Among a sea of rubber-necking passersby, a woman from Bulgaria stops dead in her tracks, and some Polish men in a van slow to crawl. Eventually a dark-coloured Porsche Cayenne rolls up and its windows rolls down slowly, revealing a young man originally from Moscow with many questions. All approach the car as one would an estranged, childhood friend.
Two dudes (photographer Nick Wiesner and I) perched on the corner of Wythe and North 4th in Williamsburg, sipping iced coffees and tapping smartphones. It’s a bourgeoise scene, yet we’re brought together by a bright-orange 4x4 standard of the Soviet Union. It’s called the Lada “Niva” (Russian for “field with crops”).
At a glance, it’s an absurd combination of object and place — like a coconut tree growing out of a Norwegian Fjord. But, then again, it isn’t. Something feels right. I can’t shake the feeling that the Niva is supposed to be there, up against that sticker-bombed fire alarm call-box.
Our street encounters shouldn’t come as a surprise. Since the late ‘80s, New York City has seen a surge of immigration from the former Eastern Bloc. In particular, immigrants from the former USSR (Ukrainians, Polish, Russians, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Belarusians, Kyrgyz and so on) form a sizable chunk of New York City’s population, especially in South Brooklyn. And though these groups are culturally and linguistically distinct from one another, being under a single Soviet banner for the better part of a century did have some universalising effects: like the mayonnaise-laden ‘salads’ and, of course, the cars — Ladas in particular.
But even beyond the USSR’s borders, Ladas left their mark across the entirety of the Eastern Bloc — in states like Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria. And for the New Yorkers who hail from this vast chunk of world (of which there are many), Ladas are a reminder of a not-so-distant socialist past.
“People have stopped on a highway — almost held up traffic to the point of an accident — to stop, take photos; to tell me that they both loved and hated this car,” Nick tells me.
“One or two people say that this is the exact [Niva] that their grandfather had.” Another guy was once “almost overwhelmed to tears” by the car.
Moreover, it’s not just New Yorkers with Eastern Bloc roots that are responding. The Niva was actually sold all over the world. And I’m not just talking about the Soviet-allied states like Egypt or Cuba. Even the Canadians got them; though the U.S. never did, sadly.
Soon enough, another awestruck New Yorker pauses in front of the Niva. He mentions that he’s from Haiti. Blissfully examining the car, he whispers something to himself about all the memories.
Nick’s own relationship with the Lada Niva began where you wouldn’t necessarily expect — in his ancestral homeland of Medellín, Colombia. Nick didn’t set out to buy a Niva in particular. He needed a durable, off-roadable and, above all, cheap ride to get around Colombia’s mountainous terrain. A white Niva ended up being Nick’s solution. But only sort of.
When Nick bought the Niva, his family laughed. Not with him, at him. Ladas have a reputation in Colombia for being, well, not particularly reliable. But this didn’t phase Nick. He was a man in need of a beater, and that’s when the best kind of mistakes are made.
It only got funnier when Nick drove the Niva three hours into the mountains, where the timing chain decided to snap. On a blind corner of a narrow, winding road. With heavy traffic and big rig trucks barreling past in both directions. All while accompanied by an American who’d never been to South America before — who was having a panic attack.
You’d think this episode would forever put an end to Nick’s relationship with Soviet cars. But that’s not how these things work. The more epic your nightmare, the stronger your bond. As such, Nick’s turbulent expedition through the mountains of Colombia was just another twist in a lasting love affair — one between a young man and an old car. And it’s a love that has since transcended continents. Because, when Nick relocated to Brooklyn a few years back, he bought another Niva: the bright-orange one you see here.
Admittedly, it may seem like an irrational thing to do — owning a Niva, let alone any classic car, in New York City. But Nick may be onto something here.
Though New York isn’t necessarily a “rugged, off-road terrain, it is in certain ways,” Nick admits. The Niva works as an “urban off-roader.” As such, no construction plate, knee-deep pothole, or unmarked speed hump presents a serious challenge to the Niva — a car designed to survive Siberia, let alone Park Slope.
“It works for New York City,” Nick says of his Niva. “I’m at the same height as the Land Rovers and Range Rovers, but at a quarter of the other dimensions, so I can squeeze past.” This is key because driving in New York City often comes down to squeezing gaps. As it’s roughly as wide as a third-gen Smart Car, the Niva is in the top-tier of the gap-squeezing hierarchy.
Nick says he’s given the “right of way” often, partly because “people understand that you might not be able to brake on a dime.” But it also might be because the Niva, despite its smallness and spartanness, is very noticeable.
At one point a bro starts yelling at us from the back seat of an Uber.
“What car is that?”
“A Niva,” Nick says.
“And what’s that?”
“A Russian car.”
“. . . Oh.”
Nick gets these questions — in that exact order — all the time. “People who don’t know what [the Niva] is still find it aesthetically interesting.” There’s something aesthetic about the car. “Right now, this look is coming back. People want FJs; people want Land Cruisers; people want this kind of old Range Rover/Land Rover Defender kind of vibe and [the Niva] has that kind of DNA in it.”
In a perpetually gridlocked city with a 40km/h speed limit, it’s hard to imagine enjoying a car. But going over, say, the Manhattan Bridge, Nick can wind out the Niva to its full potential. “I can overtake” and speed up to “almost forty miles per hour.” Sure, in some old Porsche these speeds feel lame. But in a Soviet-built 4x4 with vending-machine aerodynamics, it feels exciting, if not a bit terrifying.
I got to drive Nick’s car around Williamsburg and, I must say, a classic Niva feels surprisingly light — even lighter than the 2019 model I reviewed earlier this summer. The transmission is crisp and smooth in spite of its age. The clutch travel is light and short which, for city traffic, is fine. The steering will surprise you. Yes, it’s unassisted, but the wheel is enormous — fit for a city bus, if not a dump truck. And, the wider your steering wheel, the less work your forearms do.
(I should note that this Niva is a borderline-pristine example. It’s an import from Russia, where it was garage-kept by an old man for most of its life. Everything works as it should and, since buying the car, Nick’s been able to solve most problems “with a simple set of tools.” )
Parallel parking the Lada Niva is a joy. This thing is inches shorter than the smallest new Mini you can buy. Plus, when you’re squeezing into a tight spot, there’s no vague bulge of 8km/h-bumper affecting your judgment — just very matter-of-fact 90 degree angles.
Most importantly, the Lada Niva is a classic car that doesn’t cause paranoia. After all, this isn’t some Pebble-Beach-money-pit British roadster with caviar leaking out of the glove compartment. This is important because, in New York City, few vehicles survive the environment unscathed. If anything, a Niva with some battle scars is more authentic.
Now is all this to say that you should purchase a Lada Niva to use as a daily around your city? Absolutely not. It goes without saying, there are many fundamental problems with the Niva. I’m not suggesting that New Yorkers purchase a vintage Niva over, say, a Toyota Corolla or a MetroCard.
But if you’re going to go through the trouble of owning a classic car in New York City — to drive occasionally and for fun — the Niva is an option that makes sense. It’s inexpensive, easy to park, a pleasure over potholes, and tiny enough to squeeze through gridlock. If something hits you — which is, frankly, inevitable — it isn’t the end of the world.
Plus, everybody wants to be your friend, and half of South Brooklyn has a story for you.