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Wednesday, March 02, 2005


Freedom of the Potholed Road

Finally, after more than two months of wrangling, frustration and bureaucratic idiocy, we have at last bought and registered our car.

It's a 1992 Lada Neva. The Soviet-made Neva is possibly one of the coolest designs ever imagined by the human mind. It has been my lifelong dream to own one (if by lifelong you mean "since I first saw one in Kyrgyzstan almost two years ago"). It's so rare when lifelong dreams come true, isn't it?

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The Neva must have been specifically designed for Central Asia's bad roads and dreadful climate. It looks like a cross between a Yugo and a Subaru, but is three times tougher than both and much classier. Most have 4WD. Ours doesn't because someone removed it, but for $40, we can have it put back in. My friend owned it and took it all over the place without 4WD, finding it completely satisfactory.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of most Soviet-made cars is their lack of distinguishing characteristics. It doesn't matter if a model was made in 1976 or 1997 -- design differences are apparent only to the trained eye. Lada Nevas, especially, seem to come in one color only -- white -- and every single one looks the same.

We may paint a bulls eye on ours so it can be identified in a crowd.

Surprisingly, cars are one consumer product where it's preferable to buy Soviet-made. Ours was made in 1992, which still counts as Soviet era. The main advantage of a Soviet-made Neva is that its body is steel. It's like driving a bug-shaped tank.

Another advatantage of an old Neva is that any 15 year old with a wrench can repair it. This is a real blessing out in the regions where things frequently go wrong and sophisticated mechanics -- and parts -- are rare.

It's not a sophisticated car. It has a choke (I don't really know what that is) and a creaky gear shift. It might also have heat. It drives like a tractor and doesn't go much faster than 60 mph. While it's true a Neva has to be tuned up frequently (every couple hundred kilometers), it only sets you back a few dollars, or so I've been told.

Recently, Chevrolet bought out the Neva production line and is making new ones that are completely devoid of style or class. I've been told that the new ones have as many problems as the old ones, but parts are expensive and impossible to find.

My company's driver, Rashid, is taking personal responsibility for making all the necessary upgrades. These include, in order of importance: making sure it's clean, getting a new Akumulator (again, I don't know what this is, but a faulty one causes the car not to start sometimes) and putting seatbelts in.

The Neva is an ideal dog car, as long as you don't mind hot dog breath in extremely close proximity to your face. Unfortunately, there are not many places for dogs to go. Once you leave Baku, vicious sheep herding dogs get very protective of their territory. Mo and Whit will continue to stay home. We'll yell "get in the Neva!" and drive around the block, just to keep them engaged.

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Let the adventures begin!

Let me just say that I am jealous. Deeply jealous. I am kind of partial to the Zhiguli, but the Neva totally rules.
I have a Landrover Discovery TD5 - which is an excellent off-road vehicle - but somewhat expensive. In Bulgaria (where I am at present), whenever I take the Discovery somewhere interesting, and am thinking how excellent it is, around the very next corner I will come across a Lada. Not always a Neva, just a standard Lada. The best I saw was 6 blokes cutting trees and they had clearly used the Lada to transport their kit and themselves at least 2 miles up a deeply rutted, steep muddy track.

The Neva is certainly a car I will seriously consider buying.
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