This post originally appeared here, at Hooniverse.com.
Riga, Latvia, was an important city to the U.S.S.R. It provided a key port to the Baltic Sea and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. Latvia was incorportated into the U.S.S.R. in 1944, when Nazi occupation ended. Riga had been an advanced city for centuries and was known for its resources, industry, and trade. Capitalizing on the local talent, the soviets created the RAF, or Riga Autobus Factory (Rīgas Autobusu Fabrika in Latvian). The vehicles they made were exclusively for utility and transit. Today, the factory is closed and most of the RAF vehicles are gone, but the remaining examples serve as reminders of the not-so-distant Soviet past in Latvia.
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The factory opened in Riga in the early ’50s and started building buses. The bus was based on the design from the Russian GAZ-51 truck frame. Production numbers were small. In 1976, a newer, more modern plant was built 25 miles away in Jelgava. Production shifted to smaller mini-van type vehicles that were aranged as ambulances, cargo vans, hearses, taxis, trucks, and various cutaway configurations. The new plant was capable of producing 17,000 units per year.
If you were a citizen of Latvia during the Soviet era, you weren’t allowed to actually own an RAF vehicle (unless you had 5 or more children). They were exclusively earmarked for state use. Production continued though 1990, but without much in the way of upgrades and new technology. When the U.S.S.R. collapsed and Latvia declared independence in 1991, the RAF factory was sorely behind the times. Supplies were cut off, the market was cut off, and the western market was not interested in 25 year-old Soviet automotive technology.
Through the 1990s, the factory limped along, putting out smaller and smaller numbers of vehicles, until they finally closed in 1998. It was the only significant automaker the country ever had.
Today, both RAF factories stand empty and largely forgotten. Save a few collectors, the remainder of the vehicles stand largely forgotten as well. Earlier this year, a “Vintage Festival” was held to honor the previously ubiquitous RAF vehicles. The vehicles on display were from the collection of a local engineer. The video below highlights that festival.
This tribute video shows many of the iterations of RAF products.