Bangernomics: Cheap Lada Riva did me proud

Fond memories of a perfect budget workhorse. Here's a Lada Riva that survived the rigours of student life, DIY repairs involving a hammer and glue, and a trip to a nuclear plant…

It’s been more than 30 years since I saw my trusty old Lada cut into three and upended into a skip. Life had not been kind; it had failed its MoT with gusto and required more repair work than I could financially afford.

That was a shame, as it was still a very sturdy car. Its main downfall was underbody rust that affected the braking system as a whole. These days I’d simply have that replaced, but this was only my second car and I also fancied a change. I didn’t realise I’d miss the old beast even now. Whisper this quietly, but, I regret parting with my Lada Riva.

The first motor I could call my own was a clapped-out 1970 Vauxhall Viva in lime green. I loved that car, yet it was a wreck. I still passed my driving test in it – just. It’s a big hint when the driving examiner says: ‘Congratulations, you’ve passed – but you need a new gearbox.’

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As I was going off to university in a few weeks’ time, my dad took me car shopping. We looked at a number of models, and with a sinking feeling I realised what we were getting. Back in those days, you could buy a five-year-old Lada really cheaply compared with other cars. Yet, as grateful as I should have been at that point, the Lada's square figure, with rust emerging on the wheelarches, deflated me.

Inevitably, although I disagreed with my dad quite vocally at the time, we settled on one of two Ladas. I wanted the burning-red five-speed Lada Sport (yes, such a thing existed). But we ended up getting a low-mileage four-door D-reg Riva 1300SL saloon. My dad insisted the SL stood for ‘Super Luxury’, even if it felt 'Seriously Lacklustre'.

Basic in the extreme

It was a bit basic, to say the least. The first thing I did was fit a radio, as I was moving from Bournemouth to Bradford and would be doing regular 275-mile drives each way (got to get your washing done somehow!). My dad suggested putting the aerial on the wing near the driver’s window so I could reach it from the driver’s seat. After a bit of a struggle to drill the hole, we realised the bodywork was made of rather thick sheets of steel. It looked almost like tank armour.

The day of the big move came, and my dad wanted to drive to Bradford in convoy, avoiding motorways. It would be a longer trip, but easier to stop if something happened. He’d been a General’s escort driver in the war, so I did as I was told and it all went well.

Except, that is, for when a badly painted white Escort with three lads inside pulled up next to me while we waited at some lights, and tried to force themselves into my lane. As physics couldn't allow such a thing, I wound up the open window to avoid their spit, and ignored them.

Inching slowly forwards in the lane turning right as they sat on the wrong side of the road crawling towards me and shouting, I felt safe behind the Lada's chunky panels. So ended the first of many encounters with arrogant, under-evolved morons judging my Lada – and therefore myself – as a tarmac target.

It has to be said that just because a car has a reputation, doesn’t mean it’s true. It’s usually spread by people who have no idea what they’re talking about. That Lada was my lifeline for the next six years and it rarely let me down. In my resident block, at least half a dozen other students had cars. By the following year I think most of them had to give up their wheels, as the motors cost too much to keep on the road. One had an Allegro – he was asking for trouble.

Easy to fix

My Lada could be fixed with a hammer, glue and the odd phone card. All the tools were in the boot. The insurance was £90 a year for a brand-new driver – and that was cheap even back then. That’s when a full tank cost me under a fiver and got me around 400 miles if I was careful.

Then, three months later, I was home for the holidays, and on Christmas Eve the worst happened. My father died of a massive heart attack. I don’t remember much but I did do a lot of driving. It soothed me. I also faced an impossible choice. Keep the Lada or keep my dad’s beloved Daimler Sovereign Series 3 4.2.

In a decision that proved emotionally draining, I had to keep the Lada. I would never have afforded to run the Daimler at 12mpg, and maintenance and insurance would have killed me. On the other hand, my dating opportunities would have improved. At least turning up in the Lada was a good test to see whether someone was genuinely interested in me.

My bond with the Lada became stronger than ever. Because my mum moved house, I had to take a lot of my stuff up to Bradford. Having first checked with the police that it was OK to do so, I turned my car into a van by removing the seats and anything else that I didn’t need. It was huge inside; I even got a touring bike through the rear door in one piece.

If I could have fitted a mattress in the passenger door, I could have quite comfortably laid down flat in the cabin – no mean feat, as I am 6ft 6in tall. Meanwhile, I discovered that the back-seat cushion came out easily, so it could be used as a chair for picnics.

On that note, a friend offered to extend the seat runners for me, but the standard car set-up was easily adjustable to many sizes and weights. Everyone fitted in comfortably – although I did get some weird stares from other motorists as I looked out the rear driver’s side window. It appeared that there was no one driving. Even then, people could still fit in the seat behind me – unlike in many other cars, where you would have to chop off your legs or assume the lotus position.

