Growing up in the “West” during the Cold War, many of us were taught certain “truths” about the countries behind the Iron Curtain. Some of these were true, and of course, some were false. That’s the nature of propaganda in general, and what happens when two nearly diametrically opposite regimes spend decades staring each other down around the globe. Granted, some of what we learned was true, but other things were just off the mark.
We were told that Russian goods (everything from toys to high-tech fighting machines) were clunky, unsophisticated second-rate copies, or versions, of what we had in the West. Everything from Russia was assumed to be a brutal, unrefined and even barely serviceable analog of our own, far finer and more impressive, goods. I can remember as a child feeling sad for Russian children. Surely, I thought, in a militaristic state that was so greyly totalitarian, there wouldn’t even BE any toys for kits to play with. Here I was with my shiny new Hot Wheels and Transformers, and what did they have? Rocks? Sticks?
Well, it turns out maybe some things were a bit exaggerated when it came to the poor quality of Russian goods. Sure, their approach to jet fighters and space craft may be a bit “rough around the edges” compared to what the West had, but there’s one thing the Russians seemed to do well: make die cast toy cars. I only learned this recently, and it continues to surprise me!
Whereas a lot of Western 1/43 toys and replicas are nice, but fairly simple, the Russian toys in this scale that I’ve come across are nearly works of art. With a piece count that would make some small models blush, these little die cast marvels are the exact opposite of the crudely-formed lumps of barely-playable pig iron I would have expected them to be. Heck, in most cases, I’m sure the quality and attention to detail on Russian 1/43 die cast replicas exceed that applied to the real cars!
A perfect example is the Tantal 1/43 Niva. I picked this one up at a toy show recently: let’s take a look at this little gem from the waning days of the Cold War. You might be surprised by what you find; I was!
Just before we get to the toy, a quick word about the Niva. Produced by Lada (and even sold here in North America) the Niva was a rough and tough off-roading vehicle. It was produced by AutoVAZ, and was apparently the first original, non-Fiat design they produced. The name “Niva” means “Crop Field” (as opposed to an open meadow or moor), giving some indication of what the vehicle might have been targeting as its demographic.
The 2121 Niva is a surprisingly high and short vehicle, and, to be honest, is not all that pretty. However, despite its crudeness in spots, it is an excellent off-road vehicle, and is popular for racing. Incidentally, the Niva’s construction uses many techniques that are found in all kinds of Western SUVs and CUVs today: unibody construction and coil-sprung independent front suspension. It’s funny how the crude copy used these ideas first, isn’t it?
From what I have gleaned on the Internet, this model was made by a company/factory known as Tantal. One area in which the Tantal did not do itself any favours with this toy is the box. It is a nice window box, true, and it shows off its surprisingly high quality goods very well. However, as a box, it’s just boring and lame.
The colours, yellow and grey with black and orangey-red are not attractive. They are okay on an old Dinky Toy, but even then the box is helped by a nice bit of art on it, and you can respect the box because it’s a half-century or more old. The Tantal Niva’s box is much newer, and just looks boring and uninteresting. There’s nothing in the way of art to it, and to make matters worse, it looks upside down! One doesn’t normally assume that the window part of the box is going to be on the BOTTOM. Now, there’s likely a good reason for this: the Niva’s chassis is a real work of art, whereas the top is, well fine, certainly not as demonstrative of craftsmanship. Also, doing it this way allows the “Skif” pop-up camping trailer to be secured without resorting to twist ties (or other strategic materials).
Just when you think, “Okay, the box is upside down and ugly, but the Niva looks cool. What else could be wrong?” you get the answer. Soviet foam. I could have called it GloriousStatePartyDeathFoam or something, but that seems a bit alarmist… or does it? As you can see, the nose end of the box is a bit too long for the Niva. To prevent it from rolling around, the manufacturer has decided to add some padding. This is a step above Western toys, which just let things roll around loose in a bubble pack or box if the toy is a bit undersized. The issue is not with the inclusion of the foam, it’s with the composition of the foam. Just looking at it made me feel uneasy. What was it made of? Was it as toxic as it looked? It was a product of Soviet chemical engineering, the same group who gave us the cardboard-resin hybrid material of the Trabant, and that had me worried.
I toyed, at first, with leaving the Niva in the box and displaying it thusly. It would be an interesting conversation piece, true, but I feared what the foam could be doing to the Niva’s paint! I had no idea how old the toy was (I suspected mid-80’s) and was loathe to open it, since it had been sealed since manufacture, but the foam was breaking up, and starting to leave stains. I decided to take the plunge.
Upon opening the box, I found the foam was all I expected. I didn’t die when I touched it, but it was a sticky, gross, melty mess. It was as if someone with sulfuric acid for saliva had tried to eat a piece of sponge toffee and had spit it out. Faced with such a biohazard, most of us would simply use tongs and dispose of the material However, the good folks at Tantal used it to “protect” the Niva. It took me a while to scrape it all off the box and the Niva. There was, thankfully, little damage to the toy, but the box showed significant staining.
