We are often led into a false sense of snobbery when talking about Soviet vehicles. Easy targets for motoring journalists and sneered at by many a car enthusiast, not all communist vehicles are tripe. Here’s one that gave Land Rover a good run for their money – the Lada Riva.
1979 was a significant year for British automakers. Margaret Thatcher inaugurated her 11-year rule over the country with promise of change, inflation rose to a whopping 13.4% and British Leyland started yet another reorganising that would eventually kill them off for good. But more terrifying to British carmakers that any of this, was the arrival of the Lada Niva.
There were two crowns in British Leyland’s rapidly dank looking tiara during the tail end of the 70s – Jaguar and Land Rover – and with the arrival of the Niva onto UK soil one of those gems was under threat. Rugged simplicity is good commie territory – and the Niva was not just Russia’s answer to the iconic Land Rover, but it was damn near indestructible. The designers even went as far to describe their creation as “a Renault 5 placed on a Land Rover chassis”.
The Niva appeared to be tailored around sensible underpinnings, with the consensus to add weight and simplify, but it had other tricks up its sleeve. It worked with a unibody architecture and independent front suspension with coil springs – way ahead of the Land Rovers still rolling out the factory until 1983 – being the first mass-produced off-road vehicle to do so. It also had an excellent four-wheel drive system tested to destruction in the Soviet tundra and could cruise at 56mph while averaging 34mpg, while the turning circle was neat, ground clearance was ample enough for deep water crossings and carrying capacity was impressive to say the least.
It’s understandable then that they sold by the bucket load, scooping 40% of the European off-road market, making it Lada’s most popular export – so much so, that domestic buyers had an incredibly long waiting list to get their hands on one.
You see, it’s not all happy with the Niva – some of the running gear was carried across from previous Lada models, with an exclusively designed bodyshell and the usual Lada cabin quality resulting in a Cadbury’s Flake-like rigidity – not exactly a great bragging right.
However, all of its little foibles and quality niggles were nothing compared to it’s on road manners. The short wheel base and bouncy ride made for frightening manoeuvrability above in-town speed to name but one problem, wind noise was another, excessive gearbox whine was another, excessive discomfort was a biggie as was the lack of sound insulation, the ride quality was another, the mechanicals were outdated by the 1980s, the steering was heavy yet vague, it rolled in the corners to near motion sickness levels, the brakes were spongy and room for four people was incredibly tight.
Yet, just like the Land Rover, this is not a road car – it is an off-road workhorse permitted to use the Queen’s highways. Take the Niva out into the rough stuff and its ability to work shines through, with a minimal 1210kg weight, narrow tyres, low-ratio transfer box, diff lock and rugged substructures working in its favour to provide almost unimpeachable off-road ability.
Originally available in left-hand drive form only, the Niva received fresh engines and upgraded interior components by the time we were permitted a right-hand drive version for UK roads – Lada even attempted a ‘Cossack’ special addition to take on the mighty Range Rover. Sadly, Lada pulled out of the UK market in the late 1990s, taking the Niva with it.
This was a shame, as it robbed us of a fun, rugged, utilitarian vehicle that helped keep Land Rover on their toes and keep Britain moving. Fear not though as, curiously, you can still get one imported into the country through a one-man band in deepest England shire…