This Could Be The Niva - Pre-Production Prototypes Of The Vaz-2121

  The world's first off-road vehicle with a monocoque body - it sounds proudly. But before becoming a legendary car that survived several generations of VAZ models on the assembly line, the Niva went a long way of modernization. 

This article is a continuation of the topic about the off-road vehicles of AZLK and Izhevsk Automobile Plant that never reached the conveyor - Moskvich-415 and Izh-14, which can be read in detail here.

VAZ-E2121 - 1971

The idea of ​​creating a light SUV, most likely, came to the head of the chief designer of AVTOVAZ Vladimir Solovyov in 1970. Arguments in favor of the need to create such a car and unused production facilities made it possible to obtain permission from the Ministry of Transport to develop such a car with an all-metal station wagon body and all-wheel drive based on components and assemblies from VAZ products.

Further calculations showed that the car needs a permanent all-wheel drive system (otherwise overloads on the transmission units are possible) and a more powerful engine. Among the ideas under consideration for a new SUV, a diesel engine, final drives, torsion bar rear suspension, a tire pressure control system were proposed, but after conducting economic calculations for testing, it was decided to stop at a simple SUV with a removable soft top, permanent all-wheel drive and an experienced power unit with a volume 1.6 liters.

This could be the Niva - pre-production prototypes of the VAZ-2121

The prototype with a simplified body made it possible to simultaneously reduce the time for creating a car and at the same time to test the structure in real operating conditions: what loads will the experimental power unit be subjected to, is it necessary to have permanent all-wheel drive and differential locks.

The first sketches of the future Niva appeared in January 1971, and the task for the development of an SUV with a monocoque body was issued to the design bureau in the summer of the same year.

Due to the tight deadline for creating the car (only three months), the design had to be neglected. For the same reason, where possible, parts and assemblies from the serial production of the plant were used.

The first prototype was assembled and tested in the winter of 1971-1972. and was a simple SUV with a tarpaulin roof, flat stamped steel body panels and almost no comfort for the testers. There was not even a heater, and the hard seats were only horizontally adjustable.

Despite the simplicity and primitiveness of the design, the new SUVs were full-fledged prototypes, ready to reach mass production, and not "mules" on which ideas and some structural units were tested.

This could be the Niva - pre-production prototypes of the VAZ-2121

An interesting fact - in fact, the secret prototype of an SUV had a designer L.P. Murashov the emblem of the fictional brand Formika (translated from Latin this word is translated as "ant") with a red and white cross on the radiator grill. Factory testers were even prescribed options for answers to questions of ordinary residents of Togliatti and the surrounding area who were interested in an unusual car, where tests were carried out, ranging from "homemade" to "a new model of Fiat, entered for testing.


The white-painted car received the designation E2121 (Experimental) in the documentation. Later, the car was repainted in a green color typical for army vehicles, after which it received the nickname "Crocodile" among the factory workers. Hidden under the hood is the aforementioned experienced 1.6-liter carburetor engine with a capacity of 60 hp. with.

, which was subsequently installed on the VAZ-2106, and a transfer case was also docked to the serial 4-speed manual transmission. In this case, the shafts of the gearbox and the transfer case were connected to each other using an elastic coupling. The front axle gearbox was specially designed for this model, it was attached directly to the engine, while at the same time a rigid shaft connected it to the transfer case.

This could be the Niva - pre-production prototypes of the VAZ-2121

As a result, the engine, gearbox, transfer case and front axle were a single rigid unit. This made it possible to increase the rigidity of the vehicle structure, but at the same time, the vibration load of the interconnected units increased several times.

The levers of the front independent suspension and the rear axle on leaf springs were borrowed from the VAZ-2102 station wagon. "Kopeyka" shared drum brakes on all wheels and a block parking brake with an experimental SUV.

"Moskvich-410" shared tires M-51 of dimension 6. 70-15 with the Togliatti jeep. It was a temporary solution; later, special off-road tires were developed for Niva.

The test results showed the success of the design and good results in cross-country ability and performance, so it was decided to continue working on the machine.

VAZ-2E2121 - 1973

The priority task for the team of SUV developers was to create their own look for the car. The artist Valery Semushkin worked on the exterior. According to his plan, "Niva" could be used both by city dwellers for trips out of town to a summer cottage or on a picnic, and by rural dwellers for transporting goods by car. It was then that the idea of ​​placing a spare wheel under the hood of an SUV was born, due to the fact that, according to the terms of reference, the length of the car was limited to 3.

5 meters, and the placement of the bracket on the rear door was considered unaesthetic.

This could be the Niva - pre-production prototypes of the VAZ-2121

The final model of an SUV with a closed all-metal body, in the factory documentation had the index 2E2121 (2- i series), was prepared for the summer of 1972. We have worked not only on the appearance. So, the final decision was made to use a permanent all-wheel drive with a center differential that distributes the torque evenly to both axles.

