Robb Pritchard, Off-road correspondent
Once upon a time in the Soviet Union when the world was at the height of the Cold War someone in the city of Izhevsk, the capital of the Russian Republic of Udmurt, decided that it would be a good idea to start producing a cheap, functional, mass produced car in the Kalashnikov rifle factory. It seemed like a solid business plan as Russia was (and still pretty much is) full of people wanting to drive cheap cars and to shoot each other…
IZH was the rather unimaginative and uninspiring name the PR department came up with, but sadly the glory of being able to make a car to rival a Lada wasn’t to be. Back in those dark days every enterprise, never mind industry, was controlled by the state, but the minister of the Soviet auto industry used to work for a rival factory, AutoVaz, so all the government grants and support went into making and developing Ladas… and if you stop for a moment to think about how technologically advanced Ladas are, you can maybe imagine what sort of development IZH cars enjoyed.
A design for what looked like a distant cousin of a Lada Samara was drawn up in 1980 and although even back then it would have been a bit behind the times, it might have sold enough numbers to keep the factory ticking over. Yet, for reasons no one can adequately explain to me, it took an incredible 20 years to reach production and ending up being launched right in the middle of the financial meltdown of the late 90s. For the first few years the models constantly changed, but certainly not due to a fast rate of development; just as bread was hard to find in Russia at that time, so it was with engine and transmission parts, and in a desperate effort to keep production going, running gears were pilfered from the warehouse shelves of different outdated Moscovitchs and Ladas.
Then in 2002, for those struggling to drive 2wd cars overloaded with potatoes on the dire Russian country roads, a 4x4 version was introduced. One of the first excited customers pressing his face up against the glass of the local IZH showroom was Evgeni and he soon became the proud, if not overly impressed, owner of a sky-blue example… and so this story begins…
Not by any stretch of the imagination does an IZH sound like the best base-vehicle for a hard working off-roader, but contrary to all laws of expectation, one does exist. It’s absolutely unique, instantly recognizable, brimming with handmade modifications, capable off-road and is even famous in its own right, as "Yozik" (Russian for Hedgehog) has become synonymous with one of the world’s greatest off-road events, Russia’s Ladoga Trophy. Parked up in improbable places in the forest it’s given countless struggling crews a glimmer of hope at a mid-stage check-point, letting them know that they are on the right route after all. These attributes make it worthy of a feature-article.
If he had been born in Britain, Evgeni would have grown up in his parent’s garden shed dissecting broken, oily machine components to see how they worked… until at the age of 13 he would have come across his first Series Land Rover and been instantly smitten. Yozik is the post-Soviet equivalent on an overly tinkered with Series 2, although in the UK it would be pulled over and sent to the nearest VOSA station by any conscientious road traffic policeman. With it’s knobbly tyres, roof-rack carrying jerry cans and a chainsaw, it looks like the unwanted offspring of a Lada Samara and an Austin Maestro adopted by a pack of wild Nivas and brought up as one of their own. And I love it!
With the pores of his fingers constantly clogged by a buildup of engine grease, Evgeni shakes my hand and leads me to a small workshop at the back of the warehouse where Yozik stands in all of its glory, like a prop from a low-budget Mad Max rip-off movie. At first sight people's usual reaction is to exclaim "What the...!" but when you get to know Evgeni and understand that Yozik isn't the product of an untreated mental illness you'll greet it with a warm smile. It looks brilliant with an 8cm lift, mud-terrain tyres, an expedition roofrack and a covering of stickers from the dozens of 4x4 events its been to and been part of.
With a paternal pride I’m used to from years of talking to Land Rover owners, Evgeni starts explaining what he’s done to it over the years to make it truly his own. For off-roading one of the first things to do was upgrade the back axle from a Riva to a Niva, but unfortunately even with the lift the Niva wheels wouldn't fit under the arches. The solution was to cut the ends off and weld the IZH hubs back on, which also had the advantage of keeping the shock mounts in the same place. Another Niva diff sits under a thick skid pan at the front and Evgeni hands me the new custom case he’s just finished fabricating, thicker and more robust than the original but with the shafts cut off and mounts for the independent drive-shafts to be bolted to. “When you are driving at funny angles and trying to steer when the wheels are against rocks and trees and things the struts were too weak...” so he fabricated his own MacFearson struts. No mean feat, especially with the tools that appeared to be at his disposal.
The interior is a plush as you'd imagine from a low budget Soviet enterprise. It sports an Austin Allegro style steering wheel and a cheap plastic dash with a hand-held GPS unit and CB microphone mounted to it with self-tapping screws. The passenger's footwell appears to double as storage space for old clothes, magazines and discarded foot wrappers, but poking up through the grubby carpet over the gearbox cowling are two non-IZH levers. “The original low box didn't have a central locker, so when I first had it, it wasn't so brilliant off road. But I worked out a way to mount a Niva transfer box to a Samara gearbox and that really made a big difference!”
And for when the chunky tyres loose grip there is a 8500lb winch on the front, with fairlead rollers jutting out from the plastic bumper to help out when the tyres have lost traction, although that doesn't seem to happen all that often. “One day we were a little late so we were driving to find the start and we were following this bad track for a few kilometres as there were tyre tracks of other cars going the same way,” he began to recant with a wide smile. “Then we found a few Jeeps that had got stuck so we asked them how far to the start and they told us that we were already half way through the stage! In another competition I read the maps wrong and ended up driving down the Proto route… that was fun!”
The engine has also has been the focus of Evgeni’s sure-fingered tinkering and with longer push rods, a skimmed head and custom made pistons it’s now a 2 litre Niva engine inside, although when he opens the bonnet there’s nothing immediately indicative of increased performance under the layer of oil and dirt that covers everything. But then it had just go back from circumnavigating Lake Ladoga as part of the world-famous Trophy-Raid entourage. Evgeni is a timing marshal.
“What about diff locks?” I asked as I didn't think the mechanism should be beyond the capabilities of someone who can make their own struts and would improve the already surprisingly competent off road performance.
It's every off-roaders dream to have something unique and special, no? Something that is kind of a reflection of who we are.
“No lockers,” he smiled with a mischievous grin and smoothed out a crumpled piece of paper on the worktop. When interviewing someone about their vehicle one of the standard questions to ask is about the plans for the future and the answers are usually about tyres, lifts or some expensive add-on that is being saved up for... but not Evgeni. “I always wanted something quite special,” he said as he started drawing a rough sketch of Yozik with a marker pen. The shape of the body was easy to recognise but underneath he drew something odd, yet although it was out of place it looked strangely familiar. Independent legs… driven by chains and then it suddenly dawned on me. “No way!” I exclaimed aloud. “He’s changing the Hedgehog into a Frog!”
“Long boxes to run the chains in with cogs at the end, it's not all that difficult to make. I'm not going in the Proto class of Ladoga so they don't need to be amazingly strong like the top cars are. But it's every off-roaders dream to have something unique and special, no?” Something that is kind of a reflection of who we are.”
Maybe at next year’s Ladoga there will be yet another monster slithering out of the bogs... and if this startling mutation ever sees the light of day I'll be there to do a follow up feature!