In Memoriam: Lada Riva 1300L

A look at some of the less likely extinct cars in the UK, according to data supplied by the brilliant How Many Left? website based on DVLA data.

 6: Lada Riva 1300L

The Soviet Union gave Western Europe more than just the threat of Nuclear oblivion and premium Vodka but for example – cars. The Lada Riva has become one of the most produced cars in the world and buyers in the UK took it into their Hearts by the thousand. But where there was once thousands, now, many models are extinct in Britain – the Riva 1300L included.

Lada Riva. Once a popular mode of budget transport with a loyal following.

Did you hear the one about the new 16 valve Lada…..
Eight valves in the engine and eight valves in the radio!

Jokes like the above are now as old as time itself, Lada, still a producer of cars, no longer import into the United Kingdom on a volume scale, and its Riva 1300L model is now extinct. FSO are now long gone, though Skoda are now seen as a credible alternative to mainstream marques thanks to huge investment from Volkswagen, clever advertising and a network of friendly dealers that all seem to sing from the same Hymn book trying to create “happy drivers”. The days of cheap and sometimes nasty imported cars from behind the Iron Curtain are well and truly over.

Back in 1974, Lada cars started importing vehicles  into the small Humberside town of Carnaby, just outside Humberside, an ideal location as the cars entered the UK via Grimsby. The vehicles were based on the Fiat 124, but owing to the Soviet climate, the steel was of extra heavy duty thickness and the charging system along with the suspension was beefed up to cope with numerous other minor detail changes. Crude and stark compared  to European cars, these new vehicles quickly gained a reputation for being rugged, reliable, practical and above all – cheap!

There was no other 4 door saloon or estate of its size on the UK market that could compare at that time, so now where once you only could afford a used car, Lada would sell you a new one for the same money or maybe even less. Powered by a range of OHC engines up to 1600cc, they soon became a regular sight on British roads. Lada also became known for having excellent dealers that would stand on the warranty, parts back up was also excellent putting many established manufacturers to shame in terms of customer satisfaction and aftersales.

1983 saw the arrival of the Lada Riva, a car still reliant on the design of  the outgoing Fiat based model but featuring new panels  and interiors of Lada’s own work . A new Lada designed belt driven 1300cc OHC engine was also introduced adding better refinement and quieter running in part thanks to an electric cooling fan which sped up the warming up time while also giving better fuel economy. The exisiting chain driven OHC engines of 1200, 1500 & 1600cc continued to be built though they were much harsher on the ear than the new engine.

Features of the Riva included huge halogen headlamps with wipers and manual self leveling control. larger rear lamp clusters with integral fogs, vastly improved new seats and a more modern soft feel dashboard with European conforming warning lights and symbols. As with all lada’s, a comprehensive tool kit came as standard too, this comprised of a 10mm allen key, spanners, plug in lead lamp, combination screwdriver, feeler blade, tyre pressure gaugue, tyre lever, styrup pump and even a small tin of factory paint all neatly wrapped in a leatherette tool roll that was buckled to the inside of the trunk – a kit which I stil treasure somewhere in my garden shed.

The ancient Fiat based OHC range of engines were not suited to the later emission criteria.

As a driving experience, they were best described as fairly uninspiring especially round town or in congested traffic. The rod type linkage for the throttle made smooth getaways difficult to acheive while the low geared yet heavy steering was a pain when parking. Out on the open road however, they were fairly ok, the base model 1.2 was as gutless a fish fillet but the rest of the models were pretty lively considering the bulk and aerodynamics of the car being similar to a Royal Navy Aircraft Carrier. Braking systems comprised of large discs and equally generous rear drums made of finned alluminium with steel bands inside, along with servo assistance, the Riva had pretty good stopping power.

