How Henry Ford Kick-Started Car Production in the Soviet Union

In the early 1920’s, the Soviet Union completely lacked an automotive industry, importing nearly all of its cars, something the country wanted to change. The Soviet industrial machine was plagued with issues however – poorly disciplined labour, high production costs and low quality materials stunted the newly formed state’s dream of large scale automobile construction. To cure the broken system, it was going to need a complete re-design. For this, the Soviets looked West.

Before the bitter rivalry that the two nations are known for, the Soviet Union expressed great admiration for the manufacturing prowess that America possessed. During the 20’s, Soviet political figures, economic officials and even the mass-media exhibited considerable interest in the exploits of industrial America, and more specifically, Henry Ford. The Soviet Union’s intentions of receiving American industrial practices was validated by Ford and other powerful business men, so the Soviets began scouting Ford and other big auto companies such as General Motors.

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Henry Ford in 1919.
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The Russians found Ford to be the most obtainable and on May 31, 1929, Henry Ford and Soviet official Valerii Mezhlauk signed an agreement in Dearborn, Michigan. The agreement gave the Soviets rights to all patents, licences, blueprints and any future updates to the Ford Model A and Model AA truck. Ford also agreed to construct and furnish a plant in Nizhny Novrogrod, a city on the bank of the Volga 250 miles East of Moscow.

Ford sent employees to the Soviet Union to supervise the build, and also received 50 Soviet engineers every year to educate them on the methods of the vehicles production. In exchange, the Soviets would buy 72,000 un-assembled Ford cars and trucks, plus any spare parts until 1938, a total that would amass to 30 million dollars. By 1932, the Soviets were bound into 118 similar contracts with Western companies, being mainly American and German.

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Ford Model A on the production line in Dearborn, Michigan.

In 1930, the project was already becoming turbulent. The Soviets began opting for cheaper machinery to be fitted to their factory that was not yet complete. The government also began applying pressure, wanting the plant’s productivity, when running, to increase 5 fold from the estimated 100,000 vehicles per year. It proved difficult for the construction team to even source the necessary raw materials just to build the site, high-quality steel was hard to come by, and machinery such as cranes were missing. For the solution to these problems, the Soviets again looked West, trading foreign machinery and personnel for food and grain, two items that were already in short supply in communist Russia.

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GAZ A (Right) next to an M1 and the M1 light truck variant. Author: Andrei Zimin. CC BY-SA 4.0

The factory opened in July 1932 and a year later, the complex took on a new name; Gor’kovskii Avtomobil’nyi Zavod or GAZ. The first year the new site was open was very poor, building only 5 percent of requested Model As. However, the factory eventually became the centre of automobile production, responsible for two thirds of the nation’s output in 1934. In 1935, the factory proclaimed its ‘liberation from Ford’ and terminated the Model A in the following year while launching their own GAZ M1. This was also called the Molotov 1 which bore a striking resemblance to the Ford Model B.

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Police Officer in Nizhny Novgorod near several GAZ 415s, the light truck variant of the M1. Author: RIA Novosti CC BY-SA 3.0

While the factory continued to be under-resourced with ridiculous demands set by the government, the deal that brokered it has had an immense effect on global history. The ideas from Ford spread throughout the Soviet Union and without them, the country may have not have been able to feed its war machine during their ‘Great Patriotic War’ (World War 2). The ‘Dearborn agreement’ also bridged a divide between the two nations, which at the time, were under no diplomatic negotiations.

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The early Ford models are not the only cars that GAZ made copycats of, keep scrolling to find out more about another example.

GAZ 13: The Soviet Bel Air

The GAZ Chaika 13 started life in 1955 as a prototype sedan for use by the Soviet Government as a luxurious form of transportation. It officially debuted in 1959 and used a 5.5 liter V8 in a front-engine, rear-wheel drive configuration. The engines 195hp reached the road through an automatic transmission, with a 0-60 of 15 seconds and topping out at 99mph.

GAZ 13B Cabriolet. Author: Alexander Migl CC BY-SA 4.0
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Built by Gorkovsky Avtomobilny Zavod for an incredibly long production run of 22 years (1959-1981), it was offered in 3 different shapes. These were as a sedan (GAZ 13), a cabriolet (GAZ 13B) and a limousine (GAZ 13A).

Front of the GAZ 13. Author: Tschaika CC BY 2.0

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Ford GT40: The Ferrari Beater

The famed GT40 was born out of a bitter, legendary rivalry between Ford and Ferrari to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Le Mans is the oldest active sports car endurance race and has been held near the French town of Le Mans annually since 1923. Designed to test manufacturer’s abilities at making reliable sports cars not just fast ones, it’s a grueling 24 hour endurance race to test both man and machine. The event is widely regarded as the most prestigious race in the world, an opinion Henry Ford II and Enzo Ferrari shared.

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