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.
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.
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!
Its wonderful to know that not everyone is willing to settle for a Corolla.
What a find! As much as folks look down on Eastern Block cars these Volgas are visually very attractive.
Even in an equal society, some people are more equal than others. Think of it as a company perk, people driving Volgas were simply people to be reckoned with. The cars weren’t so much bought, as given away for company use to middle management. Like leaders of small industries and communal farmers. Management, officials, and so on. And they were given as a sign of loyalty to the political party. People driving Volgas were people to be feared. They were loyal, not to the workforce, but to the people giving them those perks. Soviet Russia was full of signs like that, subtle signs, so that the people could read between the lines, who to fear, and whom they should be loyal to.
I feel, somehow, that Russia never got away from Royalism. Maybe the people there simply like feudalism, but through a century filled with various revolutions and traditional and radical forms of Government, Russia always veers towards totalitarian feudalism in the end. Ironically, I feel that the feudal era was better, as the person about to introduce his boot to my face was at least easily identifiable—by rich garments and other luxurious appointments I knew who to grovel before. No need of the kind of seriously warped “egalitarian” politics that happens when we peasants and bourgeoisie call our Lords and Masters “Comrades” and pretend we are their equals while still groveling at their proverbial feet.
Special find. Nice one, William.
The first picture should be captioned: “Get in the car, Comrade! I’ll explain on the way!”
Nice looking car. Is there any car nut who can`t see its American-or at least Western inspired styling?
The rear says “Bullet Nosed Studebaker” to me… 🙂
I see quite a bit of mid-fifties Ford in the overall body shape, albeit on about a 7/8th scale. I wonder where one finds replacement parts for these; I can’t imagine being able to run down to the local AutoZone and finding a carburettor rebuild kit for a Volga.
These have always looked like a scaled-down ’52 Ford to me, especially with the original grille and side trim like the red and white example in the photos. Handsome vehicles, though. It must take some dedication to keep one running, too, though in the age of the Internet parts can probably be ordered without too much drama.
The first picture made me think “Henry J four door sedan”.
These are nice cars , I especially like them in the two tone schemes .
I imagine keeping one in good nick is like owning an old British car , no ? .
I wonder how it got here? Could it have been a diplomat car?
There is an exemption now for most stuff older than 25 years old, so its not that uncommon for stuff like this, and the occasional Trabant and what not to appear on ebay.
Though we never got Russian cars, we did get Russian tractors in the US, at least for a little while in the 1970’s.
This post brought back memories from when I lived in New York. I can remember seeing a Lada near Coney Island sometime in the late ’80s. It looked just like a Fiat, but had the “Lada” nameplate on it instead! It had some kind of out-of-state license plate, I think from Ontario or maybe Quebec. Might have been someone of Russian heritage from Canada visiting a relative in Brooklyn.
With all due respect, they were crap.
The USA made cars with V8 engines, automatic gearboxes, electric windows, airconditioning and some sort of cruise control, metallic paint and tinted windows, the USA dominated the world economy in those days, so who needed a Russian made car in the USA ?
Even for Europe the Volga was sold mostly with a Perkins Diesel transplant, they had an assembly line called S.A. Sobimpex in Brussels, Belgium.
Those Volga Perkins Diesels were no match for a Mercedes or a Peugeot Diesel, except for one thing : the body weighed a zillion tons compared to its European competitors.
And you’d never ever wanted to hit a Volga.
The car’s russian name is actually GAZ.
Actually, come to think of it, after WW II the Russians threw Hans Ledwinka, the chief designer and technician from TATRA (Tsjech republic now) in jail, ordered Tatra to build trucks only and leave the prestige cars to the Russians.
So the Russians built Tchaica and ZIL, but it was not a decade later they ordered TATRA to go out and build there prestige limo’s for party members again.
Most stuff from the Russian limo’s were copied, from Packard I believe but then copied in a Russian way.
The Tatra 603 was simply a good car, and something innovative, I mean let’s be fair and nothing against the Russians, but if you need FIAT to help you to build a car; come on !
They shopped around to the British too, as I recall, before settling on FIAT, probably something to do with growing communist movement in Italy during the 1960’s, the KGB had operatives within most of the Italian autoworker unions, there were death threats and attacks against company management, so was the deal for the FIAT-LADA plant a deal to appease the forces of the east that were being a threat to Italian corporations?
NZ got both Fiat 125s and the Russian version the Lada 2104 the Lada was better built though down on performance not having the twincam Fiat power plant, Fiats rusted away fairly fast people got sick of Ladas and their issues and the endless jokes owners had to endure locally there are several Lada 2104s still in regular use no equivalent Fiats
“the Russians threw Hans Ledwinka, the chief designer and technician from TATRA (Tsjech republic now) in jail, ordered Tatra to build trucks only and leave the prestige cars to the Russians.”
