DTW remembers the once fraught and risky business of buying a second-hand car and recalls an alternative course for the impecunious.
Before the introduction of effective consumer protection legislation and manufacturer-backed Approved Pre-Owned schemes, buying a used car was often a tricky and less than pleasant business. Even relatively new cars could harbour hidden problems beneath their highly polished paintwork. Franchised dealers seemed rather embarrassed to have to engage in the grubby business of selling second-hand cars, so they were often parked around the back of the lot, out of sight. When you arrived in the showroom, you could sense the salesman’s disappointment when he found out that you were not interested in one of the pristine new models on display indoors.
Given what a grim business buying a used car could be, is it any wonder that even the impecunious were desperate instead to buy new? To do so, they looked East, not to Japan, but behind the Iron Curtain. Low labour costs and a need to earn foreign currency meant that such cars were temptingly cheap. Today, we look at two Soviet Bloc cars available at bargain prices to buyers in Western Europe during the 1980’s and establish whether they had any appeal beyond their low prices.
The Škoda Estelle was a four-door saloon car manufactured in the former Czechoslovakia between 1976 and 1990. Its origins date back two generations, to the 1964 1000MB model, which employed the contemporarily popular rear-engined layout, as used in the Renault Dauphine, Simca 1000, Hillman Imp and, of course, the VW Beetle. By the time the Estelle was launched, only the VW Beetle and Simca 1000 were on sale in Europe and both would cease production within a couple of years.
Škoda engineers recognised that the rear-engined layout was hopelessly outdated and actually built a prototype FWD Estelle. It’s a moot point as to whether Škoda simply couldn’t afford the investment in FWD technology or the Soviet government refused to allow the Czech company to embarrass Russian domestic manufacturers with a more modern rival, but the FWD prototype was stillborn.
Incidentally, the ‘Estelle’ name was an invention of the company’s UK advertising agency and was not used outside the British Isles. Elsewhere, the car was known rather more prosaically as the 105 or 120, depending on engine size.
Car Magazine tested an Estelle Two 120L SE in January 1985 and was surprisingly polite about it. The Estelle Two was a facelifted model, with rectangular headlamps and a smoother front end. While not exactly pretty, the reviewer thought it quite well proportioned. They described the finish and equipment as “exemplary”.
The Estelle came with steel-belted radial tyres, mudflaps, a vinyl roof, halogen headlamps, a laminated windscreen and heated rear window, a radio-cassette player, tachometer, fully reclining bucket front seats with headrests, cloth upholstery and “a toolkit that would have done justice to a Boeing 747”. All for just £3,299 when a (very) basic Ford Escort cost well over £4,000.
Performance was leisurely, with a 90mph top speed and a 0 to 60mph time of around 20 seconds. There was an annoying engine boom at 4,000rpm, which unfortunately equated to 70mph in top gear.
The major concern with the Estelle was its handling. The combination of the rear-engined layout and swing-axle rear suspension meant it was prone to sudden breakaway oversteer when pushed beyond its limits. It was also easily upset by crosswinds. The reviewer thought that it was not treacherous, but neither was it fail-safe, unlike most contemporary cars. In conclusion, the reviewer paid the Estelle a rather back-handed compliment by concluding that it was no longer “the worst new car sold in Britain” as the magazine had previously asserted.
Both dynamic issues were addressed by Škoda later in 1985 with the introduction of a five-speed gearbox and adoption of the semi-trailing arm rear suspension from the Rapid Coupé, together with its wider rear track. The engine was also enlarged to 1,289cc. Some even came to regard the Rapid as a cut-price Porsche 911 alternative, given their shared mechanical layout (if little else).
The Estelle attracted a loyal following of owners in the UK, where over 120,000 were sold between 1977 and 1990. They were mechanically robust with only one significant problem, a tendency for the engine to overheat and blow head gaskets. This was caused by airlocks in the tortuous pipework connecting the front-mounted radiator to the rear engine.
If the Estelle had an indirect and distant relationship to the 1956 Renault Dauphine, the genesis of the Lada Riva was much more straightforward: it was simply a Fiat 124 with a Russian designed OHC engine in place of the Fiat OHV unit, rear drum instead of disc brakes, and a strengthened bodyshell and raised ride height to cope with the much more arduous Soviet Union driving conditions.
It was first introduced in 1970 as the VAZ-2101 saloon and VAZ-2102 Estate. These early models were visually identical to the contemporary 124, which would continue in production until 1974, but later models would be subjected to numerous facelifts in a mainly futile or even counterproductive attempt to modernise the boxy 1960’s design. The car was sold for a decade under a bewildering range of different VAZ and Lada numeric monikers before becoming the Riva in the United Kingdom and Nova* in continental Europe.
By 1985, the Riva had acquired rectangular headlamps, larger bumpers with plastic end cappings, blacked-out window frames, recessed door handles, a bodyside rubbing strip and larger tail lights, all in an attempt to bring the old girl up to date. The 1500GLS model tested by Car Magazine also had a large and ostentatious chrome grille that was writing cheques the car simply couldn’t cash.
Inside, the original tidy Fiat dashboard with its strip speedometer was gone, replaced by a cliff-face of rather crude and cheap black plastic. This housed a vaguely sporting matching speedometer, tachometer and four minor gauges, which reminded the reviewer of 1960’s Italian cars of rather greater pedigree.
The front seats, with their ‘tombstone’ integrated headrests and fabric facings were really comfortable. Standard equipment included height-adjustable headlamps, internally adjustable driver’s door mirror, a heated rear window and a 21-piece toolkit. This top-of-the-range model cost £3,475, which was £350 less than the list price of an Austin Metro City!
The 77bhp 1,500cc engine gave a top speed of 95mph and a 0 to 60mph time of about 15 seconds. The steering was low-geared and rather vague, but the car handled safely with a tendency to understeer. The brakes were powerful but unprogressive and the rear drums tended to lock up too readily.
The major criticism of the Riva was the poor standard of finish, with crude welding, an inconsistent paint finish and cheap, fragile trim mouldings. Nevertheless, it was felt that the car would still appeal to those who needed an honest and boring workhorse that would probably soldier on for years with little attention. In reality, that was the only way economically to run a Riva (or Estelle) as they were deeply undesirable and heavily depreciated when offered as a trade-in, even for another similar model.
The Riva would sell steadily, albeit in declining numbers, right up to 1997 when tighter EU emissions standards forced its withdrawal from UK and European markets.
In Part Two, we’ll move forward five years and take a look at two new-era Eastern European cars, both wholly contemporary FWD hatchbacks.
* Vauxhall owned the rights to the ‘Nova’ name in the British Isles and would use it for its version of the Corsa A, so it was unavailable for Lada to use in these markets.