Essay : Not Their Finest Hour – Lada Samara

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

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.

Lada Samara - A shockingly awful car in every sense?

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 Rugged on the outside yet flimsy and hopelessly out of date inside, they were both reasonably successful here in the UK – and many owners bought them time after time.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!

Savour the aroma of glue, plastic and damp carpet - check out that gear knob too!

Mike Humble

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

52 Comments

  1. In the late Eighties Samara was a quite prestigious and expensive car in USSR. It was considered sporty by many Soviets because most of Soviet cars of that time could not exceed 90 mph.

    However build quality was really awful in Perestroyka years. To buy a relatively well built car people had to be familiar with shop steward and pay at least twice compared with official price.

  2. Cars for the UK market were made/assembled at Valmet, in Finland – where Porsche and SAAB models have also been produced (and I think some Kia off roaders, too).

    I quite liked the Samara when it came out, and thought the saloon was well proportioned on the whole. The 4×4 models sold in some areas of Russia are particularly interesting, though I think the Oka should have come to the UK.

  3. (hmm. Wiki suggests that the Valmet production began after UK sales ended, but I was pretty sure I heard that story initially when the Samara was on sale.)

    Lada Tarzan

    The Lada Oka, which I first saw in Russia in 1990

  4. Is it me, or are the headlights on the white Samara absolutely enormous?

    Also the passenger seat on the the photo above appears to have collapsed!

  5. I remember working on a god-awful Samara at our village garage. We’d changed some brake pipes and when connecting them up at the master cylinder, a tiny drip of brake fluid must have found its way into an electrical relay somewhere below. About 1/2 hour after finishing up and parking the beast in the gravelly forecourt we heard a strange noise. The Samara had come to life with the starter motor turning of its own accord. As always, it was parked in gear and with the handbrake on so as the starter turned it was limping forward like some wounded animal dragging its locked back wheels in a bizarre suicide bid, headed for the main road. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing.. We averted disaster just in time.

  6. I have to admit a sneaking fondness for the special edition Samara Flyte with full bodykit and alloy wheels (both fitted by the importers at Caranby near Bridlington, East Yorkshire.) I’m a sucker for tarted-up crap, I know!

    http://carphotos.cardomain.com/ride_images/3/32/4501/25079750001_large.jpg

    http://www.motorbase.com/uploads/2004/04/30/fs_mycar.jpg

    You’ve got to admit, they do look very different to the base model above! Not a bad effort considering.

  7. I must admit I have a sneaking fondness for the special edition Samara Flyte, with bodykit and alloy wheels added by the importers at Carnaby near Bridlington in East Yorkshire. It looked very different from the basic model. I have a bit of a weakness for tarted-up rubbish!

  8. It’s amazing the difference between the Samara and the Skoda Favorit which at first glance have a similar silhouette. The Favorit was a durable, well designed, well made car that drove well, handled well, had a pokey engine that was (barring the odd HGF) bulletproof and would see many a Favorit sail past 100,000 and beyond without issue. The Samara on the other hand was just awful as the article rightly points out. I had the displeasure of owning for a brief period, a Riva, whilst waiting for a new car to arrive and having to trade in another before I lost money. I found an almost Minter 1995 Riva, which by then was only 5 years old. I have to say it was THE worst car I have ever driven, and I have driven many. Absolutely devastatingly awful in every respect, slow, handled like a maniacal pig wearing ice skates and every piece of it’s trim would fall off or break if you so much as thought of touching it. As for the Samara, having been in one a few times, I was astounded to find it was even worse. How these cars were even allowed to be sold here beggars belief. I accpt the picture above looks almost pallatable but then so did those painted egg boxes made to look like Tracey Island on Blue Peter – I wouldn’t live on one though….

  9. Don’t get me wrong, despite my fondness for cars that look almost normal (like the Samara Flyte) I wouldn’t have one! The Favorit, however, is a car that I nearly bought a couple of times in the early Nineties and still quite fancy now; the only thing that put me off was the poor quality of the interior plastics. The engineering, however, was spot-on and it was an absolute bargain. The top models with metallic paint and alloy wheels looked superb, especially the estate versions like the one below.

    Interestingly, Jeremy Clarkson (he of POWER!!!!!!!!! fame) liked the Favorit and said that it was a great first car. He also rated the Skoda Fabia vRS.

  10. When I bought my SD1 in 1996, it needed a few things doing to it before sale & they lent me a Samara.

    It was quite horrid in many ways, but it had a certain personality that was quite endearing. After a couple of weeks I was actually interested in buying it.

