Riga is in Latvia, on the Baltic Sea, between the North Sea and St Petersburg. Although Latvia is now proudly independent but small country, and part of the European Union, at the beginning of the 20th century it was among the five most important and richest cities of Imperial Russia, alongside St Petersburg and Moscow, and this shows in the buildings. There is a medieval old town, but much of the city is significantly newer and was clearly built as an affluent city.
Being a Curbivore, my walk was only partly about the city and its buildings, but also focussed on the streetscape. High on the list to catch were Lada, Moskvich and Polski-Fiat, maybe a Volga. It didn’t work out that way.
First up, and probably the first car I saw that morning, was a Mazda 121 (aka Ford Aspire), a car that was not sold in the UK, where we got a different Mazda 121, based on the JDM Autozam Revue and the Mazda 2 instead. Pleasant enough I’m sure, but frankly I’m finding it hard to think of anything exciting about it, apart from Japanese reliability. Perhaps that’s why it wasn’t sold in the UK.
Next up, a Ford Cougar (aka Mercury Cougar), as recently featured in CC. This was a four cylinder version, and like many cars in Riga, was wearing its age well. Incidentally, last weekend I also saw a Ford Cougar V6 in the splendid deep blue of the CC feature car from Cougar Day.
Perhaps more in line with what I expected to see was this Audi 80 (B3 series), from 1987-94. Clearly it has seen some after market attention, but for a 20 year old car it was looking in good order, demonstrating an essentially very solid car, given the coastal Baltic environment. Back in 1995, we had a holiday in eastern Germany and saw many cars of this age and earlier clearly being taken for export further east, usually on trailers behind a Polish or Ukranian registered pick up or tow truck.
Talking of cars that have endured their time well, there was also a Bentley Mulsanne saloon sitting quietly on a side street, with what I believe is a personalised registration. This is the normally aspirated version of the recent Curbside Classic, with a 6.75 litre V8.
Given the rectangular headlamps, will be 1989 or earlier, so will have been imported into Latvia at some point after independence (from Russia) in 1991. The two-tone paint finish looks to be aftemarket, and the winged Bentley bonnet mascot is missing too.
Just round the corner was another large (at least the standards of its manufacturer) western European car, which is also pretty unusual in western Europe – the Renault Vel Satis. Renault has long tried to break into the executive market with a series of large hatchbacks, from the 1970s Renault 30, then the 25 (which formed the basis for the Eagle Premier), then the Safrane and finally the 2002 Vel Satis.
The Vel Satis broke the mould slightly by being taller than the norm by around 4 inches, in a way that echoed the Espace. Given that I think space and light are two of the basic luxuries that are sometimes overlooked and which this car addressed, it seems that not enough people agree me (I should be used to that by now) as it was allowed to die without replacement in 2009. Engines were 2.0 to 3.5 litre, petrol or diesel, with front wheel drive and a typically Renault interior.
Thinking Renault, there was also a relatively rare 2002-9 Renault Megane saloon. The Megane is Renault’s Golf/Astra/Focus competitor, and the saloon is rare in west but more popular further east and further south. The same goes for other similar cars – the UK does not get saloon Focus or Astra versions for example. Engines are 1.4 to 2.0 litre, petrol and diesel. This car was also the base for the second generation Scenic, and whilst in Riga we took a taxi ride in one, proudly recording 450,000 km on the clock, and wearing it well.
Renault’s partner Nissan was there too, represented here by a 2002-2008 Primera saloon. This was built in Britain in a factory that now produces more cars than Italy. Although earlier Primeras were paired with the Infiniti G20, this version (known as the P12) was not available in north America, but was exported from the UK to Japan in hatchback form. In line with the Megane, both these examples are saloons, although the hatchback was more common in the UK.
The styling was quite challenging in 2002 but is ageing well, possibly better than the Ford Cougar for example. An under rated car much of the time.
Mitsubishi were also in evidence. These two Galants were parked outside the Czech Embassy – again cars that are pretty rare in the UK. These are 1996-2003 eighth generation cars.
Also, I saw a Mitsubishi Space Wagon (or Mitsubishi Expo), in this case a 1991-97 second generation car. This date suggests that it was a precursor of the compact Euro-sized MPV/minivan/monospace, such as the Renault Scenic and Citroen Picasso, and perhaps deserves a larger place in history than it always gets. It is larger than the original Scenic, being closer the Espace in size, but there was the smaller Space Runner (or Dodge Colt Wagon). Again, a rare sight in the UK now.
One other car with a Mitsubishi link, though not obvious visually, is the Smart ForFour. This was a hatchback styled to link to the familiar Smart ForTwo mini car but actually based on the Japan and Europe only Mitsubishi Colt, a Ford Fiesta competitor. The appearance of the Smart safety frame is achieved through cladding only, not through the structure. The car was built in Born, Holland, in the Ned Car facility that originally built the DAF and then the compact Volvos, before turning to contract manufacturing, and was powered by a range of 1.1 lire three cylinder and 1.6 litre four cylinder engines, including a 177 bhp Brabus version capable of 137mph. Production ran from 2004 to 2006, before Mercedes pulled out, due to disappointing sales.
America was represented also, with a Chrysler 300M with smoked gray rear lights and a roof and boot lid to match, looking more at home than you might expect for a full size US car in a European city.
GM were there with a
second series Cadillac CTS-V Cadillac STS, which was possibly the cleanest car I saw all day.
The American car that got my attention most was this Cadillac DTS limousine, waiting patiently with its rather formal (and slightly bored looking) driver, with several others, outside an official building. I suspect that this was associated with the US Embassy to Latvia, given the area of the city I was in.
As I said at the beginning, I went to Latvia expecting to see some Ladas, Moskviches and Polski-Fiats, even if a Trabant was very unlikely. Instead, I soon stopped counting Porsche Cayenne, BMW X5s, Mercedes MLKs and Range Rovers. I saw one Lada Samara and one semi-abandoned Moskvich, the same number as I did current model Bentley Mulsanne.
That’s a £250,000 car, with a 6.8 litre V8 and capable of 185 mph, not a 30 year old Fiat cast off. The times, they are a changin’.