Volga M21

It's the end of the road for the Volga, Cold War icon. Do svidanya, says Andrew Roberts

Tuesday 26 September 2006 00:00 BST

The news that all fans of Russian cars were dreading has been confirmed. Oleg Deripaska, the Russian tycoon who controls the Gorkovsky Avtomobilny Zavod (GAZ), has declared that production of the Volga is to end over the next two years.

In its heyday, the Volga was regarded as the "Russian Mercedes", but competition from the real thing has proved too much for the Cold War icon.

GAZ was founded in 1929, with the assistance of the Ford Motor Company. Its first car was a Russian-built Model A. After the Second World War, the company's mainstay was the Pobeda, a squat 2.1-litre four-cylinder saloon that resembled a scarab beetle, but in 1953 GAZ needed a replacement car for middle-ranking Communist officials.

Furthermore, Nikita Khrushchev was eager to move the Soviet Union forward. GAZ's chief designer Alexander Nevzorov was given carte blanche to develop a car that would rival those made in America.

The result was the 1955 GAZ M21, the first to bear the Volga badge. The running gear was largely inherited from the Pobeda, but the Volga's specification combined the practical with the lavish. Inside, there was a front bench-seat that could be converted into a double bed, an integral radio, a cigarette lighter and full instrumentation.

There was a radiator blind (essential for the Russian winter), a volcanic heater (ditto) and an amazing nine inches of ground clearance. Until 1960, the M21 also came equipped with a pedal-operated lubrication system that allowed the driver to grease the Volga's moving parts (and much of the road).

The Volga was a versatile vehicle by the standards of the day, equally at home as transport for middle-ranking party members as it was crossing the Urals. It boasted rather stylish coachwork in a 1953 Ford Custom fashion and was initially available as a six-seater saloon. It was joined later by a Universal Estate seating up to nine (the basis for the very popular ambulance conversion) and a pick-up truck.

By the time full production commenced in 1957, the Volga's engine was a mighty 2.5-litre four-cylinder unit, boosting the price tag to 5,400 roubles. There was a guaranteed export market to the likes of East Germany and Poland, whose party chiefs were eager to acquire the latest Soviet fashion item (the Czechs preferred their Tatra), but the Volga was also developed with Western markets in mind.

A not unsuccessful career on the saloon racing and rallying circuits in the late 1950s and early 1960s gained the Volga a certain amount of publicity. By the early 1960s, automatic transmission was even being considered for an assault on the US market.

In the UK, The Motor gave a good review to a Universal Estate in 1964. It's roominess, excellent heating and ventilation and undeniable durability - combined with a price that undercut the not dissimilar Humber Hawk Estate - received due praise. The tester's only real gripe was the notoriously inefficient drum brakes.

Sadly, despite the fact that year after year Volgas were proudly displayed at the London Motor Show, the lure of a right-hand-drive conversion and floor gear-change was clearly not enough to tempt buyers away from the likes of the Ford Zephyr 4 Mk III.

Other Western markets were more broad-minded, and despite the Volga's lack of speed and persistent carburettor problems, the M21 won an award at the 1958 Brussels Universal Exhibition. Throughout the 1960s it was sold in Finland (where it starred in the cult 1994 road movie Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana), the Netherlands, Greece and Belgium. Until well into the 1980s Volgas were assembled in Brussels, many being locally fitted with a Perkins Four-99 diesel engine.

A big factor behind the Volga's success was the generous credit terms on offer, but as a low-budget alternative to a fin-tail Mercedes-Benz 190, the Volga did possess a certain cachet for Benelux taxi-drivers. In its homeland, scarcely anyone could afford to buy one, for the Volga was priced at the upper-middle class end of the Soviet automotive hierarchy. It may have lacked the elite status of the Zil, but it was a good deal more appealing than the AZLK (Moskvich) or the ZAZ Zaporojetz.

For those who lacked the appropriate Party status, there were three ways to get behind the wheel of a Volga: drive a taxi, join an ambulance crew or enlist in the KGB. This last role earned the Volga the reputation of being the car you least wanted to see outside your front door at midnight in the Cold War-era Soviet Union.

Between 1962 and 1970, GAZ built a handful KGB-Special Volga M23s. These "elite" cars came with the automatic transmission and a 5.5-litre V8, but the extra weight didn't help the handling and the KGB preferred the standard article.

The original M21 lasted until 1970, but in 1968 there came the facelifted M24, featuring a 2.4-litre engine and styling (apparently inspired by a 1963 Vauxhall Cresta) that remained a Volga trademark ever since.

Sadly, despite the best efforts of GAZ to rival Audi and BMW with their 1999 GAZ-31105, the marque was too closely associated with the quality control of another era. The days when customers were grateful for any car were gone. Today, the original Volga is fondly recalled by the likes of Vladimir Putin - who owns one of the original models - and those who remember the newsreels of Yuri Gagarin receiving his black M21 as a reward for being the first man in space.

There is even a UK following of enthusiasts who appreciate a car that boasts extra rear headroom as a safety feature - to stop the occupants bashing heads while tackling rural roads - and two tool kits. And almost every Volga M21 could match a Merc in at least one vital stylistic respect - the white steering wheel.

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