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The most famous car in Latvia is similar to the Skoda 1203. The RAF automobile company has been around for only 40 years.

The most famous car in Latvia is similar to the Skoda 1203. The RAF automobile company has been around for only 40 years.

Latvia has not been a promised land for cars, although some may remember Dartz’s luxury off-road vehicles of late. In the past, one of the Baltic republics produced cars, specifically minibuses and ambulances used in Czechoslovakia. The RAF automobile company was founded in the mid-1950s, but went bankrupt four decades later.

The abbreviation RAF is by far the most well-known in relation to the RAF, but in the past it was also used by an automobile company based in the Latvian capital, Riga. Its name RAF is quite logical an acronym for Rigas Autobus Fabrika, in translation Riga Bus Factory. This was preceded by a car repair shop in the capital of Latvia, and later a body factory. Then came the bus production. Since Latvia, like other Baltic republics, was part of the Soviet Union, it is not too surprising that it uses Russian truck technology.

The demand for smaller cars, capable of transporting more people, but again not as much as full-size buses – for example in the form of taxi services – but led to the fact that buses gradually ceased production in Riga, and on the contrary began to design buses small. Since the mid-fifties, the automobile company was called RAF, and soon after, in 1957, the prototypes of the RAF 08 and RAF 10 minibuses appeared. The technology was differently borrowed from other cars produced at that time. The smaller 08 came from Moskvič, and the bigger 10 from Poběda from GAZ Motors.

The design may sound familiar, like many other Soviet cars, the RAF minibuses were Western-inspired. In this case, in the form of a Volkswagen T1, although the concept of the two cars couldn’t be more different. The effect of the T1 can be seen, for example, on the small windows on the roof, and the “ten” was distinguished from the “eight” not only with a larger body, but also with a different visor and headlights.

While the smaller eight-seater RAF 08 remained only in the single prototype stage, the larger RAF 10 was eventually produced in smaller numbers for the Moscow Youth Festival, but with a modified design (some parts had two front spoilers in the middle of the body), an engine and other technical elements from the Volga 21 Its subsequent development led to the construction of the RAF 977 minibus with another modified design, production of a small series began in 1959. The plant in Riga was not adapted for mass production, so most of the parts were created manually. Compared to the original prototype, the new car looked more traditional, but had, for example, a split windshield or a protruding front visor that did not differ from American cars.

The final homogeneity of forms came in 1961, when the RAF 977D debuted with a new front section and curved one-piece windshield. For example, Jan Tuček in the book Cars of the Eastern Bloc talks about the serial release of the Latvian minibus since 1961. At that time, production was also moved to another address in Riga. Similar to the previous version, the 977D had a tram bus concept with the engine between the front seats. It was a 2.4-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine with a power of 51.5 kW, respectively 59 kW at a higher compression degree and better quality fuel, which is known from GAZ cars.

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After all, for example, the rear-wheel drive solid axle was from the Volga 21. The engine was combined with a three-speed manual transmission, and the average consumption was about 15 l / 100 km. The minibus is 4.9 meters long and has an extended wheelbase of 2.7 metres. Inside, ten sat in four rows, including two places for the driver and front passenger. They each had their own doors, but only one not too wide door on the passenger side was designed for rear access. Forget the sliding mechanism, it opened classically with a handle in the direction of travel.

The exterior design was very utilitarian, the car even acquired geometric shapes with small side windows and round headlights. The name “Latvia”, that is, “Latvia” written in decorative letters, also appears in the foreground, although it was added to the name of the minibus only later. In the Soviet Union, the Latvian Automobile Corporation, along with UAZ, was the only manufacturer of minibuses or minibuses, and the situation was not much better in the rest of the Eastern Bloc either. Of course, the Czechoslovak Škoda 1203, which was slightly smaller, the East German Barkas, or the Poles Žuky and Nysy are worth mentioning.

In addition to the passenger minibus, the popular RAF 977I ambulance went into the production program, supported by a tourist version of the minibus with the designation 977E and RAF 980 three-body tourist “train” for a total of 44 people. There were also plans to produce a smaller model using Moskvich technology based on the 08 prototype, but the Type 978 did not go into production due to a weak engine. Latvian technicians also derived a minivan from a passenger car: practically only by removing the rear seats and blinding the side windows. However, due to the low production capabilities of the Riga plant, the production of the truck was moved to Armenia, where the production of the JerAZ 762 type began in Yerevan in 1966 at the JerAZ Automobile Company.

Meanwhile, the RAF 977D underwent modernization in 1969, including, for example, larger side doors for access to the passenger compartment. Besides, the side glass was also changed, as there were four taller glasses instead of six shorter ones. Cars received the letter M in their names, which led to the creation of the 977DM minibus, the 977IM ambulance and the 977EM luxury tourist minibus. At the same time, the management of the plant was thinking backwards and the fact that the existing production capacities and premises were not enough. The problem was the political leaders who had to sanctify the construction of the new factory, and this was not easy in the Soviet system.

