Jay’s 1966 GAZ-21Volga is an unabashedly communist, state-built relic of the former USSR
Back in the mid-’50s, the Soviets were building highly advanced MiG-15 and MiG-19 jet fighter planes. They launched their Sputnik satellite months before the USA launched Explorer I.
And in 1961 they catapulted cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit. With all this superior technology you’d think Soviet cars would have been equally impressive. Nope. Soviet and, more specifically, Russian cars in the mid-20th century were about as cutting-edge as an anvil.
Communist Russia’s totalitarian government fostered a planned, state-run economic system that encouraged heavy industry. Public transport was the priority, not privately owned cars. As a midlevel party bureaucrat, engineer, or physician, even if you could afford a car, your options were limited to ordering a plain-Jane, industrial-strength, Russian-built four-cylinder Moskvitch, Pobeda, Lada or Volga. Even worse, because new cars were in such limited supply, you had to get your name on the official list and then wait a long time before your order became available.
About a year and a half ago, I acquired a 1966 GAZ-21 Volga, a Russian sedan from the Communist era. (GAZ roughly translates as Gorky Automobile Factory, which is located in Nizhny Novgorod, about 400 km northeast of Moscow.) My Volga is a Series 3 GAZ-21. GAZ built more than 635 000 of them from 1956 to 1970. The last one rolled down the assembly line in July 1970, with the model GAZ-22 right behind it. The Russians may have made boring cars, but at least their factories were efficient.
In those days, if you owned a Volga or you were assigned one because of your job or political status, it was proof you’d made it in Soviet society. Everybody wanted one. After his space trip, Gagarin was rewarded with a brand-new Volga and a VIP visit to the factory. The Volga is exactly what you’d think a car manufactured in a Communist country of the 1960s would be like: it’s overbuilt, it’s slow, and it’s as utilitarian as a screwdriver. But that’s what makes it fascinating compared with American cars of the period. Planned obsolescence drove the US automotive industry. American cars had plenty of style and performance, and they were updated nearly every year. GAZ didn’t have to make big model changes year to year – there wasn’t any real competition – so the cars stayed relatively the same.
Forget Falcons, Continentals, and Eldorados – GAZ named the Volga for Russia’s longest river (now that’s evocative!), which flows right by the factory. The Volga is known as the Russian Volvo because it looks like GAZ engineers basically copied the Volvo 122 and 122S (known as the Amazon in Scandinavia), which were sold from 1956 to 1970. But the Russians made everything just a little thicker and a little sturdier than Volvo and most other automakers. The Volga isn’t particularly well-made, but it’s very strong, like bull.
The engine is a 2,45-litre 56 kW overhead-valve I-4 – hardly a powerhouse. In tests conducted by a British car magazine, a Volga delivered around 12,3 litres/100 km. That’s pretty good for back then, and certainly helpful for those 1 500-kilometre jaunts across the endless Russian steppes.
The Volga has some unusual standard features. Under the hood, there’s a metal shield in front of the radiator that blocks airflow because it’s so cold in Russia the engine is never going to overheat. There’s also a massive electric plug for an engine block heater on those frigid Siberian nights. (A block heater is like a heating coil in the crankcase – really an electric dipstick to keep the oil from congealing.) I haven’t tried the in-car heater, but I’m sure it’s like a furnace. I’ll never need that in LA. My Volga has a three-speed manual with a column shift, which is odd because most imports of that era already had a more efficient four-speed. And because Russian cars had to deal with rough or snow-covered roads, they sit a little high.
The badge on the Volga’s hood has a stylised design with a leaping deer that looks like the Chevy Impala’s. That makes me laugh. Trust me, the Volga is no Impala. Once you get moving, it’s slow, the steering is heavy, the transmission whines, and don’t even think about cornering fast. There was also an optional leaping-deer hood ornament, but people stole them, so GAZ discontinued that feature. The interior has a speedometer housing that rises above the dash and is backlit by sunlight, like on the ’59 Corvette. That’s really the only nod to flashier styling details that were found on American cars at the time.
Any shade-tree mechanic could easily keep a Volga running. It’s very simple mechanically, like a tractor. I mean, here’s the cooling system, here’s the water pump, here’s the distributor. Other than having some oddball 8-mm spark plugs, it’s pretty conventional. We don’t need a manual to work on it. Of course, because these cars were never sold in the US, there’s no owner’s club or parts sources over here. You’d have to make any component you couldn’t rebuild or get the fax number for a spare parts store in Mosco,w. Good luck with that!
Volgas had a sinister side too. The KGB (the dreaded Soviet secret police) used Volgas, and their squad cars were usually painted black. Russians called them Black Ravens, and they really scared a lot of people. You never wanted to see this car pull up in front of your house, with guys in military trench coats packing Makarov PMs.
The GAZ factory built a V8-powered Volga called the M-23 for the KGB’s high-speed pursuits, but the handling was reportedly so scary that even the secret police wouldn’t drive them. Eventually GAZ stopped making them. I’d love to find one of those.
The Volga is still widely recognised in Russia, but when I take mine around LA no one knows what it is or cares. The novelty of being a vintage Russian car is about all the Volga has going for it. Still, I like it for what it is, and cruising in the Volga puts me into an entirely different frame of mind. Driving down the road, I find myself yelling, Perestrooiikkaa! But I have to remember that if I wander into a Russian community, a few older people might still get a chill down their spines.
Catch Leno’s bulletproof ‘66 Volga GAZ-21 in action: