven’t been Type Approved for use within the European Union. But with Richard working long hours and with the demands of the SVA test seeming quite complex at first glance, he wisely chose to bring in some expert help: “A friend of mine recommended a company in Norfolk that specialises in imports and SVA preparation, so I had the Niva trailered there. The agreement was that the Niva would be fully prepared, SVA tested and registered for the road before being returned to me, which is exactly what happened.”
Even with experts carrying out the hard work, however, the process was a long one. By the time the Niva was registered with the DVLA (as a 60-reg new vehicle) in October 2010, almost six months had passed since its arrival in the UK, the delay being largely down to the heavy workload of the company carrying out the modifications. The end result was well worthwhile, with the Niva being fully road legal by the time it was returned to Richard; but what had it cost to get the professionals involved?
“The final bill for all of the work, which included the SVA test itself, was around the £1200 mark. To me though, it was worth every penny as it meant I didn’t have to get involved with any of the complexities of what was required for the test.”
In the end, the list of items that needed changing or modifying wasn’t too extensive. A windscreen for an EU-spec Niva had to be located and fitted (fortunately one of the major windscreen replacement chains had one in stock), the speedometer fascia had to be changed from km/h to mph, non-compliant window tinting had to be removed, and a pair of rear seat belts was required. With a few other minor items attended to, the SVA test was passed without difficulty and the Lada was returned to Richard in a road-ready state.
“That was an interesting exercise,” laughs Richard, “as I ended up carefully running it in for the first few hundred miles. The gearchange was incredibly stiff and awkward, but started to loosen up as the miles mounted. It did feel strange though, driving a Niva that was essentially brand new.”
Since then the Lada has covered almost 57,000 kilometres (the odometer still shows the metric reading), which means that Richard has driven around 35,000 miles in the five years he’s had the Niva on the road. And in all that time it has proved to be utterly reliable: “I’ve only had to replace the odd service item, as well as the exhaust, but that’s about it. It’s never let me down and is obviously the perfect winter workhorse. When we had deep snow a couple of winters ago, the Niva never failed to keep moving – it was simply brilliant.” So after five years of ‘new’ Niva motoring, is it all good news? “For me, yes. But then I love the idea of a new car that’s also a bit crap,” laughs Richard. “So much about the Niva could be improved, but it's the same as it was in the 1970s. Take those old-fashioned door handles and locks, for example, which freeze up terribly at the first sign of winter – which seems bizarre for a vehicle built in Russia. And obviously even a new Niva is never going to be as smooth or refined as a modern 4x4, because that’s the way it’s designed and built.”
The Niva does, however, come with a few mod cons these days, including electric front windows: “Ah, that’s true,” admits Richard, “although the driver’s side hasn’t worked for ages, so it kind of defeats the object. If they’d left the Niva with wind-up windows, it would have been one less thing to go wrong. Oh well, I guess you need a sense of humour if you’re going to use a Niva as your everyday transport.”
If the Lada’s reliability has impressed, so have its running costs, despite the fact that fuel economy isn’t a strong point: “I’ve never bothered checking but I guess I’m getting not much more than 25 to the gallon,” admits Richard, “maybe closer to 30 on a run.” Surely though, he’s paying a hefty price when it comes to insurance, bearing in mind the fact that it’s a left-hand drive vehicle not officially sold in the UK? “No, not at all. I’ve been with Direct Line for years, and they’ve been happy to insure it from day one,” insists Richard.
You might expect a Niva of such relative youth to at least be free of the corrosion problems that afflict most of the older survivors, but sadly that’s not the case. Despite being an inherently strong design, a 21st century Niva’s panels are as rust-prone as ever, with Richard’s example showing signs of corrosion below the headlamps, at the bottom of the rear wheelarches and on the back bumper, all of which will be familiar to owners of older Nivas: “It’s a shame this is happening after five years of use,” admits Richard, “but it’s something you just have to put up with when you’re a Niva owner! I’ll get the worst areas attended to at some point, as I’ve no intention of parting with my Lada – and I’m determined it’s going to last me.”
It’s easy to see the appeal of Richard’s Lada. It might officially be a five-year old vehicle but in every real sense it belongs in another age, having changed remarkably little from its debut in #1977
. It still has a distinctly agricultural feel, with even its on-road performance remaining leisurely by new-car standards, despite featuring Lada’s latest 1.7-litre fuel-injected engine. But all of this simply adds to its charm, giving it extra appeal to anyone who mourns the loss of the archetypal keenly-priced 4x4 workhorse.
This one turned out to be an excellent buy, with the final bill for what was basically a brand new Niva coming to less than £7000 in 2010. Even taking into account the depreciation that’s inevitably taken place since then, this is cost-effective 4x4 motoring at its very best. The Niva may be an old design that’s crude by today’s standards, but it’s still perfectly functional – and, in this particular instance, still makes real economic sense.
Below: Owner Richard Barnes is certainly a Lada Niva enthusiast!
"I couldn't find a replacement for my old Niva, until I spotted one for sale in the USA. It wasn't at an auction, simply a buy-it-now price of somewhere around £5200”
While a little dated in its design, the Lada Niva's 'square, boxy' shape does mean it's a good load carrier for its relatively small size.
Little to make you think this was a special Niva - apart from the lack of rust, perhaps!