Home » When Porsche Helped The Soviet Union Try To Win The World’s Toughest Race

When Porsche Helped The Soviet Union Try To Win The World’s Toughest Race

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When the LADA Samara* car first arrived on British shores in November 1987, the now-defunct Motor magazine immediately slammed the Soviet Union’s answer to the Mk.II Volkswagen Golf, Renault 9, and Ford Escort for its “poor ride, and shoddy build quality.” 

Fair enough, that. The Samara was by no means a particularly good car. I know this first-hand. Whilst holidaying in Ukraine some years ago (pre-war!), I barrelled down a dusty, potholed track in a village somewhere west of the mighty Dnipro River behind the wheel of one. It was noisy, uncomfortable, and appeared resolute in rattling itself to bits. An interior door panel may also have been missing. 

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Would I repeat this experience? No. I probably would not. 

LADA-Samara-VAZ-2108
Photo: Lada

Yet for all of its faults, the Samara was a landmark vehicle. Whilst it launched in 1984, the car’s history goes back to 1978. The Politburo decided the people of the Soviet Union needed a front-engined, front-wheel drive hatchback; a configuration that was taking Europe by storm.

A Front-Wheel Drive Car For The Soviet People By The Soviet People… Sort Of

State-owned LADA was no stranger to doing business with foreign carmakers. Much of the company’s very foundations were built on its collaboration with FIAT as a result of both nations being communism enthusiasts. Russo-Italian partnership led to the construction of LADA’s Tolyatti factory in central Russia, and the birth of the FIAT 124-derived VAZ-2103; one of my favorite cars of all time. 

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Naturally, the Soviets asked their Italian counterparts to help with the development of the Samara. For reasons known only to themselves, the Italians refused. What happened next transformed the car named after a tributary of the Volga River from an all-Soviet hatchback into a genuine world car. 

The-LADA-Factory-In-Tolyatti-Russia
The LADA factory in Tolyatti, Russia, was established in 1966 with the assistance of Italian carmaker, FIAT (Rostec.ru)

Somehow, The People from Tolyatti managed to convince ZF in Germany to supply the Samara’s rack-and-pinion steering and its gearbox synchronizers; its CV joints came from Australia’s Hardy Spicer, and its disc brakes were provided by Lucas in Great Britain. 

Meanwhile, the combustion chambers in the available 1.0-litre, 1.3-litre, or 1.5-litre engines were developed by Porsche. Yes, you read that correctly–Porsche.

The history books show us that this wasn’t the first time in history that the USSR and Germany had buddied up. However, this oddball marriage between communism and capitalism came to be because Porsche was broke during the late 1970s. For much of its history, Porsche was broke. It wasn’t until the arrival of the Boxster and the 996 that Zuffenhausen started operating like a proper car company. 

A Child Of Glasnost and Perestroika 

By the time the Samara launched domestically in 1984, the USSR was hurtling towards collapse. Its vast population was suffering from war fatigue on the back of its disastrous incursion into Afghanistan, the nation was weary of its country’s gerontocratic leadership, and the economy was tanking.

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The following year, the well-intended and radical reforms of glasnost’ (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) introduced by the relatively youthful new General Secretary, 53-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev, had a reverse intended effect. The USSR became more fractured than ever. Its people would be plunged into unimaginable levels of socioeconomic hardship. 

Despite the woes that befell the USSR during the late 1980s, Moscow decided in 1987– the year the Samara debuted in the West–that in 1990, LADA would take on the Paris-Dakar with its new hatchback. This plan was devised to bring in some much-needed cash to the Soviet Union’s fast-depleting coffers, and just like there is always money for drinking and smoking, car makers somehow always find the funds to go racing if it’s in their interests. 

As for the Soviet people who were being paid in toilet seats and couldn’t access necessities such as food?

Well, fuck ‘em.

The USSR Calls The French For Some Help

The Dakar-going version of the Samara, now known as the Samara T3, would be overseen by LADA’s official French importer, Poch. 

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Between 1980 and 1988, the French firm fielded factory-backed LADA Nivas on the Paris-Dakar with two best results of second place overall. The project had even caught the attention of six-time Le Mans winner and all-round talented Belgian, Jacky Ickx, who took part in the event behind the wheel of a Niva during its final two years of competition. 

Given the relatively strong performance of the hardy little Nivas in the West African desert, Tolyatti handed the development of the Samara T3 over to its tried and trusted French comrades. The brief from the Soviet Union was simple: build a car that would beat Peugeot to victory on the Paris-Dakar

Camel 405 Mi16
Ari Vatanen at Dakar in the Peugeot 205 T16. Photo: Peugeot Sport

In 1988 and 1989, the French manufacturer dominated the event with its turbocharged 405 and 205 T16s. For 1990, the Paris-Dakar’s organizers, FISA, stated it would ban turbocharging to level the playing field for the opposition. 

