Hey gang, do you like giant vehicles meant for Antarctic exploration? I do too! In fact, I recently wrote about the Antarctic Snow Cruiser, an ambitious American vehicle that ended up a tremendous flop. But there is another Antarctic Snow Cruiser, a Soviet one that actually worked. It’s the Russian Kharkovchanka and not only did it work, it worked well into the 21st Century.
What confuses me about America’s Antarctic Snow Cruiser was that it used smooth balloon tires for some reason. I mean, it confuses and deeply offends both my midwestern sensibilities and my ravenous Jalopnik-induced love of winter tires. It was developed by people living in Chicago who had already been to the Antarctic, even.
The Soviets, however, would make no such silly mistake. They knew how to face weather in Russia that would make even a seasoned Chicago resident cringe.
YouTuber Calum G pointed out to me on Twitter that if I wanted to see a vehicle just as ambitious as the Snow Cruiser but more worthy of the challenges of Antarctic exploration I should check out his video on Kharkovchankas:
The whole video is worth watching, but here’s a basic break down: The Soviets started Antarctic exploration a little later than other countries, which is ironic considering, as Calum points out, explorers from the country are largely believed to be among the first to ever see Antarctica during expeditions in the early 19th Century. But they eventually jumped in with both feet, sending multiple expeditions to set up bases in 1956 and ’57 using, at first, leftover tanks with work finishing up around 1959. That is to say, the Soviets did have the benefit of hindsight and the ability to recognize the failures of the American Snow Cruiser. (I still can’t forgive those tires, though.)
While Soviet military trucks and industrial civilian tractors could move overland better than the 1939 U.S. Snow Cruiser they still weren’t well suited for the extreme conditions of Antarctica. The second wave of materials that same year in 1956 were meant to establish a base on the actual magnetic south pole called Vostock, but this time, the Soviet researchers brought a vehicle capable of the long-distance and high altitudes required for such a journey; the AT-T, a heavy artillery tractor.
It was a huge improvement, sharing much of its DNA with one of the most-produced tanks in history, T-54/T-55 tanks. But the AT-Ts still had their flaws as Antarctica research vehicles, especially as they traveled further
Deep into Antarctica, the weather could get even more intense, and in some AT-Ts, occupants had to light a fire underneath the vehicle to keep the diesel fuel from freezing solid. Definitely a problem, because if you’re driving one of these things and it freezes solid, your delicate human flesh isn’t going to enjoy jumping out of the protected cab to get a fire going. That, and once they passed 9,842 feet above sea level the thin air made many engines fail anyway. Turbochargers and wider tracks helped on the third expedition also in 1957, but what they needed was a mobile research vehicle that would allow scientists to live and do research in the harsh conditions. For the trip to not only the magnetic south pole but the geographic one, the Russians would need a vehicle purposefully built to get them there.
Enter, the Kharkovchanka, a 27.8-foot long, 11-foot wide behemoth developed from drawings to fabrication in just three months. The Soviets still used the T-54 tank as the basis, but the chassis was lengthened by two rollers. A 12-cylinder, 520-horsepower diesel engine was put in place, with twin superchargers that could get the engine up to 900 HP. Like the American Snow Cruiser, this Soviet vehicle was completely self-contained, allowing a crew of six to work on the engine from inside. They also used the engine to keep the crew quarters warm, much like the American Snow Cruiser.
The Soviets were not messing around. The Kharkovchanka was lined with eight layers of wool to keep the crew warm and even had heating elements embedded in the glass to melt snow and ice build-up. Surprisingly, at 323 square feet in size, the Kharkovchanka was about the size of low-cost one bedroom apartments built in the Soviet Union following WWII known as a Khrushchyovkas, which still house hundreds of thousands of people to this day. It could chug along at 35 miles per hour when not hauling a sled and climb slopes of 30 degrees. When loaded down, it could tow up to 60 tons.
The Kharkovchanka were also designed with failure in mind. It carried multiple fuel tanks allowing it to travel up to 935 miles without a refuel and was so sealed up that, if stranded, the crew compartment would only lose one to two degrees Celsius per day.
Soviet researchers’ first time out would put the trucks seriously to the test. Fresh off the production line, the plan was for the three new Kharkovchankas to make a round trip journey to the Soviet station at the magnetic South Pole, then to the American one at the geographic South Pole, a trip of over 3,100 miles over some of the least-understood terrain on the planet.
There were still some shortcomings though. Leader of the trip to the South Pole. A. G. Draklin noted in his book Antarctica that during the trip:
By 870 km into the trip, 160 track pins were broken. Fuel consumption ranged from 9.6 to 12 liters per 1 km. The average speed was in the range of 4.2-6 km/h. The main engine worked well but there was poor oil cooling. The temperature was kept at 95-100 degrees over the norm. When parked with the heaters turned off, the temperature of the living compartment decreased from 30 -35 C down to -10 C.
That’s pretty dismal fuel consumption: 2.5 to three gallons per 0.6 miles. The all-inclusive design also meant crews of the Kharkovchanka were often coated in diesel exhaust after it easily backed into living quarters, much like early diesel-electric submarines. The engine had to be run more often than expected too, after the insulation proved less useful at keeping the crew quarters warm than originally hoped.
Despite the challenges, the Kharkovchanka made it to the South Pole and to the Amundsen–Scott base, where they were warmly greeted by the American scientists. With a three day rest at Amundsen-Scott, where the Soviet flag flew right alongside the American’s, and the return journey, the entire trip took 89 days, according to Russia Beyond.
So the Soviets went back to the drawing board for the second and final generation of Kharkovchankas. The new version combined the safe living space of the Kharkovchankas with the engine-forward design of the AT-Ts allowing for easier engine access, better oil cooling, less cold air leaks, and fewer fumes in the living compartment. Auxiliary engines separate from the main engine also allowed Soviet explorers to stay warm while the main engine was off.
The result was a giant vehicle: part truck, part tank, and part research vessel.
There was a third-gen planned, according to the Russian site Balakliets, but funds for things like Antarctica research became scarce and the project was scrapped shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union. Both generations of the original Kharkovchankas were kept chugging along through years of use and thousands of miles of travel in some of the harshest conditions on the planet.
The last first-generation vehicle in use, the fabled Kharkovchanka 22, ended service in 2010 and now sits fully restored at the Russian Antarctic Progress Station with original paint (including the CCCP standing for the Soviet Union) as an official monument of the Thirty-eighth Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting to this incredible research vehicle and period of Antarctic research. Just a reminder: The Snow Cruiser only made it 92 miles in reverse before it was abandoned as a vehicle.
The second-generation Kharkovchankas, however, seemed to still be in use until only a few years ago as tractors and extra crew quarters. YouTuber Calum actually reached out to the Russian researchers, who told him they have generally been replaced with new advanced equipment of new European vehicles
What I really love about the Kharkovchankas is that when they reached the American base at the geographic South Pole Soviet researchers were welcomed with open arms. It was the kind of scientific camaraderie that never really materialized on the space side of things until the Cold War was already in a thaw. Not only do the Kharkovchankas are some of the best examples of Antarctica research ingenuity and know-how, but they also stood in the shadow of a rare moment in history when Soviets and American flags flew side by side on the bottom of the world.