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Dummies Guide to Nivas

Baxter's Advice for Niva Newbies.





Expedition Niva Niva jump Niva oops

Welcome to the world of Niva ownership. Nivas are great little vehicles -but there's a few little quirks you should know about. This page is focused on 1600 carburetor Niva models, but much of it applies to other Nivas as well.

Haven't got a Niva yet? Here's a UK Niva Buyers Guide, and an Australian Niva Buyer's Guide, and my thoughts on an older Niva as a Daily Driver.


Diff-lock & Low-range
Diff-lock and low-range selectors

Diff-lock: The Niva has a centre diff-lock in it's transfer-case; when engaged this locks the front and rear differentials into turning at the same time (ie to aid traction off-road). However, DO NOT DRIVE ON SEALED ROADS WITH DIFF-LOCK ENGANGED; it should only be engaged on loose or slippery surfaces (eg mud, grass, sand, gravel). The diff-lock is controlled by the forward-most of the 2 smaller gear levers, shift it backwards to engage (an orange light on the dash should turn on when it's engaged), and shift it forwards to disengage. It can be engaged on the move if necessary, but not while wildy spinning wheels.
Tip: Sometimes the diff-lock can feel jammed in place - they can be a stiff (especially if only seldom used) and can need a bit of a shove, but don't force it - simply reverse back a few feet and try again. This make take several goes

Low-range: The Niva transfer-case also contains a low-range gear for slower crawling speeds. This is controlled by the rear-most of the 2 smaller gear levers, shift it forwards to engage low-range, and backwards to re-select normal range. DO NOT SHIFT HI-LO WHEN ON THE MOVE, it'd be like trying to change gear without using the clutch. Here's a very bad rhyme to help you remember: Hi-Lo on the fly? - No!
Tip: between Lo and Hi there's a 'Neutral' position, this can be handy when servicing and you need the gearbox etc to spin, but not the wheels.


Timing chain
- EssentialAdjust the bolt on the left...

The timing chain has a manual adjuster than needs to be adjusted every 10,000 km or it will develop into an increasingly serious sounding noise, and eventually do terminal damage to your head.

Luckily, to adjust it is a easy five minute job.

Here's how I do it, or check in the workshop manual. Indeed I highly recommend buying or downloading the workshop manual as the Niva is generally an easy DIY car. And if you download the manual you can also find the instructions to adjust the points, timing, and valve clearances, etc, which is a great idea as well if you have no idea when your new toy was last serviced...


Oil changes
- EssentialOil all of these

Ladas have a name for unreliability, but this is mostly unfounded and largely due to owners maintaining - or rather not maintaining - a car essentially designed in the '60s as if it were a modern design. Preventative maintenance is essential to Niva ownership. Oil is especially essential to change often in your Niva, especially if you use it off-road. It's easy and cheap insurance.

So get the oil-pan out and change the oils this weekend. I recommend changing all the oils in the engine, gear-box (see below), transfer-case, both differentials and the steering-box. The 12mm hex Allen key you need for the drain plugs should be in your Niva tool-kit. Oil specs here.
Tip: The distributor has a small pipe on its side with a clip cover, drop a few drops of household oil into this regularly to ensure the distributor is lubricated.

Also the joints in the drive-shaft have grease nipples and need done regularly to keep things ship-shape.


Gear-box overfill & minimum speed
- EssentialShfter removed - fill gearbox from here

The gear-box is the 5-speed Niva's weak point. Luckily there's a couple of precautions you can take:

The manual says not to operate fifth at under 80 kph, and the Australian Lada parts company recommends a 90 kph minimum and has indeed sold less replacement fifth gears since issuing this advice. The South African parts dealer recommends a 120kph or 4500 rpm minimum for fifth (as my top speed is about 120 I'm not sure if they're taking the pish :) ).

Also, a popular - and widely considered essential - method of helping preserve the gearbox is to overfill it so 5th gets improved lubrication. 1.8 to 2 litres is the recommended amount instead of the factory recommended 1.3 litres. This amount fills the gearbox above the level of the filling plug, you can tilt the car over and get enough in, but it's fairly easy to pour into the 'box from the top by removing the shifter lever (an easy job, instructions here).

