Beyond the Wall: GAZ-24 Volga
A first part of a series looking into the automotive history of the Eastern Bloc
Growing up with two vastly different backgrounds made it an interesting world for a young, budding car enthusiast. Being born in Britain, at a young age I was accustomed to the sight of Jaguars, Land Rovers, Aston Martins and even the old British sportscars of times gone by. For a kid with dreams of driving fast cars around the tracks of Britain, it was a paradise. But then, there’s the other side. Though I was born in Britain, I was born to Bulgarian parents. Now when I’d go to Bulgaria, expecting to see much of the same cars driving around the streets of any city I went to, you could say I was just slightly disappointed when I noticed the mass amounts of strange, boxy cars trundling along the pothole infested roads of my ancestral homeland.
As I’ve grown up however, I’ve grown a strange fondness for these cars. What once screamed words such as ‘boring’ and ‘slow’ to me now screams ‘unique’ and ‘quirky’… whilst still also being unfathomably slow. With this in mind, I’ve decided to start a small series of articles called ‘Beyond the Wall’. In these articles, I’ll be going through some of the most famous, most unique and the rarest cars from a time where cars were treated as property of the state, and the word fun became synonymous with hard labour. With that, I’d like to introduce the first car I’ll be reviewing in this series: the GAZ 24 Volga.
SOVIET EXECUTIVE LUXURY
Now I know what you’re thinking. “An executive car? In the Soviet Union? Impossible!” Believe me, when I first discovered this hidden gem of a car, I thought the same thing. The Volga was designed by the Gorky Automobile Plant (GAZ) between 1966 to 1986, as a replacement for their previous model, the GAZ-21, which was introduced in 1956. It was to marketed as a car for “the middle class”, ironic considering that in the Communist regime, there wasn’t even supposed to be a middle class. But I’m not here to debate political theory, I’m just here to talk about cars.
The development of this car has been slated to have started as far back as 1958, where under the leadership of Alexander Nevzorov, a design for a car with a totally new and modern design was birthed to create the car that you see before you here. Unlike the previous model, stress was put on the design team to significantly raise the production level and quality of the car, which in Soviet terms I’d imagine means something along the lines of “it won’t fall apart as I’m driving it”. The design bureau was so committed to this principle that they threw mounds of money into upgrading and modernising the plant in which it was produced.
Soviet advertising for the First Series Volga, 1970s
By 1964, a total of 6 running prototypes were produced, with two different engine configurations. In 1963, chassis No. 1-3 sported a design headed by Lev Yeremeyev, with a ZMZ produced 2.4 litre inline 4 engine, produced 95 bhp and 183 Nm of torque at 4,500 rpm. This all sounds pretty normal for a Soviet car, small engine, low horsepower and undoubtedly terrible fuel economy. Not exactly something to stir the loins as it were. But here’s where things get interesting. Chassis No. 4-6 were designed by Lenya Tsikolenko and Nikolai Kireev, and sported a ZMZ 5.5 litre V8 engine. You read that right, a V8. In a Soviet car. As amazing as that is, the performance lacks in comparison with other V8s of the era. Producing 195 bhp and 411 Nm of torque at 4,400 rpm, it falls short by Western standards, but stood tall amongst it’s Soviet competitor cars.
EVOLUTIONARY, NOT REVOLUTIONARY
The Volga was seen as a significant step forward in Soviet car design from the previous model, the GAZ 21. The car sported a number of technical innovations that had not been seen before in Soviet cars, such as:
- Two chamber carburettor with sequential throttle opening
- Wheel brakes with automatic adjustment
- Parking break drive to the rear wheels
- 14-inch wheel rims
- Forged beam front suspension
- Improved interior heating
Compared to western cars of the period, the technological ‘advancements’ on the Volga seem like a step backwards more than a step forwards. It’s important to remember however that until this point, the Soviet car industry was either producing executive cars for the heads of state or military machines for the Soviet Army. To have all these features in a car designed for the common man was seen as a step forward for the Soviet automotive industry.
Volga in service with the Militsiya, or in English, the Soviet Police Force
The first series of the GAZ 24 was produced between 1967 and 1977. The car itself has an aesthetic that I can only described as distinctly Soviet, but also not completely horrifying to behold. The interior for instance included an old school “ribbon” speedometer, leather seats and ‘ivory like’ handles on the instrument panel. By Soviet standards, this car was a lap of luxury for the people it was aimed at. During this time, constant modifications were made to the design, including upgrades to the engine cooling system and the clutch, alongside more aesthetic changes.
