The History of GAZ - Part of the Russian Revolution

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Ford Emblem


 1903 -

The Fordson Tractor

After the Russian Revolution there was a strange hero among the workers of the USSR. Of course there was Lenin, Trotsky, Kalinin – but there was also an American, Henry Ford. The reason why the arch-capitalist Ford was enshrined among the communist heroes was that the Fordson tractor had contributed hugely to the economic revival of Russia after the Revolution. Over 25,000 of these machines were in use from Leningrad to Vladivostock by 1926, overcoming crop failure and famine, and bringing Russian agricultural methods out of the Middle Ages into the 20th century overnight.

Krasny Putilowitz Fordson's

During the 1920s the Russians began building rather crude ersatz Fordsons under the name Krasny Putilowitz and they invited Ford to set up an assembly .plant. He decided against this because of the ever-present threat of nationalisation. However, as a contribution towards world peace and prosperity, Ford was prepared to help the Russians build a new factory in which cars would be built to Ford designs by Ford methods. He would provide detailed plant layouts and working projects for a plant capable of producing 100,000 cars and trucks a year; in return, the Russians agreed to buy 72,000 Ford vehicles over four years through their Amtorg Trading Corporation.

This agreement meant that the Russians would gain an instant motor industry, while Ford, hopefully, would make a modest profit, the cars, trucks and parts supplied being priced at cost plus 15 per cent. The project became a cornerstone of Stalin's first five-year plan; contracts were signed late in 1929, and assembly of Ford Model A cars and trucks began in a small factory, the KIM works, in Moscow.

Nizhni Novgorod

But this was just the start, as a huge new car works was planned at Nizhni Novgorod, where another assembly plant was located. Eight miles outside Nizhni (which was renamed Gorkiy in 1932) was a virtually deserted stretch of land between the rivers Volga and Oka; it was here, in 1930, that the Austin Company of Cleveland, Ohio, began work on the new Molotov car works and its attendant workers' city, which could house 25,000 people. Within months, 10,000 labourers were at work on the construction of factory and city and, despite setbacks caused by material and labour shortages, the plant was ready virtually on time.

The Russki-Ford GAZ-A

These 'Russki-Ford' cars were known as GAZ-A after the new factory (Gorkiy Automobile Zavod); there was also a GAZ-AA truck, followed within a couple of years by the GAZ-AAA six-wheeler. Though the Ford agreement was terminated on 22 November 1934, in accordance with Russian policy on discontinuing direct foreign aid, the Gorkiy factory continued to build Model-A derived trucks until well after the war. Indeed, production emphasis was heavily weighted in favour of trucks, a bias shown by the fact that three-quarters of all vehicles built in the Soviet Union during the 1970s and beyond were commercials.

GAZ Pobieda
GAZ Pobieda.

GAZ 67
GAZ 67, based on the US Jeep and fitted with the Ford Model A engine. It survived in production from 1943 to 1953 and was eventually replaced by the GAZ 69A.

1970 Volga 24
1970 Volga 24, powered by a 2.5 liter 4 cylinder engine.

Andrei Lipgart

Nevertheless, there was progress on the passenger car front, under the direction of engineer Andrei Lipgart, whose first design, the GAZ M-I, replaced the GAZ-A in 1936. The M-I used 1933 Ford body dies to press out its panels, and still had the Model A Ford engine, but the transmission and grille were Russian-designed. A six-cylinder version, the GAZ M-11, appeared in 1938, powered by a six-cylinder 3.5-liter engine; during World War 2 versions of this car, which still retained traces of its Ford ancestry, were used as command vehicles. There was also a four-wheel-drive version, built from 1942 until 1948, the GAZ-61 and the GAZ M-1 was modified as a half-track called the Pikap, and nicknamed Vezdekhod ('Go-anywhere').

Standard GAZ cars and trucks also saw military service by the hundred, while the old GAZ-AAA chassis was transformed into a four-man armoured car with a 45 mm gun and two machine guns (there was also an amphibious version, the BAZ). There was also a new vehicle, the GAZ-67, based on the American Jeep, which used the Model A engine in a four-wheel-drive chassis. Its basic design was rather crude, but the vehicle survived in production from 1943 to 1953. It was widely used in the Korean War, and was eventually supplanted by the GAZ-69A.

The GAZ Pobieda

Meanwhile, back at the GAZ works, the passenger-car side of the business had at last thrown off the old 'Russki-Ford' image with the new Lipgart-designed Pobieda ('Victory') of 1946. This unit-constructed saloon was designed to meet the tremendous post-war demand for cars in Russia; it had a four-cylinder, 2. I-liter engine, three-speed transmission, independent front suspension and a 65 mph top speed. A four-wheel-driven variant, the M-72, appeared in 1955, three years before the Pobieda ceased production at Gorkiy (it continued to be built under licence at Warsaw, however).

The Zavod Imieni Molotova

Already the Pobieda's replacement was on the production lines; this was the M-21 Volga, again designed by Lipgart, which made extensive use of light alloy in its four-cylinder, 2.5-liter power unit, and carried its crankshaft in five main bearings. During the 1950s, the Gorky Works also produced the ZIM (Zavod Imieni Molotova) luxury model, for those whose place in the party structure did not quite rate them for a ZIS (Russia's pseudo-Packard). The ZIM looked like a just-post-war General Motors . product, right down to its radiator grille.

The Chaika

The ZIM was replaced in 1958 by the Chaika ('Seagull'), which followed the ZIS (now renamed the ZIL) in copying Packard styling. Unfortunately, the Packard that GAZ chose to copy turned out to be the' 1955 Patrician, an aesthetic disaster of the most vulgar kind; Lipgart, apparently disgusted with the styling of the Chaika, resigned, joining the Moscow engine and vehicle research establishment, NAMI. A newer, lower Mk II Volga appeared in 1968; again, it looked a little crude to Western eyes, but was admirably suited to the somewhat specialised conditions of the Russian car market. KGB Specials and Volga sedans would continue to be produced, the latter as late as 1997.

During the 1980s and 90s GAZ primarily produced commercial vehicles, such as the Sobol vans and pickups, the Vodnik amphibious 4x4. Of more recent times there has been the Tiger armoured Jeep, Valdai medium truck and Rostok Armoured Personnel Carrier.
This 1970s publicity shot shows the evolution of GAZ cars
This 1970s publicity shot shows the evolution of GAZ cars, from the original Model A based on the Ford.
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