Another jovial look at some automotive blunders, which for whatever reason, were rubbish.We take a peek behind the Iron Curtain to see what awful cars they could produce when they put their minds to it.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury… The Lada Samara.
Just because a car is dreadful, it doesn’t have to mean it’s all that bad, does it? Some examples include vehicles, which at best, were very average – like the Avenger, Marina and Vauxhall Chevette. These were cars that we now look back upon with warm fondness. Some have been truly fantastic at changing the shape of things to come – like the Escort Mk3 of 1980 and Vauxhall Astra MK2; but both were just as good as rusting away than they were at racking up sales.
They proved that mediocrity can sell. Even cheap imported cars can have their place too, look at the incredible success of Skoda for example – the quality of its workmanship today is of such high standard, the company is entrusted to produce body shells for Bentley!
We laugh and joke at Lada Rivas and the FSO Polonez, but they were two cars quite literally designed to withstand a direct hit from an American missile. Rugged on the outside yet flimsy and hopelessly out of date inside, they were both reasonably successful here in the UK – and many owners bought them time after time. Could you seriously imagine driving an Allegro or Viva head on into a Soviet snow blizzard in temperatures of minus 15?
Let’s face it folks, its not going to happen. I owned two Rivas going a while ago, and one of them was driven into the rear of a Stanza. It created such an impact, that it measured 5.6 on the Richter scale in Orkney. Yet all I suffered was a broken lamp, smashed grille and twisted bumper.
So there. I love the Lada Riva and the 1200/1500/1600 before that – but what the hell were they thinking of with the Lada Samara?
Back in 1988 as an avid brochure collector, our town had a fairly large dealer. My mate and I wandered in to see this all-new front-wheel drive Lada. Even then as a 14-year old, I could see that the plastics inside were even more brittle and more prone to snapping than an LP – and just as sharp. The smell inside was a mixture of glue and that horrible whiff you find with really cheap universal car mats. My word, this seemed a truly dreadful car. The Riva looked ancient in comparison, yet had a sort of basic durable charm you could forgive its shortcomings. The Samara, however, was just plain tripe!
It was the kind of car that would make an early Maestro feel as well crafted as an Audi. I will never forget how shocked I was after first driving one. An ex-girlfriend’s mother bought a new 1100E, and for reasons I fail to recall, I had to borrow it for a couple of days. Everything – and I do mean everything – was either awful or downright dangerous; the brakes for example would do nothing until the pedal was virtually crushing the carpet, and the ride comfort was on a par with a Blackpool donkey. The performance and torque of the 1099cc engine was unlike anything else I had ever driven – it was even more gutless than a filleted Cod.
But I do remember it featured superb headlamps.
Badly made, weak engines, grotty interior trim and dreadful road manners make you wonder how well they fared on home turf. And they didn’t – because the Soviets continued to buy the Riva. The Samara was designed purely to gain a foothold in the West European market.
And the only reason they sold in any number in the UK was simply because the average Samara buyer must have been either brain-dead; or because a seriously cheap new car was all they hankered for. I knew a chap, who worked as a mechanic in a Lada dealer in Northamptonshire, and he would recall tales of such horror about these terrible cars. I used to think he was making some of them up.
Electrical fires, brake failure, radios going up in smoke, drive shafts disintegrating and window winder cables snapping were just some of the regular routine items he would be attending to on a regular basis. An AA patrol man who drank in my local boozer once stated that he had never worked on such rubbish in all the 20-odd years he had worked in the service.
Lada then saw fit to introduce a saloon version of the Samara which was equally dire in every sense, by now, they were uncompetitive in the marketplace, the only way dealers could shift them was by throwing in extra kit and offering unbeatable finance deals. As the 1990s progressed, rival Pacific Rim makers, such as Daewoo, Hyundai and Proton swept away the Lada brand.
Lada died in the UK in 1996 following Satra Motors’ (the UK based importers) decision to cease importing the cars mainly on emission grounds. I still miss the Riva and the pint sized and capable Niva 4×4 (which you can now buy new in the UK thanks to Mark Key) – the latter being a decent bog hopper and great fun.
But the Samara was the last word in automotive hell!