Careful attention to detail under the bonnet made sure every aspect of servicing and repair was a doddle to undertake, with the aforementioned tool kit providing every tool you needed to complete a yearly service. The only reason to raise the front of the car was to drain the oil, everything else was reachable from one side of the car with nothing hidden or fiddly – a DIY and full time mechanics dream. The 1300cc engine fitted into the L SL and van featured a timing gear arrangement the same as the 2.0 Ford “Pinto” engine and the cam belt itself was the same part as Ford. Another bonus was the “safe” design of the engine, meaning none of the valves clashed in the event of the cam belt jumping or breaking.

Transmissions were of a Fiat design and shared with the FSO 125 & Polonez range, initially 4 speed but later cars excluding the 1200 models gained a 5th speed. Lada’s were known for a distinctive melodic whine in the intermediate gears of which I used to find quite soothing and providing the gear oil was changed at the right interval, the box was as tough as old boots taking a lot of abuse. The rear axle was a conventional hypoid type secured by coil springs and locating arms, once again, no frills, tough as hell and simplicity in itself. Front suspension was a double wishbone type with anti-roll bar and coil springs, as before, an uprated Fiat design with a long wheel travel for those Soviet or English country potholes.

Moving inside the vehicles, the most basic 1200 Riva was a very spartan machine with its bake o lite gear knob, vinyl seats and blanking plate where you would expect to find a radio. Move up a model and cloth seats and carpets were there with extra sound insulation here and there. Top of the range models wich were the 1300 SL 1500 GLS and the later 1600 SLX actually looked fairly smart inside. Identified by the large chrome grille and fluted bonnet, these models added velour high back seats, thicker luxury carpet, padded 4 spoke steering wheel, a radio cassette player, internally adjustable mirrors and a comprehensive “6 pot” dash with rev counter, oil & charge dials and extra warning lights.

The Lada Riva was a genuine 5 seater car and spacious estate which was an alternative to a used car purchase, vastly superior to drive and travel in than the Citroen 2CV, less crude than an FSO 125 and more conforming to the normal than the Skoda Estelle. The main reason for the car doing so well in Britain was down to the fact that here was a roomy car that would do the job and indeed go the distance for less money new than some second hand family cars, whatever jokes that were told about Lada, its was the company who had the last laugh as more and more people tried one for size and came back for more, many staying loyal to the brand right to the very end with thanks due to the dealers who on the whole, offered a first class level of customer care.

Lada Cars were also an effective user of marketing and visual awareness, and often sponsored various public and sporting events, hosting many top level snooker tournaments on television in the 1980’s & 90’s. As popularity increased, Lada offered special editions and for a short while, even offered performance kits and body styling to make your car go faster or look smarter. The parts back up was excellent thanks to the UK importers at Carnaby carrying a huge amount spares and parts also offering a true VOR (vehicle off road ) service. All this contributed to the cars popularity in the UK, some mainstream car makers could not even offer such a professional attitude to back up and customer service.

As the 1980s progressed, the popularity of Lada’s were at its height with 33500 being sold in 1988 alone, an amazing feat for an imorted vehicle from the Soviet Union which made up for just over 2% of the total registrations of that that year. But from that year onwards, sales of the Riva slowly started to decline, allthough the all new Samara which was launched a couple of years previous contributed to the decline of the Riva’s popularity, the main reason was other marques such as Proton and Hyundai offering cheap vehicles of a much more modern design. The coffin nails came out in 1993 with the requirement for petrol engined cars to be fitted with a catalytic converter for emissions criteria.

Other makers had developed either single or multi point fuel injection offering an automatic enrichment when cold, superior control over fueling, creating a leaner and cleaner burn – being green was becoming the “new black”. Lada fitted converters to the Riva but did not have the financial  or technical know how to develop fuel injection and had to make do with a carburettor. Owing to the vehicle still having a manual choke, the fueling was too rich for the precious metals contained within the catalyst and therefore, the expensive catalyst would be destroyed. As a consequence, many cars would fail their first MOT after 3 years and the viability of fitting a new cat would often be questioned.

