The scene unfolding on the quayside this sunny morning is a familiar one. Row upon row of Ladas from Russia's Volga Automobile Factory sit beside the dock like thousands of Ladas before them, waiting to be hoisted aboard a cargo ship for export. Nothing unusual in that, except that this is not a Russian port, but Hull on the Yorkshire coast, and these Ladas are travelling to the Baltic ports of the former Soviet Union, back to where they originally came from.
Ever since it first appeared on British streets in 1973, the Lada (along with the Skoda, and home-grown Reliant Robin) has often seemed to exist solely to keep pensioners mobile and comedians supplied with jokes. In the countries of the former Soviet Union, however, where shortages kept waiting lists for new cars improbably long, people literally couldn't get enough of them. And so the most curious of trades sprang up between Britain and the then USSR: the export of Ladas to Russia.
While new Ladas poured into Britain's east- coast ports, to be rewired and made ready for life in the UK, Russian sailors dealing in hard currency (and occasionally frozen fish) were buying up old or crash-damaged Ladas in England, and shipping them back home. Vessels of already dubious sea- worthiness were load-ed down with as many cars as their heaving decks could accommodate, and then, just for good measure, a few more were hung over the side.
The business thrived and with the fall of Commun-ism expanded even further. But although the sun may be shining on the Ladas at King George Dock in Hull today, the long-range forecast for the trade looks increasingly gloomy.
The rot set in when the Russian authorities, desperate for revenue, slapped a very heavy tax on all cars entering their country. British and Russian dealers alike struggled to cope with an import duty often in excess of pounds 1,000 for each car. Profits instantly crumbled to a fraction of their 1995 peak when a car bought in the UK for pounds 500, could fetch as much as pounds 1,600 in Russia.
But worse news was to come for the businesses that survived: Britain, they soon realised, is running out of Ladas. Exporters in Hull - the heart of the Lada trade - now have to travel as far afield as Ireland to get hold of cars to send to Russia, and at the rate the cars are currently leaving our shores, within two to four years there could be none left. As if this wasn't enough, the on-going economic shake-up in the former Soviet Union has meant that since last September no new Ladas have entered the UK. Britain's sole importer of the cars, MVI of Bridlington, is involved in a last-ditch struggle to re-establish supplies from the manu- facturer, but the prospects are not good.
One of the longest surviving players in the Lada business is A1 Soviet Spares of Hull. Sooner or later, anyone in town looking for a Lada would reach A1's door, and discover an operation dedicated to supplying overseas dollar-bearing customers with the car of their dreams (so long as they dreamed of owning a Lada, that is).
The A1 garage, directly opposite the dock gates, still displays its "Automobiles for Sale" sign in Russian, and a gigantic Hammer and Sickle flag hangs above the equally imposing figure of Sandy, A1's proprietor. San-dy has masterminded the operation since the first days of the Lada trade and has witnessed all of its eccentric history, but now even he admits that the Lada bonanza is almost over.
So next time you see a Lada, don't laugh but spare it a second glance; you may just have seen an endangered species. !
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