Notes From Hairenik
March 10, 2005
After being dismayed by the price of used cars at the auto market in Yerevan, I wanted to check out the Vanadzor market to see what prices similar models in similar conditions would fetch. I was accompanied by Ferdinand Grigoryan’s son-in-law, Edgar, who graciously served as my advocate during the entire car shopping and purchasing process. There were quite a few Nivas there that day, as well as the usual Volga models 2400, 2410, and 3100, Lada Zhiguli models 2101-2107, Lada Samara hatchback and sedan models, old Opel, BMW, and Mercedes models, and so forth.

I had been eyeing as my car of choice the Lada 09, short for Lada Samara 21093, which is a four-door hatchback equipped with a 1.5 liter 4-cyllinder engine. It looks like a cross between a Volkswagen and a Fiat, and is a strong, durable car, ideal for the Armenian outback. The car was built in 1991 and had over 150,000 kilometers driven with the underside beaten up, the body paint chipping. Just by looking under the hood it looked like it was driven pretty hard, with frayed electrical wiring repaired with duct tape, aluminum foil used to keep other hoses and things together, and so forth. The owner wanted $3000, but his absolute bottom price was $2900. This was the normal price for this car considering its model year from what I gathered in Yerevan, and I decided to move on.

Although I was adamant about choosing either the Samara or the Niva, Edgar insisted that I try out a Zhiguli, the Soviet everyman’s car. The Zhiguli is perhaps the most basic, but practical automobile ever made to date. In fact, a picture of the Zhiguli should visualize the definition of “car” in the Merriam-Webster’s or American Heritage English dictionaries—it is the most perfect example of an ordinary car I have ever seen. Basically it is a compact box rolling along on four tires. The engines are basic inline four-cylinder, with liter sizes ranging from 1.2-1.7 depending on the model number, year, and so forth. It is nearly impossible to kill these cars. The parts are plentiful and they are very cheap. There is not a mechanic—professional or amateur—in Armenia that cannot manage to repair a Zhiguli. It was a best-seller in Russia and in various former Soviet republics, up until the last Model 07 was manufactured in 2004.

There was a pretty Blue Model 06 there, winking at me with its dual twin round headlamps, so I decided to get behind the wheel. With the seat all the way back, I could barely turn the manual steering wheel between my knees, which were hugging the steering column. And for some reason the gas pedal is placed in an awkward forward position in relation to the clutch and brake pedals, something I could not get used to as I drove around the track of the former Soccer stadium turned auto market.

When we first entered the market there were two Nivas there, one red and the other green. But they had things falling off or were beat-up looking—the red one was a much older model than what I desired as can be judged by the rear horizontal signal and braking lamps. As we strolled around a few other models made their way in, including two bright-white models, one of which I ended up purchasing. Bright white is the color of choice for this car. It is rarely seen in its other offered colors, including red, army green, navy blue, ivory white, and even eggplant purple, an example of which was there but we rejected as the steering column was not properly bolted into place, the reason being the previous owner was very overweight, his mass virtually breaking it.

We approached the two white cars and favored one of them—the interior looking almost new, the exterior having only a few minor imperfections. The underside of the car looked clean, although some of the car parts seemed to have been recently painted. The engine also looked clean, with no corrosion or aluminum foil holding things in place. The owner, whose name was Merouj, told us that he wanted $3200, but after my advocate smoothed him over he brought his price down to $2900. We jotted down his phone number and left the market, hitching a ride downtown with the green Niva we had looked at only a short time before.

Edgar and I decided that Merouj’s Niva was the way to go, and that we should call him immediately. Thirty minutes later he was waiting for us at the transport station, and he insisted that we take it for a quick spin, his son sitting in the back to accompany us. We drove down Moscovian Street, which leads into the station’s square and is riddled with potholes. There is only a brief stretch at the beginning of the street where the pavement is smooth, adjacent to a hospital. The road was ideal for testing the endurance of this car. Despite the rough road, it handled well, and it had a smoother than expected ride—Edgar had commented that he had never been in a Niva that drove so well. Edgar drove, then I switched places with him to give it a try. When I engaged first gear, I let out the clutch too quickly, being a seasoned automatic transmission driver, and the car stalled. When I tried to start it up again, it wouldn’t turn over. The kid then told us that because the radio was on the battery went dead, which meant that straightaway we knew we needed to have Merouj replace it. But in order to return to the square, we had to get the car running again, and of course the most practical way of doing this is to push the car while its transmission is placed in neutral position until it gains enough momentum and power in the alternator to spark the ignition. Naturally I was given this task, and must have pushed at least 500 meters in total, having to stop several times to catch my breath.

Merouj said that there was no problem, and he would switch the battery, which he did when we went back to his home. We agreed to go with the sale at $2900, and I left him a small deposit in exchange for the keys. The only thing left to do now was to give him the money, just as soon as the paperwork was settled. It took about five days or so until my money was wired from my US-based bank account to my account in Armenia. Then next step was to ensure that the car would be legally registered in my name. This proved to be more difficult that one would think.