I think this had to do something with Tatra making trucks and tank engines for the Reich military and Hans having dinners with hitler.
And dont you think making trucks in Europe, ruined by war at the time, made more sense?
Wernher von Braun had dinners with Hitler too. And he certainly didn’t end up in jail.
A good point!
As a member of the NSDAP and the SS he deserved to be in jail much more than Ledwinka. Wasnt he the engeneer behind V1 and V2 that bombed London during the blitz?
BTW, as engeneers I greatly respect the work of Ledwinka, Porsche and von Braun.
The man could show all highranking Drittes Reich badges.
My dear Goodwin, every factory in each German occupied country ran its production line for the third reich.
That is why I believe the story of Louis Renault is one of agony and sadness, Peugeot (situated on the eastern French border) and Citroën were building cars for the Germans, Berliet trucks built trucks for the third reich; ‘t was that or they took all your machines, put management in a concentration camp and the workers could and would starve.
A guy like Renault did not have a choice.
Then, my late mother was born on a tug boat that tugged barges on the river Rhine from Holland to Germany.
My Granddad was faced with the same problem : work for the Germans and have food for the family or get executed in front of his family.
When they were in Cologne, they Always moored at the Ford Factory, the allies bombed Cologne flat out, the Ford factory was hardly ever hit…
Very well said. My grandfather smuggled goods between Germany and the Netherlands during the war. Now that may be very wrong and illegal, but by doing so his wife and 3 very young daughters hardly ever knew there was a war going on, if you know what I mean.
There’s an immense grey area between “good” and “wrong” during wartime.
There are now several Russian cars in Brooklyn, owned by Russian-Americans with nostalgia and a sense of kitsch. Bringing one over is a hassle, but if you’re determined, it can be done. Maintenance is not much more difficult than owning any foreign vintage car in the US. There are many Russian mechanics in Brooklyn who remember working on these Volgas back in Russia, and parts can be found though the internet.
I saw this Volga at the Floyd Bennett Field car show last year, the owner parked it next to my ’79 Chevy. It is a 3rd series model from the late 1960s. I had a brief conversation with the guy’s young son, who seemed very proud of his dad’s car and knew that its design was derived from an early 1950s Ford.
Other than this Volga, there is also at least one Zhiguli (VAZ) in Brooklyn. I have also seen a ZIM limousine (now THAT is rare) and a Dnepr motorcycle with a sidecar. One Russian restaurant on Coney Island Avenue has a Zaporozhets car inside for interior décor.
I guess it’s just me…or the color but the black car puts me in mind of the smaller Mercedes sedan of the 50s, at least from the windshield back. The other cars pictured here? They put me in mind of early 50s Mercurys and Fords.
Very nice. Just my style since I’m half-Russian.
That should explain your love for Impala (Volga had a deer as a leaper or on the badge) 🙂
Sort of attractive – at least for 1954. Certainly no worse looking than the 53-54 Studebaker sedans. However, by the 1960s, these had seen their time come and go, at least as far as the styling was concerned.
Styling-wise, surely. However, it was irreplaceable for the job it was doing, and somewhat superior even to the car which it was replaced by. High roof line, high seating position reminiscent of modern SUVs, large doors front and rear, facilitating very convenient entry and exit – just what those taxicab people needed. Styling and utility rarely go side by side. Just compare to the Checker.
Also to comment on the styling and trim – the GAZ-21 Volga was built in three “series”, as they call it in Russia. In the West, it’s like annual styling changes, but the improvements were continuous and changes were just phased in at some point, not necessarily to coincide with model year. The photos above illustrate all three series, the car with the horizontal grille is the rare first series (’56-’58), the last photo shows a pair of second-series Volgas (’59-’62) and the subject car is the last and most common third series (’62-’70). Note that the two-tone car with the chromed grille is the more rare export/”deluxe” version . The more basic blue one is how most Russians remember these. The black subject car is a bit over-restored with deluxe chrome trim mixed from all three series, even including fender emblems from a later GAZ-24.
This car was eventually replaced by the GAZ-24.
Putin on the Ritz…..
To understand what the Volga is you have to understand that its main goal was bieing a fleet car. The ideal fleet car to withstand the harsh climate of the SU. They were tough cars(and cheap by western standarts) and easy to repair.
Ingvar wrote they were driven by people to be feared. They werent. They were driven by people who were (are) respected. Cosmonauts, doctors, university professors, famous sportsmen, military officers. My great grandfather was issued one with a personal driver (fleet car, yes) for a short period before his death, and he was a scientist(not a kgb hitman).