With its Samara T3, LADA, then, felt it had a good shot at victory.

It would be easy for me to sit here and wheel out that hackneyed old Top Gear-ism of “ambitious but rubbish,” because Soviet cars are an easy target and were largely crap. But the truth of the matter is that the Samara T3 was a clever piece of automotive engineering.

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Porsche Torque Vectoring Meets French Buran-Style Bodywork

Every panel of the T3 was designed from scratch and crafted from carbon fiber by French race car manufacturer, ORECA, the firm responsible for building the chassis of the current LMP2 field and the Alpine Hypercar in the FIA World Endurance Championship. The French connection was further reinforced by the T3’s Group B-style tubular space frame developed by engineering firm, SERA. 

At this point, I should let you know that despite the rumors, no materials from the Soviet Union’s Buran space program were used in the construction of the LADA Samara T3. I’m just as disappointed as you are about that. However, the car’s long-travel suspension–308mm and 300mm front and rear –was developed by Tupolev, the Russian aerospace and defense company responsible for the world’s first supersonic airliner, the TU-144. 

Six-time-Le Mans-winner-Jacky-Ickx-drove-this-very-LADA-Samara-T3-the-1990-Paris-Dakar
Six-time Le Mans winner, Jacky Ickx, drove this very LADA Samara T3 on the 1990 Paris-Dakar (Image: Lada via 360CarMuseum.com)

The late ’70s pact between LADA and Porsche allowed the Soviets to secure engines for its latest Dakar challenger. In the back was a 360bhp, naturally-aspirated 3.6-litre flat-six from the 964, which–for reasons unknown–was built in the United States. Upon its arrival in the USSR, it was then fettled by the NAMI, the Central Scientific Research Institute For Automobile and Automotive Engines in Moscow. 

The decision to pursue a rear-mounted engine was pursued after LADA found this configuration afforded the T3 better stability over the dunes than the Peugeots with their mid-engined layout. 

Zuffenhausen’s generosity didn’t just stop with the engines. The T3 was fitted with the clutchless five-speed manual gearbox from the 964 Carrera 4, and paired the four-wheel drive system from what many consider to be the world’s first truly modern hypercar–the Porsche 959.

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When the 959 was released in 1986, 4WD was a relatively agrarian thing. Yet Porsche developed the PSK, or Porsche-Steuer Kuppling because that’s the sort of thing Porsche enjoys doing. To this day, the PSK remains one of the world’s most sophisticated 4WD systems ever produced. 

Soviet-Era-Newsclipping-About-The-LADA-Samara-T3-Ahead-Of-1990-Paris-Dakar
A feature from the Soviet motorsport magazine, Автомобилспорт, about the LADA Samara T3 ahead of the 1990 Paris-Dakar (Image: 360CarMuseum.com)

The PSK can vary its torque ratio. This was a stark contrast to other 4WD systems of the day, which could only achieve this when the wheels began to slip. In default mode, the PDK delivered 40% of its torque to the front and 60% to the rear. Under acceleration, up to 80% was redirected to the rear wheels. In adverse conditions including gravel and sand, the torque was equally split between the two axles to provide outstanding levels of grip. 

In short, Porsche had developed a torque vectoring system. With this highly advanced running gear underpinning its 1990 challenger, LADA had every reason to be optimistic about the T3’s chances, especially as Porsche took a 1-2 with the 959 on the 1986 Paris-Dakar courtesy of René Metge and Jacky Ickx. 

Paris Angers Moscow By Changing The Rules At The Last Minute 

It would be somewhat rich of the Soviet Union to accuse FISA of corruption. After all, the USSR–and Russia today– largely operated and still largely operates based on blat,  a system of informal agreements, deals, or bribes to achieve results and/or get ahead.

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Yet a handful of weeks before the running of the 1990 Paris-Dakar, the Paris-based motorsport body altered the regulations to allow turbocharged cars to participate. This decision would see the Jean Todt-led Peugeot team enter at the last minute. By the end of the event, its 405 T16s claimed a podium clean sweep with led by Ari Vatanen.

Understandably, the Soviet contingent was red with anger about the 11th-hour change to the rule book. Tolyatti and Poch had spent every last resource they had on developing a regulation-compliant to give them a shot at Dakar glory. There simply was no money to re-develop a new, turbocharged engine in time for the grueling jaunt through Europe and into West Africa.

