Ach! The Devil’s work!
Yep, the Lada Riva, or, under its official designations, the VAZ-2105, VAZ-2104 and VAZ-2107, the Soviet Union’s attempt at a mass-production car, but what instead became the butt of every conceivable joke you could imagine. It has literally evolved into the symbol of everything that was wrong in the USSR, a shining testament to automotive failure and why communism and its ideals don’t work in the real world. However, in spite of this, the Riva has garnered something of a tender following, and really has become the pinnacle of a very odd nostalgia drive.
To trace the Riva, you need to go back way beyond its launch in 1979, but to the 1960’s, when Fiat was designing the 124. The 124 has become something of a classic in the eyes of many motoring fans, while rust-prone and unreliable at times, the car was favoured for its performance and style, a true 60’s family saloon. So how did an Italian saloon from the 60’s end up being the USSR’s pride and joy for the 80’s?
Well, such was the popularity of the 124 that it was produced under license all across the globe, in India, Spain, Bulgaria, Turkey, Korea, Egypt, and, of course, the USSR. Fiat entered into an agreement with Soviet manufacturer VAZ in 1966, allowing the company the rights to built the 124 in Samara. The deal also called for Fiat to assist in the construction of a massive, top-of-the-range (by Soviet standards) car plant in the brand new town of Togliatti, named after the famous Italian communist leader. The factory produced an adapted version of the 124 known as the VAZ-2101 “Zhiguli” (sold as the Lada 1200/1300 in export markets), until 1982, and 1200s until 1987. Changes made between the 124 and the 2101 included having an entirely different Fiat OHC engine, a
hydraulic clutch, drum brakes at the rear and modified suspension.
With the VAZ-2101 and its derivatives now being produced by the Soviet Union, the company could now derive the technology into further models. In essence, the Riva is mechanically identical to the 2101, including the same Fiat-derived manual transmission, coil spring suspension and aluminium alloy drum brakes with cast iron brake shoes on the rear wheels. Engines ranged from an Inline-4 1.2L engine producing 65hp to a larger 1.5L engine. However, the concept of fuel injection for the car wasn’t included until 1992, which is a touch dated, seeing as Western countries had mastered this concept long before the Riva was even introduced!
The car was marketed under several guises, ranging from the VAZ-2105 base saloon, to the 2104 estate and the 2107 ‘luxury’ saloon, an ironic gesture, seeing as in a Communist country no one is supposed to be better than anyone else. The luxury 2107 was notable for being fitted with a chrome grille, a new instrument panel, and an ‘improved’ interior, which basically consisted of giving the front seats headrests, a basic standard feature on pretty much every other car in existence. They are popularly known as Pyatyorka (“the five”), Chetvyorka (“the four”) and Semyorka (“the seven”).
Nevertheless, the car was launched in 1979, with mass-production beginning in earnest in 1980. The 2105 was first, followed by the 2107 in 1982, and the 2104 in 1984. Sales both inside the USSR and across the Soviet states were very strong, largely because other nations in the Warsaw Pact had no choice but to take them on, or risk facing the wrath of the Russian government. Outside the Soviet Union, many allies of the USSR were allowed to sell the Riva, including Egypt, Libya, Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. A few exceptions did exist though, including Finland, where the car was sold due to strong
economic ties with Russia.
Beyond that, the car was exported to nations including Canada, Holland, New Zealand and, much to our misfortune, Great Britain. In Canada, the car was sold as the Dennis Signet, named after the importer of the cars Peter Dennis. Sales in New Zealand were organised by none other than the New Zealand Dairy Board of all people, who recieved the cars in lieu of cash payments for deliveries of mutton and butter to the Soviet Union. In this nation, the cars served as taxis and were sold until 1990 when the USSR finally were able to cough up the money to buy dairy products legitimately.
While not much is known about Dutch sales of Lada Riva’s, the UK market was of particular interest, seeing as when the car was launched here in 1983, Mrs. Thatcher, perhaps the most staunch anti-communist in the world, had just been elected as Prime Minister. In a bold move, Lada sold the car here, hoping to garner a market by way of low sales prices but with high durability. Indeed the Riva can be noted for the fact that it was much cheaper than the rival Vauxhall Cavalier and Austin Montego, but offered just as much in terms of comfort and luxury, as noted in a somewhat shining review by Autocar magazine. Autocar noted its low price of only £3,158, improved road performance and an “impressive list of standard equipment”, which included “height-adjustable headlamps, internally adjustable driver’s door mirror, velour-covered seats, heated rear window, illumination lights for bonnet and boot”, and a 21-piece toolkit. Believe it or not though, the Riva sold incredibly well here in the UK, with 20,000 sold in 1987, and 30,000 in 1988. The reason why the car sold was because it was so cheap to buy and run, perhaps one of the earliest economy cars of its time, while at the same time
offering oodles of comparative luxury that you just didn’t get in the likes of a Metro or a Ford Fiesta.
