Just to prove that we don’t just drive Rovers, Saabs and supercars – we offer you another tale of motoring misdemeanours.
Staying with the Communist theme, we take a peek behind Mike Humble’s Iron Curtain with the Lada Riva – the boxiest of Russian bangers!
Keeping the red flag flying
Often, I have stated that I seldom get emotionally involved with cars. But after spending just a short time with a cup of tea and some daydreaming, it seems to be not actually be the case. Since passing my driving test in 1989, I have been responsible for the running of over 50 cars (including company smokers) and every now and again, one or two will get right under my skin.
My current Rover 75 for example is one such car. It has an uncanny ability to float along in an almost cloud like manner, only a Saab in my opinion has been a match for driver comfort. Staying with the Swedes, after owning four of them – a trio of 93s and a showroom-condition 9000 Anniversary, they are yet another brand of car I look back with fondness upon.
Of course, I have had the pleasure of owning some cars even more boring than a wet weekend in Rhyl. There are three Peugeot 406 and three Sierras – all boring as hell, and yet all as reliable as a St Bernard – and in the case of the 406 1.9TD, they are a car that will sponge up the motorway miles in true Demis Roussos fashion – ever forever.
Of course, I have owned some cars that were nothing short of dismal. After making the stupid and fatal error in swapping an MoT-failed Cortina Ghia for a black Fiat 127 Sport, I vowed never again to consider a front-wheel drive elderly Italian car. But I did come close to purchasing a Lancia Beta HPE a little while back – a car I still consider to be achingly pretty and so very underrated.
But owning a car is all about fun when you’re a pup, of course being a true petrolhead – I have owned and mildly tuned up a Mini, but in the end the noise, the constant bucking and bouncing, the lack of space and the never ending back pain of stooping down to piddle around with the 1275 A+ series plant caused it to be sold – amazingly to my father. The clan that I hung around with in my early 20s, all ran an eclectic bunch of cars which included a 1.7 Princess, 1.3 Cavalier Mk2, Metro VDP, Marina 1.8 and of course, the obligatory Ford Cortina. But what I ended up purchasing and subsequently owning two of, caused initial mirth and laughter with our bandy gang of car obsessed half-wits – but needless to say, I had the last laugh.
D688 DNV was just four years old upon my ownership. Featuring huge velour trimmed seats, six-pot sports instruments and snazzy headlamp wipers poking out from that massive chrome plated grille. As you opened the door, you were greeted with a red glow from the safety warning lamps at the bottom of the front doors – it felt posh… it felt new… it felt solid and secure… It was a Lada Riva 1300SL.
The county of Northamptonshire boasted a Lada dealer in three of its major towns; Northampton, Kettering and Wellingborough. And they were all a haven for fans of these lumbering Russian boxes. Mine was a one-owner car with full service history in a nice shade of light red – almost the same colour as BL Cinnabar, and I loved it.
In the past I have slated the hatchback Lada – the Samara – and rightly so, as it was everything the Riva was not. The Samara was badly made, flimsy and quite literally, had no brakes, whereby the Riva pretended to be nothing more than a method of simple honest mobile transport that was one notch up on the class-o-meter than queuing for the bus. The former Top Gear presenter Quentin Willson perfectly summed the Riva as ‘the epitome of anti establishment motoring’, and he was spot on with his analogy. I grew very fond of my Riva very quickly and for someone who at the time was working as a mechanic, the Lada Riva was the perfect car for honing those roadside tinkering tactics.
The level of equipment was amazing considering these things only cost 15 bob when new, the tool kit was staggering too. Your average Montego at that time featured a jack, wheel brace and odd looking piece of bent metal for removing the wheel trims but with the Riva, you got that little bit more. Buckled up in the boot lived a leatherette roll upon after unhooking and strapping featured:
- various spanners,
- tyre pump,
- lead lamp,
- tyre pressure gauge,
- 10mm Allen key,
- a small pot of paint
- and even a little sliver of metal for setting the gap on the contact breakers and a plug spanner.
I once serviced the car from top to toe using only the makers included tool kit – you needed nothing else.
The car also included some neat little touches that proved that these cars were built to survive in a world where buying bread and milk could take an eternity. Starting a car after running out of petrol would often involve needing a damn good battery and a tube of Polo mints after sucking through the juice from the fuel supply hose.
Not with a Riva, you simply added some pop, tickled the primer lever, and waited for the see through bowl on the top of the fuel pump to fill up with fuel, flick the key and way you went. The car never ceased to amaze me in spades, one day outside the house, the timing belt snapped (the 1.3 had a belt driven OHC engine) and I thought the end had come for my red box on wheels.