In search of a new generation of minibuses, the RAF leadership decided to create two groups: one that worked on a trambus concept car, and the other on a car with a Ford Transit canopy. The result of the efforts was two different prototypes with the designation 982. After various tests, it seemed that the car with a covered body, which was supposed to be safer and easier to develop, would go into production as a result of a political decision. However, the RAF Director, according to Andy Thompson and his book Cars of the Soviet Union: The Final History, saw greater potential in the more modern Trambus concept for Latvian automaker politicians to strike building a new advanced hardware plant. Sentences.

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The decision to produce was eventually reversed, as well as urging politicians to build a new plant. Thus, at the end of July, the foundation stone of the new production plant can be laid in Jelgava, about 45 km from Riga. The plant with a production capacity of 17,000 cars per year was opened in February 1976, at the same time production of the 977DM and related models continued, while the development of the car that would eventually be called 2203 Latvija continued. Its prototypes have been tested in various forms since the early 1970s, but final serial production did not begin until early 1976.

The RAF 2203 was radically different from its predecessor in terms of design, offering more glazing area, full-surface plastic fenders and a plastic front visor. Round lights have been replaced by rectangles. With a length of 4980 mm, the novelty was longer, but at 2630 mm its wheelbase was slightly shorter. Inside, there were again four rows of seats, but the capacity was increased to twelve passengers, including the driver and passenger. The rear was inserted again through the single side door on the passenger side.

The technology, based on the new Volga 24, including a 2.4-liter 70 kW engine, has also undergone a transformation. The transmission was four-speed, and it still drives the solid rear axle. An interesting feature were the coil-springs at the front taken from the Čajka luxury limousine, although both axles were based on a Volga design.

The basis of the offer was a classic minibus, and there was also a version intended for taxi services in Soviet cities, which had two longitudinal seats in the back. Thanks to this, 14 people sat inside, but without luggage. This model also has an engine with a lower compression ratio and runs on lower quality fuel, so the power is reduced to 62.5 kW. Ambulances based on 2203 were also popular, and modifications for firefighters or police were also made. The specialty was the all-personal eight-seater version, acquired by a few families with more than five children. Other than that, only government organizations and various companies were entitled to a minibus.

Already in the 1970s, the RAF was also testing all-electric propulsion in 2204 models with a shortened wheelbase and a range of only 30-40 km and the 2207 in regular length. Although these were experimental models, the 2207 and 2210 electric minibuses were eventually used at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, as well as a number of other versions of the RAF 2203, including several special pickups, which They are intended to be support vehicles for athletes and organizers, or luxury minibuses. There was also one special piece of the car that was supposed to hold the Olympic torch.

Other than that, RAF 2203 did not change much during the first half of the 1980s. However, Andy Thompson mentions a number of shortcomings resulting from the car’s design and assembly. For example, the wear protection was very poor, there were problems with the axles (especially at the front related to placing a heavy engine on top of it) or oil leakage. After all, its consumption, as well as fuel consumption, was quite high in real conditions.

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The engines were also not very reliable, they overheated, and the design with the engine over the front axle led to a number of control problems, especially on water or snow. For this, you also need to add poorly performing drum brakes on all wheels. Other shortcomings arose from the Trambus concept, including leakage of exhaust gases into the cabin, high noise or insufficient safety due to practically non-existent deformation zones.

However, according to Jan Tuček, despite all the shortcomings, the RAF 2203 reached Czechoslovakia. Between 1985 and 1988, two hundred ambulances and about seventy minibuses were imported. This was at the time when in Latvia they were already working on updating the car, which appeared in 1987, but in fact it began to be sold only in 1990. It brought a new front part and a noticeably more plastic visor, a slightly more powerful engine, a modified cabin, protection against Corrosion as well as changes to the chassis and brakes – disc brakes in the front – which were supposed to at least partially solve a number of problems with the minibus.

The revamped version was called the RAF 22038 and returned again as an ambulance, as well as a variant with a high roof (previously built by the Finnish company Tamro). The intermediate type, which was created between 2203 and 22038 and had parts from both versions, was called 2203-01 in the late 1980s. By the way, the company JerAZ in Yerevan assembled 762 minivans in 1989, albeit in a modernized form.

When the collapse of the Soviet Union came, its industrial enterprises suddenly began to look for application in the free markets, which brought with them a number of new products. The RAF has not only added a minivan in a specific thirteen-seat taxi version to the offer, but also the 33111 flatbed trucks with a single cab and the 3311 with a double cab. Its carrying capacity was 860 and 750 kg, respectively. Finally, a box truck appeared directly from the Latvian factory of the car company.

The RAF M2 was one of the attempts to save the dying brand in the 1990s. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons – Delphi (CC-BY-SA 4.0)

But it was not very suitable for the RAF. Thomson writes that if in 1990 17,000 cars were produced, in 1997 there were only 66 cars, and this also marked the beginning of the production of GAZ minibuses. In 1997 the production of minibuses and utility models in Latvia finally ended, and a year later the automobile company went bankrupt. In the early 1990s, the RAF attempted to replace the Latvija model series with two new, more modern minibuses, but the M1 and M2 prototypes did not go into production and ended up in museum collections. Production of the Graz finally continued until 2002, when the old 762 was replaced by the 3730, which had been in development for a long time in the mid-90s. However, the Yerevan-based automaker went bankrupt in 2002.