July 13, 2010 A Piece Of History – That Sounds Like Jello

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


I own several pieces of history. I own a plant fossil from the Cambrian period, an Egyptian stone goddess from a third dynasty grave, a Civil War bullet, and now a Lada.

For those of you who have been incarcerated or entombed for the past 20 years, a Lada is the famous Communist copy of the 1972 Fiat, and you can’t say “Russia” without saying “Lada”. O.K. maybe you also need to say “vodka”, but you get the point.

There have actually been a lot of Ladas. There was the “estate” wagon”, the 4×4, ten different models of the 1972 fiat four door as it evolved over the years, and recently, several modern hatchbacks and sedans. However, the 4 door fiat based models have always been called the “Zhiguli ”s (pronounced “jigguly”) and they have always deserved the name.

We purchased a 2004 model 2107 – about the last model they made before they gave up on them in 2008.

Like all “Zhiguli ”s, it is a stick shift, with seats and pedals spaced properly for the neighborhood midget, has never had even provision for air conditioning, has 4 tiny doors that tall men have to back into, a mechanical dash clock that has never worked, and a cute little 1500 cc engine that will actually go over 90 miles an hour with a suicidal driver on board. It does fit into tiny parking spaces, and ours has a FM/tape player in it.

Car buying here is not a lot different from purchasing in America – except for the higher prices and more crooks involved.

Used cars are higher priced here than in the States. There is still a shortage of used cars because cars only became common after 1994 and there is a 30% tariff on all cars, new and used, entering the country. It is not uncommon to see a 1984 Lada still on the road and still for sale; rust, dents, orange paint, cracked windshield and all. We got our 2004 model for $2600 and got a bargain.

I hired a local expert to help. I have bought and sold dozens of cars in America, but I know when I have met my match.

The latest scam is mortgages. Consumer credit is new in Russia and car loans even newer. The government is a little behind, so liens are NOT recorded on the car titles. The latest scam is to get a mortgage on your car, sell it, and scram before the bank comes to repossess the car. The courts have not yet sorted out whose fault it is, but the cars do go back to the bank.

Even before communism died, one of the common scams was to advertise a car at a good price and arrange to meet with a purchaser – who always brings cash in Russia. The scammer then relieves the prospective purchaser of his money and sometimes his life.

Car ownership is also hard to determine here. Even in America, my first question to a seller is “who is on the title.” If he answers, “My wife’s cousin. He asked me to sell it for him.” you know that you are dealing with an illegal dealer who will be long gone if there are problems with the title.

Here, that’s almost common. It costs 4000 rubles to change a title and that $135 is a lot of money. What they often do is to just write a note for the new owner that he is “borrowing the car and has my permission to drive it.” Of course, you never get legal title that way, can’t insure the car, and can’t sell it to anyone with more brains than you have.

Damage is another problem. As you know, Russians consider driving to be a competitive sport, somewhat improved by a little drinky-poo beforehand. Combine that with bad roads, bad manners, and general lack of driving experience and you will soon believe that cars come from the factories pre-dented, somewhat like pre-washed jeans, Repair is not always as careful as it could be, so pre-wrecked cars need to be avoided.

Then there is the poverty thing. People everywhere are as honest as they can afford to be, and the average Russian can’t afford much so you have to be careful who you deal with and not believe a word he says.

Then, of course, you have to find a car. The local Prochlodney paper is published once a week and traditionally has a limited number of adds for over priced junky cars and there is not such thing as a used car lot, or even new car lot within about 100 kilometers. I have only twice seen a car on the road side with a for sale sign on it. So, when we were recently in Mineral Waters, a big city about a 2 hours north from here, I asked the cabbie if there was an area in town where there were used car lots. He said that there was a new car area, but “most of us go out to Prochlodney. The biggest car bazaar in the area is held there every weekend.”

Picture a big field. Bigger than that. It has a concrete block wall around it and a row of food and beer stands across the front. Along the right wall big trucks are parked with tires, transmissions, car wax, headlights, windshields, and tools displayed on the ground around them.

The rest of it is over 10 acres of cars parked on dirt and gravel. Old cars, new cars, busses, marshutkas, delivery vans, trucks, Ladas, Opels, BMW’s, Hondas, and lots more Ladas. The owners sit in the cars waiting for buyers. Mostly it is young men, but entire families sit in some of them. Most owners put a small hand lettered sign on the windshield with the year and the price of the car, and a lot of the trunks and hoods are open.

The cars are parked side by side along supposed aisles that are soon also packed with cars, and there is NO organization beyond self help. The biggest noise was the shouting of men who were trying to get cars out of the pack so they could test drive them

At the food stands, people use gas fed woks to fry meat filled bread and sell beer and soft drinks that you can eat or drink at rickety tables with ancient school chairs arranged around them. This is obviously a Man place. This is where you leave behind the kids and the old lady to do some car shopping, dealing, talking and lying. Nice place.

Andre, our expert, is an old school chum of Larisas’ and a man who makes his living buying and selling whatever he can, including cars. We agreed to trade a laptop that I brought from America for his services. It turned out to be a real bargain. Andre earned his laptop.

He met us at a supermarket near his home. We had to take a taxi out to the car bazaar because our expert’s car wasn’t working. His clutch was gone.

We weren’t at the bazaar for 20 minutes before we saw a beautiful car that Larisa and I both loved. It was a white 2005 Lada with a natural gas conversion and it was in really great shape. They wanted 95,000 ($3050) for it. Andre crawled under it and announced that the front half should look good, since both fenders and the bumper had been changed after what must have been a honey of an accident.

After that he shopped and we waited near the food stands. This was a lot harder than it sounds. It was about as hot as the third level of Hell and dusty. It seemed like hours before Andre called us to say he found a car,

It was a similar white Lada, 2003 for 85,000. It was not quite as nice as the first one, but then the fenders hadn’t been replaced. Andre gave it a tough test drive and we agreed to buy it. The first step was to go the notary office at the car bazaar to sign the car over. It was closed and stayed closed for over an hour. No sign in the window, no way to know why it was closed, and no people. Russia.

Then Andre said that he knew a notary nearby that we could use. I knew there was a problem when the notary started questioning the owner and the owner started gesturing and arguing. Andre had not noticed that the name on the paperwork was similar to the name of the seller, but not the same. The seller had never transferred the title. He tried telling the notary that he really did own the car and he really did pay for it and “I know that guy on the title, he’s a friend of mine. He’ll tell you the car is mine.” Unfortunately, they guy on the title wasn’t there and our seller couldn’t sell.

It was nice of him to give us a ride back to the bazaar.

The field was looking strange. It was noon, and over half of the cars were gone. People pay cash and delivery is usually NOW. I figured we were out of luck and I was in a really BAD mood, in spite of my normally calm and quiet demeanor.

Andrea showed a lot of energy and got right back to work. Within 30-40 minutes he found a possible diamond in the rough. It was a 2004 model he had bargained down to 85,000. The owner was a bus driver, who hadn’t cleaned it up very well for sale, but he drove it himself every day and he knew how to maintain a car. After a protracted negotiation, not helped at all by my bad mood, we agreed to buy the car for 82,500. I figured that Andre’s expertise saved us 10,000 and my miserable mood saved 2500 more.

In a few days, I will know if my new piece of history is a diamond in the rough, or just rough.

Fun Fact About Russia

If you pull up to the GAS pump in a Russian gas station, you fill be offered methane. About half of all the vehicles in this area have been converted to the cheaper fuel. To get gasoline, you have to pull up to the BENZENE pump.

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