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Selling vintage Soviet motorcycles, cars and military vehicles – from a showroom in Nebraska?

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A model poses with a 1960 GAZ 69 in a scene from the company’s calendar. Photos courtesy Arbalet Ukraine.

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Alenka Miroshnyk earned a living as a fashion designer in the Ukraine. After, without work and without money, a friend visiting from America suggested she sell some things on an online auction site with global reach, and from these humble beginnings, Arbalet Ukraine, a company that specializes in sales of vintage Soviet vehicles and spare parts, was born. Now celebrating its 13th year in business, Arbalet (Russian for crossbow) has expanded globally, opening a new showroom in, of all places, Papillion, Nebraska.

Dnepr MT 16

A Dnepr MT 16 two-wheel drive motorcycle. The engine powers both back wheels.

Even Alenka isn’t sure why she chose to begin selling Dnepr motorcycles, saying “I joke that it was the decision of God.” Divine intervention aside, the Ukraine offered access to complete Dnepr motorcycles and parts, while the internet offered her access to buyers around the world seeking a heavy-duty Soviet interpretation of the BMW R75, a motorcycle whose lineage dates to 1938.

Like the BMW on which is was based, Dnepr motorcycles use an air-cooled, horizontally opposed two-cylinder engine, equipped with shaft drive. Most come with side cars, and two wheel drive (including a powered sidecar wheel) is a common option. Styling remains rooted in the 1940s, which actually adds to the appeal of the bikes for most buyers.

Dnepr MT 16

Rear view of the Dnepr MT 16.

Dnepr also suffered during the collapse of the USSR, and the factory shut its doors circa 2001. In the early days of Arbalet, Alenka and her colleagues struggled to find bikes and spare parts, while simultaneously learning the intricacies of packing, shipping and export regulations. A market for the bikes outside the Ukraine also had to be groomed, but somehow it all came together, and Alenka refers to this as “a very cheerful time, with experiments, mistakes and victories.”

GAZ 21 B

A GAZ 21 B.

Then, in 2008, the global economy tanked, and overnight, demand for Dnepr motorcycles evaporated. Determined to keep the company afloat, Alenka concentrated on growing the spare parts business, which remained healthy. She also branched out into motorcycle tourism, leading rides to Mount Tien Shan, on the border of China and Kyrgyzstan, with clients from as far away as America, Australia, Israel and Great Britain.

The tour business gained her a fair bit of notoriety, and Alenka became both the face of the company and something of a global ambassador, granted honorary membership in motorcycle clubs around the world. As the global economy recovered, so did Arbalet’s business, and in 2014 Alenka created a corporation in the United States, based in New York (now her second home), to import vintage Soviet motorcycles and vehicles.

Dnepr K 750

A Dnepr K 750, based upon the BMW R72, with one-wheel drive.

In addition to a variety of Dnepr, IZ, Jawa and KMZ motorcycles, the company is currently offering an eclectic mix of four-wheeled vehicles, ranging from microcars like the Morgunovka to sedans, coupes and convertibles from GAZ, Moskvich, VAZ and ZAZ. There are even a few military vehicles in the mix, including a 1944 GAZ 67, a few GAZ 69s and even an amphibious LuAZ 967 M. Why the eclectic mix? As Alenka explains it, “Some like military cars, some like cabriolets, but definitely no one is indifferent about these products.”


A Morgunovka micro car.

So how does a company that began in the Ukraine and then expanded to incorporate in New York open a showroom in eastern Nebraska? Oddly enough, the region is where the bulk of Arbalet’s U.S. customers come from, so that seemed like a logical place to open a showroom. It’s a safe bet that a suburb of Omaha also offers lower rents than Brooklyn, New York; Miami, Florida; or Los Angeles, California, but if things go as planned Arbalet will eventually open showrooms in these cities as well.

GAZ 24

GAZ 24 sedan.

Alenka appears to be the eternal optimist. Though Dnepr closed its doors 15 years ago, she’s confident that her network of contacts gives the company access to any needed part, no matter how obscure. Some components are now being manufactured by Ural, another Soviet sidecar specialist that’s built a respectable business in North America, potentially opening the door for other brands from the former USSR. Instead of obstacles, Alenka sees opportunities; in her words, there’s a “…large market for motorcycles and cars from USSR, and large market of buyers in America. We only need to find each other.”

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