    But the next time I had to get them to fix another issue on the SD1, they gave me a bottle green Datsun 180B with what felt like seized suspension at the front. When I asked if I could have the Lada again, I was told no as the carburrettor had fallen to bits & they couldn’t get the parts.

    Then of course there was the fact that the few sold in Australia all had their interiors implode after a very short time. At three years old, the interiors looked like a mouse home.

    Funnily enough, the state of the interior reminded me of the interiors of series 1 SD1’s. And it should have been a warning to me to make the connection as my SD1 (1982 SE 3500 built in Feb) proceeded to have all sorts of maladies over the next two years. C’est la vie!

  11. @ Mike
    Was it the Acre Lane Garage in Northampton you went to for the brochures? I did the same trip to the same garage for the same reason. I felt at the time they were a quantum leap over the Riva, and meant Lada had a car 10 years out of date rather than 20 years out of date

  12. Tarzan is a great name for a car! Never fancied the Samara because it was so obviously badly made. The same could be said for the Yugo Sana, but that did look nice and I did look at that around ’92. Came away from the dealer realising that it would be money down the drain (the resale values were awful) and bought a Fiat Uno instead.

  13. @ MG Midget, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. This was a car company we’d known for effectively continuing Fiat 124 production with a few mods necessary for the Russian climate. Now they were attempting to break into the mainstream car market with an all new non Fiat design. The only trouble is that it wasn’t any better than the Riva. Maybe we were all more forgiving on the Riva because it was cheap but the Samara was a disappointment. It is said that Lada spent time looking at European cars when designing it but by the time the Samara got to the UK those cars were either replaced or being replaced.

  14. Precisely why the Yogu Snaoaa is such a groundbreaking car. It was inspired by the Fiat Tipo but was better in every respect, including the enthusiasts forum.

  15. When advertising the Samara (that went on to be quite popular) here in Germany the point that Porsche did much of the decelopment of body and mechanicals (incl. engine) played a significant fact (similar to the Seat Ibiza of the time). It was the time when building and selling cars was more or less a hobby (loss making) of the engineering firm Porsche…

    I don’t recall the Samara was considered THAT bad, possibly due to the fact that Lada had a very thorough check (or should I say rebuild?) of the cars setup before they were delivered. Later Samaras came from Valmet. The headlamps were amongst the best of the time (along with the huge units of the Audi 100). In terms of even pattern they will beat many of todays fancy units.

  16. Funny you mention the smell, when I was a kid I remember being in a Lada garage and sticking my head through the window of a Riva or something hoping to get a whiff of the legendary “new car” smell, instead I got the rancid odour of cheap plastic and glue!! So it wasn’t just me then!

  17. @ MG Midget

    The dealer I visited in the essay was Darlington Motor Co, but regards to Acre Lane Garage aka Corby Motors – I know the owner Steve Gatland quite well from the days when I drove a Riva. The parts guy, who`s name escapes me, knew virtually every part number off the top of his head and no matter what part you wanted, the box or packet would be placed on the counter – covered in a layer of thick dust!

    Longmarsh on London Road Wellingborough were also dealers for many years that also had a good name for square dealing!

  18. Carcraft became a national company selling these turds,and building on thier success webuyanycar has opened 80 branches in the US-who said were theres muck theres money?

  19. You paid for what you got with Ladas. These were the bottom end of the motoring ladder. They were very poorly built, and the poor sods at Carnaby did have to re-build most of the cars, and often do complete re-sprays. Door leaks were common on them too, through warped door tops! The steering was stupidly heavy, compared with the rivals such as the Favorit, which was light years ahead, but still had brittle interiors on early models, and the already mentioned HGF. Dealers however were always much more friendly than the big boys. Skoda have now become VW’s cash cow, and I believe that dinosaur Renault part own Lada.

  20. Ok confession time, I used to flog these when they first came out, and I had a brand new F plate 1500 SLX in red as my demo car. Now, this had no badges on it apart from the 1500 SLX one on the boot, no mention of Lada anywhere. With a fully colour coded kit it looked not too dissimilar from the grey one in the photo above, alas it had cheap wheeltrims and not alloys. If I had a pound for every person who said at the time, ooh nice car, I fancy that, what is it? I’d be rich, well, not rich but well off!

    I didn’t think they were that bad, but remember this was a brand new car, so hadn’t had any time to wear bits etc, and I thought it drove a hell of a lot better than the Riva. They were a cheap car and on par with stuff coming over from FSO, Skoda and Yugo.

