Release date:On sale now — and for the past 45 years
Engine:1568 cc, 4 cylinders
Power:72 bhp @ 5300 rpm
Torque:86 lb ft @ 3750 rpm
We see many Russians in the big, wide world these days and they appear to be extremely well off. They always have enormous watches, huge cars and embroidered jeans. Many also have football clubs.
So you would imagine that if you were running an airline, you would try to impress these newly moneyed people by lavishing your Moscow service with your latest, newest, shiniest aircraft. Weirdly, British Airways has chosen to do the exact opposite.
In my experience, BA puts its best aeroplanes on the transatlantic routes, and then, when the fittings and fixtures are a bit tired, the aircraft are relieved of their JFK duties and are used to ferry holidaymakers to the Caribbean. When they are too decrepit even for that, they take people to and from Uganda, and I thought that afterwards they were scrapped — or sold to Angola. But no.
It seems they are then given to the fire service, which uses them to train crews on the art of passenger evacuation, and then to the SAS, who run about in the burnt carcasses, shooting at imaginary terrorists. After that, they are used on the Moscow route.
I recently flew with BA to Russia, and to give you an idea of how old the plane was, I will tell you the on-board entertainment system used VHS tapes. And to make the quality even less impressive, my television screen was less than 2in across. And it was located on the bulkhead, several feet in front of my face. Also, it was broken. So was the lavatory seat.
I was going to write a letter to the chairman of BA, explaining that he’s got it all the wrong way round. Using your best aircraft to compete with America’s airlines — which are exclusively staffed by fat, bossy women and serve rubbish food — is like Chelsea fielding their best team to take on Doncaster Rovers.
I was going to point out to him — because plainly he doesn’t know — that the Berlin Wall has gone, and that the Russians are no longer queuing for six years to buy a beetroot and then being shot for saying it’s a bit warty.
I was also going to invite him to take a look around Gum, the department store in Red Square. There was a time when people would come from thousands of miles away because it had just taken delivery of some pencils. Now it makes the Westfield shopping centres in London look like an Ethiopian’s larder. The smallest watch on display is bigger than the TV screen I hadn’t been able to watch on my flight, and the underwear costs more than the ticket.
It’s not just materialism, either. In Russia people are now free to say absolutely anything that comes into their heads. Talk as Russians do in Britain and you’d be hauled over the coals for racism and branded a bigot. You want to suggest the legal age of consent should be lowered to 12? Go right ahead. People won’t call you a paedo; they’ll be interested to hear why you think that way. They went 70 years without being able to discuss anything. Now they want to discuss everything.
Of course, you are not able to write too disparagingly about Vladimir Putin, unless you want some radioactivity with your bacon and egg, but you can sure as hell say what you like. To whoever you’re with. I found it fantastically liberating.
There are other things, too. In Britain if Sir Philip Green or Lord Sir Sugar were to spend an evening at the Wolseley restaurant in the middle of London playing tonsil hockey with a phalanx of 6ft hookers, tongues would wag. In Russia that sort of thing appears to be quite normal.
A friend texted while I was there to say: “Be careful. Moscow is bad for your soul.” He’s wrong. It’s not bad for your soul but I bet it could be very bad for your marriage, your bank balance and your gentleman’s area.
Moscow buzzes and hums. You should try the bone marrow in Cafe Pushkin and spend a few minutes at the side of the road seeing if you can spot a car that would cost less than £50,000 if you’d bought it in Britain. Then check out the pavements and see if you can find one single girl who’s fat or less than 6ft tall or not wearing a beautifully cut pair of jeans. I have no idea what Hugh Hefner’s wet dreams are like. But I bet they’d be along these lines.
I went to the Kremlin at one point to discover it’s all been done up and refurbished. Not so it resembles how it might have looked in the past but so that foreign diplomats are blown into the middle of next week by the grandeur. Every room is like being inside the mind of a gold-obsessed four-year-old princess.
And then, just as I’d decided that Russia looked like the love child of Monte Carlo and Kuwait, with a little help from Onyx on Thames, someone leant over and told me the Lada Riva was still in production. And I’m sorry but that’s like being told that the king of Saudi Arabia does his own washing, with a tub and a mangle.
Why would Lada still be making the Riva? What could anyone I’d seen in my whole visit want with a car as nasty as that? Or has it been improved radically since it was the staple wheeled diet of Mr Arthur Scargill’s disciples? I had to find out. So I did. And it hasn’t. In fact, I think it’s become worse.
The Riva began its life in 1966 in Turin, where it was known as the Fiat 124. Fiat did a deal with the Communists, helping to build a factory in Russia in which the company’s old design would continue to be produced. This became the Lada Riva.
Fans will tell you that much changed over the years, but I can report that actually nothing changed at all. Except that now the Riva is also made in the great car-producing nations of Ukraine and Egypt.
I don’t know where the car I drove was made. Or who made it. But I suspect he was very angry about something because it was horrific. The steering column appeared to have been welded to the dashboard so that it wouldn’t turn. The brakes caused the car to speed up a bit and turn left, violently, at the same time.
The buttons on the dash appeared to have been put in place by Janet Ellis from Blue Peter, and the engine had plainly been lifted from a cement mixer that had spent the past 30 years chewing up rebel soldiers in southern Sudan.
It would get from 0mph to 60mph. But only when it was built by Fiat. Since it became a Lada, it hasn’t really been able to move at all. And, boy, is it badly made.
When I eventually ran it over with a monster truck, it folded in half. And to put that in perspective, let me explain at this point that when the very same monster truck ran over an Indian-made CityRover recently, the car was pretty much okay afterwards.
Why, then, is the Riva still being manufactured? Why are there people in Russia still buying it? Could it be, perhaps, that behind the white-toothed, gold-capped Moscow smile, the rest of the country is — how can I put this — a bit poor?
Maybe, in other words, the chairman of BA knows something I didn’t realise: that those who can afford to fly in Russia have their own planes.
And those who can’t are stuck out in the middle of nowhere boiling swede in the hope that one day they’ll be able to afford a car that’s 45 years old before it’s left the bloody showroom.
Clarkson’s verdict: So poor, it gives Lada a bad name