Curbside Classic: Volga GAZ-21 – Coming Out Of Hibernation


While the last of the GAZ-21 Volgas came off the assembly line more than forty years ago, in the summer of 1970, for some reason they are still around, and if you visit any ex-Soviet country during the summer time, chances are good that you’ll see one in person, especially considering their new-found popularity as classic cars.

However, their life cycle rather resembles that of a brown bear: their activity reaching its peak in summertime; in winter they hibernate in their dens. Well, technically, it is spring already, but – as you can see from the photos – that’s just according to the calendar. So it is highly unusual to see one of them on the street, in this snowy, icy, salty environment, which is so unfriendly to 40+ year old steel.


It is often difficult to tell how old a particular Volga is, and not because they have been produced for many years unchanged. Quite the contrary, actually – in late 1950s and early 60s the Soviet car makers were trying to mimic the American tradition of annual restyling – although on a smaller scale.

GAZ 21 1956 Volga

There were different Volga models over its lifespan. This is the original, from 1956 (image: wikipedia).

GAZ 21 2nd_series 1959 _Volga

The second generation from 1959 received a significantly revised front end, which somewhat resembles that on a ’55 Chevy (image: wikipedia).

GAZ-21 3rd_generation Volga (blue_colored)

Here’s the version was from 1962, with a refinement of the grille and other details (image: wikipedia).

GAZ 21 restyle proposal

A final restyle had been planned for ’65, but later was rejected as the car’s styling was found to be so much out-of-date by the time that no sane amount of cosmetic changes would have made it look contemporary, so the ’65 Volga looked almost identical to the ’62. Mechanical updates and improvements were also made along the way.

The GAZ-21 was powered by a rugged 2.4L OHV four, rated at 75 hp, and 80hp for export markets, with higher compression. And of course, there’s the famous GAZ-23 variant built especially for the KGB that used the 5.5 liter V8 from the big GAZ-13 Chaika. But that’s a story for another time.

All that said, today, after decades of rust, accidents and repairs, most of the Volgas have the most common and widespread, i.e., late model, trim, just like the one shown on these curbside photos. So, based on some small details, this car may be a ’65 model, a late ’56 with ’62-’65 trim, or even an early ’59 produced in calendar year 1958.


However, it is most likely that this is an original ’65 model, a GAZ-21S or YS – complete with the optional “lux” trim, no less (letters were used to distinguish different sub-models or trim levels; S meant the export sedan with high-compression 85-hp engine and “lux” trim; YS stood for 75-hp sedan with “lux” trim produced for the home market). A fresh “metallic” repaint and some traces of body work are obvious – e.g. I’m 99% sure that the rocker panels had been eaten by the tin worm and replaced at some point, based on the way they look; however, would you argue it’s not that bad for a car produced between 1965 and 1970 which is still in use as a daily driver ?

So, what exactly makes this car capable of providing it’s owner a reliable all-year-round everyday transportation on the roads densely populated by brand new Fords, Chevys, Toyotas and other modern vehicles?  Well, the wheels may hold the answer, as they come from a much more recent Volga model, the GAZ-31105, which was produced in 2003-2009 and was equipped with such features as DOHC engine, power disk brakes, power steering, A/C and the like. This particular Volga actually seems to be a combination of a GAZ-21 body shell, sans the subframe, and GAZ-31105’s subframe, suspensions, engine and drive train. The first and the last cars to bear this name combined – literally! By far not a bolt-to-bolt replacement, I must say, so the amount of labor which has been invested into this car is truly remarkable.


The very top photo also makes me think about just how large and “fatty” cars have gotten today. The Volga was a large (by European standards, of course), W110 S-Klasse sized, 6-seat sedan in the 60’s, and now look at the SX-4 parked next to it, which is supposed to be a “compact” car – it seems to be almost equally wide and high, and only slightly shorter. Another thought – today the Volga, with these wheels (which look a little too small, to my taste) and aftermarket heavy-duty rear springs, has almost a crossover SUV look about it.

So, both to boost this impression and to remind you of the summertime which almost draws nigh, I’ve placed a photo of this SUV-like Volga wagon in the end of this post


Let’s think positive: over the next several months the Curbside Classics from the temperate regions of the will awake from their slumber, leave their winter dens, and be back on the roads, making all of us, CC lovers just a little happier.