Curbside Capsule: Black Russian

GAZ-21 Volga

Brighton Beach is a diverse neighborhood in Brooklyn, home to generations of Russian-speaking immigrants. Situated near Coney Island, it is one of the best places in New York City to get your hands on a bowl of borscht, or a sweet vatrushki danish. Some locals have dubbed it “Little Odessa,” and this characterful locale is full of Cyrillic signs and people speaking the east Slavic dialects. But despite a heavy Russian presence, I was not expecting to see an actual Russian car! If I were, I would have taken a proper camera instead of a mere iPhone.

GAZ-21 Volga

Russian automakers never got a chance to ply their wares in the United States, although Lada had a small presence in the Great White North. During the Cold War era, it would have been inconceivable that a Russian automaker could sell a car in the US. Anti-Soviet sentiment aside, they likely just would have failed because, well, they generally weren’t very good. But for a few exceptions, like the Lada/Chevrolet Niva, Russian cars have always been generally inferior to other nations’ cars. Even today, Russian automakers tend to be a day late and a dollar short, plugging along with cars that could have been competitive at one time but were instead released too late to appeal to anyone except the staunchest pro-Russian car buyer. That doesn’t mean, though, that they haven’t had character or their own inherent virtue. We saw Perry’s capsule visit to Moscow’s Retro Auto Museum, and the oddities therein. And it can’t have just been fervent nationalism that led one Russian-American citizen to import this Volga stateside.

GAZ-21_(1st_generation)_-Volga-_in_Moscow_(left_front_view)Photo courtesy of Sergey Rodovnichenko

The car I spotted appears to be a GAZ-21 Volga, but without seeing the front I couldn’t pin down the year. These were sold from 1956-70 and were the most expensive and luxurious cars available to individual Russian consumers (as opposed to ZiL limousines, used in official capacities). These Volgas were one of the better cars to come from the Soviet Union and were built to last. Features included a rugged suspension, fantastic rust-proofing and raised ground clearance to help on those nasty Russian roads. Interestingly, contemporary American cars were used as the inspiration for the styling, and niceties like a cigarette lighter, reclining seats, heater and a windshield washer were available.


Underneath the hood sat either a four-cylinder or a V8 (available only in KGB-spec models). The four was available initially with a three-speed automatic transmission, but this was quickly discontinued as there were too few qualified mechanics to handle maintenance; the three-speed manual remained. A 2.4 four-cylinder engine with an aluminum block and head was introduced in 1957, good for 70hp and 123 lb-ft. The 5.5 V8 was a lot more powerful, with 195hp on tap although I cannot find out how much torque it had; the V8 kept the automatic transmission long after it was deleted from the inline four.

The Volga I spotted more than likely has the four. In its beautiful condition, I imagine it’s kept in a garage. Perhaps it’s owner lives in Sea Gate, a prestigious, gated community in Brooklyn not far from Brighton Beach. After all, this Volga’s original owner in the USSR, maybe a Soviet official, was likely living in better accommodation than his countrymen. Bozhe moyi!