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When Soviet Gearheads Built The Sportscars They Couldn't Buy

Illustration for article titled When Soviet Gearheads Built The Sportscars They Couldnt Buy

Just imagine you lived in a world where you were still you — a gearhead, devastatingly sexy, lover of cars, charming — but there were no interesting cars for you to buy, at all. What would you do? C0mplain? Punch a wall? If you were like this group of Soviet gearheads in the 1960s, you’d build your own damn car.

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This is the story of a very little-known car, a charming little sporty car that looks a bit like a Volvo P1800 mated, hotly and wetly, with a Corvair. That’s a positive thing, just to be clear. The car is called the KD Sport 900, and it was born in 1963 because six like-minded gearheads, all of whom worked at the Soviet Union’s Scientific Automobile and Motor Institute (known as NAMI), decided they wanted a real sports car.

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The crew of enthusiasts included Eduard Molchanov, designer Felix Haydukov, Igor and Leo Durnov (engineers, maybe brothers? I’m not totally sure), Anatoly Syvorotkin (a chemical engineer), and Vladimir Eltyshev (called an ‘artist’ in some sources, but I think was an auto designer).

The car was officially named just ‘Sport 900,’ but the KD part comes from the initials of Kuzma Durnov, who ran the MZAK components factory. I haven’t been able to determine exactly why Durnov got such an honor, though I suspect that perhaps he made some components or tools available to the group from the factory he directed. I’m speculating, but that seems like something that may have happened. The most I’ve found is a statement that said “He strongly supported the construction of the car.”

Illustration for article titled When Soviet Gearheads Built The Sportscars They Couldnt Buy

The car was built using a tube-frame chassis, with a fiberglass body and a drivetrain from the Soviet people’s car, the little humpbacked Zaporozets-965. With that in mind, you could almost think of the Sports 900 as the Karmann-Ghia to the Zaporozets’ Beetle. The Zaporozets drivetrain wasn’t exactly a beast, being a 887cc V4 making all of 30 HP, but it was available, which is a big plus for a drivetrain.

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The design the team came up with for the car is quite striking, and would have looked at home on the streets of almost any European city. It’s rear-engined, allowing for a low hood with a clean front fascia, a nice small, sloping greenhouse and some dramatic side detailing, two long scoops that kick up at the rear to form the air intakes for the engine.

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In silhouette, it really does feel a lot like a Volvo P1800 coupé, and the detailing is similar to other rear-engined sports cars like the Fiat 850 Spider or the NSU Sport Prinz.

The rear treatment actually feels sort of American-influenced, with a large chrome bumper surrounding the whole rear, inset with big, round taillights and a mesh air intake. It feels a bit like something Ford might have done for an alternate-universe European Falcon sport coupé.

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The KD Sport 900 wasn’t just some one-off, either. The team of enthusiasts wanted to actually produce these, and while mass production didn’t quite happen, around 1968-1969 they did at least manage to produce six, I suspect so every member of the team could have one.

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The car appears to have gotten a good bit of attention, showing up in Soviet magazines of the era and being displayed at car shows and in parades. There seems to have been a lot of public interest in such an attractive little sporty car, but the joyless Soviet controllers in charge of automobile production apparently didn’t think mass production was necessary.

Note the pink Olds with the Confederate flag license plate behind the yellow car. What the hell is that doing in Russia?
Note the pink Olds with the Confederate flag license plate behind the yellow car. What the hell is that doing in Russia?
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Incredibly, a few of the six cars still seem to survive, albeit in pretty rough shape. At least one is said to be undergoing a restoration, which I find very exciting.

This whole story I find incredibly inspiring. These were people who loved cars, worked with cars, and yet found themselves in a position where there simply weren’t cars they wanted to buy. So they got together, applied their considerable skills, and made the car they couldn’t buy. Multiple copies, even!

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Illustration for article titled When Soviet Gearheads Built The Sportscars They Couldnt Buy

Astounding. Even an entire totalitarian regime at the height of its power can’t keep gearheads from driving cool cars.

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus, 2020 Changli EV • Not-so-running: 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!: https://rb.gy/udnqhh)

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DISCUSSION

This wasn’t the only Soviet self-built/home-built sports car. There were several, going back as far as the 1930s.

They included this thing, based on the Moskvitch 404.

and this thing, a Moskvitch 407-based coupe.

This next one, however, will blow your mind.

In 1969, brothers Anatoly and Vladimir Scherbinin, who were apparently graphic designers/artists, decided to build their own home-brew sports car, based on a GAZ-21 Volga, with other parts from a ZIM GAZ-12 and GAZ-69, building the frame for the thing in front of their apartment building, then lifting it up to their 7th floor balcony, and into their apartment, where they proceeded to build the body out of fiberglass. Then they lowered the contraption down 7 stories (again, from the balcony, using ropes) where they installed the engine and interior. The design allowed it to be front-engine or rear-engine.

They called it the ГТЩ (GT-Sch, for Gran Turismo Scherbinin) and this is what they ended up with:

 

They continued perfecting the design, eventually building several copies of the updated version, all in their apartment, lowering and raising them from the balcony. This was the final version:

The story does not end here. The Scherbinins soon met brothers Stanislav and Yury Algebraistov. Stanislav was a pilot and Yury was a chauffeur and mechanic. Yury claims he invented the single wiper that was later used by Mercedes on the W124 chassis cars (apparently he saw some foreigners taking pics of his design several years prior). But I digress...

The Scherbinin and Algebraistov brothers combined their know-how and built the Сатана or Satan, using parts from the GAZ-24. The Scherbinins did the design work and the Algebraistovs worked on the technical aspects of the car. They began working on the design as early as 1969 but the car was built sometime in the late 70s, apparently. Again, they used the “assemble the frame outside, pull this thing into our 7th floor Moscow apartment on a pulley system, assemble what we can, lower it down and finish the rest” method. Eventually, they built 5 of these things.

This is what they ended up with:

Yuri decided to revise the Satan’s design, coming up with the ЮНА (“Yuna”) in 1982:

In the late 80s and early 90s, the Yuna’s styling was revised and a BMW engine was added.

The proud papa:

There’s all kinds of other Soviet home-built (or after-hours-engineer-at-a-factory-working-on-a-tiny-budget-built) stuff:

There’s the 1980 Меркурий (“Mercury”), built on a Lada 2106 chassis. Five were built (three in Moscow, two in Tbilisi) using a set of blueprints floating around.

There was the 1980 Панголина (“Pangolin”), built on a Lada 2101 chassis, which had one piece doors and top that opened skyward/forward like a Sterling kit car (top later removed when a subsequent owner was too tall and converted it into a targa), a periscope instead of mirrors (mirrors were later added because the Soviet “DMV” refused issue registration to a mirrorless car), and a keypad requiring a code to start the car. The design so impressed the Soviet car world that Alexander Kuligin, its creator, was hired as a designer for AZLK.

As it sits today:

There’s more... I’ll post if there’s any interest :P.