Whatever Happened To: Lada Cars

Mike Humble:

One or two recent events caused me to think awhile about cheap dependable cars. Firstly there is the rip roaring success of Dacia in the UK who have cleverly filled the void of basic and simple new cars built to run the distance for less than the price of a second hand one. Secondly, the seemingly unstoppable rise of Skoda with their range of cars that are a Gulf apart from the range they produced 25 years ago – people now queue and wait to buy a Skoda!

Before the era of air-bags and ABS, things were so much simpler. A carbon footprint for example sounded like a pop group name rather than causing the hysteria amongst environmentalists as it does today. A basic car was exactly thus – four seats and an engine, something I have been known to call a steel umbrella if you like. As a ‘small boy’ to quote the late Mr Dibnah, I would scoff and laugh at the range of cheap Eastern Bloc cars but secretly I actually admired them.

A rather worrying brochure picture from 1978 showing the FIAT 124 based Lada 1200.
A rather worrying brochure picture from 1978 showing the FIAT 124 based Lada 1200.

Out of all the Communist clutterbuckets produced before the Iron Curtain was replaced with something more tasteful from Laura Ashley, Lada cars outstripped  FSO, Skoda and Yugo in sales terms by some margin. The Russian parent company – AutoVAZ commenced the exporting of Lada’s into England back in 1974 using an old FIAT 124 design with more simplistic homespun engines and reinforced bodywork. Despite the Russian pedigree, sales built up rather quickly thanks to buyers who appreciated the cheap price, roomy interior and acceptable equipment levels.

It was one of the first marques to offer an extended warranty as standard and buyers who grew tired of the strike torn and militant attitude of `70s British car makers turned to these cars in droves.  The original range of 1.2 and 1.6 saloons and estates developed into the Riva by 1983. Some clever advertising and sponsorship of sporting events kept Lada in the limelight and sales buoyant with Lada registering a credible 33.000 cars in the UK in 1988. Its UK dealers would boast a brand loyalty that some prestige brands could not touch and the pocket mud plugger – the Niva 4×4 enjoyed a popular following.

Dealers were regarded as being trustworthy and experts in customer care while the Yorkshire based import centre in Carnaby developed into a mini assembly line converting the vehicles into type approved UK spec cars. Lada regularly produced special editions here and the range topping Niva 4×4 Cossack with its colour keyed alloy wheels and snazzy graphics was designed, developed and produced here in the UK. It also boasted an impressive parts network that offered a genuine V.O.R facility and a first pick ratio of over 90% – something that more traditional makers could not often match.

Despite looking more European than the usual Lada - The Samara was poorly built and very crude.
Despite looking more European than the usual Lada – The Samara was poorly built and very crude.

Lada launched the Samara three and five door hatch in the late `80s and with rose tinted glasses or beer goggles being worn, the Samara almost emulated something more European. It featured a more modern engine with front wheel drive but was clearly developed in a hurry with little funding and never felt as rustic as a Riva. Build quality was truly dreadful but it was a move in the right direction as the boxy antiquated Riva was by now selling purely on cost alone. The Samara was joined by a saloon version a few years after launch – but the Riva amazingly kept on selling.

Sadly, Lada fell victim to local and World politics with rumours about corruption within the plant management becoming fact in recent years. The European market changed with new laws regarding passenger safety and exhaust emissions – the money to develop and invest in the longer term just wasn’t there. Pacific rim brands such as Daewoo and Proton created cars that were not only cheap but also not too bad to drive and a number of former Lada dealers read the future and took on a Proton franchise.

Despite its boxy looks, the Riva sold over 15 million units between 1983 and 2012
Despite its boxy looks, the Riva sold over 15 million units between 1983 and 2012

By the mid `90s Lada were simply no longer competitive and the lack of profit in the cars allied to better and more palatable rival makes. The UK based importers SATRA Motors announced it was to cease importing Lada cars from Russia and after ordering a colossal parts order to suffice the current vehicles on the road – closed down. A small number of dealers continued to order the Niva 4×4 in left hand drive only but this was in penny numbers compared to past figures. Back in mother Russia however, Lada remained a popular car.

All of a sudden, the cars sold in England were being exported back to Russia and enterprising Soviets quickly realised the many British owners would want to bail out of a car with no future. Box adverts would appear in local papers offering inflated prices for any Lada – with or without MOT and quick thinking scrap yard owners would give silly prices for old Lada cars, break them into component parts, pack the bits into tea chests and sell the parts back to the Russians. If you ever wondered why Lada’s seemed to just vanish almost overnight – now you know!

The LADA XRAY concept - Designed by former British Mercedes and Volvo stylist Steve Mattin.
The LADA XRAY concept – Designed by the British Mercedes and Volvo stylist Steve Mattin.

But that was not the end for Lada. Renault now have a major shareholding and the plants over in Russia are still clanging with the sound of car production. Its XRAY concept car caused a sensation when launched at the Moscow Motor Show – a possible launch of the car is planned for 2015 but a full scale relaunch of the brand in the UK seems unlikely. Back here in Blighty,  the plucky little Niva off road model is still available for sale albeit in left hand drive – and its a really capable little thing too.

More information by clicking here: NIVA 4×4



  1. Apparently Russian seafarers visiting the UK would buy Ladas, strip them for parts to sell back at home whilst still on their ship, and then chuck the body shells overboard!

  2. Wonder if that’s why the UK Niva importer sells them in a green called “Depths of the sea” Even more bizarre is the blue MG ZS listed in its used car section…

  3. Mum’s old 1200L ended up going back to Russia. By then it was 5 years old and we got just over £1500 for it! Not bad considering it cost under £3k brand new. The dealer in Leeds was always first class. The car was rear ended less than 5 mins after being picked up by my mum, and bless em, she was in a loaner straight away while the insurance was sorted and they repaired the minor damage. Loaner was a better spec’d 1300 GL as well, and they always came and collected the car when it was service time, and dropped off a courtesy car.

  4. Sadly, those LHD Niva imports ceased a while back. I spoke to Mark Key, the importer, back in the spring and he confirmed that there hadn’t been any for some months. He was hoping to restart imports at some point, but couldn’t say when.

  5. When I was a small boy our neighbours had 2 Ladas, an original 1200 serving as a shed and a much newer Riva. He used to love the simplicity of them and the fact it seemed to work whatever the weather. Basic wasn’t the word though, it didn’t even have a clock!

    • Thanks for the comment Ann, I knew a few of the dealer network at a senior level and everyone held Lada & Satra Imports in very high regard. There used to be some superb dealers in the franchise.

      Notably WB Motors Darlington, Acre Lane Garage Northampton, Longmarsh Wellingborough and Wheelers of Ipswich just to name a few.

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