The used value of Ladas, as with other Eastern Bloc cars was always very poor, and many to went to the car park in the sky simply because the cat was so expensive to replace, and quite often would need replacing again in a short time. As more modern budget vehicles came onto the market Lada went into terminal decline. In 1995 Daewoo entered the scene with its range of re-skinned Astra and Cavalier’s offering everything as standard, 3 year warranty, 3 years free servicing, 3 years breakdown cover. Features we now take for granted such as power steering, ABS and in some cases – air conditioning were not even listed as options with Lada and by 1996, the game was up.

Another fact was the cost involved of getting the cars fit for sale and making them comply to European type approval. The import centre in Humberside was really a production line and a considerable amount of time and money would be spent as items such as lights, tyres, batteries, seat belts and even sunroofs or side stripes would have to changed or retro fitted to comply with UK law. In some cases, the cars would often need respraying or have panels fitted thanks to the cargo ship crew damaging them or climbing over the roofs to move around the decks. Towards the end, the cost base could not be trimmed any further and even aggressive pricing resulting in the thinnest of profit margains could not stem the loss of sales.

As I mentioned earlier, Lada dealers were on the whole, small and often family run garages that built up an excellent customer base. Many went on to sell the once rival brands such as Kia or Proton, continuing to make a good job of it by offering the customer what they want – a no nonsense car and personal service, something often sadly lacking with some of the other main dealer corporates. I owned two Riva’s back in the early 1990’s, the first one I bought just for the hell of it, but so impressed I was with the way it behaved and performed, I sold it and bought a newer one. Okay, the quality was not tip top and they were prone to going rusty round the edges, but I just adored the way the brand pretended to be nothing more than a simple and reliable alternative to walking or public transport!

The FWD Samara was a much more modern car but with awful quality problems!

Problems in service with Ladas were not as bad as some may think, issues with the fusebox were not unheard of and the base plate in the distributor would fail giving a huge mis-fire. Corrosion was fairly common around the edges of the wings but patern made parts were often more rust resistant than the originals. Most Lada’s were sold on after 3 years as many owners would simply go back to the dealer and buy another, and once they had reached their 3rd birthday, they were worth very little second hand. Out of all of the Eastern Imports Lada were probably the most rounded product in terms of dealer infrastructure, running costs and ease of repair.

Lada’s import company Satra Motors closed down some years ago, but Lada are still shipping cars into the UK though on a far smaller scale via an independent importer in the form of the 4×4 Niva. The government scrappage scheme and the Soviet Union buying back many Ladas in the mid to late 1990s saw the number of these cheap but robust cars disappear almost overnight. The Samara was a brave attempt to make a more modern Lada, but its quality was dismal and was never as popular as the old Riva.

Posted in: In Memoriam, The Rivals
Mike Humble

About the Author:

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade. Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications

32 Comments on "In Memoriam: Lada Riva 1300L"

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  1. AndyfLeeds says:

    Exelent article. I worked for a family run Lada dealership in North Yorkshire in the mid 80’s. I had one of the first Samaras imported in to the UK as a company car it was jazed up at Carnaby with front and rear spoilers,fancy paint job, wheel trims, fancy graphics etc. used to park up on Bridlington seafront and watch peoples reactions when they relised it was a Lada! Happy (and profitable) days. A local GM dealer offered me a job, coudnt understand why I would rather sell Ladas than Lutons finest, till I told him what commission I was earning. The cars may have been so so, but high customer service / satisfaction ment they kept coming back for more!

  2. Simon Hodgetts says:

    These were such a common sight once – it’s hard to explain to people who weren’t around in the late 70s and 80s just how popular Eastern Bloc cars were – I remember plenty of Polski-Fiats (later to be FSOs) and Wartburgs being around when I was a kid. My uncle had 3 Ladas in succession – I think he liked the socialist worker connotations! From what I remember they were rugged, decent value, and when compared with the likes of the Morris Ital, Hyundai Pony and for that matter the Mk4/5 Cortina, still reasonably modern! I would imagine that affordable 2nd hand cars such as the Mk3 Escort and Mk2 Cavalier killed demand, especially once even the most penny-pinching car buyers cottoned on to what they were missing out on!