The second series debuted between 1972-1978, which modernised the car without taking away any of it’s aesthetic value. The car received new headlights, taken from none other than a Lada (bit of a downgrade) to replace the old Volgov style lights designed specifically for the car. The ribbon speedometer was replaced with an ‘arrow’ speedometer, and much of the wood components of the interior were replaced with plastic parts, to save on cost and to improve the longevity of the model. This series of Volga is by far the most common, and was in production well into the 1980s.
GAZ-24M, presumably not in it's natural habitat.
The final iteration of this car was the third series, also known as the GAZ-24M. The car adopted an 80s style aesthetic overhaul, dropping it’s chrome grille and sidebars in favour of plastic, no doubt to lower costs. The car was also simplified, with many of the components introduced on the second series removed. Most of the components were replaced with rubber and plastic, the seats were redesigned, and the handbrake was moved from behind the wheel to the centre console area, like most cars in the west by that point. This was the last of the true Volgas before production ceased in 1992.
HIDDEN GEM OR ROTTEN LEMON?
So now that we’ve gone through all the technical ramblings of the Volga, it’s time to answer that all important question: was it any good? Now if you’re thinking “well it’s a Soviet built car, it’s bound to have multitudes of problems”, you’d be correct. Due to the dimensions of the roof, the doorways ended being quite low, making it difficult to get in and out of the car. The drivers visibility was also impaired, due to a long from nose, meaning it was difficult to see out of. The luggage compartment, whilst being theoretically large in volume (around 700 litres), was poorly designed. The trunk lid for example was low and the spare wheel laid on the floor of the trunk took to much space, meaning that in reality, the luggage capacity was less that what it was marketed as. Combine this with poor fuel economy and antiquated break designs, you have the makings of a forgettable attempt at making a decent car.
However for all it’s failings, the Volga boasted some good points about it. The bonnet and the trunk lid were easy to open and close, held open by spring-loaded hinges and horizontal torsion bars respectively. It had a lot of cabin space despite it’s smaller design from the GAZ-21, thanks in part to lower seat cushions and the use of a flat roof panel. It was lower than it’s predecessor, which gave it a low centre of gravity, improving stability and handling especially at high speeds, which for a Soviet car produced in the 1970s was a fantastic achievement. It also boasted ease of maintenance and extreme durability, with most taxi cab variants of the Volga having done more than 620,000 miles on the odometer. The overall build quality was significantly improved, meaning that even to this day, these cars have stood the test of time.
Soviet Promotional Image, 1970s
But who was able to buy these cars? If you were a factory worker or a shop clerk, buying one of these cars was probably a forgone conclusion. In the USSR, these cars were mostly available to senior medical and engineering staff, as well as officers in the Soviet Army, and of course members of the Communist Party. On it’s release however, GAZ and the Soviet Automotive Bureau, began exporting the Volga to other Eastern Bloc states, and they began finding their way into the hands of athletes, accountants, and other perceived “middle class” professionals. The Volga was not exclusive the Eastern Bloc however, and found its way into the markets of Western Europe (produced in Belgium by Scaldia-Volga), Latin America and Indonesia.
The GAZ-24 Volga was a unique and yet iconic car of the former Soviet bloc. It was the executive car that was still obtainable, a car that boasted features never before seen on any car in the USSR, and one of the first general production cars offered in the USSR with a V8 engine. In the modern day, the Volga is a highly sought-after classic car, and can usually be found for between £20,000 and £30,000 on the classified sections of classic car trading sites. In nearly 20 years of production, the Volga became a symbol of achievement for the Soviet people. You couldn’t just buy a Volga, you would be selected to buy a Volga. Even today, the Volga stands as a symbol of class and luxury amongst it’s counterparts.
Maybe I’m just nostalgic, but personally I’ve loved this car since I first saw it. The boxy, retro design coupled with amenities which would have been classed as rare set this car apart from other retro Soviet cars. Even with it’s shortcomings, the Volga boasts the durability and simplicity that shows why many of these cars, and cars of the era, can still be seen roaming the streets of Eastern Europe as if they had just rolled off the production line. If you’re a car collector, a classic car enthusiast or even someone who’s more interested in the colour of a car than any of the technical details, the GAZ 24 Volga is a car that you should definitely look into.
Thank you for taking the time to read my article! If you enjoyed what you’ve seen here, let me know in the comments section, I’d be happy to hear your thoughts and criticisms! If you want me to write about a specific car, please also let me know, I’m happy to take requests!