The RAF 977 was one of the first Soviet minibuses. Serial production was launched in 1959.
70 years ago the Рижский завод автобусных кузовов (Russian Factory for Coach Bodies aka RZAK) was set up on the premises of the former Car Repair Workshop No2 in Riga, now Latvia. In 1955 the factory was renamed the Rigas Autobusu Fabrika (RAF).
Just like many other similar plants, RZAK/RAF started its life building GAZ 51-based buses.
By the mid-1950s the Soviet Union was moving rapidly ahead with the production of trucks and full-size buses, but the Ministry of Soviet Automotive Industry (aka Minavtoprom) realised that a smaller passenger vehicle was also needed, bigger than a traditional taxi, but smaller than a bus. Marshrutka which translates as routed taxi was getting popular as it was more flexible than a regular bus. However the ZIM 12 sedan was hardly ideal for such a purpose. Also there was a high demand for ambulances – again normal cars were converted for such purposes.
A four-wheel-drive military-oriented minibus was developed in Ulyanovsk by UAZ, while development of a two-wheel-drive civilian vehicle was assigned to the RAF plant.
Apparently a Volkswagen Type 2 was imported for “inspiration”. Early RAF minivans, the small-scale production RAF 8 Spriditis and RAF 10 models were based on the Moskwitch and Pobeda cars respectively.
The first test batch of RAF 10s was made for use at the 1957 Moscow Youth Festival, indeed the vehicle as provisionally named the Festival.
In 1958 the first order arrived for 10 minibuses. This was the first official sign that serial production is required. The RAF 10 was promptly redesigned to accomodate components from the newly announced GAZ M21 Volga, including a low compression version of its 2445 cc engine.
Serial production of the new RAF 977 was launched in 1959
Lack of a conveyor belt prevented real mass production, but there was a steady stream of minibuses coming out from the Riga plant.
The updated RAF977D arrive in 1961. This version remained in production until 1968
In 1967 the RAF 977D became the RAF 977DM with slight changes in both exterior and interior styling. In 1970 production of the GAZ 21 Volga came to an end, which sealed the fate of the RAF 977.
Production of the 977 ceased in 1976. However this was not the end of the line for the model as it survived in a slightly modified form as the Yeraz-762 built by the Yerevan Automobile Plant until 1996!
The Riga factory went on to build the highly succesful RAF 2203, which was exported to COMECON countries.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the newly independent Latvia couldn’t sustain the RAF plant which became bankrupt in 1998. A resurrection was announced in 2018 as a new RAF company was incorportated for the production of electric minivans.