I phoned our local dealer – Acre Lane Garage to be told over the blower ‘slap a new belt on it’ll fine’. And they were indeed correct. Borrowing my dads Montego, I flew up the road to a trusted motor factor to acquire a new cambelt. After half expecting an answer of not in stock, without even thinking, the chap behind the grubby counter simply wandered to a shelf and handed me a box – no part number checking, he went straight to the relevant item and picked it up.
I asked if this was a common problem as he knew straight way which part it would be, to be told ‘same as a 2.0 Ford Pinto mate £6.99 please’ – those bloody clever Russians. Fitting the belt was simplicity itself requiring just three spanners and half an hour.
Reliability was pretty good too, especially after throwing away the awful Russian twin choke carb and fitting a Weber conversion. The difference was like night and day as performance transformed from acceptable to downright nippy. Lada cars tended to run a bit poor when temperatures were high, my SL model featured an electric fan rather than a fixed plastic type so under bonnet heat was more of an issue.
Just like our own 1.6 MG Maestro, Rivas tended to suffer with fuel evaporation and other carb related issues and by fitting a different carb, all the running gripes simply vanished. After fitting a performance exhaust, some natty driving lamps and lowering the ride height, my Riva was a hoot to drive about in.
Of course there were problems along the way, mainly caused by a young driver taking full advantage of cheap petrol and driving like a buffoon. The exhaust downpipe snapped on a dark evening, making the car sound rather like a Lancaster bomber and the clutch started to judder so violently that the glove box would drop open with the vibrations.
There was also an issue with the distributor advance base plate (very common) causing a monumental miss-fire and making it a real misery to drive in heavy traffic. There was of course one fault that almost killed me however. Driving at speed along the newly opened A14, I turned the heater up and the water valve seal in the heater box ruptured, dumping red hot coolant onto my left leg.
The knock on effect turned the interior of the car into a Turkish sauna almost immediately, wiping a small peep hole in the condensation whilst being burnt alive, I tugged the steering wheel over towards the inside lane and dived onto the grass verge accompanied by a barrage of horns and flashing headlamps – this all took place within seconds.
Switching the heater to cold, I diverted to Beale’s breakers yard near Kettering, sourced a replacement part and using the tools I always carried in the car with me, fixed it there and then, continuing my journey to Suffolk some 45 minutes later. Even though these problems were mainly quality related, often as not, they would cost next to nothing to fix, sometimes requiring in true Russian style, no more than a packet of cigarettes and a hammer – trust me, it was great fun!
Not once did I ever suffer the jokes so common to Eastern Bloc cars, we had one of the worst winters in 1991 and my Lada always fired up on the first turn of the key and jump started half our road as temperatures dropped below -15. Further testimony to just how dependable they were came one dark night while dropping the girlfriend back home.
Flying along a country lane at warp factor nine after an evening with friends, I drove over a man hole with a missing cover. The steering wheel was almost torn from my grip as the car hit the gaping hole, the tyre and tube were ripped from the badly buckled rim and after we calmed down from nearly driving into a wall at over 60mph, I set about inspecting what I thought would be colossal terminal damage.
Some poking about with the standard lead lamp showed nothing more than a destroyed rim, so after fitting on the spare we continued our journey and the following day a thorough inspection was carried out. Judging by the cars now new habit of pulling to the right, I visited a fast fit centre, told them of my almost fatal encounter. After 20 minutes or so, the fitter presented me with a bill of £10 for the re-alignment of the tracking – I was so impressed with this, I wrote to Lada Cars UK in Bridlington who replied back thanking me for my compliment and how that this scenario is an everyday event in the USSR. To this day, I still regard the Riva and pocket sized off road Niva as cracking cars that were solid, cheap and above all, no headache to own.
There was also the time I thought I had written it off. Fellow Lada owning chum Don Harlin ran a Riva 1600SLX and challenged me to a race from his house to the petrol station we would gather at. I was sneaky, and thought I would go a different route to him – with disastrous consequences. After getting baulked at a set of filter traffic lights, I could see Don in his car at the junction, my light went green and I planted the throttle with all I could muster. Launching away from the lights, I had amazingly not noticed the Nissan Stanza in front of me, and I rammed the car into next week. Inspecting the damage, it was clear the Stanza was dead yet all my Lada suffered was a smashed headlamp, cracked grille, bent bumper and a dent In the wing!
The cars were of no pretence and had a unique charm of their own, just like the Skoda that Keith Adams once owned and I will always have a soft spot for these awkward, ancient looking Russian tanks. The dealers were first class and always offered outstanding customer service, along with parts availability back up that many volume makers couldn’t touch.
Providing you did not expect Jaguar refinement and Ferrari looks, the Lada Riva and pocket sized mud-plugger Niva 4×4 were the perfect choice for people who wanted no frills, easy to run and reliable transport. I was that impressed that 18months after buying my first one, I purchased a newer example (E644 HVV) which sadly did not prove to be as reliable as my first – such is life!