From Russia with love Tracing the lineage of the GAZ Pobeda, the USSR’s first mass-produced car The proudly named GAZ Pobeda (Victory) is a legend in its homeland. Artyom Alexeev tells the full story of a Russian automotive icon. Photography Alexey Braverman/Artyom Alexeev Archive.
In the early 1930s, Soviet manufacturers indulged in borrowing – rather heavily – from foreign car-makers. In search of the ‘Soviet Buick’ or ‘Soviet Ford’ that the country was clamouring for, agents were sent to Europe and the USA to seek out trade deals for the machinery, technology, patents and licences they needed to build an automotive industry from scratch. At first, Western tycoons turned up their noses at these Commie upstarts and refused to deal with them: it took the 1929 stock-market crash, and the ensuing Great Depression, to change their minds. The Bolsheviks were more flush than the decadent West, so why refuse real money?
The economic recession was at its peak when the Supreme Council for the Soviet Economies signed a lucrative contract with the Ford Motor Company of Dearborn, Michigan, whereby it would help to establish a factory in the city of Nizhny Novgorod to build Model As. With automotive development skyrocketing at the time, however, the resulting GAZ Model A was technically obsolete before production began in 1932. Luckily, the deal with Ford included an agreement that details of new models would also be made available to the Soviet party, and as a result the plant got its hands on the blueprints for the Model B. Local engineers reworked the design, and by 1936 it was on the assembly line as the M-1 – which stood for ‘Molotov’s First’, the factory having recently been renamed after the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs – although locals referred to it as the ‘Emka’ (M-Car).
In 1937, chief engineer Andrey Lippgart left for the USA with the mission of selecting the most promising engine to use for a new generation of GAZ models. After studying what Detroit had to offer, he chose the Chrysler unit used in the then-current Dodge D-5, but its drawings could not be obtained in any official way so a ‘detour scheme’ was hatched. A new and much more secret mission was given to the NKVD, which succeeded – using the middle part of the ‘beg, steal or borrow’ routine – in securing the plans at a cost of $25,000 to the Bolshevik state treasury. It was a sum hefty enough for the humble engineers who agreed to sell the blueprints, but peanuts when you consider what a giant leap it was for a plant that was hitherto churning out dated Ford ‘fours’.
Then war intervened, and the assembly lines were occupied by light tanks, armoured cars and cannon. It seemed that the time for a new civilian car was far away, yet as early as 1943 the project had the green light: the first post-war Soviet vehicle had to be ready in time for the much anticipated victory. Project GAZ 25 had to embrace the best of international automotive engineering: it would inherit a Chrysler motor; Opel Kapitan independent front suspension and general structure; plus Ford-derived transmission and platform. All neatly wrapped in an original ‘pontoon’-type monocoque.
The cutting-edge body was the swansong of Benjamin Samoiloff, a talented stylist who took his own life in 1945. The first full-scale mock-up was ready by ’1944 and looked like nothing else on the road at the time. The alligator-type bonnet formed a single unit with flush front wings and integrated headlights, while to the rear the roof flowed down to become the bootlid. The engine was placed directly above the front axle to free up space, allowing the passenger compartment to move forward and create a huge boot.
Nosingle element represented a novel step in automotive design, but as a whole it was a fresh approach. Not for nothing did USSR leaders demand a name that reflected the car’s achievements, not to mention the prevailing direction of the conflict: it was to be christened the M-20 Pobeda, or ‘Victory’.
It’s certainly a shape that looks as fresh as a contemporary US design, and more youthful than many British machines of the period. The featuredM-20, fresh from restoration by Vyatscheslav Nikulin for the Autoreview museum, is a four-light fastback sedan, generally regarded as the base model. Today fastbacks may be considered passé, but when the M-20 was launched its streamlined style was at the forefront of aerodynamic fashion – the only drawback being somewhat restricted boot volume and a rear view as effective as looking through a letterbox.
A curved rear ’screen – a first for a Soviet car – and no wing mirrors ensured a clean line from nose to tail, broken only by an upright support for the rear numberplate: real life plays havoc with artists’ intentions. Neat details include a centre-mounted stoplight that carries an extra bulb to illuminate the numberplate, the stamped lines in the bumpers, the sparse but high-quality brightwork and the small, gently curved door over the fuel filler in the rear wing.
With the design sorted, the next step was putting the car into production. For that it needed quality sheet metal, bronze, nickel and chromium, not to mention oil to lubricate it and petrol to move it. Soviet fuels of the period were notoriously low-grade, which was the main reason for choosing the four-cylinder engine instead of a Chrysler ‘six’: the ‘four’ could cope, and offered more economical motoring. Similar reasons prevailed when the open version was recommended for production by government leaders: without the steel top, a sheet of metal could be salvaged and used elsewhere.
Thus the M-20b Sedan Cabriolet was born not for the joys of open-air motoring – in Russia the wind in your hair is a bit chilly – but rather cutting costs and saving steel. Hence why, contrary to common practice in the early ’50s, the open version was priced below the closed car. In disposing of the steel top, the designers didn’t touch the doorframes in order to preserve as much as possible of the closed car’s structural rigidity. As with any other cabrio, the absence of a roof had to be compensated for by platform reinforcements, with box-section girders added under the floor, a tubular brace across the boot and a cruciform behind the rear seatback. The rubber-impregnated fabric top had to be folded manually on to a shelf aft of the rear bench while the back window, never large even on saloons, became even smaller. With an open body fabric trim was out of the question, so instead the seats were covered by leatherette.
