Sometimes in this hobby a brand comes along that instantly gels with you. It begins to take up more shelf space than others and regularly appears top of your suggested search list on eBay. It might be the brand that made your favourite toy as a kid. One that replicates the cars you adore the most; Japanese, German, US Muscle. Or it could be the one whose line-up compliments another hobby or interest in your life. With me, the brand is a little known German firm called Grell. And models produced under their name perfectly chime with my love of Cold War and Eastern Bloc history.
Grell are certainly not a name many of you will have heard of. Indeed they’re not actually a diecast brand. They’re a German marketing company whose clients include a large number of breweries. For whatever reason a number of them decided promotional model cars were a good way of showcasing their business, specifically cars from the former East Germany and Soviet Union. And this is why you will see a lot of Grell vehicles in Green; it’s the colour of a brewery called Sternquell.
This business arrangement led to some unique diecast being released at low cost and while they’re not masterpieces on the level of a Tomica Limited Vintage, they’re neat and have some nice touches. And for those of you into unique diecast, Grell will provide. Where else are you going to find a Melkus RS1000 in this scale?! (We’ll get to what a Melkus is shortly…)
Melkus aside, there’s a rather startling array of obscure brands and vehicle types that were produced. From Trabants to Volgas, from Motorcycles to utility vehicles. And I guarantee that a lot for a lot of you, this article will be your first introduction to some of these vehicles.
We’ll start off with some of the many Grell versions of East Germany’s other popular car brand behind Sachsenring and their Trabant range: AWE’s Wartburg series. With a production run starting with the Wartburg 311 in 1956 and finishing shortly after the reunification of Germany with the 1.3, Wartburgs were popular all over Eastern Europe. The most numerous version was the 353 made from 1966 to 1988 during which time it remained virtually unchanged. It was powered by a 993cc, 3 cylinder 2 stroke engine which famously only had 7 major moving parts inlcuding the crankshaft. As a result it was said that a Wartburg owners “own a car but maintain a motorcycle”. All Wartburgs were offered in several variants, estate/wagon versions known as “Kombis”, pickup trucks and in the earlier 311 series a 2 door coupe and roadster were offered. Grell chose to model the 311 and 353 variants in a myraid of different guises; taxis, army staff cars, police vehicles. And they’re attractive, simple diecasts.
The 311 Kombi has a rather clunky tow hitch but it came with a motorcycle trailer with a perfectly formed MZ RE motorcycle on it. I’m willing to trade an ugly tow hitch for that.
Speaking of tow hitches, the wonderfully yellow 353 Kombi came as part of a set with a caravan. There are lots of vehicles in Grell’s range that come with caravans, camping trailers etc. There’s even a Trabant fitted with a “dachzelte” or roof tent. You can almost think of these Grell sets as Greenlight Hitch ‘n’ Tow but for state sanctioned holidays to Yugoslavia rather than Yosemite.
Speaking of Trabants, for now I only own one Grell version, a Trabant Kübel in the colours of East Germany’s Grenztruppen border troops. These are the little canvas roofed field cars that can be seen on many reels of archive footage, patrolling the barbed wire and fortified borders of East Germany with a compliment of heavily armed and Strichtarn clad soldiers peering at observers in the west through binoculars. And being the military history nerd I am (and thanks to the brilliant Torsten Belger at http://www.germandotmilitaria.com who also helped me reach out to Grell) I happen to have a suitably worn Strichtarn shirt and some other props for a fitting photo backdrop.
Then you have your Barkas B1000, another 2 stroke wonder and East Germany’s answer to the Volkswagen van. Grell’s versions are as plentiful as the real thing: panel van, pickup, minibus, emergency vehicle. I have a beautiful panel van version and a flatbed pickup with removable tonneau cover that I customised. The brewery livery of the panel van sets it off really well.
And what of the Melkus mentioned earlier? Well, Heinz Melkus was the DDR’s answer to Carol Shelby. A talented racing driver who had a knack of turning Wartburg and Trabant parts into successful racing cars, he turned his hand to constructing a sports car. The result was the Melkus RS1000. Powered by a mid-mounted tuned version of the Wartburg 3 cylinder 2 stroke engine, Melkus managed to shift 101 examples of his gullwing creation. And I think they’re rather attractive, and if you have ever seen one in action you’ll know that make a lovely sound. Examples can still be found today at classic track days and hillclimb events. Grell’s version is ultra simple, if a little bland. But I’m a big fan, it’s such a unique and interesting little casting.
And there’s so many more forgotten vehicles and brands from the Industrieverband Fahrzeugbau (IFA – the conglomerate and union of all East Germany’s vehicle manufacturers) that that Grell have chose to turn into diecasts. The IFA F9 which in my eyes is one of the prettiest cars to come out of post war Germany.
The Robur LO3000 B21 which was a popular touring bus.
The hardworking vehicles of the IFA Multicar brand, the M21 and M22 which could be found doing all sorts of manual tasks across Eastern Europe. The Grell versions are nearer to 1/50 scale than 1/64 but they make for interesting castings.
And Grell weren’t just limited to the vehicles of East Germany. They have a smaller line of models from the other Eastern Bloc states at the time, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia.
The Moskvitch 412, a successful family car in Eastern Europe which Grell have even modelled with the grille used on export models.
The Tatra 603, an extraordinary luxury car from the famous Czech manufacturer that featured a rear mounted, air cooled V8.
And perhaps my favourite of Grell’s castings, the ZAZ-968 Zaporozhets. The 968 was the second facelift of the second generation of the “Zapo” produced from 1971 to 1980. The Zaporozhets was designed as a people’s car of the Soviet Union, and as a result was one of the most affordable vehicles of its era. Renowned for the simplicity of its construction and ease of maintenance, it’s a popular car that can still be seen buzzing about in some parts of the former Soviet Union. Resembling the lovechild of an NSU Prinz and a Chevrolet Corvair, the 968 was rear engined with distinctive air intakes feeding the rear mounted V4 that lead to it receiving the nickname *ushastyi* or “big-eared”. And Grell have done a lovely job of modelling this one.
Sadly it seems these days the arrangement that gave us all these vehicles has ended and Grell’s diecast side has settled on smaller scale American trucks advertising their clients businesses. But they are still super easy to find on eBay and also affordable with some German sellers offering individual cars for around €3. They’re a brilliant way to add some variety to your collection, especially if like me you’re prone to researching the history behind things! And as my own Grell collection grows, you can be sure I’ll share my findings with you here.