Volga (Russian: Волга) is an automobile brand that originated in the Soviet Union to replace the venerated GAZ-M20 Pobeda in 1956. Modern in design, it became a symbol of higher status in the Soviet nomenklatura. Volga cars were also traditionally used as taxi cabs, road police interceptors, and ambulances (based on the estate versions).
Four generations of Volga cars have been produced, each undergoing several updates during the production run.
First Generation, the GAZ-M-21
The first Volga model was originally developed as a replacement for the very successful GAZ-M20 Pobeda mid-size car which was produced since 1946. Despite its very progressive fastback design with Ponton body styling, the rapid evolution of postwar automotive design and powertrain meant that already in 1951 a brief was issued for its eventual replacement. In 1952 this matured into two projects: Zvezda ("Star"), an evolution of Pobedas fastback contour with panoramic windows and large tailfins, and the Volga with its conventional styling, which was more realistically suited for the production realities of the 1950s.
By the spring of 1954 the Volga prototypes were being actively tested. The new car introduced a range of additions and advantages over the Pobeda. In addition to being bigger, it had single panoramic forward and rear windscreens, a larger four-cylinder overhead-valve engine, central lubrication system of the main chassis elements, hypoid rear axle and an automatic hydromechanical gearbox. The cars external design was made by Lev Yeremeev and though influenced by North American vehicles of the same period, the 1954 Ford Mainline in particular, the project was mostly independent, with an exception for the automatic transmission that was derived from the 3-speed Ford-O-Matic. After thorough testing of the car, which lasted for a further two years, a go-ahead was finally given by the state, and the first pre-production batch left GAZ on 10 October 1956.
Although there were many models and versions of the car, its production can nonetheless be split into three distinct generations and two derivatives. In total 639,478 Volgas were built from 1956 until 1970.
First series—the Star
The first generation is easily identified by its characteristic chromed bar fascia with a central badge containing the five pointed star. Serial production began in 1957. These were used in a much publicised promotion drives across the whole Soviet Union, where they notched up to 30 thousand kilometres. Unlike the Pobeda, Volgas engines were now to be produced at a specialised motor factory in Zavolzhye. Despite haste construction, it would start engine production only in summer 1957, which meant that the first thousand or so vehicles were equipped with Pobedas flathead engine modified to 60 hp engine. Other features of this transitional series included the Spur gear rear axle from the ZIM and the manual 3-speed gear box from the Pobeda.
It is still debated what actually influenced the fascia design for the first series. Urban legend attributes that this was caused by personal insistence by Georgy Zhukov, the then Minister of Defence (though other sources cite Nikolay Bulganin), who having reviewed the car prior to its final go-ahead into production, criticised that the new Soviet vehicle, with its original 10-slit shark-mouth radiator grille, failed at carrying the political ideology. The result was controversial, as the "new" design, hastily made by GAZ, made the car look less progressive and indigenous with regard to foreign models. The chromed bars, being a decorative element, required excessive manual labour to assemble, which was not feasible for a mass-produced vehicle. Moreover, they reduced the supporting strength of the front body panels. Finally, as the Soviet Union had great aspirations for the vehicle in generating good revenue, it became immediately apparent that the military connotation would scare potential western customers. At the Soviet pavilion Expo 58, which opened in April the featured example was the facelift prototype with the 16-slit shark-mouth grille. The popularity and genuine interest in the vehicle sealed the fate of the "Star", and in November the "Star" was retired from the conveyor. Given that Marshal Zhukovs forced retirement by Nikita Khruschev was only several weeks prior (late October), it remains debatable whether this was a mere coincidence. In any case, in popular culture, the cars alternative nickname as "Zhukovka" survives to this date.
Despite its short production span, and only 32 thousand vehicles being assembled, the "Star" carried yet another important milestone for the Soviet automotive industry—it would be the first vehicle to be equipped with an automatic transmission. Though a novelty at first, soon it became apparent that such complex mechanism required a standard of service that was not available in the USSR. Even more problematic became the sourcing of transmission fluid, as these cars were originally only allocated for private ownership. Faced with such difficulties, a temporary model with a manual was offered, which soon momentarily eclipsed the automatic, though it would remain in the production line-up until circa 1960 for domestic models (1965 for export) only approximately 700 such cars were produced, most being the 1958 models.
