A title this short is appropriate for the story of the GAZ-66, a 4×4 truck that was one of the mainstays of both the Soviet Army and civilian off-road transportation in the former Soviet Union. With its cab over engine layout, short wheelbase and overhangs, and all-business square-off design, it was as close to a cube in shape as any vehicle ever mass produced, rivaled only by flat-front vans such as the VW Microbus, the 1961-67 Ford Econoline, and the Soviet Union’s own bread loaf shaped UAZ-452. The no-nonsense military design of the GAZ-66 made it both distinctive looking and one of the most off-road capable 4×4 vehicles ever made. It has also made the GAZ-66 arguably the world’s toughest truck.
The GAZ-66 design process began in 1962, and the model entered full scale production in 1964. The design was simple and straightforward, with a massive ladder frame and solid axles with leaf springs front and rear. The powertrain had a gasoline 4.2 liter V8 mounted over the front axle, a four speed gearbox with only third and fourth gear synchronized, and a two speed transfer case mounted in the center between the twin gas tanks. For off-road mobility, the GAZ-66 had limited slip differentials front and rear, a central tire inflation system (added in 1968), and a power takeoff to a front-mounted winch. For starting and running in Russia’s harsh winters, it had an engine preheater and a radiator vent shutoff system.
Rated at two metric tons (2,000 kilograms, or 2.2 tons), the GAZ-66 was compact and optimized for off-road use. At 5.65 meters (223 inches), it was shorter than a full size pickup truck with a regular cab and 8.0 foot bed, or a Buick Electra 225 and most pre-downsizing full size cars. Short front and rear overhangs gave it a 41 degree approach angle and 32 degree departure angle. Ground clearance was 320mm (12.5 inches) under the differentials. A width of 2.3 meters (91.4 inches) made it stable despite a tall height of 2.4 meters (96 inches). The design also was space efficient, with the cab over engine configuration allowing a cargo bed 3.3 meters (10.9 feet) long despite the vehicle’s short overall length.
The wheelhouse of the GAZ-66 was similarly simple and straightforward, aside from the battery of 14 controls behind the engine housing, most of which controlled the 4WD system, traction aids, and engine cold weather systems. They were the gear lever (16), the 2WD/4WD selector (17), the transfer case high/low ratio selector (18), engine pre-heater controls (19, 23, 24), power take off control (20), gas tank selector (21), isolator switch (22), choke (25), radiator vent open/shut control (26), hand accelerator (27), compressor control for the central tire inflation system (28), and handbrake (29).
The military specification of the GAZ-66 naturally made it a spartan place to ride, as I experienced personally in an all-day ride in one in 1993. The cab interior was all bare green-painted metal, mostly occupied by the engine cover, which did little to keep engine noise from the V-8 out of the cabin. The cab was luxurious compared to the rear cargo area where I rode, which in my particular GAZ-66 was a homemade wooden cargo box with no seats. (I was riding with two friends, one Russian and one American, who had not seen each other for several years, so I conceded the two-man cabin to them for most of the ride so that they could talk.) Being a 150 pound person in an otherwise empty 2.2 ton truck, I found the ride to be rather hard and bouncy, whether on potholed city streets or off-road. To simulate this experience, take a small wooden box, put a mouse or hamster in it, and shake vigorously. Please do not actually do it, because it is cruel whether done to a hamster or a human.
Off road capability rather than comfort was the purpose of the GAZ-66, however, and it delivered. While being bounced around and deafened in my wooden box, I witnessed the GAZ-66 churn easily through deep mud that would have been a struggle on foot, let alone in a wheeled vehicle. On a rainy day, we started in central Moscow, went beyond the city limits to a newly built suburb called Rosinka that has become an exclusive community for expatriates but then was a struggling incomplete project, and then cross country down muddy dirt roads and finally across fields of mud. It handled all of these conditions with ease, albeit hard-riding and deafening V-8 roaring ease.
Videos of Russian drivers using the GAZ-66 to cross difficult terrain abound on YouTube. This one shows a GAZ-66 making short work of deep mud.
Crossing a river four feet deep is likewise easily accomplished.
Drifting and other off-road stunts are well within the capabilities of the GAZ-66.
The Top Gear franchise in Russia has staked a claim to the GAZ-66 being the world’s toughest truck, in an imitation of Jeremy Clarkson’s extreme acts of attempted destruction on a Toyota Hi-Lux in the original U.K. program. The GAZ-66 received fewer tests, but they each were quite difficult in their own right: an Oka subcompact dropped onto it from a crane, instead of the travel trailer that Top Gear in the U.K. used on the Hi-Lux; a wrecking ball destroying the cab, similar to an ordeal inflicted on the Hi-Lux; and a flamethrower attack followed by drowning in a river, comparable to the torching and tidal immersion of the Hi-Lux. Like the Hi-Lux, the GAZ-66 emerged running and mobile after each destructive act.
The GAZ-66 never became an entry in the Paris-Dakar Rally or any other major off-road races, so we will never know whether it would have been a competitive vehicle in off-road motorsport. KamAZ 4x4s have won the Dakar Rally in the truck category 12 times in the past 18 years–in 1996, 2000, 2002-06, 2009-11 and 2013-14–demonstrating that Soviet truck engineering can be quite competitive. With necessary updates to the 1966 design, such as a modern engine and transmission, the GAZ-66 platform may have proven to be a worthwhile competitor.
Production of the GAZ-66 ended after 33 years in 1999, but it remains in military and civilian use in large numbers throughout the former Soviet Union. With 965,941 produced and a simple, easily repaired design, the GAZ-66 will be present in former Soviet and Soviet bloc countries for many years to come. The Russian Army replaced the GAZ-66 in combat units starting in the 1990s, so it has been fortunately largely absent from news coverage of the conflict in the Crimea in 2014.
The GAZ-66 also has become a modern classic, collected by off-road and military vehicle enthusiasts in numerous countries in Europe. A number have found owners in the United Kingdom, so compared to most Soviet vehicles, there is an unusually large amount of English-language information available about the GAZ-66. None have made their way to the U.S. yet, as far as I have been able to ascertain, but the popularity of comparable foreign military off-road vehicles such as the Mercedes Unimog and the Steyr-Puch Pinzgauer and the eligibility of over two decades of GAZ-66 production for easy importation into the U.S. may make the appearance of GAZ-66s in the U.S. only a matter of time. I would welcome the opportunity to experience the off-road capability of the GAZ-66 again, although this time from the driver’s seat.