The unlikely Cold War alliance between Lada and Porsche

the-unlikely-cold-war-alliance-between-lada-and-porsche

Strange automotive bedfellows indeed. Huzzah!

It’s 1975, and then Porsche chairman, Ernst Fuhrmann, meets with then Soviet automotive industry minister, Viktor Polyakov. The discussion on the table is how Porsche can help Lada build better cars.

While that seems like an unlikely marriage, let’s remember Porsche wasn’t the profitable behemoth in the 1970s that it is today. Additional revenue streams needed to come from somewhere. A collaboration with Soviet carmaker Lada, as unlikely as it seems, provided a much-needed cash injection, believed to be around DM500,000, a not inconsiderable sum in 1975.

Porsche was tasked with turning humble Soviet-built Ladas into something that would appeal to buyers outside the Soviet Union. And the first car to receive the Porsche makeover was the Lada 2103, three years into its lifecycle at the time.

A bit of history. The Lada 2103 was based on the 1968 Fiat 124 Special. However, it needed to be Soviet-fied to suit the harsh Russian conditions.

The Lada 2103 gained 105kg over its Fiat donor car, thanks to the Russians’ use of heavier and thicker steel. Proving the safety of its car-owning citizens was a minor concern, Lada ditched the Fiat’s rear disk brakes, replacing them with aluminium drums. An engine crank was added, a back-up in case the Lada’s battery went flattened during those harsh Russian winters.

So, heavier, less safe and with rudimentary mechanicals and a meagre 56kW output from its 1452cc inline four-cylinder engine, the 2103 was ripe for the Porsche picking. So here’s what Zuffenhausen did.

The first and most obvious change was to the outside, Porsche removing any hint of chrome and replacing it with body-coloured elements (the plan was for blacked-out features to be offered as an option).

Body-coloured bumpers were enhanced by a matching grille while window surrounds and door handles also received the colour-matched treatment. Only the chrome wheel covers remained, as did the door handles.

Underneath the 2103, Porsche’s engineers went to work on the suspension, refining the setup to improve the Lada’s ride and handling on those scrappy Eastern Bloc roads.

Inside, a hint of capitalism, with Porsche adding refinements such as leather seats, a redesigned (and lower) dashboard and a steering wheel pilfered straight out of a Porsche 928.

It’s believed Porsche also offered to replace the incumbent 1.5-litre four with one of its own engines, but by then the project had been mothballed, deemed too expensive by AvtoVAZ (Lada’s parent company) to go into mass production.

The result of this unlikely collaboration was one single prototype made by Porsche and it spent the rest of its days living at the home of an un-named Porsche employee.

Despite the termination of their three-year agreement, Porsche did continue to collaborate with Lada, providing engineering nous to the Russian brand’s Samara (Porsche redesigned the heads of the Samara’s 1500cc engine).

And when Lada went to Dakar with the Samara, it was Porsche that was looped in to help with the project. The result? A Lada Samara with a rear-mounted Porsche 3.6-litre flat-six engine and the all-wheel drive underpinnings of the German company’s supercar, the Porsche 959. Throw in factory Porsche driver (and 1983 Dakar winner) Jacky Ickx behind the wheel of the monster Samara and you have the hallmarks of a winning combination.

Except, it wasn’t, the best result for the Lada-Porsche-Ickx marriage seventh place in 1990. Not too shabby, though.

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