Gaz Exploration

By Graeme Ogg                                                   June 2015

 

I expect a fair number of readers have a few East European cars in their collection. Even if it’s not your main area of interest, you pick up one or two “iconic” Soviet-era Volgas and ZILs and ZIMs and Trabants for their curiosity value. Then along come people like Ist and Nash Avtoprom and various partworks offering a wider range of Soviet and other Eastern Bloc models, so you buy a few more to fill the gaps, and before you know it you end up with a fair representative selection. Which means that if you get wind of something new that will complete the picture, you go into hunting mode …

And that brings me to the Gaz Volga 3111. This car, apparently also marketed under the name ‘Gubernator’ or ‘Governor’, was intended to be Gaz’s last-ditch attempt to produce a properly up-to-date vehicle to replace the Gaz 3110, which was the latest in a very long line of styling and mechanical upgrades to a car which had its origins in the Gaz-24, introduced in 1970.

The intention was to create a car which would offer modern V6 and V8 engines, auto gearboxes, power steering, air conditioning, ABS and everything else that buyers had come to expect, wrapped in a distinctive styling package developed with the assistance of an American automotive parts supplier called Venture Industries Inc.

Unfortunately, as the design and production costs started to mount, to keep things under control they were obliged to compromise by using their old engines and, initially at least, a manual gearbox. Even worse they retained the antiquated cart-sprung rear axle from the Chaika. Hmm, so much for modernity. Gaz is a large and profitable manufacturer, now concentrating on buses and trucks, and could surely have found the extra resources to make a proper job if it, but maybe they felt that even a brilliant product wouldn’t overcome the negative image of the brand name, so perhaps they were a bit ambivalent about the whole project.

The car was first shown in 1998 and went on sale in 2000 with a target of 25,000 units a year, but the high selling price, combined with the company’s poor reputation for build quality and reliability, meant that most Russians with that kind of money to spend turned to reputable Western brands instead. The quoted production figures vary but it seems only about 340 cars were delivered in 2001, falling to around 20 in 2002, and then production was abandoned. It makes the dear old Edsel seem like a runaway commercial success.

The styling can reasonably be called distinctive and characterful, with a muscular look about it – or you may see it as slightly too tall and clumsy, partly due to the big wheels and high clearance for Russian driving conditions. It looks too heavy in some colours, but OK in others. The Lancia-like grille and the headlamp treatment are deliberately reminiscent of the nose of the final 3110. There are plenty of pictures online, plus several good videos of the car on YouTube.

So I went hunting on the Net for a 1:43 version. The Ukrainian modelmaker Kimmeria was offering a handbuilt. They have produced some pretty good models in the past but their attempt at the Gaz 3111 looks distinctly heavy-handed, with clumsy wheels and weakly detailed brightwork in grey painted plastic. On offer at around US$ 99. Sorry, no thanks.

Fresh hopes were raised when I saw the cover of a forthcoming deAgostini partwork for the 3111, but I was quickly informed it was one of a number of “wishful thinking” Photoshopped creations, and deAgostini had no immediate plans to produce it.

Then a few months back I stumbled on a Russian maker, Max-Models, who produce resin 1:43 kits. They showed a kit of the 3111, but it was marked “not available”. An e-mail brought no response, and the website doesn’t seem to have changed in months, so I don’t know if they are still in business or not.

Photos of built specimens looked quite good, even when painted in a nasty mustard colour which I think was intended to match the much darker metallic bronze colour used on the real car. But nobody was offering this model or kit online.

 

Finally, in early March, I had another browse and found a shop in Prague called AutoModels.cz,  showing a 1:43 diecast 3111 produced under the “AIST” or “Avtoistoriya” (Auto History) brand. They had a white one for about 20 Euros  ($22 US), so I clicked on “Buy” and it immediately showed up as “Out of stock” so I was lucky to get it. Further digging showed that Avtoistoriya are based in Russia, and one website says:

‘AIST stands for “Avto Istoriya” and is the brand name for a range of 1/43rd scale diecast models of Russian prototypes. The first models of this range were introduced in 2012. The range mainly consists of classic Russian trucks, but some passenger cars have also been released, which had never been modelled by other industrial manufacturers before (UAZ Simbir, GAZ 3111 Volga). The models are made in China by a company called Marku Toys and are rather inexpensive, details and finish are up to the usual contemporary standards for collectors’ items.’

 

Another online seller says that at least some of their models are based on moulds originally produced by Start Scale Models. I then found several Russian sites selling both brands side by side and they seem to offer much the same range of subjects, mainly heavy Soviet-era military trucks, fire trucks and the like. The basic asking price for this model from Russian outlets is very cheap, usually 650 roubles, which is about £7, but their shipping charges to Western Europe are three or four times that amount, which is just daft.

As you can see, it is indeed a fairly simple model, and some of the car’s surface styling features are perhaps a little underplayed, or maybe the white paint makes it look slightly bland. The black and red ones might be a better bet and I think I’ll try and get one of those. Still, it’s tidy and recognisable, and sometimes the thrill of the chase is more important than the quality of the catch!

A few eBay sellers are starting to offer this model at a higher price (around $20) but with more reasonable shipping charges. I don’t know if it will become more widely available, but I was happy to grab one when I saw it. It is so boringly easy to buy models these days with a mindless click of the mouse, so it’s quite fun when you really have to chase something down for a change.

Incidentally, I also found pictures of a couple of limo versions of the 3111. One looks very handsome in gunmetal grey and the other, fitted out as a wedding car, is attractive on the outside but has a red vinyl interior worthy of a 1950s burger bar. The external bodywork looks identical on both so possibly they were built in-house by Gaz to see if there were any takers – company executives, embassies, etc. (Presumably the answer was “no”).

Kimmeria has had a go at this stretch version as well, and I’m afraid it looks equally rough – in fact it looks like an 8 year-old child has built a plastic kit and painted it with bitumen and silver Humbrol. If anyone fancies the limo they’d be better off doing a simple chop of the basic AIST version. (Don’t look at me. I’m “resting”).

So there you are, an interesting model that brings the Gaz story up to date, even if it did come to a sad end. After this flop, Gaz decided to drop car production altogether, then changed their mind and announced they would resume building the 3110 as a “heritage” model, then changed their mind again and in 2008 started building the Gaz Volga Siber, using the platform and tooling from the second-generation Chrysler Sebring / Dodge Stratos under licence from Chrysler, with minor styling changes and beefed-up suspension. Production was meant to start at 20,000 units a year, building to 100,000, but the world-wide economic crisis put an end to that. Production ended after 3 years with a total of just 9000 built, and Gaz were out of the car business, probably for good.


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