VAZ 2104 / Lada Riva Estate

Using numbers as names is a precarious business. It's very hard to get enthusiastic over a 530i or an i30 if there's no name to tell you whether it's cute or manly, firm or fragile. The Nokia N97 doesn't sound anywhere near as good as the HTC Hero, regardless of quality, and very few people would buy a perfume whose name was also its barcode. Audiophiles can only rattle on for hours over the merits of any particular piece of hi-fi equipment because their passion for that object is strong enough to see past the obtuse sequences of digits to the beauty underneath. More casual consumers and appreciators need something more accessible, more tangible, a Proper Name to cling to when we regard an object, especially something we intend to buy. People who enthuse too freely about the 68020 and its superiority over the 68000 rapidly find themselves isolated at parties because of their incomprehensible jargon. And also because they generally smell of onions and sweat, but that's another matter.

Of course, in the automotive world there are some manufacturers, especially at the top end, who still insist on digital identification. The product catalogues of BMW, Mercedes and Volvo are spattered with numbers, and the only clue the uninformed reader has to their interpretation is that bigger is usually better. At the lower end, where the quality of the product isn't quite so evident, an impersonal sequence of digits doesn't do much to drive sales. Fiat and Renault managed to work that one out before it was too late, unlike Rover, and even Alfa-Romeo has the decency to give their prettier cars equally pretty names. That's not to say that all names are appropriate (the Mitsubishi Charisma is anything but), but at least when you discuss models with a salesman, the only number that really matters is the price.

Another important number that should never be revealed is a lady's age. When that number reaches a certain value in Poland, it becomes unimportant and her birthday alternates to a "back-up" birthday called a Name Day. Since most Poles are named after saints in the Catholic faith, every calendar date is the feast of at least one of these religious characters, and thus the lady can be treated to flowers and cake on a particular day of the year without having to reveal her vintage.

Such frippery as names and saints was wasted on the Communist authorities, who tried to stamp out such pointlessness by forcing the church underground and giving things only practical, logical identifiers. Thus we have a BA3-2104 staring at us in the parking lot; some devil's code of Cyrillic and numeric that leaves foreigners confused until, BAM, the flash of realisation. "It's a Lada!" comes the cry. Usually followed by mocking laughter.

BA3, or AutoVAZ as it's written in English, is the manufacturer specifically established by the Soviet Authorities to build copies of the Fiat 124. From its 1966 inception, the snappy Fiat was winning design awards for its sensible, utilitarian design, and the Soviets needed a new car to replace their ageing and decrepit Moskvitch 408. So, calls were made, deals were signed, and in 1970 the first Ladas, known as VAZ-2101, rolled out of a factory the other side of the Volga river.

Although VAZ was established purely to sell the 2101, the company was granted the name "Zhiguli"after a Russian mountain range, with the aim of making the car seem more Soviet and less Italian. But like all numbers, 2101 never really caught on in the local parlance, and the 2101 quickly earned the moniker "Kopek". The estate version, 2102, was called the "Deuce", while the bigger 2103 was called the "Trio".

But don't let the numbers confuse you. The Lada was more than just a clone of the Italian design; all in, the Russians added over 800 "upgrades" to the design, to help it survive in the harsh Soviet climes. Aside from monstrously strong suspension upgrades and radical engine re-designs (chain-driven valves instead of pushrods, if you know what that means), the entire body shell was made of thicker grade steel to help it survive the rough roads. Things that a Westerner would laugh at, like a crank handle to start the engine if needed, quickly become touches of genius when you consider how you yourself would feel in the middle of Siberia, in -40 degrees, with a flat battery. Combine that with a comfortable, if somewhat spartan, cabin, and the 2101 earned itself a fairly decent reputation, and the decision was made to export the car overseas.

Fast forward to 1980, and even the Russians realise that the Lada style is beginning to look a bit, well, old-fashioned. Trapped between the need to repay the foreign loans, and the wisdom of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," VAZ implemented a facelift of the range. The 2103 had already become the 2106, with a new range of engines, headlights and grilles, and these upgrades were passed down to the lower models respectively. The 2101 became the 2105 and, confusingly, the 2102 became the 2104. At this point, some bright spark at VAZ realised that there was no way on earth the poor Western mind was going to get to grips with all these numbers, and the entire range was exported under the name "Lada Riva", the brand we all know and laugh at today.

The 2104, or Riva Estate, is rendered in Russian as "Четвёрки" and translates as "Quartet", a charmingly musical name for a car shaped
like a cheap piano. Released in 1984 (making it the most "modern" of the Riva stable), it was quickly put to use as the most capable of luggage-haulers. This one still bears the faded and worn stickers of a Warsaw taxi, a sign that it has worked a hard life and a probable explanation for its curiously lopsided stance in the car park. Yet its presence in Warsaw car park at all is even more curious, when you look at the deeper history of the car.

Skim through any chronicle of the Riva's origin, and the same car will keep coming back; the Fiat 124. Read the next line, and another car is mentioned; the Fiat 125. At first glance, these two Fiats are identical, but the trained eye sees the three extra inches the higher-numbered car boasts in length. What you don't see is the raft of other mechanical differences in engines, brakes and suspension that mark out the 124 and 125 as fundamentally different cars. Yet without the 124, the 125 would never have existed, because it is itself a development, and from that again comes the Polski Fiat 125p, equal progeny of the 124 and a cousin of the Lada Riva. Or first cousin once removed, if you like.

Even without the family ties, the number of Lada Rivas in the world is staggering. Russian Ladas alone have topped over 13.5million, and although the '5 is due to be phased out, the '7, or luxury edition, is still going strong. Add to that all the clones still being constructed in places like Ukraine and Egypt, plus the original run of Fiat 124s that inspired them all, and the number goes well above 15million, making it one of the most produced cars of all time. This places the Riva in the realms of the Volkswagen Beetle and the Ford T as true People's Cars.

From a Western perspective, today's Lada Riva is laughable, being as it is a Sixties design carried on into the 21st century with very little changed. And yet its continued production (yes, they're still being made) highlights the purely practical nature of the car. They aren't even equipped with an odometer these days, partially because of the added expense, but also because it doesn't really matter. These cars are maintained from so many scavenged parts from older vehicles that the mileage of any given vehicle could never really be proved. And with so many produced, even the older models can be made to look younger than they are, if needed.

One should never mention her age, but the lady Lada just turned 40, and for all the jibes made about the Riva, it wouldn't hurt to break with Communist tradition and celebrate a number, just this once.