Until now, “Miniature Curbside Classics from the Soviet Union” has been a one-item subcategory. This esoteric subcategory now doubles in size with this item, which was found in a dusty corner of a basement bookcase.
The car is a GAZ-A, a licensed Soviet copy of the Ford Model A. The Gorky Automobile Factory (Gorkovsky Avtomobilny Zavod, or GAZ) has been one of Russia’s leading automobile producers since it started production in 1932. Started as a joint venture between the Soviet Union and the Ford Motor Company named Nizhegorodsky Avtomobilny Zavod (NAZ), after its location in the city of Nizhniy Novgorod, NAZ produced a Model A copy called the NAZ-A; in 1933, the names of both the factory and the car changed to GAZ and GAZ-A, respectively, when the city was renamed for the writer Maxim Gorky. The car’s Model A ancestry is readily apparent in its frontal aspect.
The GAZ-A was the first Soviet-made passenger car. It established GAZ as the Soviet Union’s main producer of cars for Communist Party officials who were important enough to rate a car but still below the top level of Party bosses. Later, GAZ would produce the GAZ M1, based on the Ford Model B; the GAZ 11, an independent design from 1942; the postwar M20 Pobieda (Victory); the M21 Volga, produced from 1956-1970 and considered a classic of the Soviet era (and best known in the U.S. as Vladimir Putin’s personal classic car); and the 1968-1992 M24 Volga which, as the quintessential car of the late Soviet era, was featured prominently in most movies set in Russia, including Goldeneye and The Bourne Supremacy.
GAZ also produced the Chaika–a car for higher-up Party officials that went through several post-1959 design generations–as well as many of the Red Army’s main military trucks. The highest-ranking Soviet officials used limousines, which had been made since 1936 by another enterprise first named ZIS, then ZIM and, finally, ZIL (Zavod imeni Stalina/Molotova/Likhacheva – Stalin/Molotov/Likhachev Factory).
The model is surprisingly solid and made of metal; the convertible top, windshield and tires are plastic. The interior is fairly well detailed, with a central instrument cluster and a gear lever cast in. (The gear lever looks far too short, but a full-length gear lever may have been too fragile for the model.) The ill-fitting doors are the only letdown, but they may be accurate renderings of actual 1930s GAZ build-quality deficiencies. Note that the seemingly gold-plated wire wheels and other brightwork in the above photos are a quirk of lighting; they’re actually chrome-colored on the model.
The model’s detailing extends to the undercarriage, although the Model A’s front and rear axle radius rods here are a bit chunkier than in real life–or were they beefed up to handle Russia’s primitive roads at the time?
Historical accuracy is better maintained on the box, which depicts a Party boss driving away from the smoke-spewing factory he rules with iron discipline as he leaves the proletarian factory workers in his dust.
The box also proudly proclaims the GAZ-A’s status as “The first Soviet light automobile. Produced by the Gorky Avtomobilny Zavod from 1932 to 1936.” Unlike the Benz Patent Motorwagen, whose claim to “first car” status elicited some vehement and highly-detailed opposition here, the GAZ-A’s status as the first Soviet-made passenger car is undisputed.
This particular miniature rolled off of its tiny assembly line in September 1991–only a few weeks after Boris Yeltsin defied an attempted coup by Soviet hard-liners, delivering his famous speech from atop a tank and bringing down the Soviet Union. It was bought off of a Moscow store shelf about a year and a half later.
It cost only 22 rubles – about 30 dollars, using the artificial exchange rate of the late 1980’s–but was quite a bargain in 1993, when the exchange rate was over 1000 rubles to the dollar. Like fur hats and other things that were ridiculously cheap in Russia at the time, I should have brought home a crate full of them back then.