USSR’s first mass-produced cars 1946 GAZ M-20 Pobeda, M-20b and M72

2018 Alexey Braverman & Drive-My

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?

1946 GAZ M-20 Pobeda, M-20b and M72

1946 GAZ M-20 Pobeda, M-20b and M72

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:



Putting the boot in

The Pobeda scarcely changed in appearance throughout its production life. Soon after it was introduced, a heater and demister were added, there were changes to the rear axle to better locate it and in 1950 a new gearbox arrived with synchromesh on second and top, plus the lever moved from the floor to a ‘three on- the-tree’ arrangement. The first attempt to restyle a car that was becoming more obsolete with each passing year came in 1955, when the worn-out factory presses had to be replaced and the opportunity was taken to give the M-20 a facelift. There was a new grille plus a tweaked bonnet and wing-line, and the telescopic aerial above the windscreen was a clue to the arrival of a built-in radio for the first time, despite it having been planned from the outset.

By that time, however, the fastback style was long out of fashion. It’s ironic, then, that as early as ’1948 leading stylist Yuriy Dolmatovsky – then with NAMI (the Scientific Institute of Autos and Motors) – had prepared a notchback saloon version of the Pobeda. Two were built, both as close as possible to the engineering of the production car but with a totally different rear body outline. The Pobeda-NAMI had a proper three-box boot, a significantly larger rear window and a roomier cabin. Unfortunately, it was deemed too difficult to make the required changes at the factory, and the advantages were not deemed sufficient.

GAZ M-20 Pobeda

GAZ M-20 Pobeda

Several years later, a further effort was made, this time at the plant itself. The ‘Pobeda MkII’ was to get not only a saloon body, but also a new engine plus a host of lesser technical innovations. Nothing came of this, either: the project was destined to remain on paper as new car projects were given priority, which would eventually lead to the Volga GAZ-21.

The fastback did receive its separate boot, though not in Russia but Poland. After ’1962, the Polish FSO – Fabryka Samochodow Osobowych (Plant for Passenger Cars) – began building its Warszawa 223, which continued until 1973.


Other Pobedas

Motor sport was on the rise in the USSR after WW2, with pre-war German racers brought back as war trophies. Then tragedy struck in the summer of 1948, when GAZ test driver Sokolov hit 200kph driving an Auto Union and lost control, piling into a crowd of spectators and killing 18. After that, foreign cars were banned from racing in Soviet territory.

By the early ’50s there were several Pobeda-based racers competing in events on the closed highway from Moscow to Minsk. The racing cars differed greatly from the stock M-20, and each was unique. Their engines were bored out, their compression ratios raised, with extra cooling, twin carbs, superchargers – even twin plugs to improve combustion. The bodies were attacked with saws and torches: rear doors welded shut, wheels enclosed, shells reskinned in aluminium. A well-prepared Pobeda could top 110mph, and GAZ engineers soon joined in with their own rival, the Torpedo, from a separate division set up at the works to prepare competition cars.

FSO М-20 Warszawa '11.1951 - 05.1957

FSO М-20 Warszawa ‘11.1951 – 05.1957

At the other end of the spectrum, the Bolsheviks were quick to realise that their reign must reach every corner of the land, but the northern regions were largely inaccessible.

The party’s propelled sledges were mostly worn out, so in ’1957 the design bureau set out to build a better version, using the Pobeda body to save money and time. Designated ‘Job Se’ (for ‘Sever’, Russian for north), it used a 260bhp motor mounted atop the rear, with an extra bulkhead added behind the front seatback to separate the cargo bay from the cockpit. The fuel tanks were tucked under the front wings, and the wheels were replaced by skis.

Early tests weren’t successful. A wider rear track for the sake of stability resulted in the vehicle’s four trails drawing too much snow resistance. The revised ‘Sever 2’ got matching front/rear tracks and a new synthetic coating to prevent the skis freezing to the snow.

Just 100 Severs were built before 1961, the last still in use as late as the early ’80s.


Tech and photos

Pobedas tended to be painted in subdued hues; fastback body style makes it almost impossible for the driver to see what’s happening behind.

Clockwise: there’s enough room under the bonnet for the planned ‘six’; window frames are painted to look as if they are made of wood; ornate ‘delete plate’ covers middle part of the facia – radios came in ’1955.

Conventional three-box shape was tested, here on later car with revised nose.

Clockwise: interior much as saloon, but fabric is replaced by waterproof trim – red handle under the dash is the handbrake lever; stylish Deco-style speedo; cross-brace in boot strengthens shell.

Raising and lowering the hood is a two-person job; external rear-view mirror is an aftermarket addition.

Clockwise: new air filter design decreased intake losses; rear spats were standard for the M-72; turn signals operated by steering-wheel ring, a feature standardised on all Pobedas from 1955.

Wild Teardrop racer, above, and prop-powered sledge.

With four-wheel drive and lofty ground clearance, the military-inspired M-72 was capable of serious off-roading.




Sold/number built 1946-’1958/221,777

Construction steel monocoque

Engine all-iron L-head 2120cc ‘four’, single carburettor, 6.2:1 compression ratio

Max power 52bhp @ 3600rpm / SAE gross

Max torque n/a

Transmission three-speed manual, RWD

Suspension: front independent, by wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, lever-arm dampers f/r

Steering worm and roller

Brakes all drums

Length 15ft 3 ¾ in (4665mm)

Width 5ft 6 ¾ in (1695mm)

Height 5ft 4 ½ in (1640mm)

Wheelbase 8ft 10 ¼ in (2700mm)

Weight 2998lb (1360kg)

0-60mph n/a

Top speed 66mph

Mpg n/a

Price new RUB 16,000 (1955 USSR)

Price now £2,000-20,000 (2018 UK / Russia)


Sold/number built 1946-’1953/14,222

Weight 3064lb (1390kg)

Top speed 63mph

Price new RUB 15,500 (1953 USSR)

Price now £4,000-50,000 (2018 UK / Russia)


Sold/number built 1955-’1958/4677

Engine 6.5:1 compression ratio

Max power 55bhp @ 3600rpm / SAE gross

Transmission three-speed manual, with transfer box and secondary shafts, driving rear or all four wheels

Suspension semi-elliptic springs, lever-arm dampers; rear anti-roll bar

Height 5ft 10 ½ in (1790mm)

Wheelbase 8ft 10 ¾ in (2712mm)

Weight 3439lb (1560kg)

Top speed 56mph

Price new n/a

Price now £4,000-40,000 (2018 UK / Russia)


How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

Average rating 5 / 5. Vote count: 1

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.

Tagged under
Additional Info
  • Year: 1946
  • Engine: Petrol L4 2.1-litre
  • Power: 52-55bhp at 3600rpm