This was done in order to increase the reliability of the standard bridges from the VAZ-2102, since the development of new dimensions would require the purchase of new gear cutting equipment.

Among the disadvantages of this scheme were increased noise and fuel consumption. For the purpose of unification, the gearbox was borrowed from the "penny", and the transfer case was made as a separate unit and connected to the gearbox by an intermediate propeller shaft, which later became one of the strongest sources of noise and vibration. The main brake cylinder with a vacuum brake booster was taken from the VAZ-2103, the rear brakes were from a "penny", but the front brakes with disc brakes were created from scratch.

This could be the Niva - pre-production prototypes of the VAZ-2121

As before, camouflage emblems were created for the vehicles of the second series. A rectangle with the Latin letter "F" was fixed on the radiator grill, and signs "Free way" were installed on the side and back.

Four prototypes were assembled, each with its own role in the tests. Car # 1 entered trial operation at the Special Purpose Garage at the Kremlin, from where the car returned a year and a half later without any comments. Cars No. 2 and No. 4 were intended for endurance tests, and model No.

3 was intended for laboratory and road tests. In 1973, car No. 4 was sent on a test run across Central Asia to test the functionality of units in a hot climate. He was accompanied by UAZ-469B.

This could be the Niva - pre-production prototypes of the VAZ-2121

In terms of cross-country ability, the Niva was slightly inferior to the Ulyanovsk all-terrain vehicle, but mainly due to low, in comparison with UAZ, clearance.

After testing on dirt roads, headlight and rear window cleaners were installed. A tachometer was installed, without which there were cases of "twisting" of the engine in the lower gear. Based on the results of the tests, it was recognized that the car was successful, and the design flaws could be eliminated.

VAZ-3E2121 / VAZ-4E2121 / VAZ-5E2121 - 1974

It was decided to provide VAZ-3E2121 immediately for state tests, which began in January 1974. Two prototypes were produced, already with the VAZ emblem and plates with the own name of the Niva car.

The name was patented, including an application for registration of the international trademark "Niva".

This could be the Niva - pre-production prototypes of the VAZ-2121

Prototypes of the third series (3E2121 according to factory documentation) had the usual look of the Niva, but a number of details the exterior was different from the production car. The rear lights were borrowed from the VAZ-2103, the headlights on the hood were round and separate with direction indicators, there were no side turn signal repeaters. The bumpers were borrowed from the VAZ-21011, and the filler neck was hidden under the lid so that it was less splattered with dirt. The body of the car, in comparison with the 2E2121, turned out to be more licked, which contributed to a decrease in aerodynamic resistance, and, as a result, to a decrease in fuel consumption.

Sliding vents appeared in the glass of the doors.

Initially, the prototypes were equipped with M-51 off-road tires, but during the tests a pilot batch of VlI-3 tires, created specifically for Niva, was delivered. Due to design features, the prototype had to use tires with an increased diameter of up to 16 inches, since the high sidewall of the smaller diameter tires was damaged when cornering. Subsequently, VLI-5 diagonal tires with dimensions of 6. 95-16 were installed on serial Niva, and later - VLI-10 radial tires with parameters 175/80 R16.

During the tests, the cars drove over 50 thousand kilometers throughout the country, from the Urals to Central Asia. The competitors of the VAZ-2121 were the already mentioned Izh-14, LuAZ-969 and UAZ-469B. According to the test results, it was Niva that received the right to "put the car into serial production and supply cars for export." However, a number of structural elements of the car have been criticized.

This could be the Niva - pre-production prototypes of the VAZ-2121

To correct these shortcomings, the plant built and tested two more experimental prototypes, which received in the factory documentation indexes 4E2121 and 5E2121.

Prototypes were released in 1975-1976 and were also tested in Central Asia and the Urals. On 4E2121, new gears appeared in the razdatka and gearbox, which made it possible to slightly reduce the level of noise and vibration from these units, and 5E2121 was produced in an amount of 50 pieces for the Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and distributed among various organizations for trial operation.


So, the first experimental-industrial batch of VAZ-2121 Niva, which appeared in the factory documentation as 5E2121 (and according to some sources, 6 E2121) , was manufactured in January 1976. It had the familiar look of a Togliatti SUV: taillights and headlights in a block with direction indicators from the VAZ-2106, aluminum bumpers with plastic protective linings, and a right rear-view mirror. Cars from this batch did not go on sale, 50 released copies were transferred to different regions of the country for controlled operation.

Well, the serial production of the Niva began in April 1977.

This could be the Niva - pre-production prototypes of the VAZ-2121

What's next?

Since then Niva has not experienced so much many cardinal, but countless minor improvements. In particular, sales of the urban version of Lada 4x4 Urban started last year, and next year the next version of the "original" VAZ-2121 will be released - we wrote in detail about the list of innovations. The production of the car will last at least another 5, or even 10 years - the demand is not weakening. And for the "survivability" of the model, comparable to European bestsellers like VW Kaefer, it is worth first of all to say thanks to those who worked on prototypes.


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