Cheerful Casualty - 1988 NAMI 0290 Apelsin-1 Lada

During 1980’s the Cold war was still in full swing. Tensions between the East and the West were still as high as ever, as each side waited for the other to fire the shot that would end the world. For the Soviet Union it was also a time of bitter economic stagnation. While the planned economy slipped further and further into oblivion, the communist government still wanted to show the might of the vast Soviet empire.

This sentiment showed in every aspect of society, even the noble art of motorsport. Under the government’s watchful eye numerous racing versions of the Lada 2105 were realized, prepared by Lithuanian specialists Vilniusskaja Fabrika Transportnyh Sredstv. The VFTS Lada was an impressive piece of kit by Soviet standards, but it did not compete in the upper echelons of the sport. To really show the top level capitalist dog-pigs what the Bolsheviks could do, a specialized prototype was needed.

The Lada 2105 VFTS was the first competent Soviet rally car to regularly appear on the global rally stage.

The Lada 2105 VFTS was the first competent Soviet rally car to regularly appear on the global rally stage.

At around the same time, a group of engineers at the Central Scientific Research Automobile and Automotive Engines Institute (Russian abbreviation: NAMI) were busy building a rally special of their own. NAMI had been established in 1920, just three years after the Russian Revolution established the Soviet Union in 1917. By 1927 the institute had developed the very first Soviet automobile, the imaginatively named NAMI-1.

After the Second World War NAMI stopped production of cars, trucks, trolleybuses, tractors, armored personnel carriers and half-tracks. Instead it took on the role of an experimental research and development lab. Its focus shifted towards designing prototypes meant to test new technological concepts. Through these methods the institute developed new engines, front wheel drive and automatic transmissions, which would later find their way to mass production after a great number of years.

NAMI-1, the Soviet Union's first automobile.

NAMI-1, the Soviet Union's first automobile.

Evidently bored with making practical machines for the proletariat, a small team of dedicated engineers decided to build a car to challenge the grueling Rallye Paris-Dakar in their own free time. As the leading Soviet car authority, they wanted to avoid using any foreign parts in the construction of the car. This was done in response to the Dakar-Lada’s prepared by French firm POCH, which used predominantly Western parts. Unwilling to stoop to POCH’s level, the team looked for a suitable Soviet donor car to take as a starting point.

Eventually the new ZAZ-1102 Tavria was chosen, a small three-door hatchback. It was one of the most modern designs of the time, which gave the NAMI team a competitive edge over the likes of VFTS. Using the 1985 VFTS-developed Lada Samara EVA concept car as inspiration, the team decided to make the new car mid-engined. This meant the little front wheel drive Tavria was mostly useless, leading to NAMI’s engineers cutting off both the front and rear sections of the little runabout.

The ZAZ Tavria provided the base for NAMI's Dakar challenger.

The ZAZ Tavria provided the base for NAMI's Dakar challenger.

Left only with a tiny section of the cabin and the doors, NAMI designer M. Menzulov proceeded to add tube frames front and rear, integrating them with the mandatory roll cage. The tiny 50 horsepower 1.1L MeMZ-245 straight four engine was deemed wholly insufficient, necessitating the search for a better unit. Naturally, due to NAMI’s mantra to only use Soviet parts they ended up at Lada.

In the end the famous Zhiguli 1.6L straight four was chosen, but its meager 78 horsepower still wasn’t good enough. This left the team with a gigantic dilemma. No Soviet car company produced anything near the type of engine they were looking for. Apart from the massive and highly exclusive V8-powered ZiL limousines and the feared Volga KGB pursuit specials, no domestic automobile had over 100 horsepower.

To try and make ends meet the engine received a complete overhaul, adding four valves per cylinder and fuel injection. Still performance was not quite up to its intended level. The dire situation lead to NAMI breaking their one rule. Without any other options, they were forced to buy a Mitsubishi turbocharger to get the Zhiguli up to speed.

Despite NAMI’s damaged pride, the foreign part worked perfectly. After some fine-tuning the tiny engine produced an incredibly impressive 180 horsepower. As planned it was fitted in the back, and mated to a five-speed manual transmission. Contrary to the rear wheel drive Lada EVA, the car featured an innovative viscous coupling four wheel drive system with a 50/50 torque split.

