The Sputnik-Lada Fallacy: Why Success In Space Travel Has Nothing To Do With Mass Producing Automobiles

As my previous post on homologation explained, there are essentially two sets of regulations for automobiles: one for the United States and Canada, and one for pretty much every other country on earth.

Growing up in Canada, our new vehicle market was roughly identical to the United States, with a few minor exceptions. One of those was Lada.

Although Canada was always a steadfast ally of the United States in the global struggle against communism, a few things slipped through the cracks: Chinese firearms, Cuban cigars and Russian motor vehicles have a long history in The Great White North.

While you can still buy the first two of the aforementioned products in Canada, Lada hasn’t sold any new vehicles in Canada in roughly 20 years.

Like all Eastern Bloc products of the era, Lada was owned by AutoVAZ, a state-run auto maker that operated with the efficiency and levels of precision that were typical for any centrally planned industry – that is to say, none. The build quality, even by the standards of the day, was abysmal. Rather than list a litany of offenses to the gods of auto manufacturing, just watch the video above, to see a Canadian motoring journalist give a rundown of the flaws of Lada’s latest and greatest offering, which for once was not just a warmed over Fiat 124.

For nearly its entire history of selling cars in Canada, the biggest advantage for Lada was their low price. At the outset, Lada offered the cheapest cars in Canada (barring a few flash-in-the-pan entrants from Skoda, Dacia and Innocenti). But as the video at the top of the page shows, it was possible to buy any number of competitive nameplates for similar money. And even if they were not built to the standard of a Toyota Tercel (which was in the same price range as a Lada, albeit in a very spartan base trim level), one could buy also buy a Mazda 323, a Ford Festiva or a Hyundai Excel, all of which had similar levels of content and superior build quality, for similar money.

There was simply no reason to buy a Lada, except for the Niva SUV, which, like the AK-47, was a crude but rock-solid appliance thanks to generous manufacturing tolerances and a simplistic ethos that made it popular with rugged, outdoorsy Central/Eastern European Émigré, who had been in Canada long enough to acquire citizenship and fluency in English, but never got into the habit of shopping at the supermarket for meat, opting instead for a form of subsistence hunting.

I have a vivid memory of my father taking me to the Toronto Auto Show and walking me around different cars, and him pointing out the odious fit and finish of a Samara hatchback, which cost something like C$5,000 back then. Lest anyone think this is another example of a “Woke Toddler“, or False Memory Syndromemy parents took a Feynman-esque approach to seeding my brain with knowledge. Much of it was lost on me at the time, but I found that these memories would bubble to the surface in high school, university and the workplace and quite often came in handy in a professional setting or during an exam.

Lately, the Lada has come to the forefront of my consciousness when I am asked about Tesla (thanks Dad!). Much of the reporting on Tesla is extremely poor, in part because the auto industry is rather arcane and difficult to understand – it is truly unlike any other industry on earth, so analogies and parallels are difficult to draw, and nobody has ever written an easily digested primer on it. Furthermore, the rise in access journalism, clickbait and hero-worship has created a vacuum where the veneration of Elon Musk, a veritable charlatan who bought his way into Tesla (and Paypal for that matter) rather than found it, can become a Trump-like figure for those who place themselves on one side of the ongoing guerilla culture war in the United States: it doesn’t matter if he is smug, dishonest or even mentally unhinged. The fact that he is a representation of the adolescent revenge fantasies of the once-bullied, now financially successful nerd, who sticks his finger in the eye of the rest of the auto industry (in this case, a proxy for the Midwestern town that felt stifling, the physically abusive jock who was once a tormentor, and is now bagging groceries and trading cases of pop for Oxycontin), is enough.

Musk is able to provide an object for both groups to latch on to as part of their identity. This is the only reason I can come up with for why any criticism of him is met with such an outsized reaction, as if it is a personal attack on the character of the person you’re speaking to. In most cases, there is a sputtering, Daffy Duck-like outburst involving the phrase “but he put a rocket in space, and landed it back on earth!”

Every time I hear that, I think of Lada and the USSR. The Russians may not have landed on the moon before the Americans, but they were the first to put a man into orbit, and managed to outlast NASA as the only game in town for space exploration. But they couldn’t build a car if their life depended on it. The Lada, Yugo, Dacia, FSO Polonez, Trabant – every Eastern Bloc car has been utter trash, entirely deserving of its wretched reputation.

My colleagues Bozi Tatarevic, Alex Roy, and Ed Niedermeyer have all written about Tesla and Elon Musk’s manufacturing related follies. There is little utility in revisiting them here. What is important  is that we must remember the example of Lada and the Soviet space program, namely that excellence in space exploration is not a guarantee of success in profitable mass production of the automobile. I am coining a term for this, called “The Sputnik-Lada Fallacy”. And I want to leave you all with a further thought: just as the price of a piece-of-junk Lada gradually inflated to that of its superior, market-economy competitors, the Tesla Model 3 appears to be heading for a similar path, with numerous battery electric vehicles on the horizon from established auto manufacturers, at price points ranging from $35,000 and beyond.

We know how that story ends.

 

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