The secret V8 Volga - KGB's ultimate sleeper
The repressive state apparatus of USSR kept the existence of 603 such cars under wraps by creating a plausibly deniable sleeper. Very clever!
The Motherland's motorcades
Soviet state leaders loved their long and flag-filled motorcades as a display of prosperity and supremacy. Naturally security was important part of the show and KGB was responsible to protect the all-important Chairman. Gorkovsky Avtomobilny Zavod (GAZ) was instrumental part of the Soviet leader's lifestyle, supplying the infamous GAZ-13 Chaika state limousine and the fleet of Volga's that was surrounding it. But KGB were unhappy with their current four cylinder cars and the idea of being underpowered, and possibly (certainly) unable to follow the more powerful V8 Chaika, or any Western car in a theoretical chase scenario. An order was placed for GAZ to secretly create a more capable vehicle by KGB's 9th Directorate. The project started in 1959 with Boris Dehtiar - an automatic gearbox specialist, previously working on GAZ 13 and GAZ 18 leading it. What came out of it in 1962 could only be described as the ultimate sleeper.
The 5.5 litre V8 engine in a very snug fit - Credit: Za Rulem
Extremely tight squeeze
To accommodate what was effectively double the engine under the bonnet of GAZ M21 Volga, used as a platform, required more than just an engine lift. Some clever engineering solutions were applied, like completely redesigned cooling, new steering system from the Chaika, completely reworked front suspensions. And when that wasn't enough, the engine was tilted by two degrees to fit with just one millimetre to spare! The bonnet also had to effectively grow a bigger bulge in the middle, but in a very discrete way. KGB had ordered the vehicle to be built in such a way, that it would look exactly like a factory-fresh M21 Volga. The exhaust system was also heavily revised with a series of strategically placed silencers to keep the low-profile sound of the original engine and not use more or bigger tailpipes. The creation was named GAZ M23 Volga, although officially it never existed. The codename was Dogonyalka (the "Chaser") and was never mentioned in the press, the company catalogues or . . anywhere. Even the manuals in the KGB central contained a seal that spelled "For internal use only". It was a ghost vehicle, only the manufacturers and the Soviet state knew about its existence. It was hand-built by the most skilled mechanics with the best materials that could be delivered to insure a complete no-compromise policy.
Describing Western diplomats cars - Credit: Za Rulem
The need for speed
At the time of designing the secret Volga, the West had the power advantage in the class, but the 5.5 litre V8 was kicking out 195 hp, compared to the standard 75hp four-pot, staying only inferior to the Mark 2 Jaguar's 220 hp. The car was now capable to keep up with most Western rivals, which were commonly used by foreign diplomats, so suddenly surveillance was back on the table. An area of interest was the top speed. The speedo was left untouched, maxing out at 140 km/h, but it was capable of "no less" than 170 km/h, according to the testing 1000 km factory attestation. In order to deal with the extra power and torque, the 3-speed automatic gearbox was also lifted from the Chaika and that was not so easy to hide, given that a manual was the only option in the original M21. An ingenious solution was to put a small etched glass piece on top of the steering column, to mark the gear positions on the auto-box and remain hard to spot from the outside. Both the original manual and the new auto were on column shifter stalks. Of course, the lack of a clutch pedal was noticeable, but GAZ decided not to confuse the KGB agents with a non-functioning third pedal. Interestingly, the "P" on the gearbox was not meant for parking, but to keep a constant speed on long downhills and use the engine for braking. If the speed was below 20 km/h when "P" was selected, it would keep a steady 20 km/h and select first gear on the way down. If the speed was above 20 km/h - it would select second gear and keep at constant 40 km/h. A brilliant way not to cook the brakes, which were left untouched from the original.
The dashboard of M23 - Credit: Za Rulem
Serious spy credentials
For the untrained eye, the car looked exactly like a bog-standard M21, but there were some hidden differences that would overwhelm even Doug DeMuro's quirking abilities. For starters there was the lights switch. It was configured in a way that would allow the KGB agents to flash either one of the headlights separately in order to communicate with coded light messages between the cars while on the road and retain radio silence. Same goes for the tail lights. Then there was the exterior boot release which was non-functional, with the real one being a tiny lever placed inside, on the base of the back seats, so no one from the outside would be able to access the car's cargo, being a suitcase or a kidnapped Western spy.
Volga, being Volga...
Ultimately the modifications gave the desired result and KGB escort could now keep up with the lead Chaika in the motorcade and even out-accelerate it to 100 km/h with two full seconds to spare. But there were some fundamental and very . . 60s Volga-like problems. The guys from the car magazine "Za Rulem" (Behind the steering wheel in English), recently got to drive a very rare, restored example and shared their impressions with the general public. The car was heavy at 1860 kilos curb weight and even with the revised front suspensions, that mass was still difficult to control and the leaning in the corners was noticeable, very uncharacteristic of a car that's named the "Chaser". Because there was more weight at the front now, the steering had become even heavier at slow speeds. The brakes were drums on all four corners from the original M21 and there was no assistance to the pedal, meaning that extra mass from the big engine was now making the brake pedal even harder to press and stop the car properly. Slowing down the heavy beast even at slow speeds has been described as "challenging". And then to add an insult to injury - because most of the added weight was in the front of this rear-wheel drive car, the engineers at GAZ had to add 120 kilos of ballast beneath the boot's carpet to counteract the traction issues. But those issues could never overshadow the purpose of this car - being the best possible sleeper and allowing KGB to operate without drawing any unwanted attention. 603 cars were hand-built between 1962 and 1970. Very few are still road-worthy these days and the guys from "Za Rulem" got very lucky, finding a rebuilt one and an owner willing to share it for a short drive.