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.
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.
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!
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.