by Rod Ward
[First published in MAR 280, July 2014]
As I noted in the piece in MAR 279 on French plastic models, traditionally most British model car collectors would turn up their noses at the thought of plastic models. In the countries behind the Iron Curtain, however, kiddies and collectors had to be grateful for what they got, and plastic was easier and cheaper to manufacture than diecast metal. For some years the only toy and model cars available to children in the Eastbloc countries were made of plastic, plus a few tinplate items. It was quite a revelation when the Saratov factory in Russia started making diecast models of Russian cars, but they are outside the scope of this article. It is worth noting, however, that politics interfered with this venture. With the centrally-planned economy of the Comecon states, every industrial venture had to be approved as suitable for state support, and permission would only be given for trades or industries which had been allocated to specific areas. For example, no full-size car manufacture was permitted anywhere in Hungary. There was no classification for ‘collectors models’, so the Saratov factory had to indulge in a bit of lateral thinking. They had their models classified as promotional items or spare parts, to assist in the marketing of the equivalent full-size cars. This definition had to be stretched somewhat when they made a model of an already-obsolete Moskvich, and then of the pre-Great War Russobalt. In principle, however, the 1:43 diecast models fell into the same classification as sales catalogues or replacement components.
When we received delivery of these models, they came (120 or more at a time) in large and heavy rectangular grey-painted wooden crates, lined with black paper. This packaging seemed to be totally over the top, when other firms managed to export models around the world in cardboard boxes. It turned out that these were standard boxes used in the USSR for delivery of car parts, which would be returned to the factory with the faulty parts for re-manufacture (and to ensure that no-one was engaging in illicit sales of components). The models had to be distributed in the same boxes as other items under the same classification. Later on, it must have been realised that the wooden boxes were not being returned, so cardboard boxes were substituted. Sometimes a lucky Lada or Moskvich dealer would find a box of models in the boot of a newly-delivered car. He was supposed to give them away to promote sales, but the models often mysteriously found their way to a swapmeet stall or two.
Our friends in the East would keep us informed about the latest products. Among many others, Alexander Yurcenko was a keen collector who was involved with the conception of many 1:43 diecast models in Saratov, including the GAZelle van series and Sergei Govorov in St Petersburg made a superb range of handbuilt fire vehicles and other models.
When restrictions were relaxed, and it became possible to produce more scale models of current and historic vehicles we would get models from all over Russia, from LOMO in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) of old trucks and fire vehicles, models of current Kamaz and Liaz trucks, vintage Amo trucks and so on. Only rarely would these models be all-diecast. Most would have just a diecast chassis, and maybe a cab. All other parts would be plastic.
To return to the all-plastic models of Eastbloc cars, their production also suffered from various degrees of political interference. The state concerns which made the models were only permitted to replicate vehicles from Comecon countries, and they had to seek permission to acquire the necessary raw materials. This would involve applying to the relevant state concern, with a submission describing the purpose of the product.
The Czech authorities were quite helpful, it seems, so current production models of Skodas and Tatras were available from Igra, Miniauto and others. Igra even got permission to produce the entire history of the motor car in Czechoslovakia in (around 1:43 scale) plastic models. They made Laurin & Klements, Presidents, Aeros and others, in a very attractive Oldtimer series. Another popular line in Czechoslovakia was a range of tin toys which originated from the German CKO (Kellerman) range. They were beautifully finished, and are much sought-after today.
Other countries were not as well-served. Polish models tended to be larger scale and crudely executed, rather than 1:43 scale models, though there was a Polonez made by Estetyka, who also produced a plastic Bugatti T35 apparently copied from the Matchbox Yesteryear model.
The authorities in the DDR (East Germany) would only give permission for limited quantities of 1:87 plastic models to be made, mostly related to model railways. An oddity was that TT scale model railways survived in the Eastbloc after their day had passed elsewhere. This meant that there were also some TT scale plastic model vehicles produced in the DDR. It must have been well understood, however, by some East Germans that diecast models were preferred in the West.
When we visited the Nuremberg Toy Fair soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany was in the early stages of reunification. A new exhibitor appeared, with an address in East Berlin, displaying a wide range of toys and models, including some diecast models of four-axle (!) Neoplan coaches. The two guys in charge of the stand, one in his fifties, the other in his thirties, were nattily dressed in sharp suits, and spoke perfect English. Various German friends pointed out that English was not taught in schools in the DDR, but that many Stasi (secret police) agents spoke English. It seemed that these fellows had foreseen what would happen, and using their contacts had set up a business ready to go as soon as the wall came down. West German firms refused to place orders with this company, which didn’t reappear at Nuremberg the following year. So anyone who bought one of those four-axle coaches from us got a rarity.
Over the past 40 years we had all the model vehicles produced in the Eastbloc through our hands. Nowadays you can get excellent 1:43 diecast models from the partwork series made in China by Ixo, some of which are also availabe in their own IST range. There are also still artisan ranges in Russia making excellent handbuilt models of cars from the ex-Eastbloc countries.
So it is now possible to have in your collection detailed models of most vehicles produced in the Eastbloc, but somehow they don’t have the indefinable character of the old plastic models. Some of the models shown here are from the Maz Woolley collection, others are from former Modelauto Ltd stock, and the balance are reproduced from the artwork of Model Auto Review back numbers.
Diecast and Plastic
Large Plastic Models
Medium Sized Plastic Models
Smaller Plastic Models
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