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The Soviet Revolution

After the historical agreement signed with the Ford Motor Company, it didn’t take long for the streets of the ex- Soviet Union to fill with cars derived from American models. However, some engineers and designers worked on far more personal projects, creating sports cars and original aerodynamic studies.

Drawings courtesy of Massimo Grandi

The history of car production in the ex-Soviet Union is certainly not renowned for its originality. On the other hand, we should remember that on 30 May 1929, the Ford Motor Company signed a historical agreement for the production of cars in the Soviet Union. The contract established that Ford would oversee the construction of a production plant in Nizhny Novgorod, on the Volga River, for the production of the Ford Model A.

From that moment on, Soviet cars produced by the large car manufacturers, including GAZ (Gor'kovskij Avtomobil'nyj Zavod) from 1929 and later ZIS (Zavod Imeni Stalina), from 1946, proposed models that, stylistically and technically speaking, were directly derived from or greatly inspired by similar American models, of course starting from the Gaz A, a clone of the Ford Model A.

This aspect also had an immediate impact on the sports car world, again based on mass-produced models. One typical example was the 1938 GAZ GL-1.

Produced in 1938, this racing car, based on the model GAZ-M1, in turn based on the 1934 four-door sedan Ford Model B 40A, was the fastest Soviet racing car before the war. The original GAZ-M1 engine was enhanced, to 65 HP instead of 50 HP. After some tests, it was replaced by a new 6-cylinder 100 HP engine taken from the GAZ-11, and some details were re-designed (new wheel trims, a dome above the driver’s head, rounded grilles). With the original 65 HP engine, the top speed was 148 km/h but the 100 HP engine helped it to reach 162 km/h. Although this new record was quite modest, not surpassing even the results of the Tsarist Russia drivers, it was in any case an authentic turning point for Soviet motor sports enthusiasts.

The first exception to this rule was seen a few years earlier, in 1934, when the engineer Alexei Nikitin Osipovich built an aerodynamic car in his garage based on a GAZ A, the GAZ A-Aero.

In 1933, Alexei Nikitin (1903-1974) was appointed to the Russian Military Academy to study aerodynamics. He conducted in-depth research into the design and production of sports cars around the world, even building a small-scale wind tunnel where he performed many simulation experiments on aerodynamic drag models. Until, in 1934, he decided to build a 1:1 scale model, seeking to apply the best results achieved during the experiments. The wooden over-chassis was covered with metal plates. The standard engine was improved with an aluminium head and an increased compression ratio. The speed of the car did not yet match that of other sports cars, but in terms of design and aerodynamics it was a significant and original moment in the Soviet panorama in the early ’30s.

After the Second World War, along with its industrial production, the Soviet car sports world gradually returned to business. It was a long and arduous process, as many eminent designers from the pre-war era had become designers of military equipment throughout the hostilities, including A. Pukhalin and A. Nikitin.

However, from 1946 some designers drove the creative revival of the Soviet car world, V. Rostkov at ZIS and A. Smolin at GAZ. Already in 1938, the first car sketches by designer Valentin Brodsky, developed in 1940 by Vladimir Aryamov, which revealed a growing trend towards a more modern car design in the Soviet Union, were for a two-door coupé, the GAZ-11-80 which in fact anticipated the later GAZ Pobeda, identical in many aspects.

However, following the German invasion in 1941, the military priorities delayed the work on the new car, and the factory began to produce military items. The first Pobeda was developed in the Soviet Union in 1946, overseen by chief engineer Andrei A. Lipgart. Originally intended to be named "Rodina" (Homeland), the name "Pobeda" (Victory) was then preferred by Joseph Stalin. The name was chosen also because the works began in 1943 when the victory of the Second World War began to seem probable, and the car was intended to be a post-war model.

The GAZ-M20 "Pobeda" was produced in the Soviet Union by GAZ from 1946 to 1958. Although it was usually known as the GAZ-M20, the designation of an original car at that time was simply M-20: M for "Molotovets" (the GAZ factory took its name from Vyacheslav Molotov).

The styling was curated by the car designer Alexander Kirillov, the graphic artist Veniamin Samoilov and the above-mentioned Andrei Lipgart. The GAZ-M20 Pobeda was one of the first Soviet cars with an original design, and was also one of the first cars to introduce the ponton style with compact sides, ahead of many western manufacturers. In technical terms, the engineers in the factory in Gorky used a 1938 Opel Capitan, captured in late 1941, as the basis for their studies. (FIG 6)

The M20 Pobeda was also the first Soviet car to use completely original moulds. The first production model left the assembly line on 21 June 1946. It was also the first Soviet car to have turn signal indicators, two electric (rather than mechanical or vacuum) windscreen wipers, four hydraulic brakes and an AM radio installed in the factory, and over time became a symbol of post-war life in the Soviet Union. Of course, this new, modern car paved the way for sports versions.

The first place certainly goes to the "Pobeda-Sport" “Victoria”, a two-seater sport coupé, created specifically for racing in the 1950s. The Pobeda-Sport was an experimental car that was constantly updated for Soviet racers so that they could achieve the best results. In 1955, the car could reach speeds of up to 180 km/h.

