July 24, 2010 My Jiggly Zhiguli

Posted in Rodger's Russia Book | Posted by rodger |

myladaMy diamond in the rough turned out to be a lot more “rough” than diamond. I rather expected that this was going to happen in a country where no one can afford to sell a car that runs.
That brought us to plan two. I had limited our choices to Ladas from the start. My reasoning was that their quality was known to be poor; but that parts and repair were cheap and were available anywhere, and if we bought older Audi or Ford, we would have been stuck with higher repair bills if we got a lemon.
We had the car less than a day when we realized that the horn didn’t work. This is serious in Russia. Not only will the car not pass its annual technical inspection, but Russians are genetically unable to drive without a working horn. It is like Italians not being able to talk without their hands (How do you gag an Italian? Tie his hands behind his back.) Without a horn, a Russian driver either has to park the car or go mad.
We picked a random mechanic who happened to have a garage right across from a major auto parts store. After about 20 minutes, he announced that the entire steering wheel hub had to be replaced. That is the part right under your steering wheel where the turn signal, windshield washer and light controls are. Not good. In America, the part alone is over $200 and labor matches that.
The mechanic walked with us across the street to the parts store with the hub in his hands. The counter lady saw us come in the door and by the time we got to the counter, she had two new ones lying in front of us. The mechanic picked the one he liked and we paid 360 rubles for it – about 12 dollars.
Half an hour later, we got more bad news. The steering wheel itself needed to be replaced. Apparently the horn rim had been slammed down so many times that the springs were worn out.
Back at the parts store, the nice lady didn’t have the wheel for our car, but she did have a selection of nicer ones that fit fine. We selected a more modern looking wheel and paid 800 rubles for it. About $26 for a new factory steering wheel!
The mechanic charged us 300 rubles for his work ($9.80) and we tipped him another 100 rubles because I just could not pay an experienced mechanic less than $5 an hour. We had just paid about $50 for a repair that would have cost several hundred dollars on an American car.
Next problem
We found out on our next trip that the auto battery was on its last legs. We went to a small city about two hours north where Larisa had to make her official adoption request for a child she had found.
When we locked the car on a main road and started to walk away, the car decided that it was lonely. As we walked away, it started flashing its parking lights, sounding a siren, and turning the headlights on and off. We didn’t even know that the damned thing had an alarm system! We pushed every button on the remote, opened and closed the doors, started and stopped the engine, and turned the flashers on and off and it just kept complaining while passing pedestrians gave us dirty looks. Eventually we were able to quiet every thing except the flashers and Larisa was able to keep her appointment.
An hour later we returned to a car that was still flashing the flashers, but which didn’t have enough charge in the battery to start. There is no such thing as AAA in Russia, but Larisa is a cute package and she got a passing cab driver to agree to jump the car for 100 rubles. ($3).
The new battery a few days later was 2000 rubles at the Car Bazaar – about $60 – for a heavy duty American style battery. We also had to spend a buck buying a tie down for the battery. Every car, even Ladas, have a system to clamp the battery in place as a tipped over battery is a serious problem. Ours had a common Russian version as the last person to replace the battery just dumped it under the hood, threw away the clamp, and decided that everything would be alright if he didn’t hit any really big bumps.
As long as we were going to buy parts, I also purchased a new grill and some black plastic trim pieces for the car. The old grill was losing its chrome and a new one was only 950 rubles (another $30 item). I do think that the lady who sold it to me said something in Russian that sounded like “putting lipstick on a pig”, but I can’t be certain.
When Larisa took the car in for the technical inspection at the DMV, they told us that the windshield was too dark. We had to replace the entire windshield with a clear one. In America that is about a $250 job. Andre found us a shop that would sell us the windshield for 740 rubles and put it in for 220 rubles – less than $30 for the entire job
The shop owner said that Russians love dark windows so much that they will often put in the dark windows and then have the old clear one put in for one day every year so that they can pass the inspection. They also have to pay a bribe every time a cop sees them with the dark windshield and needs money for lunch.
A few days later, Larisa noticed that the heater blower was not working, and while I was looking at it, I noticed that the entire heater had been bypassed. The heater hoses had been disconnected under the hood and that’s only done if the heater is leaking.
We went back to the mechanic who told us that the repair would cost 3000 rubles ($100) and that no one did that much work on a car. He suggested that we do what everyone else does and sell the car to a sucker, who would also refuse to fix it and would sell it to another sucker, who would…. Well, you get the idea. It keeps the car bazaar in business.
We decided to fix it anyway. I was not going to sell a car over a $100 repair. However, it had to be fixed as Russia has, well, “Russian” Winters and it was going to be real cold in a few months.
Now we had to find a new mechanic. There aren’t any yellow pages in Russia and a quick check of the newspaper showed no adverts from radiator shops. We started by stopping in at the small Jigguley only parts store where I had purchased the grill. The nice lady there walked us over a few buildings to a mechanic who was the greasiest human being that I have ever seen. Every inch of his body was black with grease except his eyeballs. I did wonder how he could move around in pants that were stiff enough to stand in the corner by themselves.
He wiped his greasy cheek with the equally greasy back of his hand and grunted that he only did engine work and he didn’t know anyone who worked inside a car.
Next we stopped at another nearby mechanic who also only did engine work, but who gave us directions to someone who did radiator work out on the edge of town. Someone who seemed not to exist when we got to the road on the edge of town. We stopped into a parts store out there to ask if we had the directions right and he didn’t know any mechanic who fit the description that we had, BUT he knew someone on a different side of town who worked on such things.
Finally. We got to an auto repair area where a father and son rented two side by side bays. The father did body work in the right hand bay while his son did mechanic work in the left bay. The son told Larisa that a lot of people sent work to him because he was young and willing to work. The old mechanics only wanted to do engine work because it paid more and you didn’t have to wash your hands between jobs.
He gave us a time and we brought the car back that afternoon. For those of you who are not familiar with cars, the heater radiator is normally under the dash and very hard to get too. It turned out that he knew how to get to it by disassembling the glove box and a few other pieces of the dash.
The radiator did turn out to be bad. As I expected, it had been bypassed because it was leaking water.
He had a friend of his drive us down to a parts store where I purchased a new radiator core for 600 rubles and a new control valve for 160 rubles. The control valve wasn’t bad yet, but it controls the amount of heat coming from the radiator and replacing it with a new one was a cheap insurance against another repair job. Total price, American, $24.50
The kid put the new heater core and, as he had to put the console back together, he also fixed the fan by reconnecting it, got the disconnected cigarette lighter working again, fixed the lights on the console and improved the way the glove box worked. The glove box had a habit of popping open whenever you hit a bump, and he adjusted it to work better. While he was working he said to Larisa, “You know, a real Russian would just drive a nail into the dashboard and hold the glove box door closed with a rubber band.”
The kid finished the two hour job (in 90 degree heat) and asked for 400 rubles – about $13. I gave him a tip and got his phone number.
We seem to be about done with the repairs for now but I expect that there will be more maintenance on this car than on an American car of the same age, and Lada years are not the same as Ford years. Looking at the condition of Ladas around here, I would say that a six year old Lada was 12 years old in Ford years.
As they say “Lada $2650, repairs $235, a sense of history, priceless”.

One Response to "July 24, 2010 My Jiggly Zhiguli"

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