However, the main problem that dragged the Riva down, and resulted in it becoming a byword for everything wrong with Soviet engineering is this; it was rubbish! To start with, the design; internally the car dated back to the 1960’s, it was so antique you could auction it off as an ancient relic the moment you drove it out of the showroom. Next, the reliability; while it was marketed as having high durability, the car’s build quality in the Soviet factories was abysmal. Cars left the factory in such a variety of poor conditions that every penny you saved on buying it, you spent on trying to fix it. Electrical faults, loose panels, trim that rattled and fell off at certain speeds, mechanical issues, suspension failures, you name it, the Riva suffered from it. Next, the performance; the car had no power-steering, so taking corners was a life and death decision. Turning the wheel was like grinding wheat with stone, you had to be a body-builder to get it to go around even the most gentle of bends. The speed was like something from the Victorian era, with a 0-60 of 9 seconds and a top speed of 112mph, not that you’d risk going that fast for fear the car would fall apart. The cars breaks were also a huge point of contention, largely because the drums were made from aluminium, which has absolutely no ability to stop, nay, slow, the Riva, not helped by its nuclear bunker steel that made the car weigh an absolute ton. On the subject of steel, that’s one thing we can give the Riva, it’s incredibly safe. It’s almost indestructable body means that if it was involved in a collision, your car would probably be pretty much intact, while if the other car is anything other than another Riva, it’d be reduced to scrap!
Despite being the synonym for hopeless Soviet build-quality, the car remained on sale in the UK until 1997, when EU legislation on emissions requirements meant that such an inefficient and pollutant car as the Riva could no longer be allowed, though attempts had been made in the past to fit the car with a catalytic converter, resulting in reduced reliability (though, by this stage, I didn’t think it was possible to be any less reliable!). The car remained in production in Russia though until 2012, following a gradual removal of the cars from sales listings. This doesn’t mean that the car wasn’t selling well though, in fact, 2011 saw sales increase by 140% over the previous year, an annual output of 28,633 cars, not bad for a design that was 41 years old! Against all odds, the car’s production was transferred from its original Togliatti Plant to a new line at the IzhAvto plant near Izhevsk, where construction continued until 2012, ending a production run of 14 million units, putting it in the same figures as the Mini and the VW Beetle. But still, even though production ended in Russia, the car is still technically in production by Suzuki Egypt, who bought the license to build the car in 2006 and have been doing it, though sporadically, ever since.
So, the Lada Riva, what can you say about it? Well, when you mention it at a car show, most sentiment is usually derogatory. Personally, I’m inclined to agree to a point. The Riva is truly a dreadful car, due mostly however to its build quality. The original Fiat design was practical and stylish, and its performance, for what it was, did have something to it. The Riva’s changes to this winning design, apart from making it uglier and underperforming, were only the tip of its notorious iceberg.
The fact that in the Soviet Union, a nation hellbent on beating the West for military might, highly under-invested in the car’s production and therefore construction was shoddy. At the same time, no one had really any incentive to make a decent car, since the communist ideal was that everybody earned the same as everyone else, so doing a good job wasn’t exactly rewarded. This wasn’t just a problem for the building of the car, but also the building of the parts for the car. In other words, the communistic system that spawned the wretched Lada Riva was very much the cause of its reputation.
I really don’t know how or why it was sold here in Britain, but its reign of terror was thankfully short-lived. The rise of more economical cars, as well as the hideous unreliability of the Riva, meant that most disappeared from the roads by the beginning of the 2000’s. This has been helped along by the likes of Jeremy Clarkson, who tore one Lada in half with a pair of giant Quarry Dumpers, and smashed up another in a head-to-
head race against another hopeless, communist hell-spawn, the Morris Marina.
Today, only a few hundred remain on the roads of Britain, if that. Most aren’t willingly kept up by people who couldn’t afford something else, as they’d have part-exchanged it for a plant pot and bought a proper car years ago! Most, from experience, are maintained by either people who like to relive the glory days of the Cold War (when we all lived in fear of global extinction day-in day-out), or just want something different. A properly maintained Riva you could probably use frequently enough, most one’s I’ve encountered only have the external body-panels they left the factory with, while everything else has been replaced by much more robust parts from Nissan’s and Suzuki’s.
The Lada Riva very much earns its place as one of the worst cars ever, as well as being the butt of pretty much every joke that was ever written about an automobile (second only to the Trabant, probably). It was outdated, underpowered, impossible to drive, slow, under-equipped, boring as a Rice Cracker, suffered from biblical unreliability, would fall apart at the first given opportunity and was all around just a hateful, hateful machine.