By John-William Greenbaum, with photos by the author, Robert Brodowski, and Eugen Pedersen
One of the most revolutionary designs to be produced on a somewhat large-scale basis in the USSR was a rather bizarre looking minibus known as a SARB START.
A few years ago, the DeAgostini partworks people brought out a 1/43 version that they called a SARB START passenger van. It was part of their Autolegends USSR series and sometimes listed as a GAZ START. Here it is in a nice diorama setting. It was probably made by IXO.
The actual name is the SARB START (it used a GAZ-M21 engine and running gear). It was pretty much manufactured by two guys in their garage in what is now Eastern Ukraine, but the Soviet Government took notice and proceeded to run the project into the ground in spectacular fashion!
Here is the Spark Models version done for VVM Models.
Next, here is one of the late production versions done by IXO for DeAgostini,
And finally, here is a rare version, handmade in Ukraine by Vector Models, Kherson.
Some History of the Actual Thing
The SARB START was the brainchild of a pair of young designers named A.S. Antonov and Yuri S. Andros. It had its roots in the early 1960’s in the Severodonetskaya Avtoremontnaya Baza (“Severodonetsk Automotive Repair Center”), better known as SARB, which was a small car, truck, and bus repair facility that typically dealt with a large number of cars produced by GAZ. Severodonetsk is not a very large town and is currently located in Eastern Ukraine. How this vehicle, therefore, came to the eventual attention of almost everyone in the USSR is a bit surprising, but perhaps it should also be a sign of just how good the design was, at least on paper.
Because SARB typically serviced GAZ vehicles, it should come as no surprise that at the heart of the SARB START is a 70 horsepower, 4-cylinder engine, slightly down-rated (by five horsepower) from what was standard fare on the GAZ-M21I, GAZ-M21L, and GAZ-21R Volga sedans. Also identical was the car’s running gear, and indeed, it had the same wheelbase as the “Volga 21”. However, that was about it in terms of similarities and that’s where the design really started to deviate from the norm not just of Soviet or East Bloc automotive production, but quite frankly all automotive production. A.S. Antonov and Yuri Andros were fascinated by the use of alternative materials to construct vehicles. In mid-1963, while reading about VNIITE’s proposed-but-at-the-time-unbuilt PT Taxi that used fiberglass panels over a steel frame as well as what the East Germans had hoped to accomplish with their Trabant cars made completely of Duroplast (albeit very poor quality Duroplast), the two believed that they could do better by simply building an all-fiberglass vehicle with high-grade fiberglass mixed with granite restoration paste.
Within months, the duo had a 1/10 scale prototype designed and had envisioned how to build it and even use it. Its purposes would be as a combination van, a fixed route taxi, a tourist minibus, and a panel van (the only one of Antonov and Andros’ ideas that would never be realized). By mid-December 1963, Antonov’s design began attracting more than a bit of attention. The Ukrainian SSR’s government also recognized the vehicle’s potential by submitting it without Antonov’s knowledge to the MinAvtoProm (Soviet Ministry of Automotive Production) as an “unofficial” evaluation. When the MinAvtoProm’s bureaucrats, incensed at Nikita Khrushchev for going around them to build the VNIITE PT Taxi, got word of a potential competitor, they co-opted the design and began having stories run in Pravda about the brilliant Antonov and his minibus, which he had dubbed the START. They also began supplying Antonov and Andros with the materials they would need to make the START as a way of getting back at VNIITE.
Yuri Andros, who designed most of the vehicle’s actual body, did so with an eye not toward beauty (indeed, he believed the START to be quite ugly according to an interview), but rather toward reducing drag, yet still keeping a spacious passenger or freight compartment. Despite the ungainly look of the vehicle, it actually had a fairly typical Soviet minibus layout: two front doors, a service door behind the passenger side front door, and also a large, rather spacious trunk. A.S. Antonov, meanwhile, did not believe a front-mounted engine to be safe in a crash test. Therefore, the SARB START would be a mid-engined design; the first and only Soviet minibus to hold that distinction (Save the LASZ “START Luganchyk” and Glavdonbasstroe Donbass, which were descendants of the START.).
While building their first prototype, the two engineers received a rather chilling visit from the KGB: if the design succeeded, they would be obligated to provide SARB START Minibuses to the KGB free of charge. The somewhat apolitical designers quickly said yes in order to save their own skins, with some of the first START minibuses ever built going to the KGB for evaluation purposes. Yuri Andros quickly became convinced that the fiberglass/GRP body was close to indestructible. Getting all the free press he wanted between the MinAvtoProm and Pravda, he arranged to have one of the very first body shells dropped from a height of nearly 40 feet. With cameras rolling, a crane placed on a platform first raised and then dropped the body shell. Although there were obviously dents and scrapes, the fact that the body neither shattered nor crumpled shocked just about everyone present, Andros and Antonov included.
In January 1964, the two men were given the go-ahead to start serial production of the SARB START, as you see it here. And that’s when the roof caved in the entire project. Andros and Antonov had envisioned specific, rather utilitarian roles for the START (as well as being a KGB SIGINT vehicle), but apparently, the Soviet government had absolutely no idea what to do with the design. Instead of Andros and Antonov’s specific wish that it be a combination van first and everything else second, they turned it into a tourist minibus. Indeed, it went quite a bit overboard: three, three-seat sofas were installed inside the back, there were cabinets for dishes, a serving table was placed over the engine access door, and a sink with faucet was placed in the trunk in case anyone needed to wash their hands. A.S. Antonov is said to have remarked “at least they kept the AM radio”, or something to that effect.
Antonov believed the START had turned into something ridiculous and, in an attempt to get the project back on line the way he wanted it to, he formed a second production line in Donetsk called Glavdonbasstroe, trusting Andros to try and keep production going at SARB. Antonov’s production line produced the far more utilitarian but otherwise identical Donbass minibus, which unfortunately has yet to be modeled. The Donbass holds the interesting distinction of being the only “START-type” minibus exported, with at least two going to Poland. The Donbass was never produced in quantity, however, and it eventually ended Antonov’s association with the project.
By late 1965, problems started to be reported with the SARB START Minibus’s body. Andros was confused, given the high-quality fiberglass combined with the GRP paste he’d been given. However, sure enough, on many of the 1965-built STARTs, the body started to become warped. Andros never learned it until many years later, but it turned out that he was being supplied with low-quality fiberglass. The SARB START was also slow to build. By the first few months of 1967 (i.e. when production ended), just over 100 STARTs had been built since 1964.
The production output apparently wasn’t efficient enough for the MinAvtoProm and despite Andros needing help with better quality materials, he never got them due to this reason. By 1967, despite a successful design, Yuri Andros had enough. With funding problems of all kinds cropping up, he turned production over to a fellow by the name of D.A. Melkonov, who built twenty LASZ “START Luganchyk” Minibuses in Luhansk. By adding a better suspension as well as redesigning the hourglass-shaped C-pillar into something far more conventional, Melkonov basically solved all but the problems with low-quality materials. But even then, Melkonov put wood pulp into the fiberglass to prevent warping. However, by this time, it was too late. The MinAvtoProm and most government agencies had withdrawn their support.
The “START-type” minibus was now a thing of the past and neither Andros nor Antonov ever designed another vehicle. When one examines it, however, the SARB START was a terrific idea that was far ahead of its time. Unfortunately, it was too far ahead of its time, in the wrong country, and being produced under the wrong system of government to succeed in any way, shape, or form.
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