My Forbidden Foreign Fruits: The Lada Riva 1300SL

Mike Humble:

I enjoyed writing the last one so much, not to mention the positive feedback from yourselves, the readers, that I’ve had the urge to do another one.

This time its a classic commie clunker – the Lada Riva.


Loved by the owners and loathed by the press. The Riva is another of my forbidden foreign fruits


Before I go any further, I must make a point of being model specific on this one. That Russian runabout the Lada Riva, for me anyway, only really cut the mustard in 1300SL flavour. Why? well it had all the top of the range trappings of the flagship 1600SLX but without the god awful chain driven OHC engine and only a four speed gearbox. And that was pretty much all the differences between the two models – a smaller engine and one less communist cog in the gearbox. All the usual high level refinements were there though – chrome grille, high backed velour seats, headlamp wipers, extra sound insulation and a comprehensive six clock dashboard…. oh the sheer luxury of it all.

But with the SL, Soviet engineers had a little flurry with trying to bring the driveline into a more modern era. Whereby the 1.2 / 1.5 & 1.6 engines had a chain driven OHC engine, the 1300 units featured a belt driven system and an electric fan that reduced noise by at least a third. Those chain driven plants were lucky if they reached 70,000 miles before something quite literally… went west. Usually it was the timing gears or chain that would turn to cheese and self explode thus destroying the engine. Once they fell out of main dealer servicing, the slack in the chain would never get touched as wear progressed. Yes that’s right! those timing chains had to be manually adjusted!!!


riva custom
NURSE! MY PILLS PLEASE! – I actually rather like this one.


“…this was the whole gig with Ladas, they were hilariously simple to mend, service and operate. Their basic engineering was rarely beaten in my opinion”

Riva 1300 models had the moderately modern feature of a cam belt that emulated the same installation design as the 2.0 Ford Pinto unit of Capri or Cortina fame. In fact it didn’t end there… the actual belt itself was the same part number / type as fitted to Fords OHC plant. Being a “safe engine” too meant that if the timing belt snapped there would be no engine damage as a direct consequence. Just work out the distributor timing in relation to top dead centre on no:1 cylinder and you were back on the road in less than an hour. But this was the whole gig with Ladas, they were hilariously simple to mend, service and operate. Their basic engineering was rarely beaten in my opinion.

In the boot you’d find a vinyl tool roll with the most comprehensive yet poorest quality kit imaginable that even included a stirrup type tyre pump and pressure gauge – calibrated in Russian of course. I once serviced one of my two models owned just using the supplied equipment outside my house and I still have a few spanners from the aforementioned vehicle slumbering in a tool box. Run out of petrol Sir? no problem, just add a gallon into the tank and operate the lever on the fuel pump till the glass bowl fills up then turn the key – no sucking it up through a pipe or killing the battery. These cars were so simple and rather enjoyable to scoot around in, if you happened to have have a slightly warped sense of humour.

“For the amount of metal, equipment, warranty and interior space on offer there really wasn’t much else on the market if owning brand new car was your ultimate priority”

Of course they were fairly awful to drive but if all you required was a steel umbrella these cars fitted the bill admirably… just don’t expect much in the build quality department. The electrics were truly shocking. You could almost watch the ceramic fuses sink into the fuse box over time as the plastic warped with the heat. Unless you had a full tank of fuel the needle on the dial would fluctuate wildly as the remaining fuel sloshed around the tank. Switch on the indicators and the voltmeter would twitch in exact time to the clicking of the flasher unit. The distributors were prone to failure of the base plate bearings which resulted in a misfire situation of almost comedic proportions.


Erm… Grand Theft Auto 5 anyone?


Dismal plastics were everywhere to be found inside and if you were working behind the dashboard the risk of cutting a finger or knuckle on a sharp edge was highly likely. But the owners just didn’t seem to care. If you vox popped 100 owners the chances are is that most would tell you they loved them. For the amount of metal, equipment, warranty and interior space on offer there really wasn’t much else on the market if owning brand new car was your ultimate priority. All you did was buy them on a three year finance deal and when the MOT was due simply chuck them back at the dealer and sign up for another one… simples.

“The customers are looked after properly, they haven’t just bought a Lada, they’ve also bought a small slice of our business and integrity”

Steve Gatland – Sales manager Acre Lane Garage Northampton.

But it was the dealers who were the key to the brands huge success in the 80s and early 90s. I recall once speaking at great lengths to the Northampton dealer manager of Acre Lane Garage about how and why the cars were so highly regarded by the owners. The reply made perfect sense as he quipped; “The customers are looked after properly, they haven’t just bought a Lada, they’ve also bought a small slice of our business and integrity. If I changed the Lada brand for BMW tomorrow I would bet the majority of customers would still trade with me“. The nearby Wellingborough dealer of Longmarsh were equally good at serving the local community.