In Armenia the vehicle’s title is provided in the form of a small registration card, which lists the name of the vehicle’s owner, his or her address, the vehicle registration plate number, and the make, model, and year of the vehicle. It is possible for a vehicle to be sold to another person without changing the vehicle’s title, so long as the vehicle is registered to the new owner and can be proved by paperwork. In other words, the new owner carries a certified document that proves the vehicle belongs to him or her, regardless of whether the car was originally registered in someone else’s name as shown on the title. With that document, the owner can operate or sell the car whenever he or she wishes.

In order to exchange papers, we needed to go to an official notary, who handles all types of legal paperwork that exist in relation to any form of business transaction. The notary we went to, who was a friend of Ferdinand’s and naturally the one of my choice, looked at the vehicle identification papers Merouj presented and inquired about the whereabouts of the person whose name was on the title registration card. Merouj simply said that he was in Yerevan, then the notary told Merouj to go get him. He became upset when we left and said we should just go to his notary to take care of it, although it would cost me a little more to resolve the paperwork.

Apparently the last registered owner did live in the Malatia-Sepastia district of Yerevan, as could be ascertained by the registration plate number. But he sold it to someone from Vanadzor, who then sold it to someone else there. It changed hands at least two other times in Vanadzor before it came into Merouj’s possession. The problem was that there was no paperwork to document each transaction, most likely because the owners knew one another and probably knew policemen as well, which eased having to file paperwork in a timely manner. He figured—from what Edgar and I guessed—that I would agree to have his notary make the paperwork look legal without necessarily being legal, then pay bribes should I get pulled over to policemen who actually figure out that something was up.

We figured out Merouj’s intentions and told him that he had to sort out this whole business about previous ownership. We deliberated for nearly three days before he finally agreed to do it our way, the legal way. It turns out that he ended up paying out $150 to make the car legally in his name before I could actually purchase it from him. Then we went to Ferdinand’s notary and exchanged and signed the paperwork, which cost me $30 to process. The car is registered so that I can drive and sell it whenever I wish, although the title registration is still in the original owner’s name. I realized that the price of the car was so reasonable because the ownership trail was so hard to track, and that Merouj was anticipating I would be the one paying to figure it all out instead of him.

In any case, on January 3 I purchased the car fair and square, and the first thing I did was to take it to Ferdinand’s mechanic, Hovik, who is known throughout the Lori region to be a Niva repair expert. He had inspected it before I agreed to go through with the sale. I told him to change the engine oil, and he did that before checking all other mechanical fluids—transmission, axle, brake, gearbox, and others. Not to my surprise, the oil had not been changed in several thousand kilometers judging from the way it was barely dripping out from the oil tank as well as from Hovik’s rant. The front axle fluid was very low, and the rear axle contained none. Edgar had mentioned that third gear sounded really loud, and Hovik recommended taking it to Armenian Lada service center in Yerevan, where they took apart the entire gearbox and changed a set of rings with ball bearings in them that help the gears engage something to that effect. Simultaneous and subsequent to that problem, I endured six grueling weeks of faulty spark plug syndrome, related to oil spurting from the spark plug sockets due to worn gaskets, which were worn most likely because the piston rings needed replacing. Basically oil was spurting, then when the gaskets were replaced oil simply began to burn, as it continues to do. The spark plugs that came with the car were mishmash and were not sparking properly, so I purchased four new plugs made in Czech Republic. The Czechs make excellent pilsner but cannot manufacture auto parts—in two weeks two of the plugs burned out. I found four new Russian-made spark plugs for a third of the cost, two of which successfully replaced the Czech ones, to the content of my Niva.

Only a week ago I met with Hovik again and although he had thought we should simply replace the piston rings to make the motor run smoothly again, he confessed that it would only be a short-term solution, and that the best thing to do would be to rebuild the motor. He’s agreed to help me purchase the required parts in Yerevan, as he drives in to town each Sunday to buy car parts anyway. The parts will cost an estimated $180, and with labor the rebuilt-engine costs are not expected to exceed $250.


Blogger JLD said...
Great blog! I will be adding a link from mine. I just recently returned from Armenia where I spent the last two years with the Peace Corps. I lived in Vanadzor and have many good friends there. There are still some volunteers in the Vanadzor area. Enjoy your time there.

Blogger Ara said...

So did you end up spending $180 in parts and $250 in labor. My advice is to do a little bit of shopping since this story reminds me of my Niva story and paying the first person I can across $250 to rebuild my engine and then later learning that the going rate was $100 and $250 was charged because I had "American" money.

I'll ask here in Martuni and Stepanagert what the going rate is to get you a better idea what it really should cost.

As for parts costing $180, I don't know what to say other than when I rebuilt my Niva engine last time, they did almost everything you could and I spent $100 on parts, but then again, that was a couple of years ago, so who knows if the price has gone up, which I guess it could have.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Dear Hairenik,

i write you from Greece, and i need some info from you. i want to sell a car in Armenia. i want to take some of your time and get some info from you.
i wait for your reply, regards, Fotis

Blogger Christian Garbis said...
Hi Fotis, write to me at cgarbis at