The Soviet Union may have disappeared 30 years ago, but some of its industrial legacy is still current. Nothing can best the (sole) Antonov 225’s ability to ferry bulky cargo, no international space program could do without the R-7 rocket, no assault rifle can rival the AK-47 in terms of ruggedness or popularity. In the automotive realm, the Lada Niva is still with us, as is the UAZ-469. But the oldest four-wheeled legacy product, clocking at 55 years and counting, is the UAZ-452.
Aside from the Niva, the common thread among all these (AK-47, An-225, R-7, UAZ-452 & 469), beyond a penchant for hyphenated alphanumerics, is a close link to the military. Our feature bread-loaf van’s olive drab paintwork is not an accident. But I guess the Jeep, fly-by-wire jetliners, GPS and the very Internet itself are basically fortunate by-products of the West’s military-industrial complex as well…
The UAZ-452 van, produced since 1966, was a mild revamp of the 450, made between 1958 and 1966. The UAZ-450 was the first home-grown forward-control design made in the USSR, but the AWD chassis was a known quantity, being that of the GAZ-69 army AWD vehicle (topmost in illustration above). There was also a 451 version, which was a 2WD variant.
The UAZ-450/451/452 family came in four basic models: a minibus (bottom left, an early model 452), a van (colloquially known in Russia as Bukhanka, or “bread loaf,” seen top right as an early production model 450), an ambulance (a.k.a. Tabletka – “pill,” seen top left in the 450’s rather baroque prototype guise, circa 1955) and a pickup (Golovastik – “tadpole,” bottom right, 451 exported to Finland).
In 1985, the whole nomenclature was revised, just like it was for other Soviet vehicle lines, by a four-number system. The basic minibus became UAZ-2206, the pickup became UAZ-3303, the civilian ambulance became UAZ-3962 and so on. Time may have changed some details, but basically the UAZ’s early ‘50s chassis was not messed with.
Probably because it was sturdy enough to do the job… The old 2.4 litre GAZ 4-cyl., also used on the Volga saloons, was ditched some time ago. Present-day UAZ-452s use a 2.7 litre DOHC 4-cyl. that produces a reasonable 117hp.
What we have here is a six-seater minibus with a rear cargo area (rated at 500kg), which makes it the UAZ-3909. This version has been imported to Japan (in minute but constant quantities, apparently) since 2005, along with the 2206 9-passenger minivan. These four-digit model names are a bit too varied and confusing though, so let’s stick to the “452” model name.
The UAZ-452 has a small but loyal following here, so much so that a kit exists to make your white rice Suzuki Every look like the tasty Russian loaf. I’ve seen the kit version more often than the genuine article, but that’s to be expected – Japanese folks are justifiably wary of the quality of Russian-made vehicles. On the other hand, they know that Korean cars are as good as Japanese ones, so you never see those either, but for diametrically opposite reasons.
But judging from my limited and necessarily subjective experience, having only been in this country a couple years, the probability of finding Soviet metal is magnitudes higher than finding a Korean car. This is the third Russian vehicle I’ve spotted in Japan, but I have yet to see a Hyundai here. But then, Russian cars have the advantage of being both exotic and iconic, whereas a Kia would just blend into the crowd.
The rear compartment sure looks cozy, but I suppose it’s been improved upon by its owner. The HVAC on the side there, though, is completely stock and probably only has two settings: hot and very hot.
This particular loaf’s interior has had a few non-standard mods (e.g. the steering wheel), but the basic layout still has a positively Khrushchevian atmosphere. That’s a compliment, by the way. They did change a few bits and bobs on this thing over the decades, but really, very little of consequence.
That applies equally to the exterior, of course. One notable novelty is this side indicator, perched way up there. It doesn’t appear to have been included in the original design, but sprouted in place sometime in the past couple of decades as if it always should have been there.
The UAZ-452 also retains several properly antediluvian features, such as the non-overlapping handclap wipers, harking back to the ’58 design when the windshield still had a partition. Talk about vestigial!
Going back to the rear end, I’m not sure what that reflector/light thing on the roof is for exactly. If it’s a third stop light, it sure looks like they found one designed back in 1970 or so. Either it’s prescient, or it’s a cunning bit of recycling. Seems there’s a camera of some kind up there too. Wired straight up to the KGB, no doubt.
The oldest bit of the UAZ AWD design is the chassis, which is fast approaching 70 years of age. If any vehicle is going to beat the VW Type 1’s longevity record, it’s probably going to be a tough-as-nails Soviet 4×4 like this one. Quite fitting, as the UAZ factory was founded in 1941 as a direct result of the German invasion – some of which came via Kübelwagen. It’s the loaf of bread and butterfly effect.