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Potholes, Mud, Gravel Roads, and Logic: 20" Ground Clearance Siberian Sedan Defies All

It’s a common popular belief that the Russian General Winter defeated the French and German invaders 130 years apart. While that assumption has a bit of factual support, it was another factor that changed the odds – and probably the face of modern civilization – for what we now know: Russia’s infamous roads. Or lack thereof – something that spurred the development of some of the wildest vehicles ever to roam the earth. While the country’s infrastructure has improved drastically in the last 80 years, the tradition of building quirky go-anywhere cars has grown proportionally.
Portal axles on a Lada 84 photos
Photo: YouTube/Garage 54
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Napoleon Bonaparte invaded the Russian Empire in 1812 – in the summer – and two and a half months later, the invincible emperor marched his Grand Armee into a burning Moscow. While it may sound imposing today, it wasn’t the case 211 years ago: the city was not the capital of the Russian Empire, and the French occupation bore no strategic significance.

The Patriotic War of 1812, as it is known in Russia, ended with a catastrophic defeat for Napoleon, with over three-quarters of his 450,000-strong army lost to the vastness of the great steppes of Russia. That’s right; it wasn’t some military mastermind who out-played Napoleon, but measly logistics that cast a shameful defeat upon Bonaparte.

Due to a nearly total lack of supply roads, the majestic French army marched to Moscow with minimal provisions. Lack of food and water quickly turned into an epidemic of lice, hunger, and typhoid fever. The French soldiers were dying in their tens of thousands every week, without even once seeing an enemy uniform.

Portal axles on a Lada
Photo: YouTube/Garage 54
When the fall rains arrived, the plains turned into an inexpugnable fortress of three-foot-deep mud, thick and sticky, that brought the invaders’ advance to a near halt. When winter finally settled, the deadly Russian blizzard and bone-chilling temperatures reaped more French souls than the enemy cavalry, infantry, and cannons combined.

Finally, Napoleon fled, leaving his near-mythological aura of tactical genius shredded to dust, together with some 380,000 of his troops. Something the German military of WWII should have paid greater attention to when the invasion of the USSR began in the summer of 1941. Despite their technologically superior means of transportation, the Nazi army fought (and lost to) the same enemy – the Russian geography and climate were every bit as fierce as the Red Army.

The pride of the Blitzkrieg, the German tanks, constantly got trapped in quagmires and the rest of the mechanized divisions. History repeated itself – on a larger scale and with an unprecedented impact. Despite having the apparent advantages of horsepower and aircraft, the conditions on the ground rolled the dice.

Portal axles on a Lada
Photo: YouTube/Garage 54
Undoubtedly, pointing to one element as the decisive factor for the final victory is not simple. Still, the terrain played a crucial role in the defeat of the Wehrmacht. Not to the extent of the Napoleonic invasion, but it was still considerable. And this proves one theory: It takes so much more than military might to defeat a fiercely adverse landscape – particularly Russia’s.

On the other hand, Russians, being accustomed to their country’s particularities, have devised clever solutions to counter the attritions of Mother Nature. Some of the weirdest self-powered vehicles in the world bear the ‘Made in Russia’ stamp – from the ZIL E-167 6x6 behemoth to pretty much anything else with wheels, tracks, wings, propellers, and pistons. Naturally, evolving in such a demanding habitat sharpens minds and develops skills not commonly found elsewhere.

Take the city of Novosibirsk, in the south of Siberia, relatively close to Mongolia. That’s where the general headquarters of Garage 54 is located. You might have heard or seen them before – they have an insatiable appetite for everything automotive – on the ‘Rules Don’t Apply’ side. Over the years, these YouTubers have devised, built, and tested several piston-powered contraptions, ranging from outrageously abstract to downright genius.

Portal axles on a Lada
Photo: YouTube/Garage 54
The latest falls under neither of those categories. Still, it could quickly be filed under the ‘Because They Could’ clause of turning wrenches. It's a lifted passenger car – but not in the traditional manner of using modified suspensions. Anyone does that, so it is immediately dismissed as not worthy of Garage 54’s efforts.

They developed a portal axle Lada with chain-driven rear wheels (the notorious Soviet-built automobile inspired by a FIAT is a rear-wheel drive machine). After installing a levitating tensegrity suspension on a similar test mule of a Lada, they discovered it had quite a wobbly road stance (primarily due to insufficiently calculated engineering).

So this time, they didn’t tamper with the factory-installed suspension, steering, or transmission. Instead, they welded solid vertical H-beams to the front suspension knuckles. For the rear, they went for a more sophisticated approach, given the drive assembly. Another pair of H-beams was bolted to the axle housing. To transmit the motion to the wheels, a sprocket is welded to the axle shaft and a corresponding one at the other end of the 12-inch (300 mm) steel beam.

Portal axles on a Lada
Photo: YouTube/Garage 54
A constant velocity joint hub from a front-wheel drive car solves the rear wheels assembly problem, and motorcycle chains on each side put the torque down. Simple? Probably. Ingenious? Maybe. Rudimentary? Likely. Effective? Definitely. See the Lada float over muddy ruts, potholes, uneven terrain, and even three tires stacked one on the other.

And don’t call the Russian team of vlogging mechanics ‘armchair engineers’ – they hate it. Not the name, the armchair – see the heightened Lada drive over said piece of furniture, just to see if it will clear. With around 20 inches of ground clearance (around half a meter), the Soviet symbol of personal transportation crushed it. Again, the armchair, not the challenge. I guess Napoleon and Hitler should have thought twice before pushing their armies across the Russian borders.

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About the author: Razvan Calin
Razvan Calin profile photo

After nearly two decades in news television, Răzvan turned to a different medium. He’s been a field journalist, a TV producer, and a seafarer but found that he feels right at home among petrolheads.
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