Curbside Classics: Avia 20F and Raf 2203 Vans – Still Hard at Work In Russia


Must be another form of the famous CC Effect: start contributing to the CC, and all of a sudden the CCs swarm around you, ready to be photographed and posted, with the population density reaching its peak in the area where you live. Almost in the exact same spot I’ve shot a hard working Nysa 522 more than a year ago, another ex-Eastern Block van appeared – and yet another one is parked just one block away !


The first vehicle is an Avia delivery van – a Czechoslovakian license-built copy of the French Renault-Saviem SG2 – used by some local Sandwich Club as a food truck.

Before WWII, the Avia was a well known military aircraft producer – hence the name – owned by the Škoda Works industrial conglomerate. After the war it was nationalized and eventually repurposed as a producer of light & medium trucks, but the name stuck.


Chromed grille and headlight bezels denote this van as an early model Avia A20F built before 1983, which also differed from the later A21 by being equipped with a 4-speed gearbox (later ones had a 5-speed) and hydraulic brakes (later substituted by a compressed air brake system). The drivers generally remember the A20 for its anvil-like reliability, but also for very poor adaptation to cold climate – the diesel engine was a bear to start if the temperature dropped below –15°C.


Almost 40,000 of Avia vans and trucks have been imported by the USSR, so it is not surprising to see one that is still alive and well. However, it is still a rare sight and by far not the obvious choice for business. Anyway, the condition of this one is truly remarkable, except for the front fender flares which seem to have gone AWOL, making those tiny radial tires look even smaller than they really are (compare to the stock bias-ply tires on the black & white photo above). I like the small details of this car, such as vertical push-button door handles – odd looking, but seemingly convenient, or ‘streamlined’ external door hinges.

Personally, I’d prefer the original lighter shade of blue –


– to the current Pepsi Cola Blue. Or, perhaps, its just the color of the Avias from my childhood memories that stuck in my head. Can’t imagine it in any other.


The Simpsons themed paint job also doesn’t seem to be very appropriate, but the owner must be thinking the thing looks an awful lot like an American delivery van, which is as good an excuse as anything else. Thus, only the white plastic hubcaps fall strictly into the category of styling sins – pretty easy ones to absolve at that.


The second vehicle, also in two-tone white-and-blue, is a RAF-2203 8-seat van, produced in 1982 by the Rigas Autobusu Fabrika (Riga Bus Factory) in Riga, Latvian SSR. It obviously has seen better days, but is still driveable, or at least able to move under its own power. These vans are built around the Volga GAZ-24 powertrain and chassis components, so it shouldn’t have been a problem to keep it running, especially here in Gorky / Nizhny Novgorod where the GAZ plant is located.


The awkward looking front end on this particular specimen is the result of an unfortunate plastic surgery, including the implantation of the GAZ Sobol grille and generic round headlights in lieu of the same GDR-sourced rectangular units as those gracing the front end of the Avia shown above, which are becoming difficult to replace. The bumpers and rear-view mirrors are not original as well.

газ 80-82 год

Unlike the Avias, which were always something of an exotic even back in the Soviet days, these vans were pretty much ubiquitous several decades ago. Along with GAZ-24 Volgas and various Ladas they’d dominated the streets of Soviet cities in late 1970s and 1980s, and were about as common in the post-Soviet Russia until late 1990s, when they started to be replaced by the GAZelles.


The absolute majority of them were 12-seat (sometimes 11 or 13-seat) minibuses engaged in the Marshrutka (routed share taxi; see Wikipedia article). The interior was somewhat cramped to say the least, but the Marshrutka was one the fastest way of public transportation available (especially in cities or districts without a subway) and was extremely popular, even despite the double fare (10 kopeks instead of 5 in a full-size bus – still a meager sum, anyway).


The 8-seat version was a crew van with a lot of luggage space behind the seats which could be driven with a B-class ‘amateur’ (cars only, no work for hire allowed) driving license, and sometimes sold to large families. Later many standard 12-seaters got converted into the 8-seat configuration as well – the RAF featured in this post is most likely one of these.

There was also a special ambulance version:


Thanks to its passenger car roots, the RAF provided almost car-like comfort and ease of handling (much unlike the more recent GAZelle with its reliable but crude solid beam axle up front and body-on-frame construction), but that came at a price: the Volga’s engine and front suspension didn’t cope well with the added weight (the problem being further worsened by the 55/45 weight distribution). The brakes, which were 11″ drums all round, also had their fair share of complains. The indirect descendant of the RAF, the GAZ Sobol (Russian for ‘Sable’), benefited greatly from being built on a brand new purpose-designed platform, while still very car-like in its road manners.


The RAF-2203 was also notorious for its very inconveniently placed gear change lever, which protruded from the floor somewhere to the east of the driver’s seatback, adding some elements of acrobatics into the process of driving (also fixed on the Sobol).


This van is listed on Avito advertising board for a relatively modest sum of ₽30,000 (roughly $500), but it seems the sale doesn’t go well, so far.