The shop formerly specialized in collision repairs, but that changed after Russia invaded in February and volunteers reached out about preparing vehicles to send to the front.

Now its mechanics spend long days working on pickup trucks and buses requested by the military for tasks including transporting weaponry and surveillance drones.

"We are not a wealthy country, and the state cannot provide all our soldiers with armoured four-wheel-drive vehicles, so pickups are a compromise," Anton Senenko, one of the volunteers coordinating the effort, told AFP.

The repair work can make the difference between life and death for soldiers operating in eastern Ukraine, where fighting is currently concentrated, he said.

"Very often, there are breakdowns with cars in peacetime. But in wartime, such a breakdown can lead to a tragedy," he said.

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"The car won't start, and that's it -- the soldiers can no longer escape from the enemy tank."

The vehicles are donated or purchased by fundraising Ukrainian volunteers, who often import them from neighboring countries, including Poland, Latvia and Estonia.

- Harsh terrain -

On a recent afternoon, the garage's jumpsuit-clad mechanics were hard at work underneath two elevated vehicles, a Nissan pickup and a Toyota van, which needed engine work.

"We don't just change lubricants and filters, we fully prepare the entire machine for the harsh conditions in which it will work on the front line," Senenko said.

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That often means replacing suspensions and braking systems and can also involve combat-specific modifications like adding a turret or a mount for a Starlink internet dish.

As the fighting evolves, the military's requests have changed.

While two-wheel drives were once useful in some hotspots, the rough eastern terrain where fighting is now concentrated requires four-wheel drives, preferably with off-road tires.

Soldiers used to request that cars be painted green to blend in with the landscape, but now they prefer grey or black to match the bleak winter conditions.

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The work has provided an informal military education to garage owner Ruslan Kulagin, who previously did not have to consider such factors.

"This is our contribution to the victory," the 46-year-old said proudly.

- Cars in combat -

So far, nearly 50 vehicles have been sent to the eastern front -- pickups, jeeps and a few buses, Senenko said.

The feedback from soldiers has been positive, said Vlad Samoilenko, who works with Senenko to coordinate the project.

"When you see that cars last in the field for months, it really warms the soul. It also inspires us," Samoilenko said.

Senenko added: "We are very pleased when the fighters themselves write to us and say that the car has already travelled 15,000 kilometres without a single breakdown."

As he spoke, two uniformed soldiers arrived at the garage to pick up a blue 2002 Toyota Hiace van they intended to use to transport a surveillance drone.

Imported from Norway, the van had required brake and engine work and smaller tune-ups like an oil change.

After inspecting the van, the soldiers posed for a picture with Senenko and Samoilenko, then drove away.

Looking on, Senenko, mock-crying, said sending the van into battle was as emotional as "sending a child off to school".

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