RAF Latvija 2203

Bemowo is one of Warsaw's most western suburbs. Constructed on the unused aprons of a military airport, its regimental stacks of Communist blocks reflect the concrete slabs the town was built on. Wide roads and a dedicated tram loop envelop clusters of aparments whose long shadows shelter primary schools, gyms and a charmingly modern church. Like the conscripts in the military academy at the town's lip, Bemowo's residents rise with the sun, march to the trams and file themselves off for a hard day's work.

With life this plain and organised, there's therefore not much point traipsing through the speed-humped tarmac lanes that coil themselves between the tower blocks, and for most of the week, lines of dull silver late-90s cars stand bored and unwanted in the carparks. It wasn't until last weekend when good weather and the subsequent exodus to the lakes and forests left Bemowo alarmingly empty. Which is how, stuck in the city, I stumbled across a crumbling dark blue van that looked like it had been assembled by a drunk Communist 30 years ago.

The RAF Latvija minibus is exactly that. Despite the appropriate military acronym, RAF actually stands for Rigas Autobusu Fabrika, a light truck assembly plant in, unsurprisingly, Latvia. Making vans for Soviet Union State purposes (ambulances and taxis mostly, or if your family had more than five kids), RAF used technologies from the Russian GAZ cars to build 2-tonne transport platforms for 50 years. By 1976, the factory could churn out 17,000 examples at its Jelgava plant, and that model was the GAZ M-24-based Latvija 2203.

When the Jelgava factory opened, however, the GAZ-24 that provided the technology of the van was already eight years old, and no amount of steadfast Communist hard work could turn the RAF Latvija 2203 into a master in light goods transportation. The cast iron 2.5l engine only kicked out 95bhp, and it's location under the front passenger seat didn't help in terms of exhaust fumes. Slow, heavy, and with the tendancy to poison its patients with carbon monoxide, the 2203 was useless as an ambulance (despite 30% of production models being them,) and with drum brakes all round to halt its massive 2.5t bulk, it would occasionally require another ambulance to attend to the carnage inflicted by the van's design.

In the Polish market, there was simply no way the foreign RAF could compete with the more agriculturally designed (and locally produced) Nysa and Zuk vans, which makes the sight of a Latvija in a military suburb raise an eyebrow as high as the 12-storey blocks that surround it. Of course, they were exported all over the Bloc during their 23-year production run, shuttling officials, mail, interrogation victims and corpses around such far flung places as Cuba, Bulgaria and Iraq, and can still be seen in the background of some war reports today, despite RAF's bankruptcy in 1998.

It was hard enough to identify this particular example anyway, what with the broken remnants of the cursive Latvia logo hanging off the nose and the grill badge faded beyond legibility. It was only the angular bullnose poking out with sad, watery headlights that drew my attention in the first place. Slavic winters have not yet rotted this thing through, but the fact that most of the engine is strewn over the back seats, and the view from the cab to the brick paviers below tell us this van won't be carrying any more patients (or victims, if you prefer) any time soon.

As a hulking angular Communist chunk, however, I couldn't think of a more fitting resting place.