Those who are old enough will remember the first time that Fiats were sold in North America. It was not a really big success. The cars were weak, unreliable, rust-prone and gutless. They were also tiny and ugly, but they were cheap to buy and you could take it apart in your driveway and fix it yourself, assuming the parts you needed hadn’t yet fallen off! Just when you thought it had reached the height of silliness, though, came something that, at first, seemed even worse: the Lada.
What made the Lada sound like such a bad idea? Well, it was a Russian-made Fiat 124.
Wrap your brain around the failure that THAT is likely to encompass.
Cars made in Russia in the ‘70s and ‘80s (or, you know, EVER) were not associated with the quality we’d come to expect from the Big Three. Yes, you read that right. Russian cars were generally worse than cars that ate their own engines (Vega), ran over their own drivers (any mid-sized Ford) and even exploded when rear-ended (Pinto)! Thus, when the Russians began exporting their Fiat 124 clones as the Lada 1200 in the mid ‘70s, it was instantaneously the butt of many unflattering jokes. It was the Yugo of its day, in many ways.
However, while less than perfect, the Lada 1200 was a cheap “uber-base” car that would usually get you from Point A to Point B in any weather. It would not do it stylishly or lavishly, but it would sputter and lurch its way around with acceptable in-city performance. As it turns out, the Lada was a FAR SUPERIOR car to the 124 itself. It used thicker steel for the body, had better suspension (due to Russia’s reknownedly crappy roads) and was tuned to deal with Russian winters. Early models even had a crank start provision for those really, really cold days.
As it turns out, the Lada 1200, known in Russia as the VAZ 2101, was actually an okay, if not somewhat ghetto-looking, little car. It had some following in North America, but not enough to make any die cast makers sit up and take note of it. Heck, Hot Wheels made toys of the Aries K, J-2000, Escort GT and even the Renault LeCar, but it didn’t make one of the Lada. However, in the USSR, the VAZ 2101 was HUGE. It had demand that far outstripped production, and the car was hugely popular. It was highly desired and touted as the usher of a new age in Soviet Socialist motoring. In a lot of ways, it was the Soviet version of a Citation, albeit with fewer recalls. (How’s that feel, GM?)
Get Your Die Cast On!
Given the popularity of the VAZ 2101 at home, it’s no surprise that the Soviet toy industry (Yes, there was such a thing!) undertook the production of a replica of the people’s favourite auto. The result is a surprisingly nice, fairly well-detailed and genuinely deluxely-presented replica in the somewhat popular 1/43 scale.
Unfortunately, I don’t know how many versions of this die cast were made. Pictures of the box show both sedans and wagons on it, but the one I’m looking at here is the only version I’ve ever seen, and that is a sedan. Now, it’s not just any sedan; it’s a full on Taxi! I assume that the real car would have been perfect for use on the crowded and crazy roads in major Soviet metropolitan areas, so making a taxi out of it is not that far-fetched. So, let’s take a look at what the finest in Soviet die-casting can give us, shall we?
Solid, but Delicate:
The first thing that hits you about the toy is that it is solid, but surprisingly delicate feeling. There’s actually a lot going on with this replica; so much so that it is difficult to realize just how good it is on first sight. Of course, that could be because you’re so amazed that someone actually made a replica of a Lada taxi and you’re dumbfounded as to how that could have ever come to pass. Well, that was my reaction at least!
Taking a quick look at the toy, you can see that it has real rubber (or at least rubber-like) tires, as well as nice separate piece chrome rims. The wheels roll as well as any 1/43 car, although they’re a bit squeaky with age. Even though this isn’t exactly a spring chicken, there aren’t any breaks in the tires, which means they’re already better than the 1/48 Dragon aircraft tires from the 1990s. The tires have good grip, despite being about as thick as a pizza cutter, and the model even has suspension!
There is some underside detail, although it is shallowly embossed on the metal chassis, reducing its convincingness. There is a driveline, though, and a catalytic converter (Maybe, or maybe a resonator?) as well as a muffler, gas tank and A-arms. The cool part is that the writing on the replica is all Cyrillic; this adds a definite air of alien-ness to this already strange (to Westerners, at least) die cast.
The proportioning is very good; the real VAZ 2101 looks pretty much the same and it likely has the same delicate heft to it as well. Now, you might well be wondering why I keep attaching the word “delicate” to a Soviet-made toy car. Well, the reasons are apparent on closer inspection. There are a lot of separate pieces to this replica, and it’s really more of a collectible than an actual toy. How so? Here’s how so:
1.) The grille and bumpers are chromed, and they’re all separate pieces from the chassis; no one-piece “silver pan” here!
2. The grille’s little centre emblem is actually painted on, not just moulded in in chrome and left there. The real car has a red badge, and so does the replica. That’s impressive for a small die cast, let alone one from the USSR, where we were taught things weren’t all that refined. Hmm… maybe some of that was propaganda? Who’d have thought…?
