Remember the Suzuki X90? It was a deeply strange idea for a car: take a funny, stunted two-door sedan and plop it onto a 4x4 chassis. The proportions were strange, the intended use was strange, the whole concept was strange, which may be why I liked them so much. Surely this was just another fever dream of ‘90s Japanese unhinged innovation, right?
Well, not exactly, because a car with almost the exact same design appeared 40 years earlier, in, of all places, the Soviet Union. It was the GAZ M-73 Ukrainian.
The thinking behind the M-73 was that there needed to be a good car for farm workers. (The same could be said of many Eastern Bloc cars.) Something that could get through the rough terrain as well as a GAZ-69 jeep-like vehicle, but with more normal passenger car levels of refinement, styling, and weather protection. The last one is especially important in the cold, wet Russian winters, when a canvas top and side curtains just don’t seem to cut it.
With this in mind, the GAZ factory developed a whole new car, starting with the chassis and 4x4 system from the GAZ-69 jeep, mated to the small 1.1-liter inline four engine from their Moskovitch passenger car that made a fearsome 35 horsepower.
On top of all these oily bits, a new body was designed, one that, in 1954, was relatively stylish and up-to-date, even if the proportions were a bit strange. The styling looks to be heavily influenced by postwar and early 1950s American car design, and the M-73 even had three oblong holes in each side of its hood that resembled Buick’s Ventiports or maybe Speed Holes.
There was even a tiny pickup truck variant designed, no longer than the basic sedan, with an almost comically small bed.
At least one of these little pickup versions appears to have survived until at least the era of quality internet color photography, and the truck looks to have an interesting little trunk underneath the bed area, accessible through a door at the rear. That would make this a very useful little trucklet indeed, with tool storage or storage for things you didn’t want exposed to the elements as well as an open bed.
The little Ukrainian proved to be quite capable, and did its intended job quite well—drive through anything in comfort that’s at least close to a conventional passenger car. Unfortunately, when it came to getting the M-73 into production, the central planners in Moscow decided that the factories didn’t have enough production capacity to actually build these funky little farmer’s cars.
All that’s left now are a few photos of the prototypes tearing it up through snow and mud and water, looking like rugged, fun little cartoon cars.
Somehow, though, about 40 years later Suzuki introduced the X90, a car that had effectively the same proportions and general goals and mechanical layout. While there’s no proof Suzuki was looking at the M-73 during the development of the X90, in hindsight it’s a remarkable example of convergent evolution.
The X90 took its chassis and drivetrain from a far more jeep-like vehicle as well, in this case the Suzuki Sidekick. The first X90 was presented as a concept car at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1993, and went into production in 1995.
Sure, it didn’t have the trunk-mounted spare tire like the old Soviet brute, and it had an optional T-top roof, but other than that you could easily imagine the X90 as a sort of modern re-interpretation of the M-73, like the New Beetle to the old Beetle, or the new Fiat 500 or new Mini.
Suzuki wasn’t trying to sell X90s to farmers, though, who tended to go for trucks and, let’s face it, weren’t the exciting demographic to try and hit by then. So they pitched it as a sort of strange car for Gen-Xers who wanted to be sort of outdoorsy or go snowboarding or something.
This was before larger SUVs really became a thing, so the idea of a sporty car that could handle off-road was still pretty novel. It still is, I suppose.
Sometimes they marketed it as a weird yuppie car? I’m not really sure they had a real clear idea of what they were trying to do.
Again, I haven’t found anything to suggest Suzuki’s designers were even aware of the GAZ M-73 at all, a far more likely prospect back in those days of still-uncommon internet access.
It’s just a fascinating example of how sometimes a design that seems so peculiar you wonder how anyone could have come up with it can actually have already been come up with before, in a very different time, and a very different place.
I wonder if this oddball idea is even dead?
Maybe a Rally Fighter is the modern version of this, taken to its logical extreme?
It’s not quite as weirdly cute, though.
(Thanks to the Odd Vehicle Society Facebook group for introducing me to the M-73!)