    I did a fair few miles in it before someone pulled out in front of me and it got a bit bent. Ended up with a Riva or a Hyundai Pony depending which was in then.

    Hell I’d buy one today just for the crack, but I’d rather have a nice Stellar 1.6 GSL!

  21. Last word in motoring hell?

    I treated myself belatedly to “Cars of Eastern Europe” at Christmas – £35 RRP but £24 on Amazon – 400+ pages of stuff you are unlikely to find elsewhere – and nominate the Dacia 500/Lastun – a real GRP horror – “panels destined never to meet in the same place on consecutive cars” .

    Incidentally, there’s also a couple of pages on IMV locally built Minis, 1300s and Maxis

  22. I alsways remember the Chevette being very well regarded when on sale. Certainly not a car that would have been lumped in with the Marina!

  23. I was somewhat surprised to travel behind a N plate rather cherished Samara driven by some old chap I think. Distinctly remembered as he was crawling along my local bypass at peak time. Gave me a chance to follow something a little unusually seen on the road. Reminded me of the most recent Ladas on British road, and how we had FSOs and Yugos too.

  24. The description of the smell from the interior reminds me of a Jonway that was at the 2009 IAA in Frankfurt. At the time I heard another show visitor remark, “do they they want to poison their customers with the plasticiser fumes?”

  25. Skodas of that era were just as bad, the early Favorit I owned (’89 G) was and still is (I’ve owned over 75 cars in my life) by a huge margin, the worst car. On a 34k mile example at 4 years old the following went wrong in a two year period:- Two front dampers leaked, needed welding on both front portions of the sills, Brake servo developed a fault, had to be replaced, both rear brake cylinders failed, front Callipers seized and leaked from pistons, both front window winders snapped, Head Gasket failed twice, several relays in the fusebox failed causing all kinds of grief, no headlights etc. Fuel gauge failed, Rev counter failed, Sunroof leaked, heaters failed, bottoms of all four doors were well on their ways to being holed with rust too by the time I sold the thing too… However, the 1997 Felicia 1.6LX I bought a few years later was a cracking car, dead reliable and nice to drive

  26. Tengo un Samara 90 comprado hace 7 años (El segundo Samara que tengo) Si es cierto que el sistema eléctrico es de lo re peor que existe, los plásticos se quiebran con solo verlos, y la calidad de acabados en una reverenda mierda. También es cierto que tienen el mejor motor del planeta. Sencillo y que nunca te dejará botado. y la chapa de acero es de lo mejor. En meses anteriores pegué un Honda Civic 2011 nuevo, le despedacé el costado derecho al Honda a mi solo le cambié el cristal del farol principal delantero.

  27. Dreadful? I have got the opposite image of Samaras. One of my relatives is still driving one. He bought a Samara after driving more than 25 years an Vaz 2101, which was still going strong. With Samara, he has never complained. I had once a ride and had a chance to sit next to the driver. There was no smell, interior was stylish and well-build, ride was as smooth as ice… one of the best rides ever in a car for me.

    At least later models of Samaras have got along at the vehicle inspection statistics very well here – being almost right after Toyotas. They are also almost as excellent winter cars than Lada Classics and don’t get rost easily.

    There are a lot of myths about Ladas, which are not true. Lada’s history is very surprising at many parts – yet unbeliveable. If Lada was not a car from C.C.C.P., their reputation would be much higher.

    Everybody remembers a man who had bought a Lada with panels that had some wrong connections. But how many people remember, for example, Ford Mondeo’s bad engine design back in time, or serious gas pedal issues with Toyotas back in time – probably no one.

  28. @32, Guest,

    Well, later Samaras may possibly be better than the earlier cars- however, as Ladas stopped being imported to the UK in 1997- not before time.

    A friend of mine had one- it was appalling. The nicest thing you could say about it was that my first (and only) Eastern Bloc car, the FSO Polonez, was even worse.

    I don’t think you can seriously compare the Samara to the Mondeo- yes, the Mondeo may have had teething trouble, but it was still (styling aside) an excellent car in so many ways. Even if the UK market Samaras had been much better built with far better components, it would still be mediocre.

  29. My first experience of one of these things was when my mate pulled up in his dads Samara with 77 miles on the clock, i asked for a go and screwed it down the street and it blew the needle of the econometer! Not to mention the flexing bulkheads that applied the bt
    rake if you pressed too hard on the nearside floorpan!