If you get the chance it also pays to ensure the gearbox's main rear bolt (on the output shaft) is tight, and locked in place. If it loosens 5th will be able to jump out, and damage will occur. If you have popping out of gear or other gearbox issues check out the gearbox fault finding page.

Lastly, Do not use GL5 spec oil in the gearbox if you can't be sure it is 100% yellow-metal safe (most GL5s are fine these days, but some old style GL5s are high in sulphur content and this can degrade to become acidic and damage the yellow-metals in some Niva 'boxes. GL4, which doesn't do such damage, seems to be adequate oil for the gearbox -see more about the potential problem with high sulphur content gearbox oils on the Oils page).


Why's the gearbox noisy & vibey?No sports car, but your steering shouldn't be as bad as Clarkson makes out

Nivas have divorced gearboxes and transfer-cases which need to be aligned with each other to run smoothly. Transmission rumble and vibrations cannot be completely removed, but they should not be that bad (indeed if they are they will likely be doing damage). Here's how to align the Transfer-case. And here's some transfer-case mount upgrade options.

If the gearbox is making mechanical noises you may have other gearbox issues.


Use Genuine partsAs a general rule use genuine Lada parts

Because of Lada's supposed lack of quality many people assume that aftermarket parts are better than Lada parts. This is not the case. Indeed cheap parts sourced from countries with ultra cheap labour have far less quality controls, if indeed any. Oil filters are a prime example.
Further, Lada parts are designed to work with other Lada parts, some after-market parts are not properly compatible with Lada's; eg many aftermarket brake pads are too hard and give a crappy pedal feel, and wear your Lada discs out.

In markets were Lada has withdrawn (ie mostly counties that drive on the left side of the road) there are no longer official dealers. However, quality or genuine VAZ/Lada factory parts are thankfully still easily available:

Note some of these dealers now also sell after-market parts as well as genuine AvtoVaz/Lada parts, so be clear when you're ordering if you want genuine AvtoVaz/Lada parts.

Also note this information can go out of date suddenly, check with other Niva clubs etc if any of the above are no good (and let me know).

I can't personally vouch for any of these suppliers other than Gee Motors, but Gabor, Ventz, and Carmine all have good reputations on various forums.
When asking for a quote / placing an order full details of your Niva should be supplied as found on the small plate in the engine bay ( vehicle description, year model, VIN, engine no, etc.). If you need parts numbers check out the Parts Manual.

Here's a list of general substitute Niva parts if you can't get genuine parts.

One of the few possibile exceptions some consider to the use-only-genuine rule is gearbox bearings - Lada's are considered poor quality by many, and quality replacements from a reputable manufacturer are often advised. Here's some substitute bearings some people recommend (though beware many once reputable bearing manufacturers are increasingly using cheap labour with low quality controls).

Rust and cracksScuttle rust - kill it early!

Nivas are better than most cars of their age for rust, but they can have sporadic steel and paint quality so they can rust in some truly odd places, especially if regular rust-proofing maintenance hasn't been done (check the back of the workshop manual to see where you should be rust-proofing once a year).
Luckily they are made from thick steels so if you attend to rust spots early you can avoid costly repairs or failures later. More information on Niva rust traps and rust prevention.

Always give your Niva a good hose down underneath in all it nooks and crannies after playing in the mud as it holds moisture and road salt.


Electric faultsNiva electrics

Like older English cars some Nivas can have their share of electric faults. Many of these are caused by the crappy fuse box and are generally easily fixed, once found. The plug in the back can slip out, and the contacts that hold the fuses in often need re-bent into position and/or sanded for better contact. Where is my fuse box? Under the dash on the left side.

If not fuses, many faults can be caused by bad earthing.

Here's Niva electrical schematics.

Tip: Tail lights a bit dim? Pull the bulbs out, give the contacts a good clean/sand, and wash the mud from inside the lenses and reflectors (make sure you pop the bottom tabs into place when you put the lenses back). Sorted.
Tip: Headlights a bit dim? It's probably the earth - it's just a wire behind the headlight that is connect by a self-tapping screw into the body, so corrodes etc easily.


Why is the heater constantly hot?Plumbers shop under-bonnet heater tap

Check the cable from the heater control is opening and closing the in-line valve that closes off hot water to the heater (located in the left side of the right-hand foot-well). If you're lucky the cable will simply need reattached or adjusted.

