This past year we celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Ford V-8 engine. The debut of the fabled V-8 engine in the 1932 model year signaled a technological revolution, one designed to reassert the Ford Motor Company’s competitive edge with rivals Chevrolet and Plymouth. That same year, there was another revolution for Ford, if now largely forgotten. In January 1932, the first Ford-designed cars and trucks made their appearance in the Soviet Union. This unlikely collaboration of Henry Ford, the famed American capitalist, and Joseph Stalin, the ruler of communist Russia, marked a new chapter in the turbulent relationship of the United States with the Soviet Union. In automotive history, this curious episode gave birth to what might be called “Henry Ford’s Parallel Universe."
Once the Bolsheviks assumed power in 1917 they moved quickly to create a socialist society, abolishing private property and nationalizing existing industries. The indigenous automotive sector, however, was rather small with only one important Russian-designed automobile emerging in the pre-revolutionary years, the Russo-Baltic car. In the early Soviet period, the Russians depended almost exclusively on foreign-made tractors, trucks, and cars to meet domestic transport needs. Notwithstanding the fact that diplomatic ties with the USA would not be established until 1933, the communist overlords purchased over 20,000 Fordson tractors in the decade of the 1920s. This was accomplished informally through Amtorg, a purchasing company set up to secure critical technologies from the capitalist West. The Ford Motor Company became a primary target for study and emulation in those days. In the late 1920s, for example, Soviet engineers made an extended pilgrimage to Michigan to study the River Rouge plant and its phenomenal assembly lines. For these visiting communist engineers, the Ford Motor Company was an automotive version of Oz.
GAZ AA Trucks
By 1929, Amtorg had managed to negotiate a formal licensing agreement with the Ford Motor Company, a contract to build in Soviet Russia both Ford trucks and cars. With the assistance of Ford and other American firms, Stalin ordered the construction of a mega industrial complex at Gorky (present day Nizhny Novgorod). This city in the heartland of Russia, east of Moscow, soon became the Soviet Detroit, a reputation it retains to this day. The Soviets learned to their chagrin that Henry Ford drove a hard bargain on any contract, requiring hard currency for all his designs, equipment, and technical assistance. Signed in May 1929, Ford agreed to oversee the construction of the Gorky facility, which would manufacture Model A cars and trucks. In return, the Soviets agreed (read guaranteed) to order no less than 72,000 unassembled Fords with spare parts for the next nine years. Even on details, Henry Ford was unrelenting in his demands, for example insisting that the Soviets pay for the travel, housing, and subsistence of his technicians sent to Gorky to assist in the gargantuan task of cloning River Rouge. The price tag for the Ford licensing agreement was high, but the benefits were manifest: the Soviet Union could create in one quantum leap a new and modern transport sector.
For the Ford Motor Company the deal with the Russians was not only profitable, it was very timely. Unwittingly, Amtorg had purchased the Model A technology at the very moment Henry Ford had decided to abandon it for a new generation of designs and to introduce the V-8 engine. Transferring this Model A technology to the Soviet Union proved to be an effective way to unload what had become an obsolescent technology. Moreover, the multi-year contract set the stage for future deals with the Russians on newer designs of Ford trucks and automobiles. The Russians dubbed their new Fords the GAZ-A (a copy of the Model A sedan) and the GAZ-AA (a truck to appear in more than one incarnation). Later, in World War II, the GAZ AA won fame during the siege of Leningrad as the prime vehicle to deliver supplies across frozen Lake Ladoga. The acronym GAZ stood for Gorkovsky Avtomobilnyy Zavod, or the Gorky automobile plant. This GAZ name endures to the present time, being associated with a wide variety of cars, trucks, buses, and special vehicles. In reality, the first GAZ-A and GAZ-AA vehicles were assembled from kits sent to Russia from Michigan. It would take several years before the Russians were able to manufacture their own components, engines, and accessories. This process of adaptation, however, took place in a relatively short time frame. By 1935, the Soviets had produced 100,000 Ford-designed vehicles.
GAZ A Automobiles
That same year, the Soviets reached another milestone with the adaptation of the 1933 Ford passenger sedan to the Russian auto scene, what became known as the GAZ-M1, or the fabled "Emka." This car, even with its telltale Ford DNA, was largely a Russian vehicle. Soviet engineers were selective in their adaptation of the 33 Ford. They decided that the V-8 engine was too complicated to copy. Instead, they embraced fully the Ford four-cylinder engine, for the first time manufactured on a massive scale in Soviet Russia. This engine underwent a series of upgrades, most notably a boost from 40 to 50 hp. For the "Emka", they also simplified the grille design, along with other cosmetic changes. Given the primitive road conditions in Russia, the "Emka" was redesigned with longitudinal leaf springs instead of the transverse springs then used by Ford. The frame was also reinforced. And, finally, 700 x 16 inch tires were installed, again to navigate down Russian roads often lacking proper roadbeds or pavement. The GAZ-M1 itself went through several incarnations, being used in the late 1930s and World War II as a staff car: the most important redesign came with the GAZ 61 with its new front clip and all-wheel drive. The GAZ 11, used in the war, sported a new six-cylinder engine modeled on the Dodge D5 powerplant. The basic Ford designs were gradually morphed into something distinctively Russian.
GAZ M-1 or "Emka" Automobiles
Looking back, Ford played a major role in the creation of Russia’s automotive industry. That same auto sector remains viable today, offering a surprising diversity of vehicles for commercial and private use. In the early years, the Russian economy with its highly centralized controls and indifference to quality control made any replication of Fords difficult. Technology transfer, as the Russians learned, involved more than the acquisition of Ford drawings, tools, and equipment. To build a Russian version of River Rouge also required a highly trained cadre of workers and this technical expertise took many years to mobilize and perfect.
Today, Russians retain a keen enthusiasm for their Fords. The preservation and restoration of surviving examples of these historic vehicles is popular. There are two national clubs that support the Model A/Model AA restorations, with one club dedicated specifically to the Model AA. The stylish "Emka" has emerged as a popular antique car to own in post-communist Russia, along with certain post-war models such as the Pobeda (with its striking Ford look). Often Russians look to the lively American antique car world for technical advice and support. No less important, a number of antique car museums have emerged in modern day Russia. Summers are now punctuated with car rallies and shows, where one can see up close remnants of Henry Fords parallel universe.
© Von Hardesty, 2008
A Book To Read - Report by Von Hardesty
Ilf and Petrov’s American Road Trip, The 1935 Travelogue of Two Soviet Writers Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, edited by Erika Wolf, Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007.
This fascinating book tells the story of two Soviet journalists, Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, who purchased a brand new 1935 Ford in New York City and then made a cross-county trip of the United States. Their choice of a Ford was no accident, it reflected the Soviet love affair with Ford cars and trucks in those years. Ilf and Petrovi, communist writers at odds with American capitalism, displayed a great affection for America’s small towns and highways, in particular the friendly people they met along the way. When they returned home, they wrote up an account of their adventures for Ogonek, the Soviet equivalent to Life magazine. Later, a more detailed account of their journey appeared in a book, One-Storied America (Odnoetazhnaya America). They offered to their avid Russian readers a portrait of what they called one-storied America (as opposed to the dominant image of America with its towering skyscrapers). You can now read an illustrated English translation of their extraordinary saga, a rare view of Depression America from the front seat of the 1935 Ford. Recently, Vladimir Posner who once appeared frequently on American TV with Phil Donohue in the 1980s (remember him?) recently repeated the Ilf and Petrov trip for Moscow’s Channel One. You can order the book on Amazon.com.