In July 1993, I had the good fortune to attend the First Russian International Autosalon in Moscow and call it work. I found the name of this first-of-its-kind event to be a bit of a misnomer, because the show was far more Russian than international, displaying mostly Russian cars that were infamously obsolete and badly made, and trucks from Russia and other former Soviet states. The massive trucks on display impressed me, though, so I took close looks at several of them and left with their brochures, including one for the MAZ-79092, made by Minskiy Avtomobilniy Zavod (Minsk Automobile Factory) in Belarus, a vehicle that I later realized I had seen before.
This truck was a derivative of the MAZ-543, designed in 1959 as a specialized military vehicle for carrying missiles. A forward control 8×8 chassis powered by a 38.9 liter diesel engine from the T62 tank, it first appeared in public in 1965 as a carrier for the R-17 Elbrus (NATO name SS-1 “Scud”) short range ballistic missile. The MAZ-543 made its mark on history as the mobile Scud missile launcher used by the Iraqi military during the Gulf War of 1990-91. Iraq also used them during the “War of the Cities” campaign of the Iran-Iraq War, in which each country launched air and missile attacks against the capital and smaller cities of the other. The MAZ-543 continues to be found at the center of international disputes, as Syria, Iran and North Korea each still use it as mobile launcher for ballistic missiles.
Katyusha rocket launchers on Studebaker US6 trucks at the Victory Parade in Moscow on June 24, 1945 that commemorated victory over Germany. According to Russian sources, ZIS assembled these trucks from parts kits provided under Lend-Lease.
MAZ had a specific niche in a range of truck manufacturers that the Soviet Union created after the Second World War. After relying heavily on American trucks provided under Lend-Lease during the war, the Soviet Union invested significant resources after the war in expanding its truck industry in order to meet its own needs. ZIS (later ZIM, finally renamed ZIL), which predated the war, and Ural (full name UralAZ), which had been created during the war using ZIS assets evacuated from Moscow to the Ural Mountains, expanded to produce 4×2, 4×4, 6×4 and 6×6 military and civilian trucks. Heavy military trucks were the responsibility of MAZ, which had produced its first vehicles in 1947. Tractor-trailers and other heavy civilian trucks became concentrated in KAMAZ, whose production line started rolling in 1976.
MAZ built a comprehensive range of heavy trucks for military use: 6×6, 8×8, 10×8, 10×10, 12×12, 14×12, 16×16, and 24×24, with capacities of up to 220 tons. Multiple wheel steering, such as the 12 wheel steering of this 16×16, helped to increase the maneuverability of these long vehicles. A drivetrain with a gas turbine engine and electric drive was introduced in the 12×12 in 1978, the 24×24 in 1985, and the 16×16 in 1992. They were from a different world than Soviet civilian cars, living proof of the massive investment that the Soviet state made in military equipment.
Civilian use of MAZ trucks, although not originally planned, became significant. The MAZ-543 that became known in the West as a mobile Scud launcher became heavily used by the oil and gas, mining and logging industries in Siberia, which needed its heavy payload and off-road capability. The oil and gas and mining industries that dominate Russia’s post-Soviet economy were built on the backs of the MAZ-543 and its successors.
The 12×12, 14×12, and 16×16 chassis were carriers for Soviet mobile ICBMs, and Russia continues to use them for its mobile nuclear missiles. Shown here is a current Topol-M mobile ICBM on an MZKT-79221 transporter-erector-launcher, produced by MZKT (Minskiy Zavod Kolesnikh Tyagachei, “Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant”), a former subsidiary of MAZ that was spun off in 1991.
The fall of the Soviet Union changed MAZ, which faced a new world in which demand for its heavy military trucks would be dramatically lower. As noted above, six months before the fall of the Soviet Union, in February 1991, MAZ separated its heavier and lighter truck operations by creating a subsidiary called MZKT for the MAZ-79092, MAZ-79221 and other primarily military platforms, which it then spun off. MZKT marketed these chassis for civilian use under the appropriate brand name “Volat” (“Giant”). MAZ shifted its product line to focus on civilian trucks in smaller size classes and on buses.
This MAZ-79092 brochure was from the transition period of the early 1990s, showing a military design repurposed for civilian use in 1992. It prominently features the Volat name but does not yet refer to MZKT.
Showing its military heritage, the MAZ-79092 had a configuration intended for off-road use. A 22,000 kilogram (24.25 US tons) rated 8×8, it had a 470 horsepower diesel engine, 9 forward gears plus reverse, a two speed transfer case, and a central tire inflation system for low traction situations. The four front wheel steering system allowed a turning circle of 13.5 meters (44.3 feet) on a vehicle 10.52 meters (34.5 feet) long. Off-road performance most likely was excellent.
The suspension system was interesting as well, with independent suspension on the four front wheels and solid axles with leaf springs on the four rear wheels that carried most of the weight of the cargo.
A “reliable and economic” V-8 diesel engine powered the MAZ-79092, although like the outdated statement, “it is made in the USSR,” the claim of reliability and economy may have based on old standards. The YaMZ 8424 V-8 diesel engine was made at the Yaroslavskiy Motorniy Zavod (Yaroslavl Motor Factory) in Yaroslavl, Russia, which still produces engines for trucks made in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.
The cab above the engine showed an attempt to meet the demands of civilian users. The driver’s seat appears to have a suspension system, as used in bus and truck driver seats in the West, for greater driver comfort in what must have been a hard-riding truck. Two bunks and a small refrigerator would have allowed the cab to be used as a sleeper on long drives or at construction sites.
If the 22,000 kilogram rating of the MAZ-79092 was not enough, or if nothing short of an ICBM transporter would satisfy your craving to out-do the Humvees that everyone else bought after the Gulf War, there was also the MAZ-7919. A 12×12 rated for payloads of 50,300 kilograms (55.45 US tons), the MAZ-7919 was a missile transporter chassis made into a civilian truck in 1988.
MAZ could produce a custom body for the MAZ-7919 chassis to meet the customer’s requirements, upon request. Or, as this brochure printed in 1990 stated in pre-1991 quality Soviet English, “Our advice on positioning of the platform body made at the Customer’s request help in rationally using the chassis and solving transportation problems to best advantage.” MAZ’s marketing skill apparently lagged behind its technical capabilities during the early 1990s.
Whether the MAZ-79092 and MAZ-7919 sold well in post-Soviet civilian markets could not be determined, but MAZ survived its transition from state ownership and military production to private ownership and civilian sales during the 1990s and continues to produce trucks and buses. It has done particularly well with buses, producing its 10,000th in 2009 after making its first in 1993 and needing seven years to produce its first 1,000. Since 1997, MAZ also has been in a joint venture with MAN, the German truck and bus manufacturer, producing MAN-designed trucks and loaders and giving the automotive world the delightfully silly-sounding brand name “MAZ-MAN.”
In a sense, MAZ has swung 180 degrees since the fall of the Soviet Union. The official founding date of the company is July 16, 1944, a day when automobile repair workshops in Minsk reopened a few days after the liberation of the city from three years of German occupation. The enterprise grew from producing military vehicles, including transporters for Soviet nuclear missiles that were part of the balance of terror that held the fate of humanity hostage during the Cold War. Since 1991, MAZ has survived by making trucks and buses for ordinary civilian use, and it has become a partner with a German company that once was a leading producer of Panther tanks, trucks and other military equipment for the Third Reich. MAZ is a company that has beaten swords into plowshares, and its evolution is one step toward correcting the mistakes of the past.