  3. Joe Strong says:

    I watched many Ladas going back home and being broken up on the decks of cargo ships during 1991 and 1992 while building a tall structure on the bank of the trent at Flixborough. Newspapers at the time reported that the shells were dumped in the sea when the good bits had been stripped.
    Last saw a good Riva a couple of years ago in daily use in Downham Market, no idea what model.
    Many thanks for the article.

  4. Simon Hodgetts says:

    There are a lot of Ladas in Jamaica – something to do with a part payment for a huge shipment of iron ore, used to make steel for the body shells………

  5. Stevemac says:

    Bought a 1992 Riva 1.5e back in 1999 from a motor auction for £50, still had loads of MOT and only 14k miles on the clock! Drove well but was very undergeared, revved like hell but had no grunt! Sold it to a lady across the road in the hope of buying a late 1996 model, however I never found one and bought a 1990 Skoda Favorit instead (by far the worst car I ever owned, terrible in every respect!). I’d love another Riva but there are none left now to be bought….

  6. Leslie says:

    The build quality of the Samara was criminal. A friend of mine had one brought for him by his parents. When it was one year old, he was bet by a friend that it wouldn’t pass an MOT. He took up the bet and lost – not on simple things like blown light bulbs, but on structural things – the car was a death trap and the MOT station would not let him drive it home. A solicitor and some letters later and his parents got their money back provided they kept quiet and didn’t tell the papers.

  7. Dan says:

    My aunt bought an early (83/Y reg) example in the late 80’s for something stupid like £75. Had it years, never serviced it, never cleaned it, thrashed it everywhere. Kept on going and going, and never let her down. Tough as old boots. It failed the MOT on structural rot in 1995. She gave it to my cousin and his mates to use as a field car. It was scrapped (still running) in 2001. Took an unbelievable amount of punishment.

  8. Mikey C says:

    In the mid 70s the design of the Lada was only 10 years old, and the Fiat 124 was COTY in 1966! Thus it was by no means a terrible car for its day then, but 15 years later, the design was geriatric.

  9. Jonathan Carling jonathan carling says:

    Setright used to reckon you could turn a Lada into a decent driving machine if you knew which Lada parts to replace with Fiat ones. NB the sport of speedway took a turn upmarket when my local club was sponsored and re-named Hull Lada Vikings.

  10. Will101 says:

    I remember most of the lada cars in our home town being loaded on the Russian Klondyker boats down the harbour and also the local people helping out the visting russian crews with new and used white goods/clothes even food given for free more or less. They also gave items in returm stuff like telescopes, pocket watchies even rubles all this I got for handing one of them a crate of Iron brew.

    LIke the Samara these items were not good quality and the crews realy were poor to look at when you see them window shopping in town. Back then that the time Russia with its new Pressident Boris Yeltsin were slowly opening up to the western world.

    Things have progressed since then.

  11. Simon Hodgetts says:

    @Dan Lol! Reminds me of a time we were sledging on a hill in Newcastle, and some lads turned up with an up-ended Lada roof to use as a sledge!

  12. Richard16378 says:

    I remember there being a lot of Ladas (& some of the other Eastern European cars) around from about from 1986 to 1996, mostly beong owned by the over 60’s.

    By the year 2000 there wern’t that many to be seen, I guess due to wear & tear, Far Eastern brands & Russians reimporting them.

  13. Tony Evans says:

    I knew someone who bought a Lada when his Cavalier was off the road after someone crashed into it (no courtesy cars in those days!) He kept it for a couple of months and sold it for £50 more than he payed for it! It was a bit of a joke because the handling and brakes were so bad compared to the Cavalier. He said it was exciting because you were never sure where it was going to stop when you hit the brakes.

    The Lada was rough as old boots and no match for “modern” cars even in the mid/late 1980s. Even though the metal was thick, it was poor quality with a low resistance to rust. not all steels are the same and Russia couold not afford the other more expensive components of automotive steel (chrome, manganese etc) and so rust could take severe hold on a Lada well within 3 years.

    Excellent article about this largely forgotten car!

