Lada Gnome & Elf

Car of the Day #106: Lada Gnome & Lada Elf

Lada Gnome & Elf
Lada Gnome / VAZ-1151 • via

From the names alone you just knew these would be cool cars.

I had the same reaction. “Wait, so Lada had a microcar concept that they named Gnome? This'll be good.”

Moreover, Gnome is a perfect name. Car companies have been rightfully shit on in recent decades for garbage alphanumeric model names. 

Somewhat ironically, Russian and, later, Soviet carmakers started by only using model codes—this is the Iron Curtain we're talking about—and truth be told, the Lada Gnome is a VAZ-1151 that’s been to a naming consultant.

“Gnom” was the first vehicle released as part of the company's small car project (internal name, “project Dwarf”) — to be followed up, a year later, by the beachgoing, electric Elf—all prototypes made in this theme were based on the Oka hatchback.

Known as the VAZ-1111 internally and nicknamed Oka after the Oka River that runs past the town where the small city car is assembled, Oka replaced the ZAZ Zaporozhets, a car so universally despised it's best to not talk about it. 

Powered by a "chopped in half" 4-cylinder engine from the Lada Samara, the 2-cylinder 750cc motor could push the lightweight Oka hatchback to 125 km/h (78 mph).

Fast enough, if you ask me. Especially since the Oka is a Russian knockoff of the Daihatsu Cuore—and was changed little between its introduction in 1988 and cancellation in 2008.

Mechanically related to the Oka, the Gnome would have been similar. But smaller. Skinned with lightweight metal and plastic panels, it was nearly a meter shorter than the Oka at just 2.5 m (8.2 ft) long, the same as a smart fortwo.

Lada Elf / VAZ-1152 • via source unknown

Though it's front-engined, Gnome would have matched up quite well with both the fortwo and later Toyota iQ and Scion iQ, had it advanced past the prototype stage. 

I wouldn't want to hit a lawn while wrestling a Gnome: at just 500 kg (1102 lbs) and maximum speed of 140 km/h (87 mph), crashing in one would have been ever so slightly safer than being drafted into frontline service for the Russian military.

That said, it's remarkable that a small Russian factory — before the fall of the Soviet Union — was able to successfully set the template that German and Japanese engineers would copy, at least in part, on the road to produce city cars:

  1. Take parts we already have;
  2. Shove them into a diminutive bodyshell;
  3. Claim it’s a premium product and charge customers more for the privilege of a smaller portion size…
  4. Cancel the project, complaining that customers simply don’t like small cars.

In 1992, the Gnome was shown at a Moscow car show and as late as 1996(!) the electric Elf version was sent to the Turin Motor Show for an exhibition.

Multiple versions of each car were made, in an attempt to settle on a compelling mix of interior options, seat fabrics, and exterior colours. I call this busy work.

The prototypes still exist, and unlike most Car of the Day machines, the VAZ-1151 even has its own Wiki page — and in the business of weird cars, a Wiki page is practically a memorial statue.

Long live the Gnome & Elf. 🧝


Thank you to my supporting members: Ben B., Brad B., Chris G., Daniel G., Damian S., Daniel P., Drew M., Ingrid P., Karl D., Luis O., Michael J., Michael L., Michelle S., Mike B., Mike L., Mike M., Richard W., Sam G., Sam L., Wiley H.