It’s a decision that still rankles Russian motorsport circles to this day. In a 2023 piece about the Samara T3, journalist Mikhail Medvedev wrote the following in sport.ru: “How could they [LADA and Poch] argue with the French, especially in their backyard? Peugeot, the Dakar organizers, and FISA were all based in Paris. It would have been impossible for anyone to take on such a bureaucratic and mafia-like organization. All in all, the Samara T3 project turned out to be in vain.” 

Deflated, the LADA team took the start of the 1990 Paris-Dakar in the French capital, but the event –as expected–quickly turned into a disappointment. Patrick Tambay’s car failed to make it out of Europe. Jérôme Rivière and Jacky Ickx would finish 11th and seventh respectively. 

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As The USSR Dissolves, So Do LADA’s Hopes Of Ever Winning The Dakar 

In 1991, the Samara T3 would record its best Paris-Dakar finish with fifth place in the hands of Hubert Auriol. By the end of that same year, the Soviet Union would collapse and with it, the car’s hopes of ever improving on that result. 

Ironically, its finest hour came during the mid-1990s when Russia was making its painful transition from communism to free market capitalism under then-president Boris Yeltsin. A blue flame-liveried Samara T3 would finish second on the 1995 Master Rally; a little-known 4,000-mile, 45-day event starting in Paris and ending in Peking with stops in Moscow and Ulaanbataar in between. 

The-LADA-Samara-T3-In-The-Lada-VAZ-Museum-In-Tolyatti-Russia
The ‘Blue Flame’ livery is legendary amongst Ladisti, and is worn by ones of the last Samara T3 currently residing in the LADA museum (Image: Lada via 360CarMuseum.com)

The T3’s final resting place is the LADA museum at the carmaker’s factory in Tolyatti.

As for the road-going Samara, the ending of the story is somewhat happier. A total of 5,427,000 of them were made over a period of almost 40 years when production finally stopped in 2013.

Lada Samara Uk
Photo: Lada

The LADA Samara was named the VAZ-2108 in the Soviet Union and is still referred to as such today in Russia and other countries once occupied by the USSR. For a short period in its early life, the Samara was badged as the Sputnik in the domestic market. Vosmyorka (Восмёрка) or “number eight” was also a nickname attributed to the car in countries where Russian was and still remains widely spoken.

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Throughout its life, the Samara was manufactured in Russia, Uruguay, Ukraine, and Finland. A convertible model called the LADA Natasha was sold in a choice few Western markets. The Samara outlived the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin, and survived two terms under Vladimir Putin.

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Goblin
Goblin
18 days ago

This is all very beautifully sounding, but utter BS in any aspect supposing the the Soviets had any saying or much involvment into this.

Jacques Poch was to Lada what Malcom Bricklin was to Yugo, x10

The POCH network was one of the main Lada importers in the West, was making solid money and was indeed running all sorts of prototypes camoulfaged as whatever vehicles they were selling at any given time, the same as the shells with sticker-on “headlights” in Nascar are slapped on whatever chassis is underneath.

Not unlike any other prototype in their class in the Dakar, from any other brand (except those had homebrewed engineering and engines, for most factory brands.

As far as the Samara goes, there wasn’t a single Soviet nut or bolt on this prototype. The Soviets’ contribution for that one was vodka, wishful thinking and more trainloads of crappy cheap regular Ladas to send to Poch’s factory in Haguenau, France, where the fresh off the platform beauties were mostly disassembled then reasembled “correctly”.

Said factory was built once it tourned out that the Samara was crappier than the 1500s / 2107 to the point that simply retightening a nut here and there was no longer enough to make it a car that could be sold to any sane buyer in the West. But that’s another story.

The Soviets didn’t shy from labeling any POCH Lada success as a Soviet one for internal consumption, which is fine. But their involvement in the Dakar Samara was zero, zilch, nil.

The Dakar Nivas from the previous years had, at least, an original shell.

There was, on the other side Porsche involvement in the stock Samara, which had nothing to do with Dakar. Porsche Engineering was paid by the Soviets to work on the cylinder head. The legend goes they proposed some plans for the front suspension too, which were not adopted as they were deemed too complex for the Soviets to implement.

There are interesting factoids to dig from beyond the Iron Curtain motorsports, but the Samara T3 was not one of them.

If anything, it was just the most monumental waste of Porsche 959 parts.

If anyone wants to bring some interesting stories – someone please dig in the close to underground traditions that were built by rallye racers from the ex-Baltic USSR republics, now Baltic states, which had an indigenious pipeline of openwheelers, dig some info on Stasys Brundza and the things he did in Rallye racing on a shoestring budget.