  14. Will says:

    Great write up.
    I too remember when these used to be everywhere.
    Dads friend had one, got my dad to service it. He said the handling was atrocious, it pointed in the direction *it* wanted to go!

    Was the Lada Samara related in any way to the other Eastern bloc FWD hatch the Skoda Favorit?
    They looked and engineering-wise were very similar that at the time I thought it strange that there wasn’t at least some collaboration.

    The local Lada dealer moved on to sell the Kia Pride (back in the day when Kia was producing these for Mazda/Ford as the Festiva), Sao Penza (a South African previous-gen 323) and Proton (the Mitsubishi-based Aerodeck and Saloon).

  15. Simon Hodgetts says:

    Any chance of an article on the Lada’s ‘sister’ car, the Polski-Fiat 125p?

  16. Mike Humble Mike Humble says:

    Sadly Simon, there are still a sprinkle of those ghastly buckets that survive!

    Though there may be scope for a scribe in the “other cars” section…. soon!

  17. Richard Kilpatrick Richard Kilpatrick says:

    I can’t find it now, but I remember Lada advertising one model – I think, the 1600 SLX – as being faster 0-60 than an Audi Quattro. In a similar manner to Citroën advertising the 2CV6 at 62mph being able to overtake a Porsche at 60, or some equally daft thing.

    When I was 17, I really considered the newly-announced Lada Samara 4 door. Thought it was quite a good looking car at the time; if they’d brought the 4wd Samara in I’d have been all over it.

  18. JezCarroll Jerry Carroll says:

    I was working on these from i was 13 stripping old ones for parts as the family garage specialised in these, technology was behind everyone else but cars were pretty bulletproof if maintained.
    I had to laugh when i was apprentice at college doing ignition systems and i had to show the trainee from the rolls royce garage how to set points!!

    A fiat Twink and 5sp box would fall in to one of these no probs but even the 1600 with a genuine weber would shift, only thing that would limit your speed was how worn the steering box was ahh happy days

    However the samara was dynamically inferior horrible to drive whereas the riva/1200 was just difficult heh heh

  19. Mike Humble Mike Humble says:


    You are quite right, Lada briefly introduced some performance packages that included twin carbs and sports exhausts.

    I think the acceleration times were something like its 30 – 50 times being better that the Audi – obviously, when its turbo was still asleep.

    Fnarr Fnarr!

  20. Rob C Rob C says:

    @AndyfLeeds I too worked at my local Lada dealer in sales, we also had the Hyundai franchise, and we were joined by Proton in 89 when they launched in the UK. After grabbing whatever car may be around with tax and MOT to use, I was eventually given a Samara 1.5 SLX, in red, said bodykit, some snazzy wheel trims, spoiler etc etc, and it also had the Lada badge removed, it certainly looked the part at the time, and again people were like hey nice car, what is it? and wouldn’t believe me when I said a Lada! Was great until some bloke pulled out in a Escort van right in front of me and bent it, saw it around a couple of times after I left the dealers. The Rivas were steady sellers at the time, we had a 1600 one, tweaked with go faster bits, and it went really well, but you had to be brave when it came to handling, finished in white, with colour coded bumpers and a body kit, it was affectionately known as the flying brick. Ahh they were happy days.

  21. Dr Bobby Love says:

    “In Soviet Russia, Lada sells YOUR body parts!”

  22. Graham says:

    True story.

    In approximately 1992 my brother bought an as-new, never used 1986 Lada 1200 from a work colleague for £200. The gentleman had bought it new as a surprise for his wife, displayed on the front lawn complete with ribbon. The wife refused to drive it because it was a Lada. He kept it, unused, in the garage for his daughter to learn in when she turned 17. Same reaction.

    It needed a new exhaust system but was otherwise as it left the showroom. Bargain. It ended up being shipped back from whence it came, for, I believe, more than the £200 originally paid.

    It was a good, strong, ultra-reliable and comfortable car, cheap elements notwithstanding.

