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15 September 2017

Rushin' Motors: GAZ-21 Volga

By Tom WhiteTom White

Russians like their rivers, and this once-KGB-bruiser is the first to carry the name ‘Volga’

Strap in, Comrade, we’re about to take you on a journey of discovery behind the Iron Curtain and into the weird and wacky woods that is the Russian auto industry. First up, meet the GAZ-21.

The series I GAZ-21 is now so rare it fetches well into six figures at auction. The series I GAZ-21 is now so rare it fetches well into six figures at auction.

Manufactured by GAZ (that’s – Gorki Automobiljni Zavod - by the way) this somewhat derivative-looking car wears the ‘Volga’ badge. What’s the deal with that? Well, thanks primarily to this car ‘Volga’ became a cultural icon of the Soviet Union.

See, Russians REALLY love rivers. Lots of stuff is named after rivers - technology, cars, creepy mind control radar networks. This is likely because in much of Russia, the only identifiable landmarks are rivers, and the Volga river wears the proud working Soviet badge of being the longest darn river in all of Europe.

The GAZ-21 was a replacement for the successful but slow 1949 GAZ M20 that looked like a hot-rod but had a crappy engine hand-picked by Stalin. When the time came to replace it, the Soviets rushed a new car out the door and were super-proud of the five prototypes they had driving around by 1955.

The resulting car was nicknamed Zvedza and, well, just ignore the styling and automatic transmission lifted from 'filthy capitalist dogs', Ford.

Although the GAZ-21 might look rudimentary by today’s standards, it was the most expensive and luxurious vehicle available at the time in the USSR. The first series car had a radio as standard and was powered by a 2.5-liter OHV aluminium-block (impressive) four-cylinder. It ended up going into mass production by 1957, but due to the cost, complexity and complete lack of transmission oil behind the Iron Curtain, only 700 automatics were made. The manuals had a non-synchromesh ‘crash box’ four speed, no thanks, bro.

Fun for the whole family, as long as your family are all state officials. Fun for the whole family, as long as your family are all state officials.

Our favourite design is by far the 1962 third series, with the neat chrome grill still sought after in modern state limos.

The series III in signature bureaucrat black. The series III in signature bureaucrat black.

Where the GAZ-21 really shines though is the variants that were largely unavailable to the public. These helped build the legend of the ‘Volga’ badge, as they were only used by bad-ass state agencies and the politburo.

There was a wagon, mainly for the export market, but by far the most awesome variant was the KGB special edition.

I wouldn't mess with anyone driving the KGB special. I wouldn't mess with anyone driving the KGB special.

By 1958 the soviets had developed a thumping 5.5-litre V8 for the larger limousine models that would slot above the 21. It produced 120kW, which sounds garbage, but would have been terrifyingly fast in the much smaller GAZ. The KGB variant entered service in 1962 and was dubbed the GAZ-23. Only 603 of these monsters were built.

In case that high-performance variant wasn’t enough for you some literal goddamn madman had a one-of-a-kind GAZ-M21 series III V12 coupe custom built in 2001.

*Salivates (in Russian)* *Salivates (in Russian)*

It packs a 5.6-litre V12 and most of the mechanicals out of a BMW 850i good for around 283kW. It frankensteined several bits of real 1958 series III GAZ-21s onto the amazing coachwork. Sure, at nearly half a million US dollars, the pure capitalism of it is enough to make both Marx and Lenin rise from the grave and hunt you down, but just look at this thing. Magnificent. Owning it would almost make it worth being eaten (in equal parts) by communist zombies.

I don't even care that they must've butchered a rare BMW for the engine. I don't even care that they must've butchered a rare BMW for the engine.

Would the GAZ-21 have you trading your food-stamps away? Tell us what you think in the comments below.