Or what Pavel Sibera was doing on a penny budget at Skoda’s rallye team in the early 90’s.

Oh, and the POCH network ? They were very smart. At least – smart enough to sell everything to Lada proper, when the Russians (no longer the Soviets) got yet another delusion of grandeur and decided to implement a fully owned distribution network in Europe, based on Samara and Niva alone. Big good it did them.

Last edited 18 days ago by Goblin
Freelivin1327
Freelivin1327
18 days ago

Brakes by Lucas? Do you add your own smoke to those too? Ha ha wouldn’t trust those…that’s like flying in a plane made by Ford! Oh wait…(Yes, they did make planes)

Chronometric
Chronometric
19 days ago

The French were (are?) well-known for changing the rules to benefit their countrymen. When they were unable to compete at the highest level at LeMans they invented the Index of Performance to reward the smaller cars that were French specialties. Then Colin Chapman started beating them at their own game so they changed the rules on the fly to either outlaw or seriously disadvantage the Lotus cars. He usually beat them anyway but when they disqualified the Lotus 23 for bogus reasons in 1962, Colin left and vowed never to return.

Sklooner
Sklooner
19 days ago

I had a Niva and a 1500- or Signet or whatever it was called and drove a couple of Samaras, the latter seemed much worse like an early Kia. All three were worse than my Skoda 120

Nlpnt
Nlpnt
19 days ago

It’s not that much of a stretch to imagine Lee Iacocca greenlighting a Carroll Shelby-led Dodge Shadow WRC campaign, and a superpower showdown between them and the Lada.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
19 days ago
Reply to  Nlpnt

That’s an alternate timeline I’d love to visit

Arch Duke Maxyenko
Arch Duke Maxyenko
19 days ago

There was also an ill-fated Lada Samra Group S program

Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
19 days ago
Mortalcombatant
Mortalcombatant
19 days ago

Ahh, ages old German-Russian collaboration. It’s pretty bad to be in the middle of it.

Captain Muppet
Captain Muppet
19 days ago

The photo with the caption “Ari Vatanen at Dakar in the Peugeot 405 Mi16.” is of a 205 T16.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
19 days ago

More than 5 million produced explains their ubiquity in Russian dash-cam videos (one of my go-to cures for cabin fever on dreary days)

VanGuy
VanGuy
19 days ago

Just my personal take, but I’d save any reference to “World’s toughest race” for the Isle of Man TT, after a couple documentaries I’ve seen on that…

Captain Muppet
Captain Muppet
19 days ago
Reply to  VanGuy

I dunno, I could do a slow lap of the TT on a standard road bike with no training. For some on the island that’s just how you get to the shops. It’s only tough if you’re going fast or falling off. Those guys are heroes.

Whereas going from Paris to Dakar is likely to break any standard road vehicle regardless of how fast you’re trying to do it.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
19 days ago

The Samara had a remarkably short gestation by Soviet standards, actually. 6 years was pretty quick compared to the Volga M24, Moskvitch 2141, or Lada 110.

Mike Smith
Mike Smith
19 days ago

They built a space frame race car with carbon fiber body panels with a Porsche flat six, air cooled engine and rear engine/AWD drivetrain, hoping that its success would improve sales of their steel unibody water cooled 4 cylinder FWD hatchback. Uh huh.

I’ve always thought so-called ‘silhouette race cars’ were a bit of a slap in the face to race fans, as if we’re too ignorant to know or care that they have nothing at all in common with the version we could go out and buy. Of course now that’s standard practice – looking at you, NASCAR Toyota Camry – but back in 1987 it strikes me as a bit more outlandish.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
19 days ago
Reply to  Mike Smith

They do it because it still works for certain demographics, I had a middle aged guy run up to me in a Target parking lot to gush about my Camaro, because “they race these in Nascar”, I was polite, but thinking, no, they race hollow fiberglass shells with non-functional decals that resemble the grille and headlights of a Camaro.

Icouldntfindaclevername
Icouldntfindaclevername
19 days ago

No intro?
Nice write up

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
19 days ago

Seconded
“Who? Did I miss something? … Hey, this is good!”
more please

Gee See
Gee See
19 days ago

Recently Porsche helped engineer the Russian equivalent of “The Beast” called Aurus

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aurus_Senat

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
19 days ago

I looked up the Natasha, and it’s not bad looking! Vaguely VW Cabriolet-ish from the front, but more Geo Metro convertible from the back.

Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
19 days ago

One often sees the Fiat/Ladas in Cuba today.
But the Samara? I saw not a one.

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