In the first five minutes of every introductory Russian language class, one learns that the letter resembling a B in the Cyrillic alphabet is the letter for V. So it is fitting that the GAZ-24 “Volga” series was the all-purpose car of the last two decades of the Soviet Union and the first decade of post-Soviet Russia, filling roles similar to those of the Chevrolet Caprice and other General Motors B-Body cars. The V-Body, one can call it.
In a command economy that produced only narrow ranges of consumer goods, and in which Communist Party status or service to the state gave greater access to those consumer goods, Volgas were for Soviet citizens with privileges, although not the highest privileges. (This photo, from the autobiography of star hockey player Viacheslav Fetisov, is captioned “A Soviet person’s dream – a Volga automobile.”)
image source: flickriver
Taxis, police cars, ambulances, and other fleet vehicles that needed to be relatively large to do their jobs were the same Volgas. There were larger, higher-status cars for senior Communist Party leaders from ZIL (originally named ZIS, then ZIM) and GAZ (the Chaika), small cars for the working class such as the Moskvich and Fiat 124-based Lada from the 1960s onward, and microcars such as the Zaporozhets (given free to disabled war veterans, with hand controls for drivers missing legs). But the Volga was the only choice in the middle of the market.
image source: ucapusa.com
In the Soviet Union, GAZ (Gorkovskiy Avtomobilniy Zavod, Gorky Automobile Factory) produced the Volga and its predecessors for over half a century. This role began in 1932 when GAZ produced the GAZ-A, a licensed copy of the Ford Model A that was the Soviet Union’s first mass produced passenger car (GAZ-A CC here).
image source: gaz20.spb.ru
The first postwar GAZ automobile was the M20 “Pobeda” (Victory), produced from 1946 to 1958. An original Soviet design developed during the final years of the Second World War, it was a fastback four door sedan with a 50 horsepower 2.1 liter side valve four and a top speed of 65 miles per hour. GAZ produced 235,997 M20s during 12 years of production.
The Volga nameplate first came into use in 1956 on the GAZ-21, featured in an earlier Curbside Classic post today. The 21 went through an even longer production run than the M20, from 1956 to 1970, during which 639,478 were produced. Styled similarly to early 1950’s American cars, complete with chrome accents, the M21 had a 70 horsepower overhead valve four, and early models even had an automatic transmission until maintenance and reliability concerns caused it to be replaced by a manual gearbox. The M21 has become a popular collectible in Russia, where the most famous M21 owner is Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin.
The final Volga was the 24 and its various derivatives. They are the Russian cars most familiar to Americans and other Westerners because of their prominent roles in numerous movies. The Moscow car chase scene in “The Bourne Supremacy” is the most noteworthy Volga movie role. Other appearances were as the Russian general’s car in the tank vs. car chase in “Goldeneye,” as a Red Army staff car in “Octopussy,” and as the airport taxi in “A Good Day to Die Hard.”
First produced in 1968, the GAZ-24 design was generally comparable to the engineering of mainstream passenger cars in the United States, Europe and Japan during the mid-late 1960’s. A unit body with independent coil spring front suspension and a live rear axle with leaf springs, powered by an overhead valve four with a four speed floor shift, the Volga resembled an American compact, although with fewer cylinders and less power. With a 110 inch wheelbase, 187 inches length, 71 inches wide, and weighing approximately 3000 pounds, an M24 Volga sedan was comparable in size,width and weight to a Plymouth Valiant or Dodge Dart, although a bit shorter in total length. In its styling, there’s little doubt that there were a number of influences, particularly so from the Vauxhall Victor 101, which preceded it by a few years.
The Volga’s big 2.5 liter four banger, which deserved the name as much as any four cylinder engine ever produced, lasted with an unchanged block through several design generations from 1968 to 1996. In 1968, it produced 112 horsepower at 4700 rpm and 148 foot-pounds of torque at 2400 rpm, sufficient for a top speed of 90 mph.
The engineering design of the M24 Volga showed intelligent thought by Soviet engineers, but its execution demonstrated the stinginess of the Soviet state and the sloppiness of the work force. Meant for service on the Soviet Union’s rough streets and roads, the Volga was designed with a strong unit body and heavy gauge steel body panels. GAZ engineers also gave it a unique progressive two barrel, spread bore downdraft carburetor, similar in concept to the Weber DGV series, in an attempt to give the car a combination of economy and power.