Once freed from its Stalinesque gulag of awful colours and lethal foam, the Tantal Niva showed just what a wonderful replica it was. Unlike many Western toys/replicas in this scale, EVERYTHING opens. The hood, trunk and both doors all open nicely and quite wide. The steering is functional, although limited in traverse, and the suspension is functional. There’s even a little Panhard rod in the suspension setup, and the coils in the springs are reproduced! It is NOT a stretch to compare this, and favourably, to the Franklin Mint replicas from the ’80s. Yeah, you read that right. it’s that impressive!
I was blown away by the fineness of the driveline and the separate rear pumpkin. There are so many fine parts to the underside of this toy that it’s quite a shock. Compare it to almost any Western replica in this scale; we normally get a single piece of stamped, albeit sometimes detailed, black plastic for a chassis. The Niva’s is silver/chrome and wonderfully rendered. The paint on the Niva isn’t great, though. Overall, it’s very nice, but there are some areas where the metal or primer underneath is rough, and they show through. Of course, these could have been victims of the Russian PartyDeathFoam mentioned before. Seeing these areas of roughness made me doubly glad I’d freed the Niva before anything else could degrade it.
Looking at the engine, you can see some detail, including the battery and main motor, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the spare tire. Like numerous other European vehicles, the Niva’s spare is stored in the engine compartment. I guess, since there’s only a 1.6L I4 engine in there, it makes sense; there’d be lots of room for another tire. Speaking of tires, the spare is literally that; just another one of the four main wheels/tires. These are all very nicely rendered with chrome centres and stiff rubber tires that are nicely treaded. In fact, if you look at the box, you can see some of the spare’s tread through the fender well!
The interior isn’t exactly high-art, but the seats do fold, and there’s a dash with instruments moulded in. Where the interior does excel, though, is on the doors. Unlike most of their Western counterparts, the Tantal folk wanted to do more than just have some vague body-coloured detail on their opening doors. Indeed, they go far to avoid this, with each door having a separate inner body panel in black, as well as a chrome strip under the window. To add visual appeal (as well as cost and complexity), the Niva’s side windows are PART-WAY down. They’re not up, nor are they down. Someone decided to crank them a bit down and stop on each side. This is not how you normally encounter windows on a 1/43 die cast; either they’re present or they’re not.
Adding further class and refinement to the toy are multiple separate-piece chrome accents, as well as clear lenses on all the lights. This last feature is almost NEVER found on Western replicas at this scale. Usually, lights are either unpainted (and unrealistic) chrome or have been painted on. For the Niva, though, Tantal used clear, clear orange and clear red plastic for all lenses. Adding the final bit of class is the trailer hitch. It’s not like those found on larger Matchbox, Majorette or Corgi units at all. Those hitches are overly-large, almost obnoxiously so, and too toy-like to ever be taken seriously. They generally ruin the good work that’s gone into the replica/toy. However, the Niva’s hitch is tiny, and it is below the bumper. It can hardly be seen on the toy, but it is still solid enough to take a few hitching/unhitchings uncomplainingly.
Along with the Niva is a small pop-up-style camping trailer, apparently called a “Skif”. This is a small extra, and it doesn’t do anything. Sure, it would be cool if it opened into a tent, but let’s not get ridiculous here! However, it is a nice thing to have, as it matches the Niva, colour-wise, and is itself a well-made model. Like the Niva, the Skif has real rubber/vinyl tires, the spare in this case being carried on the tow bar. There is chrome, and clear lights are found on the rear end. There are many parts to this little unit as well, so it’s not just like it was thrown in there without a thought. With the Skif attached, the Niva looks much better, as there’s some much-needed length added to the package!
Russian Die Cast replicas seem to be of amazingly high quality, at least if this Tantal Niva is indicative of the general trend. I will admit to being shocked at how detailed it was, even when compared to the little Lada I had acquired earlier. The stereotype of Russian Quality rarely exceeding that of a horseshoe-making blacksmith’s apprentice is clearly put to rest by this little unit. With lots of colour, separate pieces, and a working suspension that mimics the real thing, this Niva is a real little engineering and production marvel.
Granted, the Niva isn’t the prettiest vehicle ever made, but this little toy captures it perfectly, warts and all, and makes it look good. The Niva is a very interesting display piece, an odd mixture of crude aesthetics and impressively advanced production and quality control. While the box may bore (and perhaps poison?), the Niva does not, and it will certainly add a talking point to almost any display.
In a country as regimented as the Soviet Union, I can see how a go-anywhere vehicle like the Niva would be very prized, and the inclusion of the tent trailer is perhaps a testament to the will of so many in those times to go off to the wilderness and “escape from it all”, even if it was for only a short time. The attention lavished on this replica leads me to believe that this is the case, for it seems that the Tantal Niva is something of a labour of love.
I don’t know how rare this piece is, but I have seen it in green (Niva only) and red (Trailer only) too, but only on the internet. I like to pick up and display oddball things. This Niva is certainly a good one on that front. If you like weird, or have a soft spot for well-done die cast, then I would suggest you pick one up if you see it. It’s too delicate to be a toy for a child, but it’s a great display piece!