The Soviets have given us many good things — great ballet, fine classical music, eminent scientists and a plethora of supermodels (every second supermodel in the world is Russian/Belarusian/Ukrainian). Unfortunately, the Lada Riva doesn’t earn a mention here, as it was — and still is — the embodiment of motoring mediocrity.
The boxy saloon (known in its home market as the VAZ 2105) and station wagon (VAZ 2104) were derived from the original Fiat 124, which was hardly a paragon of style or quality.
Somehow, Lada managed to start off with a sub-standard basis and make it even worse. That said, it was still better than other Soviet cars of the time, so it was a huge success in its domestic market. Amazingly, if you combine sales of the Lada and Fiat 124, it’s the third-best-selling vehicle platform in history — eclipsed only by the Volkswagen Beetle and Ford Model T.
Construction of the Riva began in 1966 at the VAZ factory after an agreement was reached with Fiat to build licensed versions of the 124. The Soviets made a few changes — disc brakes were replaced with drums, the body panels were fabricated from thicker sheetmetal and there was a hand crank for cold Siberian mornings when the battery and starter motor would more than likely be in a coma.
The Riva was exported to many Western European countries until tightened emission regulations banished it for good in 1997. However, the vehicle was still being assembled until recently in Egypt for the North African market. Believe it or not, the car was also sold in New Zealand, where it was distributed by the New Zealand Dairy Board, which received the cars as a barter deal for mutton and butter that was shipped to the Soviet Union. We’re not sure who milked whom on that deal...