  23. Glenn Aylett says:

    A familiar sight as a taxi in Sheffield in the 80s as the drivers understood that Rivas were far cheaper and just as reliable as rivals from Ford and British Leyland. Also were they any worse than the Maestro/Montego or the rust buckets Fiat were proudcing at the time?
    I did drive a Riva 1300 SL not long after passing my test and for all the steering was quite heavy and the gearchange crunched, it managed to keep up with other traffic on the motorway, was no noisier than the Fiesta diesel I’d learned to drive in and was quite comfortable with huge front seats covered in some fuzzy velour. Also the salesman I was working for had owned three and said they were far more reliable than any other car he had owned.

  24. Ian Roberts says:

    Bought a new Riva Estate 1300cc to use as a taxi. Took it straight from the showroom to the council taxi test garage. It failed on a leaking front N/S Shock absorber!

    Despite this minor temporary setback it gave me over 100,000 miles of service and did not fail as much as the other lads Sierra’s. I had two customers who refused to get in it and I offered free rides if the customer could tell me a Lada joke I hadn’t already heard! I even had one customer who used to ask for me to pick him after a night out on the pull Always a different girl with him, carefully delivered to his house where his Ferrari would be parked in his drive!

    Oh, and i gained the nickname ‘Nikki Lada’ amongst the town’s taxi drivers and customers.

    Loved that car.

  25. Buttyboy says:

    Remember how heavy the steering was above all else. And somehow stalling in the middle of a roundabout whereupon it just stopped and the ignition wouldn’t turn.
    But by and large it was what it was. Cheap, old-fashioned, A to B fare.
    They were once so common. Amazing to see how quickly they’re disappearing.

  26. cags says:

    oh this brings back memories, my dad was manageing director of lada at carnaby in north humberside in the late 70 s early 80 s and we obviously had a lot of ladas, as children we thought they were great but do remember the term “tank” being used by my dad alot. Visiting the dads office used to be good fun i remeber there being rows and rows of ladas all waiting to be shipped out! They may be a joke car now but on the back of the lada i had a very happy and comfortable childhood so im a fan!

  27. Richard says:

    Great article. I drove a Lada 1500 (dead ringer for the old Fiat 125) in Canada in 1979. It was quite lively.
    Weren’t Lada’s biggest UK sales in the now long gone mining communities? I remember driving through Barnsley in the mid-eighties and being astonished by the numbers of Ladas on the road there. The understandable appeal of a new car for less than a second hand Escort (or whatever) was a big selling point for all the old Eastern Bloc cars and the Lada, when it arrived in the 70s, was a big step-up from the Moskvich.
    What happened to the Carnaby operation? When I was last in that neck of the woods all I could see were miles and miles of Hyundais and Kias waiting to be picked up by transporters.

  28. MARK SARGEANT says:

    I have owned 1 Moskvitch 1 Skoda 1 FSO and 3 Ladas. The problem with my last Lada was that they tried to mix carb with cat via automatic choke. It kept failing the emission test, and we discovered that it was made the year cats became compulsory, so we called it early 1993 model and threw the cat away then put it through the old test. It was ok after that until something went very wrong with the ignition system. I left it in someone’s yard and he gave it to a man for banger racing. Now I own a D Reg 1987 Lada Estate with 29 k on the clock which I got from an old guy of 93 for £ 30.00. Have spent a lot on it incl new carb but it seems ok now.
    All the best from Mark Sargeant Felixstowe.

  29. Marty B says:

    Just spotted this write up. @28, I think I’ve spotted your Riva parked near Tesco in Felixstowe! Beige?

  30. Wayne says:

    A friend of mine has 50 Lada Riva’s in his barn, He told me he is going to dump them all on ebay in 10 years time. He also has 30 FSO 125p’s. He collected these cars for over 20 years.

  31. Ol says:

    I had a N reg catalyst Riva. Honestly the worst car to drive I have ever owned. It was reliable but thats all I could positively say about it. Heavy, sloppy steering, on/off brakes, crap performance and crap economy. It also managed to shear off the bolts that held the steering column to the bulkhead. Hateful cars.

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