The boot was filled with all the tools you’d need to fix the Lada, including a spanner and double-ended screwdriver that fitted every nut and bolt on the car. It even had levers to change the tyres on the rims. There was also a rather odd-looking stirrup pump and a proper gauge. That load area was big; you could shove a couple of full-sized adults in there and still pack your luggage.

Reliable Russian

In the six years I had my Lada, the reliability was rather good. It did break down, but it usually managed to keep driving for a while. The owner’s handbook was a really good repair manual, too – although the wiring diagrams were still in Russian.

When the exhaust went, I fixed it with drink cans, putty and three jubilee clips. When the alternator broke, it turned out to be a bad solder joint. The water pump exploded during a trip into the Yorkshire Dales, yet the car still managed to drive ten miles back to Bradford with no pump for the coolant. It didn’t overheat, although it did steam like a traction engine…

One severe winter, driving back in a blizzard at 5mph from a job in Keighley, the driver’s wiper blade pinged off and slid down the bonnet to the ground. I had to drive the rest of the way with the window open, occasionally reaching out with the wiper in my hand to clear the screen. Please note, the car in the picture below isn't mine, as it was broken, but to set the scene:

In its later years, the Lada did start to run rough. The odd roadside repair usually involved whipping out the spark plugs and cleaning them, or adjusting the timing. A friend called Kiba helped me a few times, by sitting in the driver’s seat and turning the engine over when I asked.

He got a bit enthusiastic and gave me approximately 20 nasty electric shocks from the spark plug leads. I’m sure he didn’t mean to – just like he, Billy and Gordon didn’t mean to hide under blankets in the back when we were out driving and they saw people they knew. They weren’t the only ones.

It was transport, and it got me where I needed to be. After my dad died, it got me up and down the M1 nearly every weekend for months in comfort and usually without incident. It moved my stuff, took friends all around the country with me, was shelter when needed on long summer camps, a tow car when others broke down and an ambulance when friends got hurt. It was a perfectly safe place to be.

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Lada to Sellafield

The Lada even went to Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant, where I had an interview for a training place. The guy sat us down and said we would be heading into the plant soon, and that we would all be safe as the bus that was fitted with air filters and other devices for nuclear safety. Then he told anyone who drove there to follow behind. So there I was, driving behind this bus with everyone else on board. Remembering the thickness of the body panels, I felt secure in my armour-plated car. I was probably safer than the people in the bus.

It was normally a joy to drive. The lack of power steering just built up upper-body strength, although parallel parking could leave you sweating if it was a difficult space. However, the Lada’s square shape meant it was a demon for fitting in tight gaps.

The lights were bright. The heating worked, although I never did figure out the heating controls. I just left them all on and drove with the window open. In winter, on good tyres, the car was usually one of the last vehicles moving and more than once it helped others during rough weather. It could also handle off-road driving; it was not as good as a proper 4x4 set-up, but it had enough ground clearance and basic control to handle some of West Yorkshire’s tractor-churned back lanes.

Only once did it ever get stuck, on an S-bend over a bridge at the bottom of a valley in a foot of snow. I’d put cheap tyres on, and it took over an hour for us to get it out of the drift, with Graham driving, Billy pushing and me pulling it uphill on a rope. We all had to jump in as it was moving, as Graham wasn’t stopping once we’d got it going.

The dreaded tin worm strikes

The only real downside about the Lada remained the corrosion. One reason for that extra-thick steel was to stop the car rotting away too quickly. If I had it now, I would steam clean it and apply a rustproofing underseal. All those snowy winters meant it was attacked by a lot of road salt, and that’s what eventually killed it.

The brake pipes were in a bad state, the exhaust had finally gone completely, the steering components needed replacing and the anti-lock rear brakes cried out for death. Did I say anti-lock on a Lada? Yes, it had a very simple but effective system that reduced the braking on the back wheels if you stopped hard, causing the rear end to rise. This meant you kept control and didn’t spin out. Unfortunately, the set-up had rusted solid.

It was because of those expensive under-body repairs that the Lada finally went to the big skip in the sky. I realised it was cheaper to buy my next car than repair it. Also, as I’ve already said, after six years I did fancy a change.

However, it was one of the best cars I’ve ever driven. It was basic but honest. It didn’t pretend to be anything else, and did more than anyone expected it could. And it also taught me how to be self-sufficient at fixing cars.

A testament to this is that Ladas are still being made today. Not in Russia, but elsewhere – where simple, easy-to-maintain cars are still needed and appreciated.

All credit for the ‘Bangernomics’ term goes to journalists Steve Cropley and James Ruppert

Pictures courtesy of Chris Jordan and MagicCarPics

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