  30. Funnily enough, Carcraft of Rochdale (UK car group,Carland and webuyanycar.com etc etc) would not be where they are today without the BA3,Riva,Niva and samara!

  31. VAZ Ladas were at their best in the early days, (upto the introduction of the Riva facelift in ’83) in that they were at their most modern and also best assembled.
    They were quite nicely finished and reliable cars which people forget – but the deserved bad rep of the later Riva and Samara dragged them all down, (along with many people confusing them with the always poorly assembled/unreliable Polski-Fiats/FSO’s)

    My father had 3 new Ladas, two later Riva Estates and his first, a 1984 1500DL Estate (21026)- which was by far the nicest, most reliable and best-finished of the three, despite looking seriously out-of-date by then.

    I personaly owned a 1979 1500ES (21025) Estate and later a 1985 1200L Riva and again, the older car was fine, the Riva nothing but aggro with larger panel gaps and generaly not as well designed/assembled – especialy the interior.

    However, I was still quite a fan of Ladas back then, (my Riva might have been dissappointing, but it was still better in most ways than a mate’s Orion of the time) and eagerly hopped it to the dealer whan the Samara came out.

    The 1300 I drove was OK, typical FWD small car, (decent Western tyres would always improve the grip) but the interior really was a disaster, even worse than the Riva, despite looking rather modern.
    Basic car was well thought-out and still felt more solid and rode better than an Escort, but then most things did and the awful lack of quality ruined any chance it had.

    There just wer’nt enough advantages over a Riva to spend the extra £1100-odd Lada UK wanted at the time, even if it had been better built.

    • I agree, the 124 based Ladas were best with the original Fiat-copy trim etc.. All the in-house Lada facelifts and interior redesigns were far poorer quality and style.

  32. I have a Samara 1500 SLX and love it! It’s simple to maintain and durable although ans has ample power it was as mentioned solely a Lada designed car with some help from Porsche that was marketed to match other front wheel drive cars being made at the time. It’s benefits a far rugged suspension than home grown cars which is a God send with the state of our roads. The above comments as usual are from people that have never owned one I dear say that a 1100 is going to be lacking in power as with most cars that with similar stats, my first car was a 1100 escort and it was by far a worst car, it had more P38 than metal, it literally fell apart. Ladas Samara were sold with a 6 year corrosion warranty, something that Kia has matched recently. If they were so bad why did so many eastern Europeans buy and ship them back because nothing made here would function very long in their extreme climate?

  33. @ Andy they were snapped up here in the UK and shipped East simply because it was a much cheaper way of locating spare parts and of course, they were not exactly spoilt for choice with alternative cars back then.

  34. @francis – timing chains on the early cars themselves were no weaker than some other FIAT-inspired ones of the era and rarely failed – it was the tensioner that gave aggro, making the engine sound awful and was quick/cheap to fix in context.

    The Rivas had a mix of timing belt for the bigger-bore 1.3 and 1.6 engines and were quieter runners for it, while the 1.2 and 1.5 units soldiered-on with chains.

    IIRC all Samaras, (with a newer, different engine design) were all timing belt.

  35. I think the last of these were sold on a P plate, but by then their core market had moved on to Protons or Skoda Felicias. At least with a Proton you were getting Mitsubishi triple valve engines that made the car go quickly with quite good refinement and the ability to do 180,000 miles without major problems, and the VW tie up was making Skoda come on leaps and bounds and the 1.9 D was a notably tough unit that had a similar lifespan to the Mitsubishis used in Protons. All the Lada had going for it was price as it was a horrible, dated and unreliable piece of junk.

  36. Lada’s problem with the Samara was it was produced during the period when the Soviet Union was collapsing and the country was in a state of chaos, with workers in nationalised industries like Autovaz not being paid regularly, which might explain why the Samara and later Rivas were so poor. Also the company had no links with Western manufacturers like Skoda did after 1989 and was unable to use more modern and reliable technology, although would Westerners really want to deal with a corrupt country with rampant organised crime like Russia in the nineties.

  37. @Glen Aylett
    “would Westerners really want to deal with a corrupt country with rampant organised crime like Russia in the nineties”
    Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose – when it comes to Russia even in 2018.
    Speaking of Samara, when I was working in Kiev 10 years back there were still a fair number of these trundling around the streets. However, taxis were almost always old Rivas, 2105’s or 2107’s – they were a sturdier build compared to a Sputnik (the name used there) according to the taxi drivers. Oddly, the Volga was also somewhat of a rarity as a taxi.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*


WordPress spam blocked by CleanTalk.