I love rotary engines. My first car was a 1983 Mazda RX-7 with a carbureted 12A engine, and while it wasn’t technically “fast” or “quick” or even really very “good,” I loved it. Since then, I’ve always had a soft spot for the loud, buzzy, fuel-happy little bastards, and today I found out that it wasn’t only Mazda and NSU making rotary-powered passenger cars, but Lada too.
Ok, so not technically Lada, but its parent company AvtoVAZ and your everyday Soviet citizen couldn’t just go out and buy one – not initially, anyway – because these cars were mostly reserved for use by the KGB. Yep, that KGB.
The first Soviet Wankel was a single-rotor model called the VAZ-311, released in 1978, and with just 69 horsepower on tap and a useful service life of around 12,500 miles, we can all agree that it wasn’t very good. Still, for an unlicensed copy of an already maligned engine by a company (NSU) that had already bailed on its version (in the Ro80), it’s not unimpressive.
The VAZ-311 was placed in a whopping 250 VAZ-2101 (aka Lada 1200, aka the Soviet version of the Fiat 124) chassis and given the name VAZ-21018. While those were off not being very reliable and likely inconveniencing the KGB, AvtoVAZ kept working on its design.
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The next version was released in 1983, had twice the number of rotors, and was called the VAZ-411. This version was allegedly good for around 115-120 hp, depending on who you ask, and was placed into that same VAZ-2101 chassis, but this time it was called the VAZ-21019.
While this second effort was certainly a little more impressive than the first one, the continued lack of reliability caused AvtoVAZ to back-burner the rotary for a bit before launching headlong into spinning-Dorito-madness. The company also eventually created a three-rotor engine called the VAZ-431 which allegedly made around 205 hp, but it’s unclear whether this ever saw meaningful production or whether it just ended up in a couple of test mules for bureaucrats.
In the 1990s, the decision was made to spread the rotary love around a little more with the introduction of the VAZ-2108 and 2109 (called the Lada Samara outside of Russia). These got a Russia-only VAZ-415 1.3-liter Wankel engine, producing a very healthy 140 hp. This meant the car could hit 62 mph in 8 seconds, about the same time as the Audi 90 Quattro of the era.
Given the low production numbers, mostly being for government use and the generally “burns-twice-as-bright” nature of rotary engines in general, there aren’t many AvtoVAZ rotaries left around. Hell, I wouldn’t have known they existed at all had it not been for Robert Dunn from Aging Wheels mentioning them in the video about his new-to-him Lada, but now I want to see someone Mazda 20B swap a Lada Niva so I can drive it (presumably to my immediate firey death).