3.) The taillights are separate red plastic pieces. Again, there’s no “bottom pan” with cut-outs on the rear fascia to represent tail lights (this is a favourite Hot Wheels and Burago trick). Also, the lights aren’t just moulded in and painted. The manufacturer went to the trouble of making separate pieces, and the effect is very pronounced and gives an air of surprising quality.
4.) The interior is two colours! The seats are white, but the steering wheel, dash and floor are black! Is this legit? That, I can’t comment on. However, there are many American-branded 1/43 cars that only have a monochromatic plastic interior.
5.) The hood AND trunk open, and that’s a lot of articulation at 1/43. Sometimes you can find replicas that have opening hoods at this scale, but I’ve never seen one with a trunk that opens!
6.) It had a blue light. Yes, there was yet another colour of plastic on this car! The hole in the roof is where you’d normally see a blue “Taxi light”. Unfortunately, it’s broken off on my version, but given that I got it second hand, that’s not bad. There’s also a variant of this replica that has a more conventional “Taxi” sign on the roof, but it has different paint, and is newer.
The (Lack of) Power Within:
Usually, when one opens the hood on a smaller-scale replica, like those in 1/43 (assuming the hood opens), there’s not a lot to see. Sometimes, the engine bays are almost flush, with only a tiny bit of engine-like detail embossed on them. Not so with the Lada taxi! Inside the hood, which opens fully forward, there is a chrome platform with a black engine, air cleaner and battery on it. The engine is, predictably, very small. Why predictably? Well, the real car only has a 1.2L engine, and it only cranks out (no pun intended) 62 hp. This is good for a 0-100 km/h time of 23 seconds. In comparison, my T/A, Faust, does that in about 8.9 seconds and my G8 GT blows them both away at 5.3 seconds!
So, as you can see, there’s not a lot of engine in the engine bay to start with. So, then, what’s left to see? Is there a spare tire in there, like on some Renaults? No. There’s something far better and far more mysterious. There is a red crystal. I assume that this is the actual source of the 2101’s selling power, and that it is some kind of mind control device that induces all within 100 feet of the car to suddenly desire one. Barring this, I can explain neither the crystal’s presence in the engine compartment nor the 2101’s popularity.
The crystal is nicely installed and made from the same material as the tail lights. It is supposed to be there, since other ones I’ve seen online have it too. Looking at pictures of real 2101’s on the Internet reveals that there is some kind of fluid tank where the crystal is on this replica. I’m guessing they decided to use a crystal to simulate this, although it is not successful. The real tank is a sickly yellow-white, like butter covered in fruit flies, but the red crystal’s not even close to this.
!/43 is not a super-common scale these days for die cast replicas. However, there are some out there, and it’s not until you put the Lada taxi next to it that it really hits home how SMALL this car is! Since my go-to measurement standard is the late Second Gen Trans Am, it’s very informative to compare the Lada to a T/A in 1/43.
Hmmm… Well, looking at it, you can see that the Lada is short. Really short. So short, in fact, that it doesn’t get past the front of the T/A’s front tire when the rear bumpers are lined up. It’s also quite a bit narrower, albeit higher. One thing that makes me laugh is the trunk! The trunk is no longer than that on the T/A, and is narrower. The T/A’s fender bulges are useful for cargo, but the Lada’s slab sides preclude this kind of internal space.
Anyone who’s ever tried to put ANYTHING in a T/A’s trunk knows that there’s not a lot of room in there. You can fit a few 2-4s of beer, and maybe a lawn chair or two. That’s all. That’s okay, though, because the T/A is really a two-person car, and transporting beer is a specialty for it. However, the Lada is a 4-door family car (or taxi, as here), and that’s a mission that usually requires more trunk space! It’s frightening too, that the hood of the T/A is bigger than the Lada’s roof.
The Last Word:
This replica of the Vaz 2101 (or Lada 1200) taxi is awesome. It is well-detailed and put together, and has both heft and fineness. The opening hood and trunk are fun to play with, but caution should be exercised because the hinges don’t appear all that strong. Same with the suspension. Too much “off-roading” while driving it on your desk could cause a replica shock blowout, so watch it!
As a display piece, the extremely utilitarian nature of the car’s design, its wacky-looking open hood and the oh-so-Soviet-era crest on the door are immediate attention grabbers. Because it’s so small, you’re not going to have to spend a lot of shelf space to display this little guy, either.
So, can I recommend it? Heck yeah! However, getting one might be tough. I saw one on EBay that sold for $150+ USD, but that was perfect in a box. Even one like this, then, might end up costing you dearly. However, if you should see someone who has one, and doesn’t know what it is, you might still get one cheap. If you can, go for it. How else are you going to get a replica of this thing?
As you can see from the comments below, this is NOT a taxi as originally thought. It is actually a police vehicle. However, it appears to be a traffic police car. This makes sense, since a blue light is not very taxi-like, unless it’s on sale at a K-Mart, that is. That also explains why there’s an official-lookng crest on the door.
I apologize for the misrepresentation, and I’m very appreciative that someone let me know. However, my commets about the taxi-ness of this toy still stand, since there IS a taxi version, this just isn’t it.
Thanks again to those who found my mistake, and hopefully it hasn’t thrown too many people off!