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Russian and American military vehicles in Ukrainian ex-president's collection

Mon, 03 Mar 2014

Last week the world got a glimpse of Ukrainian ex-president Viktor Yanukovych's surprisingly eclectic car collection, which included dozens of cars that have never been exhibited in any museum or classic car show outside the former USSR. The sprawling garage at the Mezhyhirya villa became public only last weekend, hours after Yanukovych's nighttime escape by helicopter to Russia. Hundreds of ordinary citizens and journalists from all around the world strode freely into the villa, finding an abundance of abandoned wealth, some of which was even tasteful.

And visitors to the villa's garage complex saw everything from a GAZ 14 limousine from the 1980s to a 1963 Chevrolet Impala, whose presence in the collection has yet to be explained. Just one car is believed to have disappeared from the collection, a rare 1938 Horch 855 Spezial Roadster whose whereabouts are still unknown. If you see something (on eBay), say something.

A few days ago we gave you an exclusive look at each and every vehicle in the garage, which was outfitted like an automotive museum. But who knew Yanukovych also turned out to be a fan of military history, and an equal opportunity fan at that, having amassed a sub-collection of historic Russian and American military vehicles? Unlike some of the civilian cars in the collection, the military vehicles on display appeared original to those who had visited the collection, and several of them have never been exhibited outside of Russia or Ukraine. Let's take a look at what Yanukovych has (or had, rather).

Andriy Yatsulyak, Ukrainian magazine Autocentre
A sharp Willys from 1943 has made its way into the collection.

We don't know why or how Yanukovych ended up with this much American classic military hardware, especially in a part of the world where such items are tough to come by, but this has to be one of the best kept, if not the largest, collections of American WWII-era machinery in central or eastern Europe. And one of the most immediately recognizable vehicles in Yanukovych's collection is a 1943 Willys MB. Built from 1941 till 1945 by Willys and Ford, the history of the "Jeep" is... too extensive to faithfully recount in this article, but it's worth noting the Willys "Jeep" went on to influence just about every foreign version of a general purpose personnel carrier that was aimed for transporting officers on the front lines and reconnaissance missions. Conceived and prototyped in truly record time, Willys-Overland's design proved current even decades after the end of the conflict that inspired it, and was spun-off into the CJ, or Civilian Jeep vehicles whose descendants are still on sale today. As far as original examples go, they're still quite affordable due to the ruggedness of the design (and thickness of the steel), and entire fleets are maintained just for various countries' film industries. Entirely original examples are tough to come by and most "Jeeps" in collector hands are bitsas, though that aspect doesn't really detract from their value.

Andriy Yatsulyak, Ukrainian magazine Autocentre
This small military LuAZ hails from 1983.

Designed for front-line reconnaissance, transportation, and evacuation of wounded on dry land and in water, the LuAZ 697M was the Soviet army's floating version of a light general purpose vehicle. Development of a light multipurpose vehicle for the Soviet infantry started in the 1950s, but using an entirely new design proved too expensive for the role that was envisioned for such a vehicle, and by the time the Soviet army really needed it, the LuAZ 967 chassis proved to be more or less suitable to being converted to a floating light utility vehicle. The LUAZ 697M ended up beng built in Lutsk, Ukrainian ASSR at the time, and used the engine out of the ZAZ 966 family of small two-door sedans. Since this vehicle was created at the request of the paratrooper wing of the air force, the LuAZ 967M was made to be able to be dropped via parachute out of a transport plane. The concept of such a vehicle isn't very particularly unusual, if one remembers the Volkswagen Iltis.With the breakup of the USSR, the small LuAZ proved too exotic for all former Warsaw Pact armies to keep in use, and has subsequently been replaced with much heavier small armored personnel vehicles.

Andriy Yatsulyak, Ukrainian magazine Autocentre
A nicely restored GAZ 67B from 1945.

The GAZ 67B is one of the later versions of the Soviet military's light utility vehicle of WWII. Built by Gorky Avtomobil'ny Zavod, the GAZ 67B and its predecessors, which entered production in 1941, were identical in spirit if not design to the American Willys MB. However, only 4,851 examples of the 67B were made during WWII, as the Soviet army received a much greater number of Willys MB vehicles as part of Lend Lease from the U.S. The small 67B was relatively unprotected on the front lines, with the Soviet military preferring much larger trucks or armored vehicles. The 67 would continue to evolve into the 1960's, when it would be replaced by a "Jeep" from another automaker, UAZ. Examples like this are a little tough to find, and the tiny market for these means that this one either came from a museum, or had been restored for Victory Day parades for WWII veterans.

Andriy Yatsulyak, Ukrainian magazine Autocentre
One of the last LuAZ models made, the 1302 light utility from 1991.

When it came to four-wheel drive vehicles for common Soviet citizens, the LuAZ 1302 was the most affordable way to get into one, short of the larger and more "luxurious" UAZ 469. The LuAZ was developed for private owners in the countryside, and featured a noisy air-cooled engine out of a ZAZ sedan. These small utility trucks were light and highly maneuverable, but speed wasn't one of these best selling points. As with many Soviet vehicles, their designs remained virtually unchanged over great periods of time, and this was the case with this LuAZ, which actually debuted in 1967 as a LuAZ 969 and went through a number of facelifts.

This particular LuAZ 1302 in Yanukovych's collection hails from 1991, which was the third generation of this basic design. The amazing condition of this example suggests that Yanukovych may have acquired it from a museum, because most LuAZ trucks tended to be used up and not that many survived since the last ones left production. This particular one wears army green paint, though in reality it differed little from the civilian version, and by 1991 few LuAZ 1302s were bought by any of the armies of the former USSR. Its closest western counterpart is perhaps the Steyr-Daimler-Puch Haflinger used by several NATO countries, though that truck is a size or two larger.

Andriy Yatsulyak, Ukrainian magazine Autocentre
A rare army Dodge from 1942 is in the collection as well.

It's not clear where Yanukovych found so much American military hardware, but he didn't seem to limit himself when it came to size. Visitors to the Mezhyhirya garage noted that there was plenty of extra space for at dozens more cars and trucks, and that the garage had been built to house large vehicles and small. One of the larger ones that journalists came across when they gained access to Yanukovych's compound last week was this WWII-era Dodge WC 52. Part of a family of four-wheel drive 3/4-ton trucks, the WC 52 served as a medium sized troop and weapon vehicle in the European and Pacific theaters. With an overall length of 14 feet, it was just one size larger than the Willys MB, and in open top mode carried a large caliber machine gun mounted in the bed. These are a bit harder to find than the Willys MB, but there are still plenty of them out there in museums and movie fleets.

Andriy Yatsulyak, Ukrainian magazine Autocentre
At least two Dodge trucks have been spotted in the collection.

Yanukovych might have gotten the Dodge WC 52 and WC 63 as a twofer -- that's the only explanation we have for how one ended up with two American army trucks. The WC 63 cago and personnel carrier was one of the larger Dodge WC series trucks, and featured a 6x6 layout combined with a greater payload and troop carrier capacity. These were based on the WC 61 Light Maintenance Truck, and were used to tow small pieces of artillery. The WC 63 was one of the larger versions of the entire WC light truck series (these were classified as light, believe it or not), and had a 1.5-ton payload capacity. Finding a properly kitted out example is not that difficult (at least in the U.S.) but they just don't fetch the money that you'd expect them to, as the size of the garage required keeps the demand and the price down. Incidentally, this is why classic firetrucks are rarely expensive: there just aren't that many individuals with adequate garage space for them.

Andriy Yatsulyak, Ukrainian magazine Autocentre
A wartime GAZ AA truck, in nicely restored condition.

Yanukovych had almost as much American military hardware in his collection as Soviet machinery, though when it comes to military vehicles, there are few private collections that really have anything truly rare. Most surviving military vehicles were either made in numbers that are nothing short of stupendous, or they weren't mass-produced at all and never entered service. Similarly, military vehicles from decades ago were either used up, or weren't used at all. Which is why you can still find British or German vehicles from 30 years ago with minimal mileage for not a lot of money.

But then there are military trucks like the GAZ AA, a 1.5-ton truck, a licensed version of 1929 Ford AA which was produced in Russia starting in 1932. The AA was known as "Polutorka" or "one and a half-tonner," and stayed in production in the city of Gorky through 1938. Original examples are quite tough to find, given that very few survived WWII, but there are restoration groups out there that bring these back to life, using surviving parts. This is perhaps the rarest vehicle in Yanukovych's collection, though few people on either side of the Atlantic could probably identify it immediately.

Andriy Yatsulyak, Ukrainian magazine Autocentre
A rare Ukrainian Dnepr army motorcycle from 1985.

Here's a motorcycle that not too many fans of two-wheeled things have probably seen, a Dnepr MV-650. This was a military version of the Ukrainian Dnepr family of heavy motorcycles, made in Kiev. These featured a 649cc two cylinder four stroke engine mated to a four-speed transmission making 36 hp, and have been in production since the mid-1970s, even though civilian versions of this Dnepr have been available since the 1960s. One of the major differences between the MV-650 and its civilian version is that this one is two-wheel drive. And of course the civilian versions didn't have a sidecar mount for an AK-47 for the sidecar passenger. This example is from 1985, which is really the dusk of the use of heavy sidecar-equipped motorcycles in infantry brigades in most modern armies.

(Special thanks to Autocentre and photographer Andriy Yatsulyak).

By Jay Ramey