Some people just bought Volgas to seem important and sucsessful.
A Volga was an expensive car to buy and to own. Parts were hard to get hold of. My grandparents could easly afford one, but public transport and taxis were so cheap in those days that they never bothered getting a car. Too much trouble. In fact no one in my family ever bought a Volga, NOT because you couldnt get one, but because it was a big(by Euro standarts) and funny handling car that required qite a lot of regular maintainance(fleet car, again).
PS Please leave politics to politics, Im just interested in cars.
Right. These were seen as aspirational cars if you had hopes of moving up the ranks in whatever field you were in. Vladimir Putin has a restored one of his own.
Soviet engineering wasn’t just about copying the West. Whatever they designed had to work under their conditions, so everything from planes to guns to cars and trucks came out simple and rugged.
And those designs gave the West all they could handle. MiG fighters of all vintages gave our latest and greatest fits for decades and continue to be respected today. The AK-47 assault rifle and its derivatives are still more reliable than our jam-prone M-16 variants.
But the former Soviets liked refinement and creature comforts as much as anyone, so as soon as they could, they bought imports. Still, there are plenty of the old workhorses slogging around the back roads of Russia.
***Ingvar wrote they were driven by people to be feared. They werent. They were driven by people who were (are) respected***
Indeed ! In USSR / Russia the fear of certain categories of vehicles on the road has begun mostly with the introduction of foreign built luxury cars in late 1980s – early 1990s, especially large black luxury sedans (most specifically the “600” Mercedes-Benz V12) and large black SUVs (e.g. Chevy Tahoe or the Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen) – such cars/trucks still have a strong “mafia car” image here.
I guess that a black Mercedes S-class (any age) has the same image all over the globe. Here’s a 560 SEC AMG. Once owned by one of the most notorious criminals of my country. And I actually like it. Very much.
Wow…very nice. For me at least doesn’t get much better than a 560SEC, especially the AMG version! Fitting transportation for a criminal overlord…but I’d happlily drive it too!
The man (Klaas Bruinsma) is dead, murdered. But someone is enjoying his Benz right now.
Sorry if you took offence, there’s always a lot of hyperbole to my argumentation, and I’m not always to be taken seriously.
In the end, we’re talking about the same thing, but from different perspectives. And I didn’t mean those people were to be feared as such, not in the KGB kind of way. But you can’t say anything else than that people driving Volgas were supposed to be noticed? If it was an aspirational car, or some kind of perk or reward, or as a sign of rank in the industry or military. My point is that the Volga was more than mere transportation, and that there was a lot of symbolism attatched to the use of said car. How you want to interpret that symbolism is another matter, but there’s no question about the car being above the reach of most of the people in the Soviet Union.
” Soviet engineering wasn’t just about copying the West. Whatever they designed had to work under their conditions, so everything from planes to guns to cars and trucks came out simple and rugged. ”
Much ballyhoo was made in the early 1960’s when America’s Space Program engineered a ball point pen that wrote in zero gravity , up side down or where ever .
The Soviets used a pencil in Space .
I have Russian Motocycles that are sold as rocks , cheap to buy and easy to maintain , I’ve never had the heads off one and I ride ’em as hard and fast as they’ll go .
Yes , any 600 CC Sports Twin from Japan leaves me in their dust but they’re never grinning like the mad fool I am when we all get to the Coffee place after a long hard ride .
Farmers like I was raised to be , are a pragmatic and thrifty lot ~ if it works , all the better even if slower .
I know this car, and the owner. The owner is ethnic Ukrainian, the car was restored in Odessa. It’s largely unoriginal (it’s a 1960 model, which originally had different external trim, as shown on the 4th image in this article; currently all trim is retrofitted from 1962 model), but overall quite nice, other than this wide whitewall tires on ivory disks which I never liked.
There is another Volga GAZ-21 in Brooklyn, a very early model this time – the 3663th GAZ-21 built. It’s rare indeed – e.g. only 6 cars are known to exist with the type of speedometer housing it has. The owner’s name is Dmitri Shvetsov, that’s his web site
he owned a black early 1962 Volga (pre-restyle, a transitional model) before, but sadly it was destroyed by hurricane Sandy in 2012 ((
According to his info, there are totally 25 GAZ-21s in US+Canada.
Did Stanislav said,KGB officers that drove the Volgas were truly respected by ordinary citizens in the USSR Well, when you are naturally born slave in 50-th generation,and don’t know difference between real respect to another free human and animal fear…Well…I believe you.