Ironically, many open Pobedas were supplied to the northern regions where the fabric roof was of no use, and in many cases a metal section was welded in its place as soon as it became available – usually from a crashed saloon donor – and the model was deleted in 1953.
Even when there was metal available, production didn’t always go smoothly. Problems arose with the cold-rolled sheet steel from Ukraine – often a section had to be welded together from two smaller pieces before going into a press, with the seamlead-loaded afterwards. As production increased after 1953, foreign steel supplies were secured in order to keep the plant going – from England, Belgium, France and even America. Planned innovations such as sealed-beam headlamps and tubeless tyres never made it past the drawing board, but what the Pobeda lacked in innovation it made up for in simplicity and affordability. Every car came with an exhaustive instruction manual, giving their owners the basics of automobile theory and details of maintenance and repair – not to mention advice on economising. In the 1950s, no Soviet driver ever discarded a worn-out clutch plate or brake shoe when a new liner could be riveted on, while another chapter explained how to make a simple but effective tool to cut and thread a leaking brake pipe. Oil, fuel and air filters were all intended to be re-used, even worn tyres could be recapped and retreaded – again and again.
With the variable quality of parts from outside suppliers and the large amount of labour in building an M-20, it was 1955 before the plant began to break even. Yes, you could go and buy a Pobeda direct from the showroom, although at RUB 16,000 a personal car was out of reach for the man in the street, and most were acquired by State institutions or members of the Soviet elite – high-ranking government officials, theatre and cinema actors or leading scholars.
Aside from the sedan and drophead, the range was expanding with a van and taxi, special vehicles for both military and civil parades, an ‘air-sledge’ (see panel), plus ambulances for those still with hope and hearses for those without. There were even 10 Pobedas destined to perish in the course of Soviet nuclear tests, becoming guinea-pigs to learn what an atomic blast can do to an automobile.
The most extreme incarnation, the M-72, wasn’t strictly a Pobeda at all: beneath that familiar body was a military off-roader chassis, a curious union dreamed up by none other than Nikita Khrushchev, the illustrious leader who dared to purge the remains of the Stalinist regime. The capabilities of a GAZ 69 scout car were well known both in Russia and abroad, but this successful vehicle did not have an enclosed version so an order was issued in 1954 to create one using the Pobeda as a starting point.
Whether it was due to planned agricultural expansion into the unoccupied Eastern terrain, or the rumoured Soviet space programme to be developed in that secretive area, a go-anywhere and do-anything passenger car was highly desirable. Many experts felt that the M-72 was a waste of time, and that the unitary body would prevent the resulting combination from having suitable off-road abilities, but project leader Grigory Fitterman begged to differ. He requested a total revamp of the body, seeking out and reinforcing or redesigning any weak points. Off came the independent front suspension, in its place longitudinal leaf springs and a driven front axle. A hole was cut in the floorpan to accommodate the transfer box for the four-wheel drive, with additional reinforcement to compensate for any loss in rigidity. The engine required some attention, too: a larger radiator was installed, with a six-blade fan in lieu of the standard four-blade, plus an oil cooler. A different carburettor tune boosted torque at lower revs, and a spring loaded needle valve prevented fuel spilling from the carbs on bumpy roads or steep slopes. And the windscreen washer with toe-operated pump was a first for a Russian passenger car.
A year after the model’s 1955 launch, writer Victor Urin and two friends undertook a motoring adventure across the country from Moscow to Vladivostok in an M-72, resulting in a book entitled One Hundred and Seventy-Nine Days aboard a Car. Fewer than 5000 M-72s were built in just three years, making this car, restored by Nickolay Babunaschwili, a rare survivor.
The M-20 soldiered on until 1958 and late in its life was made available for export – not only for the countries of the Soviet-ruled Eastern Bloc, but the whole world, with Belgium and Scandinavia the preferred markets. In Finland, for example, the cars were popular with taxi drivers, while a carbon copy was put into production in Poland as the Warszawa (Warsaw). Before the lines stopped in 1973, Polish output had significantly surpassed that of the Soviet original.
Two M-20s even made their way to the USA and received a positive reaction: the press was surprised to discover that a car ‘from behind the Iron Curtain’ wasn’t any worse than many rival products from the West. Motoring magazines praised the Pobeda’s economy and well-balanced layout, its decent interior and quality chroming (a weak point on many American cars during the Korean War). The archaic construction and low dynamic limits won fewer plaudits, yet most agreed that it was an impressive effort as the first post-war car from Soviet Russia.
Perhaps the final word should go to collector Konstantin Krivtzov, owner of the featured M-20b. “The GAZ M-20 is one of precious few domestic vehicles we can really cherish,” says Krivtzov, who recently took first overall on the prestigious LUC Chopard Rally. “A Soviet made car won ahead of much more technically sophisticated foreign contemporaries, which is truly something to be proud of.”
Thanks to translator Andrey Chrisanfov; Drive-My Russia: https://drive-my.com/ru/