(first posted 5/11/2014) 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.
Photo from http://gaz66.co.uk/
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.
Photo from http://gaz66.co.uk/
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.
Photo from http://gaz66.co.uk/
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).
Photo from http://photos.autogidas.lt/
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.
Thanks for sharing. I am fascinated by these East European vehicles. The GAZ-66 so purely functional there is a beauty to it.
I like this truck.
But is it just the perspective on the diagram, or were the controls really mounted slightly behind the driver? Also looks like the clutch and brake straddle the steering column.
I’ve heard stories about GAZ-66 drivers getting unpleasant back-aches as the seat, pedal and shifter positioning was quite uncomfortable in the cabin. Anyways, growing up in the 90’s Latvia, I remember seeing these trucks pretty often.
New info, and very interesting. I love how such a simple vehicle has so many random-appearing controls. I would bet it takes awhile to get acclimated to one of these.
Nice story, I love the technical images you’ve been accessing. That is one chunky truck.
Very interesting trip through an idle Russian limo factory.
As a card carrying owner and driver of a Nissan Cube I can’t understand why I like this design so much. Seems like it would be a lot of fun but unless it’s super reliable it would be parked a lot for lack of parts. Yes I did also like the econoline, vw etc.
I like trucks. Just the thing for shopping in. Landrover did a similar vehicle. Forward Control 101. No nonsense design. The best.
Oh man… I WANT IT!!! I have no idea what I’d do with it or where I’d park it, but I want it. This is another one that I knew existed, but knew nothing about the details of. They’re way more interesting than I had imagined. I always assumed these had an ancient straight six or a huge four under the hood – some kind of glorified tractor engine. Where does the V8 come from? Is it based on the same one that powered ZILs and KGB Volgas? Whatever it is, it sounds so mean and industrial. Very fitting!
And could any regular Ivan or Boris go down to the GAZ dealer and buy one after the fall of the USSR? That seems totally bonkers, but I guess it isn’t any more ridiculous than being able to buy a Hummer H1.
The strangest thing about this to me is that it seems the gear shift and all the other controls must actually be located directly next to, or even somewhat behind, the driver’s seat. Not very ergonomically correct. Or are my eyes playing tricks on me?
The information that I have seen indicates that the 4.2L V-8 used in the GAZ-66 was a truck-only engine, not the same as the 5.5L V-8 used in the Chaika limousine, also made by GAZ. Apparently it is still available in a modernized but still carbureted version from the same factory, Zavolzhskiy Motorniy Zavod, which made the engines for GAZ cars and trucks: http://www.zmz.ru/eng/prod/51310
As for the availability of this truck to civilian individuals, I do not know. The truck that I rode had the story behind it that the owner had found it abandoned in a field, and the military unit that it belonged to did not want it, so he took it and rebuilt it. I did not really believe this story.
Great post Robert and very informative, thanks for sharing. And your eyes are not playing tricks Sean, i have a Gaz66 and the gear stick IS behind you!! Put your right arm out, then stretch it as far back as you can and that’s roughly where reverse is!!
It is still an awesome truck, even if the gear shifts take some getting used to (amongst the numerous cab controls, crash box and sheer width of the thing!)
I saw your post about owning a Gaz 66.
Can you tell me what size battery should be fitted?
I ocassionally drive a Gaz 66 and it has a 95ah battery which does not seem to turn the engine over very quickly which makes the engine very hard to start. I have seen something on a website suggesting that originally there were 2 batteries fitted of 125ah each
A lot of modern “cab over engine” trucks have gear levers which sprout from behind the driver, looking more like a car handbrake than a gear stick. Pedals either side of the steering column aren’t unusual either.
Having said that, as a truck driver I don’t think I’ve seen such an intrusive engine hump before.
Sure, Kamaz builds excellent Dakar rally raid trucks. But their very professional factory team with full-time Drivers From Hell also helps. There’s a difference between driving rally raids all year round on a professional base or only driving the Dakar rally once a year.
The trucks and the drivers definitely are ringers. I assume that the same is true for the entries from Mercedes and other major manufacturers, though.
As far as I know Kamaz is the only full-time professional truck team that drives rally raids all year long. The rest are private teams that build their own trucks, like the De Rooy family with their Ivecos. BTW, there is just no way a standard 4×4 truck can be competitive, all of them are heavily modified with non-plus-ultra heavy duty parts. And heavily tuned diesel engines, somewhere between 800 and 1,000 hp.
These along with the rest of Soviet era rigs both 4×4, 6×6, and 4×2, are all still very much staples of the rural Russian landscape, whether in Karelia or Kamchatka. Hardworking and durable, although not necessarily reliable, but absolutely repairable. A few photos from my grandma’s and cousin’s villages near Biysk:
Good looking trucks, Russian V8s would sound nice too.
Imagine driving a GAZ-66 into the parking lot and park next to a F350?
I own both but can’t them at the same time.
Sorry. I mean, I own both but can’t drive them at the same time. Each has been to Tesco’s on many occasion.
Dose anyone know the gear selector pic my bosses is to faded to read