And that is what really matters and it often gets lost in todays modern world of motoring. Customer service is key and if you look after them they will return time and time again. Yes its true that cost often comes into the equation but there are still a good number of buyers who simply want hassle free motoring and a courteous attitude from the dealer. Lada cars may have been viewed as a joke by other brand owners and pundits, but if you took into account the huge buyer loyalty, amazing customer care from the dealers and the rock solid warranty they offered…

The only people really laughing were the owners!


What was great?

  • Impressive level of standard kit
  • The company stood on their warranty
  • Parts supply chain bettered many European brands
  • So simple to tinker with
  • One described by Top Gears Quentin Willson as; “The epitome of anti-establishment motoring
  • Immaculate used ones could be bought for pennies
  • Their dealers tended to be top rank in customer care and retention
  • *Rugged and unstoppable when in full fettle


What Grated?

  • *If you didn’t keep an eye on them they dropped to pieces
  • Interior plastics didn’t come any worse in terms of quality
  • Pitifully small fuel tank
  • Electrical system was basically… rubbish
  • Brutally heavy steering at low speeds
  • About as socially acceptable then as wearing a “Jim’ll Fix It” badge today





  1. My late Father-in-Law ran a succession of Rivas, usually in artificial-limb beige, although the last one was a1300SL in Postman Pat Red. he only change when the need for power steering became critical and the dealer took on a Vauxhall franchise.

    Talking of the dealers, you are 100% right Mike, they treated their customers properly and the customers responded by coming back for more. In many ways, just like my own automotive forbidden fruit, Proton.

    I bought a 3 year old Impian GSX, purely because I was working on a lot of new retail development sites and needed a car that I could park anywhere and not really care about. £3495 got me a range-topping, leather clad Impian with one owner, full history and 20k on the clock, 3 years and 40k left on the powertrain warranty too. A total revelation to drive, it’s ride and handling really were excellent (input from Lotus) and the packaging was good too. Roomy, very well equipped and frugal on the motion lotion as well. OK, the interior plastics were a bit Fisher Price, but nothing actually broke or fell off and everything just worked.

    My local dealer was family run, and treated me like royalty, when their demo Gen-2 Ecologic came up for sale, I took a look and, although I’d only had the Impian 7 months, decided to change. The deal was just too good. The Impian was now on 45k, so when I got offered virtually what I’d paid for it, I bit their arm off.

    The Gen-2 provided daily transport for us, latterly as Mrs B’s daily, for the next 8 years and 104000 miles, other than routine servicing it stood us in at a wheel bearing and a handbrake cable. In fact, we’ve only recently sold it. Why? because it was a darn good car and we didn’t know what else to buy.

    The local dealer was amazing, as was Proton’s customer service. With 45k on the car and one week of warranty left, I mentioned that there was some vibration under braking. When the service receptionist phoned me, I was told Proton had authorised replacement rear discs under the warranty, as long as I paid for the new pads. If Proton were still in the UK, I’d have bought another, no question.

    Mrs B now has an Ibiza ST Ecomotive TSi, and while it’s a nice enough car, I really can’t see it lasting as well, or costing us as little to own as the Gen-2. Time will tell, the dealer hasn’t exactly covered themselves with glory.

  2. I’ve never owned one but my father had one as a courtesy car when his Suzuki van whent in for it’s regular service. The dealer was a lada and Suzuki dealer. The car he was given was the base model but he enjoyed it so much he didn’t want to give it back, the boot was huge and could swallow most of his electricians tools and materials, and in his words it was easy to drive because he could see all four corners of the car it reminded him of his Vauxhall Viva HB.. Having a dealership close bye also a skoda dealer, the street around Swansea were littered with Riva’s mainly estates and skoda Estelle’ and favorit’s.
    I need to drive one just to see if they were as bad or as good to drive depending who you speak to.

  3. Northants was a haven for Lada if I recall rightly.

    Acre Lane Northampton
    Longmarsh Wellingborough
    Society Motors Kettering
    Carrington Cars Kettering (independent specialist)

    Do you remember that odd chap in Far Cotton who sold all the quality brands of FSO, Reliant and Yugo? I think he was of Italian origin. He was next door to Airflow Streamlines Iveco Ford.


    • Oh yes indeed.

      He was actually of Yugoslavian decent, his name translated into John and his rough as guts garage / showroom went by the rather snazzy and imagainative title of “JOHNS MOTORS”

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