If you're unlucky, and the tap itself has corroded open. While new replacements are easily available (and if you need one there's one available with a ceramic centre available that doesn't seize as easily), apparently it can be a bit of a PITA to install a new one (actually not that bad imho). Some owners simply install a hardware store tap in the heater feed hose under the bonnet to control the flow of hot water to the heater's radiator; not exactly convenient if you need to turn the flow on and off from the cab, but certainly effective.


Crappy steering?No sports car, but your steering shouldn't be as bad as Clarkson makes out

While Niva steering will never be sharp enough to keep Jeremy Clarkson happy, it shouldn't be too bad - it was ages before I worked out that Nivas shouldn't actually have steering as crappy as mine was. If yours is overly heavy, woolly, or just plain scary - it can probably be easily sorted by adjusting the steering-box.
Tip: Many people assume the rubber bushes in a Niva's suspension are worn out simply because they are looking scruffy. However, most Lada bushes are extremely tough and 9 times out of 10 scruffy looking bushes are not worn at all. So check that there is actually improper movement in the bushes before ordering a new set.
Some owners have found that the bushed bolt holding the lower wishbone in place can benefit from occasional re-tightening.


Why are the brakes rubbish?

If everything is working as it should Nivas have excellent brakes. Pre-1994 Nivas did not have self-adjusting brakes, so the rear brakes will need to be manually adjusted even now and again (generally before every WOF/MOT test). It's a relatively easy job, here's my tips.
Tip: cylinders from later Nivas can be used to upgrade older Nivas to be self-adjusting.

Another thing odd on Niva brakes is the regulator that sits above the rear axle, check this has movement as specified in the manual and is well greased inside its rubber boot.

If new pads or shoes are needed, genuine Lada ones are recommended by most people as they not only give better feel, but they aren't overly harsh on the discs/drums like some after-market ones are. If you need to bleed the Niva's brakes, note that there are two nipples on each front caliper.


ModificationsThe Full Hoodoo

We'd probably all like to modify our Nivas to be the ultimate off-roader, especially because of the Niva's do-it-yourself nature. But in truth many modifications are not really needed (though may of course be fun to do all the same). Before going bananas with modifications this well though out and prepared Niva is a must read - the Full Hoodoo.


What's the biggest tyres I can fit?Niva on Portals

The biggest tyres that will fit on a standard Niva are 195-80 on the standard 16" steel wheels and 205-80 on the 15". You can usually go a size bigger with a Niva lift and/or an arch-trim. For more information see Tyres - How big can I go?



Suzuki rims - WarningOff-set like this may give you issues

A common mod is to fit 15" Suzuki rims as the Suzuki is one of the few common vehicles to share the Niva wheel's stud-pattern (PCD). However, be aware there are some risks associated with fitting Suzuki rims. Firstly there's legal and insurance issues as the off-set (how much the wheels stick out) makes the track wider than the dealer fitted OEM 15" rims.

This altered offset is also linked to premature wheel-bearing, ball-joint, tie-rod end, and even steering-box failure. While the jury is out on this, there are too many people who have reported bearing failure after fitting Suzuki rims for it to be likely to be totally unfounded. Note that both the Australian and South African parts dealers strongly recommend against fitting Suzuki rims (and they're the ones who make a living selling you new bits when your oversized rims break them so that says a lot).

It may well depend on the condition of your Niva, the tyre size and pressure you run (higher pressures mean less forces going through the steering gear), and your alignment (tracking) settings, and wheel-bearing condition. Not to mention Suzuki rims come with varying offsets, some visibly bigger than others. I'd suggest that people using Suzuki rims run their tyres at the highest safe pressure as this greatly lessens the forces needed in the steering.

See my list of other vehicles with Niva stud pattern/PCD.



Niva Lift-kits?Lada Niva Lift

Lift-kits for Nivas are available off-the-shelf in Brazil, Russia, and Europe; coil lifts are even more widely available. But the Niva is a very easy vehicle for a do-it-yourself lift, especially with the well-tested Hoodoo lift. There are 4 basic methods for a suspension lift - check out this page for extensive Lada Niva lift information.