On 8 September 1956, the Torpedo-GAZ factory racing team, with testers Gorky Vyacheslav Mosolov and Alexander Efremychev, won the silver medal in the individual category of the USSR road championships.

Although powerful and fast, in terms of design and aerodynamics the car was nothing new, the mere transformation of the sedan into a two-seater roadster.

The ZIS factory also worked on the design of a sporting prototype, the 1051 ZIS-112 concept.

The car, known as the Cyclops, was designed by Valentine Rostkov. The two-seater prototype was principally inspired by the US concept car GM LeSabre, again from 1951.

The car had a removable rigid roof and was powered by a 140 HP V8 engine. The car was subsequently equipped with an experimental 186 HP V8 engine with four carburettors; it also had an oil radiator and a rapid manual ignition control system.

In December 1948, a special USSR governmental decree was issued, prohibiting the use of foreign technology in competitions. The measure was taken after a series of serious accidents, some fatal, involving the Auto Union Sports, the spoils of war.

Although forced to start from scratch, the Soviet designers had since learned from German research, demolishing and studying some of the German cars in detail, understanding the importance of aerodynamic applications in racing cars. The designers began to work on the rationalisation of car forms already experimented in Europe, without making any fundamental changes to the engines, gearbox and chassis but improving the aerodynamics, with faired rear wheels (and also front wheels on some models), eliminating edges, plates and other protruding parts, incorporating the mudguards and especially trying to give the body the most penetrating shape possible.

Aged 43, Alexei A. Smolin joined Gaz in 1950. A designer with significant experience in the aeronautical - and therefore the aerodynamic - field, having designed the aircraft KSM-1 with a GAZ-M engine (1935), seaplanes (1937), and an airplane with a six-cylinder engine, the GAZ-Air (1938). His first design was the new sporting version of the Pobedo M-20, the GAZ M-20 Pobeda Sport SG -1 (1950).

With Smolin, the M-20 bodywork underwent a significant transformation, as can be seen in this drawing, with the compared profiles; only the chassis and wheelbase remain unchanged.

The body is compacted into a long, tapered profile at the rear, the ponton mudguards draw an elongated drop shape with faired front and rear wheels, the roof is low and also extends rearwards into the long, narrow tail. The front is low and flat, with a low, wide air duct grille. The only element reminiscent of the original sedan is the engine hood, raised upwards with two “nostril” shaped air ducts for the carburettors. Although large (5680 mm long, 1695 mm wide, 1480 mm high with a 2700 mm wheelbase), the car didn’t weigh much, just 1,200 kg. Like the pre-war GAZ-A-Aero and the GAZ-GL1, the steel was replaced by aeronautical aluminium and duralumin. Incidentally, the SG1 was the first Soviet sports car not to be produced in a single model, and in fact five were made.

The GAZ Torpedo SG-2

In 1951, it was again Smolin who invented the only design of the new GAZ development: the SG-2, known by the general public as the Torpedo. The drop-shaped aerodynamic body was nothing like the GAZ - Pobeda-Sport SG-1.

Smolin introduced the “lenticular” form, with two shells joined on the median line of the body. This lenticular form was then used in 1952 on the Alfa Romeo 1900 C52 "Disco Volante", in 1954 on the Jaguar type D and later in Donald Campbell’s 1962 Bluebird-Proteus CN7.

It was a completely new design, literally created from scratch. While developing his design, Smolin used advanced aeronautical mathematics and technologies.

In the plan view, the profile was reminiscent of a cuttlefish, but in fact it was an attempt to get as close as possible to the elongated drop shape, which for a solid immersed in a fluid theoretically has a cx of 0.0. In the side profile, this drop shape is extremely clear. Here too, both the front and rear wheels are faired. The roof is very low, again with a drop profile that stretches to the tail, crowned by a thin, vertical stabiliser fin. The rounded front has an air duct made directly in the body, with no grille. Also in this case, if we compare the side profile with that of the Pobeda sedan, we can see other changes in the aerodynamics compared to the Pobeda sport SG 1.

This car was much lighter than the previous model. The body was made from duralumin profiles coated in aluminium sheet. The body was 6250 mm long, 2070 mm wide and 1200 mm high. The car weighted 1100 kg. The standard M20 engine volume was increased to 2487 cc, and a Roots-type compressor and a drive shaft were installed, like those on the Pobeda-Sport, consisting of two parts separated by an intermediate support. It also had a three-speed gear with no synchronisers, an SV valve and only one carburettor. The car was relatively powerful: 105 HP at 4000 rpm. The top speed of the Torpedo was 190 km/h.

While in technical and performance terms, the Gaz Torpedo was certainly nothing significant, in terms of shape on the other hand it was a true “revolution”, as we can see even better by comparing the profiles of the previous “sport” model.

Starting from scratch, A. Smolin re-designed the shape starting from the mathematical application of aerodynamic principles. In some aspects, it reminds us of that revolution introduced by Malcom Sayer on the plans of the Jaguar XK 120 C with the new model XK Tipo D. A car, a design, that stands out not only within the context of Soviet production but also European and international production.

I would like to end with a last drawing, taken from a period photo, where we can see the three fundamental models of this interesting history all together: the Gaz Torpedo, the Gaz Sport and the Gaz M20.


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