UAZ 469 Russian military SUV driven


Russia. A cold, hard, sparsely populated expanse that stretches from one end of Europe to one end of Asia. Roughly 9,000 kilometres of desolate windswept scrub, mountains and grassland, the country encompasses 11 time zones, two continents and three oceans. It is so vast that once you drive out of the urban pockets or go off the beaten path, you are literally on your own. No back up, no support and no services to fall back on. To break down here is to die, says the old Russian adage. And that’s precisely why Russian machinery, vehicles and systems are built the way they are: simple, robust and easy to fix with just a hammer and a screwdriver.

Nothing fazes the UAZ much, it feels at home even over difficult stuff

Why so Tough?

In fact, apply Autocar’s ‘fitness for purpose’ mantra and you get new insight into why Russian machines are built the way they are. The built-tough gene runs right through. There are several well-known examples. Take the hardy T-34 battle tank with its big V12 engine, simple mechanical bits and big, accurate gun; it helped win the second world war. While the German tanks were technically superior, they were nowhere as hardy, were difficult to produce and were near impossible to maintain without a dedicated workshop in the field. Russian tanks were crude on the outside, but the mechanical bits were built with a surprising degree of sophistication – as the Americans found out later – and more importantly, the engineering was sound.

UAZ, now also a star of PUBG video game

Want another example? How about the legendary AK-47? A machine gun so hardy, so robust and so effective at medium and short range, it is right up there with the Toyota Hilux as a benchmark of dependability for the Taliban. Next up, Vostok, the Soviet-era rocket, and the Soyuz spacecraft, both barely evolved, and until recently, the mainstays of the International Space Station. Even NASA extols their virtues. I could go on.

Where's the flex?

It’s these images and impressions that come flooding back when I come face to face with the UAZ 469, a vehicle so robust in construction that it makes even the hardiest of off-roaders feel like they are made of tin foil. The gauge of metal feels like it is twice as thick as anything I remember seeing on any other off-roader. But first impressions can be misleading, so just to be sure I ‘test’ the fender and curve of the bonnet with my balled-up fist. Gingerly at first and gradually increasing pressure. There’s just no flex. Zero. It feels totally unfazed. Then I try even harder. This does have an effect – I need to ice my knuckles. Needless to say, ‘don’t try this at home,’ or more specifically, on the fender of your SUV.

Fixed seats can only be adjusted with a spanner

It even looks the part. The design is mildly appealing but only because it imparts an air of indestructibility. The curved cowl looks as robust as a pillbox or a machine gun bunker, the curved fenders lend it easy muscle and then there’s the front bash plate, which looks seriously purposeful. Up front, the bonnet is wider than it is tall, unlike Jeeps from the same era, it has horizontal grille slats and the bumper is so tough it seems to be made from a steel rail. The bonnet as expected is heavy, but what’s  unique is that you can open it via two black buttons placed just below.

The cabin is wide so you can seat three in the back

Around the side, you have small V-shaped doors, and the bulge in the lower part of the body runs the entire length. Also interesting is that the body is sat higher off the chassis than any Land Rover or Jeep, and this gives you a good look at the solid axles, which, for all practical purposes, seem to have come straight off a one tonne (payload) military truck. Even more fascinating is that the tailgate gets no handle and no lock; it just gets a lever that you wedge in between the tailgate and body. One less part that can fail, one more part you can re-align with a hammer. And it’s heavy, even this open-top UAZ weighs in at a considerable 1,700kg. In comparison, an open top CJ3B weighs 1,017kg.

Blame the heavy gauge of metal, the stout chassis and the solid axles. UAZ even made the metal thicker after it was tested at -50°C. The off-road troop carrier also comes with twin fuel tanks – one on each side – for long distances, and it even has a novel step inside the doors to help you climb in. But the doors are narrow, so it’s difficult to get in and out. 

Basic instinct

Blue dials typical of Soviet military hardware

The interiors are also among the most spartan I’ve ever seen on a vehicle of its age. More a troop carrier than an SUV, the insides make a Bolero feel like it’s a Maybach. The purely functional cabin has seats and not much more in the way of creature comforts. There are no windows, the driver’s seat can’t be adjusted without a spanner and the door locks are so crude they look like there are bits missing. The cabin, however, is wide, a full size up on an equivalent Jeep, and there are three seats at the rear. Up front you get a set of novel-looking defoggers for the windscreen that’s essential for the cold, you get a speedometer and an array of instruments on the metal dash. There’s no glove box, but the four doors each have a huge door pocket stamped from metal! Can well imagine several AK-47 banana cartridges stored here.

Built-in step and door pockets in metal are unique

Because the seat doesn’t adjust, the driving position is very difficult, but once on the move, I have no time to be uncomfortable. The UAZ initially takes all my attention as I first drive it on an off-road section. I’ve just driven over this stretch in our long-term Jimny so I know what to expect, but the UAZ surprises me all the same. There isn’t much power, so it isn’t quick, but the replacement Isuzu engine has plenty of torque, and that initially means I just stick it in second and drive around the obstacles. The UAZ, however, clears most tall obstacles on this path, so it’s a walk in the park for the Russian off-roader. And the suspension feels so indestructible, I don’t have to pay attention to even small boulders and large ditches; I just drive over everything. Even small dry nullahs are driven through with nonchalance, which is deeply impressive. We even manage a long slushy and wet section without four-wheel drive or low range.

Once out on the tarmac, the UAZ feels out of its element. Not dissimilar to an old Mahindra, the UAZ drives with all the delicacy of a light truck. The suspension tosses you around on bad roads, the brakes need plenty of attention and you have to be aware of the width. Surprisingly, the steering isn’t heavy and it even feels very comfortable and relaxed at low speed. You certainly don’t need to keep sawing at the wheel like in an old CJ, the wide track is good for stability and visibility is very good.

Hero of the soviet union

Owner Suhas loves military off-roaders of all sorts

This UAZ 469 was imported into India as a support vehicle for the Indian armed forces. Suhas Tingre, the owner, is an off-road and military vehicle enthusiast who acquired it from one of the many Army surplus auctions around the country, so there are only a very limited number of vehicles available. In addition, parts are very difficult to come by despite the vehicle still being in production, and whatever vehicles remain are in very poor condition. Still, if you want to get your hands on this Russian legend that makes even a Godrej safe feel poorly built, make sure you keep your eyes and ears open. A few units of the UAZ 469 (a model that also starred in six James Bond movies) are still around.

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