Weber swapNiva Weber swap

The original Russian carburetor on most Nivas is not a bad carburettor, but it is small and a popular modification is to swap it for a Weber found on various European cars (eg the DGAV found on many common Fords of the '70s and '80s, or one from a Fiat). It is a cheap and easy swap, and can usually be done almost totally with factory parts. Although the Lada carburettor is not nearly as bad as many people make out, the Weber has bigger throats so the upgrade is recommended by many for more power and drivability (if you can manage to find a good condition one these days), more info here.


What engines can I swap in?Niva DOHC

While many engine swaps are possible with work (see engine swaps in the mods section in the Gallery), the only engine that is a relatively easy and well documented conversion is the Fiat/Lancia DOHC. There's info on this swap on my technical resources page.


Up-rated shock-absorbers
- WarningNiva broken front damper mount

Don't put significantly stiffer shocks on the without beefing up the mounts - on the front you'll risk breaking the top mounts clean off. In fact standard Niva front shocks are excellent for off-roading and don't usually need upgraded to stiffer shocks (stiffer ones will likely decrease your performance off-road).

Replacement shocks (aka dampers) are of course recommended if your originals are knackered. If you can't get genuine shocks, after-market ones should be fine - just make sure you do not get stiffer than standard. If you do need stiffer front shocks you can strengthen front mounts with some angle section or possibly even just improved welding, here's how to up-rate the shock-mounts.

Likewise some owners have also had problems fitting overly stiff shocks (eg gas-shocks) to the rear.

Procomp ES9000 are a popular rear upgrade and are available in standard or extended lengths (ie for lifted Nivas).



Other quirks As a general rule use genuine Lada parts

Do not reset the trip-meter unless you're stationary.
The front window guides and rubber seal often need lubricated with silicon spray to keep the windows sliding up and down nicely.
Be gentle on the window-winder handles if they're plastic - they break easily.
The big anonymous knob to the right of the main instruments is a dimmer for the instrument lights.
The headlight-wipers only work when when the headlights are also switched on iirc.
The headlights, heater, wipers, etc remain on after the ignition is switched off, so be careful not to leave things on and flatten your battery.
If a fuel smell appears in the cabin, it is likely the breather fuel vapour separator or its hose (that live behind side panel next to the rear seat).
Fill the fuel tank slowly, as fuel will probably slosh back out after about half a tank if done at full speed.
A petrol gauge that acts like it's drunk is normal and not really easily corrected - just learn to read its quirks.


Off roading - WarningBugger...

Mostly common sense, but there are some potentially fatal common traps for beginners - so have a wee read of one of the many excellent off-roading FAQs on the 'net (such as Land Rover International's guide to off-roading ) before a serious play or recovery.
Tips: The best general advice I can offer is to be gentle instead of thrashing your poor Niva over obstacles, and don't be lazy or too "cool" to get out and walk ahead to check an unfamiliar bit of track or depth of a river, or where ruts go, etc.
Be very very sure you know what you're doing before doing recoveries. Do not use the tie-down eyes for for an off-road recovery - you will rip your Niva into pieces , and potentially hurt yourself badly. Tow-balls are totally not suitable for recovery, unless of course you'd like a broken tow-ball flying at your head at a million miles per hour
(you can use a tow ball mount with the ball removed and a suitable shackle). All recovery equipment, including the mounts on your car, should be rated.



Where can I find out more?Lada Niva (Vaz 2121)

Here's my extensive collection of Niva information and resources: swaps & modifications, over 50 clubs, lifting the Niva, workshop manuals, tips & tricks, off-road modifications & upgrades, the famous Cloggy's Fiat DOHC swap site, and much more...

For English speaking Nivaesti the Lada.co.uk forum is the best English speaking Niva fourm, for other languages check out where the closest Niva club is to you. The Niva workshop manual is of course also a very handy source of info that every Niva owner should download.





The official up-to-date copy of this page lives permanently at www.ladaniva.co.uk/baxter/resources/newbies.htm If you're reading it from elsewhere it may not be the most up-to-date copy.

This page is inspired by Andy of Lada Parts Australia, who sent me an e-mail of handy tips when I first bought my Niva, which I found incredibly helpful and formed the seeds of this page to share advice with others.


Niva broken


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