Friday September 21, 2018
A GAZ Volga M21, especially when finished in black, conveys the unmistakable air of a Cold War film drama. It looks like the ideal vehicle to lurk in the background of a John le Carré or Len Deighton drama, but in Western Europe, it was often seen as an alternative to the Volvo Amazon.
In the former Soviet Union, the M21 was the most expensive motor car the average citizen could aspire to own. It competed in the Acropolis and Thousand Lakes Rallies and in 1961, Major Yuri Gagarin was presented with a Volga shortly after his return to earth,
The Gorkovsky Avtomobilniy Zavod (“Gorky Automobile Factory”) developed the Volga as a “clean sheet” design with a new 2.4 litre “Big Four” OHV engine, The coachwork bore definite overtones of Detroit; it could even be argued that a duotone M21 would not be out of place in the background of American Graffiti.
The ground clearance gave the Volga a commanding stance and the suspension was designed to cope with both Gorky Street in Moscow and the worst of the USSR road network. Until 1960 the M21 was equipped with a pedal operated chassis lubrication system, one unfortunate side-effect of this feature was the creation of an oil slick on the road'
In 1955, a fleet of Volgas was trialled on the road from Moscow to Crimea and in late 1956 it made its official debut. The Series II of 1958 featured a more elaborate radiator grille -
- and by the end of the 1950s, the M21 was favoured by both taxi drivers and KGB agents. By 1962 GAZ offered the M22 Universal station wagon which managed to look even more attractive than the saloon and was often used as an ambulance.
The final 1963– 1970 incarnation (which is probably the best known of the range) had slightly more subtle frontal treatment, and for the Benelux market the Volga was assembled in Brussels. M21 taxis powered by Land Rover, Perkins or Peugeot diesel engines were not uncommon sights on the streets of Antwerp.
GAZ built a limited number of 5.4-litre V8 engine M-23 was built for the ‘efficient pursuit, escort and other special missions’ - i.e. the secret police - but, as the story goes, its handling was so terrifying that even the KGB was reluctant to drive it
The M21 was also available in the UK from late 1959 onwards -
although this was not the ideal time to market a car from the Soviet Union. Another challenge, asides from your neighbours contacting MI5 to declare that you were not a quantity surveyor but a sleeper agent, was that a price of £1,080 7s 9d placed the Volga in the Ford Zodiac market.
The examples sold by Thompson and Taylor had right-hand drive, a floor mounted gear-lever (this was only offered on home market cars from 1965 onwards) and a remarkable list of standard equipment. A reclining front bench seat, volcanic heater, radio, hand throttle and radiator blind were all included in the price, and in July 1962 Motor described the Volga as a ‘smooth, comfortable, quiet and leisurely Russian car’.
Naturally, there was a toolkit extensive enough to cope with repairs at the side of the Trans-Siberian highway; this was a car that hailed from a country where there were virtually no service stations.
1967 saw the launch of the M24, the heir to the M21, with full production commencing in 1970. Nearly fifty years later the first ever car to bear the Volga badge is much sought after by collectors around the world, and it is very easy to understand why.
A 1964 Motor encounter with the M22 left the tester ‘rather impressed – it’s certainly a car that makes you think about the days when vehicles were designed to last for a good 10 years or even more’. And, they definitely have a flair all of their own -