On the other hand, the Volga was a crude vehicle, designed with little concern for passenger comfort, and often badly assembled by the workers in the GAZ factory. The author has had approximately 100 rides in various Volgas over the years, and every one was an ordeal featuring the unpleasant roar of a large four banger, gasoline fumes, wind rushing around doors with massive panel gaps, and a jolting ride.
Being relatively large for a Soviet car, the Volga naturally was the car of choice for Soviet officials. The black Volga sedan was the standard car for Party apparatchiks, senior military officers, and the KGB, with senior police officers using white Volgas with blue police insignia. (The photo is a still from the movie “Octopussy.”)
While many Soviet citizens rode to unfortunate fates in the back seats of black Volgas, many others had their lives helped by rides in Volgas of other colors. The Volga served as the standard ambulance and taxi of the Soviet Union.
Small numbers of stations wagons also were available for purchase by individuals.
The Volga even achieved some sales outside of the Soviet bloc. With a Peugeot diesel engine replacing its rough and often unreliable Soviet powerplant, the Volga was a large and reasonably durable car by standards in Western Europe. A Belgian firm named Scaldia-Volga distributed them in Europe and Latin America.
The basic GAZ-24 design went through several design generations that changed the body and drive train while leaving the chassis and engine block fundamentally unchanged. The GAZ-3102 (pictured), introduced in 1982, modified the front and rear end styling and the intake system. It would last until 2009 with further changes over time. The GAZ-24-10, produced alongside the GAZ-3102 from 1986 to 1992, used the same body as the M24 but introduced further engine upgrades. The GAZ-31029 of 1992 to 1997 used the mechanicals of the GAZ-24-10 and the body of the GAZ-3102, with a more aerodynamic front end.
The final model was the GAZ-3110 and GAZ-31105 (pictured), which along with the GAZ-3102 lasted in production until 2009. Modernized with a more aerodynamic body and overhead cam engines, it still used the central body structure and doors introduced in 1968.
Forty years in production as fundamentally the same vehicle is an impressive run, but even halfway through those four decades, the Volga GAZ-24 design was past its expiration date. In the free world, 1960s passenger car designs such as the Plymouth Valiant and Fiat 124 had been surpassed and out of production for at least a decade by the late 1980s, but their Soviet equivalents continued largely unchanged. By the 1980s, anyone in the Soviet Union with access to a Western car abandoned the Volga and other Soviet-made cars.
This black official Volga eclipsed by a red Mercedes 190, a design in its prime in the late 1980s, embodies this decline in status. (Whoever owned the Mercedes parked facing the wrong way in a prime parking space in front of a major hotel, in the face of a fleet of chauffeured Volgas. He must have been important.) Just as the U.S. auto industry lost the top of the market to Mercedes, Porsche and other European makes during the 1980s, so did the Soviet auto industry.
Much as the U.S. Army and the Soviet Army never stood face to face on a battlefield during the Cold War, the GM B-Bodies and the Volga occupied similar market segments without ever meeting in the marketplace. They did meet in a place where U.S. servicemen and servicewomen spent eight years at war, however: Iraq. The Saddam regime purchased large numbers of Chevrolet Caprices for high-ranking officials and military officers during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. (The Caprice, with its large size and powerful air conditioning, was a popular car in the Middle East.) Cut off from Western markets by economic sanctions during the 1990s, the Saddam regime turned to Russia and bought Volga taxis during the 1990s. Yellow Volgas are currently a common sight on the streets of Baghdad, and in the rust-free climate of the Middle East, they and the Caprices should continue to roam the streets together for many more years.
The Volga in this photo happened to drive past when I photographed the mural on the side of the building, and the accidental juxtaposition could not have been better if it had been planned. The mural and the car complement each other perfectly. The original painting in red boldly proclaims “We are building Communism” in classic confident 1960’s Soviet style: muscular men, equally muscular women, and a Sputnik. The early 1990’s addition below it, an advertisement for a post-Soviet business named after a famous 14th Century Russian warrior-monk, parodies the original by proclaiming, “We are building a new Russia.” The Volga likewise is a relic of the Soviet Union of the 1960’s that has outlived the Soviet state. Although obsolete and generally cast aside in favor of new Western cars, it will continue to represent Russia to foreigners as a taxi and movie car for many years to come.