The first generation contained the following models. It should be noted that these are listed in Russian alphabetical order, but not chronological. The base version, that was to have an automatic gearbox and the 70 hp engine was simply designated GAZ-M-21, without any suffixes. A taxicab version was called GAZ-M-21A, and featured the manual gearbox, but the identical ZMZ-21 engine. The "transitional" series was GAZ-M-21B for the taxi with the 60 hp engine (this was produced until late 1958, as most of the taxi parks used the Pobeda, and a unified engine eased servicing). GAZ-M-21V was the next standard version (to prove the most mass-produced) with the 70 hp engine and the 70 hp engine. The early GAZ-M-21G was the "transitional" series for the 1956–1957 years, with the 60 hp engine and ZIMs differential. Export versions were called GAZ-M-21D and GAZ-M-21E, manual and automatic respectively. Their difference from the domestic Volgas was a better quality trim and an uprated 80 hp engine. This was achieved by increasing the compression ratio and was possible due to the higher quality of gasoline that was available abroad.
Second series—the Shark
The new old 16-slit vertical grille for models from 1958 (which gave it the unofficial nickname Akula (Shark)) was by far not the only change. Most of the changes came in February 1959, and included new front fenders with raised wheel arches, reflector glasses in the tail lights, a flock trim on the dashboard (later replaced by leatherette), a new radio with a metallic mesh speaker, windscreen washer and lock actuator on the boot. The following year was to have a new rear design with more contemporary tailfins , but this was not implemented. Instead, the car body received several reinforcement supports and the novel, but ultimately troublesome central lubrication system was removed.
The actual model designation of the Sharks was such that the automatic-equipped vehicles would retain the GAZ-M-21 with no suffix designation and the GAZ-M-21E (though by this point these have all but disappeared from the line-up). Also unchanged was the taxicab GAZ-M-21A. The base model, from February 1959 was now called GAZ-M-21I. Its export 80 hp vehicle was now became the GAZ-M-21K. In addition to the engine, it now had a more extensive chrome trim elements on the exterior (including the mentioned grille) and improved upholstery inside. Russian customers could order the latter features, for an extra price, and such vehicles were called GAZ-M-21U.
In 1961, the Volga lost another characteristic icon, the removal of the deer mascot from the bonnet. A feature of both the "Star" and the "Shark", it became an iconic attribute of the 21st Volga, and Soviet automotive industry in general. Nonetheless, it was not only a common victim to hooligans, but also would divert splash stream right into the windscreen should the car pass a puddle at speed. Even more, it played a huge role in Pedestrian injury during accidental run-overs. Given its added cost, it was gradually phased out. In 1959 the taxi models gained a new droplet shaped object. In 1960 the deer was standard only on export cars and vehicles allocated for private ownership. In 1961, the deer could be found on the extra-trimmed GAZ-M-21Us. Simultaneously, two-tone colour schemes were also phased out from available options.
Third series—the Baleen
In 1962 the car was visibly modernised for the final time. Once again the radiator grille was changed, this time in favour of a new 37 slit "Baleen" (Kitovy Us). The latter, would become a GAZ trademark that survives to date. The bonnet mascot was completely removed, along with its whole trail line. Generally the car was characterised by a more sleek profile with the bumper overriders removed, the front indicators were also altered. Inside the upholstery received new woollen seats and leatherette ceiling. The engine was now 75 hp due to new piston heads and a crankshaft, with no loss in economy, telescopic shock absorbers replaced the lever type ones. The mentioned optional chrome trim elements, which was limited to the window arches were now joined by front and rear details on the top of the wings, "arrows" in front and "fintails" in rear. Models were as follows, GAZ-M-21L as the base sedan. GAZ-M-21M as the export derivative, whose uprated engine now produced 85 hp. Also in 1962 an export version destined for countries with left-hand traffic (thus with a driver on right side) was developed, called GAZ-M-21N. GAZ-M-21U retained its designation for the more expensive version with optional trim. Finally the GAZ-M-21T became the taxicab.
In 1965 the car underwent a final modernisation. Changes included strengthened spars at the steering fixture, replacement of ball bearings in the wheel hubs with rollers. A new floor design, which allowed warm air to reach the rear legroom and a more fuel-efficient carburettor. There was also a proposed fourth generation to go visibly with the improvements, with a horizontal radiator grille. However, this venture was rejected due to costs and the nature of planned economy which showed early signs of stagnation. The latter meant that such a change would require approval on ministerial level. Given that already work was undergoing on it successor, it was decided to continue production in this final form, right up to 15 July 1970. In a much publicised event, on that day the final car left the assembly line, and followed by the first GAZ-24 without a pause in the conveyor.
The 1965 modernisation also removed the -M- prefix from the name. Originally a feature of GAZs early days, when it carried the name of Vyacheslav Molotov. The plant was renamed following the downfall of his career in 1957. However, the designation "M" was retained for current models. In the final line-up, the export model to countries with left-hand traffic became the GAZ-21P, the base model was now called GAZ-21R, export was the GAZ-21S, taxi became the GAZ-21TS, the version with optional chrome trim was now called GAZ-21US.
Approximately 470 thousand third-generation GAZ-21s and were built, making it the most numerous of the three.