The custom-made front and rear sections allowed for the use of independent suspension on all four corners, which was also made fully adjustable. In the carefully regulated and woefully outdated Soviet automotive scene, this was completely alien technology.

The finished chassis was clad in an attractive fiberglass bodyshell. For easy access to the engine bay, the rear section formed a massive one-piece clam-shell. In total the car weighed just 960 kg (2116 lbs), giving it some very sprightly performance. With a top speed of 210 kh (130 mph) despite purposefully short gearing, virtually nothing on the Russian roads was able to keep up with it.

The finished product had very little in common with the original ZAZ Tavria. The bottom section of the doors and the windscreen were the only visual cues revealing the car’s origins. Keeping true to the “Soviet-first” theme, the taillights were taken from the Lada Samara. Strangely, the wheels were also the exact same 13-inch cast iron examples you’d find on a standard Samara, as there were no locally made alternatives.

Like all NAMI designs the car received an official project code: NAMI-0290. For a personal touch the team dubbed the little tyke “Apelsin-1“, Russian for “Orange”. The name was chosen for its bright orange color scheme, and the fact it was intended to be just as slippery as the fruit. Seemingly oblivious to the social upheaval in the Soviet Union’s final years, the car was decorated with the infamous red star as a sign of Soviet pride.

Confident they had a winner on their hands, NAMI decided to enter the Apelsin in its first unofficial race, a short-track rallycross event at Dmitrov. Driven by Igor Panasenko and entered in the Open class, it proceeded to completely dominate the race. Nothing seemed to be able to stop it. The 0290’s amazing performance caused a shockwave in the local racing scene. Everyone wanted to know what the hell that orange flash that just passed them was. It seemed like NAMI’s hobby project was going to pay off in a big way.

The car made its official debut in 1989, entering in the Bryansk / Naberezhnye Chelny Rally. Again the little orange fought hard to make a name for itself, winning one of the top prizes. Its final appearance that year was at an international rally-raid event named in honor of Soviet physicist E.A. Chudakov. Competing against far larger off-road vehicles, the Apelsin held its own by taking a commanding lead. In the process it scaled giant obstacles normally reserved for the UAZ-469 military jeep, a vehicle widely respected for its unprecedented off-road capabilities.

The car was widely celebrated in Soviet and international media.

The car was widely celebrated in Soviet and international media.

After these three highly successful outings, the Soviet press was buzzing with excitement over NAMI’s ambitious project. The little car was everywhere. Television programs, magazines and even foreign media all covered the exciting little orange machine. Rumors about a Dakar-participation quickly spread like wildfire, propelling the team even further into the spotlight.

Sadly, the slow and painful collapse of the Soviet Union had caused a massive economic fallout, which left the car sidelined for two years. As a result of Russia’s dismal situation, there was no money to put it into production either. Even so, the NAMI team still saw cause to fit an upgraded 1.8L AZKL-2141 Moskvitch engine to the Apelsin for 1991. The new engine got the their hopes up again, until one night the unthinkable happened. Igor Panasenko left home after dark to go work on the car, but never arrived. He simply disappeared without a trace. The mysterious disappearance terrified the rest of the crew, and one by one they started to leave the company.

The 0290 Apelsin-1 on display at NAMI's facility.

The 0290 Apelsin-1 on display at NAMI's facility.

Following the incident and the falling apart of the team responsible for its creation, NAMI heartlessly decided to scrap the Apelsin. It was coldly cut into pieces and thrown into the skip. Reportedly the transmission was kept, but everything else was destroyed. Not content on just eliminating the car itself, NAMI also tore down the facility that produced it. The purge left little to no evidence of the brilliant little rally car.

The NAMI 0290 Apelsin-1 was an ambitious project started by Soviet Russia’s leading automotive engineers. Together they wanted to prove that Soviet technology amounted to more than 40 year old tractor engines, solid axles and leaf springs. Vowing to use only locally made parts, they aimed to show the snobby Western world exactly what a a real rally-raid car was.

Compromising only to buy a Japanese turbocharger, the team succeeded with a vengeance. The end result was a car so good its image reached far beyond the Iron Curtain. Sadly the end of the Soviet Union saw the economy finally crumble into dust, and support for the little orange quickly dried up. As if matters couldn’t get any worse, the car’s lead driver disappeared without a trace, and the team crumbled, leading to the destruction of the Apelsin-1 and everything it stood for.