What makes a car cool?
Is it the badge on the grill or the motor under the hood? If neither, then surely it’s the product of a meticulously executed marketing plan, or the result of racing success at the hands of an accomplished wheel man.
But what about cars with neither, designed to shuttle people to and fro with no fan fare and little urgency. Can cars like that still be cool? Historically the answer to that question has proven to be yes. Yes, but with a small asterisk placed along side.
‘Cool’, being such an intangible metric to measure a car, often comes down to execution. Looked at through the right lens nearly any car can show some amount of potential, even the least likely.
For example I’m sure I am not the only person who saw little appeal in Dodge Ram vans before Japanese vanguards threw some Watanabes on them, and pitched them sideways.
So, the asterisk beside that yes, corresponds to the builder. The ability to see the end result without so much as turning a wrench is a gift.
It’s not a gift I have, but it’s one that John Ludwick Jr. most certainly does.
John has a history of tastefully modifying all manner of vehicles. Some of the cars he chooses to wrench on are universally loved, while others are the black sheep of their respective automotive family. A self diagnosed sufferer of automotive attention deficit disorder, John has had nearly 100 vehicles pass through his possession. A seriously impressive number when you consider that John is well under 40 years of age.
With the number of cars bought, sold, or traded nearing the triple digits one might assume John got into cars early, but having spent his late teens and early twenties riding BMX professionally, John wasn’t able to dive both feet into his car obsession until his mid-twenties.
At 34, by the numbers, he’s owned about 10 different cars each year since 25, modifying or building roughly half.
Some of the cars John purchased stayed only for a moment while others have proven to have staying power. Since 2011, a few of John’s more noteworthy builds include an ’89 Fox wagon, a mini-tank to go with said wagon, W111 Mercedes-Benz fintail, a MK1.5 Derby Polo, and a B3 Passat.
Those cars are all gone, and today John’s immediate stable consists of a European market BBS kitted 1981 BMW 735i, a chopped, channeled and bagged Chevrolet Corvair, and several projects including a ’52 Chevrolet cab over and Beetle panned BMW 700.
When it comes to cars, John isn’t the type to stay within one genre, or manufacturer. His tastes seemingly change with the wind, the only constant being a desire to be tastefully unique and low to the ground.Just Zhiguli From The Bloc
John’s broad taste, and a past life as a traveling athlete, has allowed him to build a fairly wide net of enthusiasts around the globe in which he can share his passion. With a deep seated love for the European car community, John has several friends in the EU which he visits rather frequently.
On one such trip, John’s plan was to land in England and caravan across Europe, eventually ending up in Austria for Wörthersee. On the night he landed, over some good food and better conversation John let it slip that he always had a bit of a soft spot for pre-80s Eastern Bloc vehicles. The history surrounding these cars, along with the literal and political climate they were created have always been a point of interest to John.
As it so often does with friends, one thing lead to another and the local internet classifieds were brought on screen to see “what was out there”.
Within a few clicks John ended up responding to an ad for a 1979 Lada. Over the phone the owner said that car was sold. Disappointed, but also slightly relieved, John was about to hang up before the seller replied “…however, I have another for sale.”
John made an appointment to see the car on the one free day he had available, and the low kilometer, pre-Lada branded Zhiguli was exactly what he desired. The only problem was its location.
A string of phone calls, and text messages later a relay team, both locally and abroad, was set up to shuttle the car from Russia back to the United States.
Leaving with a Lithuanian ownership, and the word of a stranger who gladly took his money, John set forth to Austria hoping his rather hastily prepared plan would work out in the end.
Thankfully the seller was on the level, and all the players did their part. Just before traversing through the Euro Tunnel, John received pictures of the car on a rollback trailer; the first stop in the Zhiguli’s journey to the United States.20/20 Vision
If you were to look at the car above, and squint just a little bit, the round headlights, chrome bumpers, and chrome trim could be mistaken for an early BMW. From the side, again with a little bit of imagination, they slightly resemble a Datsun 510.
Car manufacturers of that time were all roughly on the same wavelength which mean many cars shared similar styling cues.
Because cars shaped like smoothed over bricks were not foreign to John, he had a pretty good idea of how to proceed with the Zhiguli, even though he’d never seen one done quite the way he wanted.
To truly get a feel for the Zhiguli experience, John intended to drive the car stock when it arrived stateside. That’s when he encountered the first road block to owning and building a Russian car stateside.
The car needed a complete brake overhaul and the parts required could only be found in Russia. The wait time for these parts measured in weeks, not days, so with the car already on the hoist, John expedited his plans to bring the car down several inches in ride height.
While the brake parts were in transit, John called up his friends at Bagriders who shipped him out an Air Lift Performance 3H system and a box of Air Lift universal struts and bags.
This wasn’t John’s first endeavour in putting an oddball car on air ride, and with help from his father, John was able to get the car sitting at a much more respectable height within two weeks.
With a bit of guard rolling, and carefully selected tire widths, John was able to fit up a set of slightly refurbished 15×8-inch Magnesium BBS e76 wheels. Prior to the BBS wheels John also ran a set of Epsilion wheels with custom made turbo fans.
Building the turbofans was a unique challenge, but in the end he decided the BBS wheels fit the car better overall.Simple Cruising
As far as further modifications go, this car doesn’t really have any. What you see is what you get, with a fair share of elbow grease applied to give it that bit of extra shine. Being such a rare car it already stood out so John saw no reason to go to extreme with the body.
Instead John opted for period correct accessories. The owner of a Laser cutting company, Nightlazer, John’s added a few unique bits to the car throughout.
The engraved ride height controller mount was a custom one off piece built by John, and tucked in the engine bay John also engraved the oil filter with the Lada logo alongside the Nightlazer logo.
John also cut the window gates, himself, and they’re so fitting that they could almost be mistaken for a factory original accessory.
Outside of those few items the rest of the motor and interior is factory ’74 spec. It’s spartan and utilitarian, but it also works.
Though the car just makes highway speed, John insists it is an absolute pleasure to drive.Moving On
Since late summer of 2018, when these photos were taken, John has decided to part ways with the car and now currently lives in California. He enjoyed the car and what he’d done with it, but it’s time in his possession had come to its natural end.
His intention now is focused on his Corvair, which he thinks could look good with a little bit of Shakotan flair. But before that he’d ought to finish his BMW 700 that just became one with the aforementioned Beetle pan.
After that’s done he’d also like to have a go at a 16-valve Cosworth, and after that a 190e EVO2. He’s also got his half way started cabover truck to attend to… All of this is assuming nothing else catches his eye between now and then.
Don’t bee too surprised if more of John’s work makes it to the site sometime in then future.
Photography by Keiron Berndt