GAZ M21 Volga

Step out of Warsaw Central Station and one of the most noticeable buildings you'll see is a 200m colossus of sandstone reminiscent of the Empire State Building, imparted as a gift by the Russians in 1955. Its proper name is the Palace of Culture and Science, but it is (un)affectionately known as the Wedding Cake. It's a monstrous construction that for the last half-century has loomed over the Varsovian skyline, and has only recently been humbled by the constant upthrusting of more modern skyscrapers on the surrounding vacant plots.

Western tourists don't usually see the disharmony between the Russian-built Palace and the surrounding city, as it's all too easy to lump in all the ex-Bloc countries (of which Poland is the largest) under the moniker of 'Russia'. My old primary school geography book didn't help; its crudely-sketched map of Europe carried a clean black swipe of ink somewhere from Nothern Poland to the Black sea, and everything to the right of that was a massive bloody sprawl of garish red, and that charming legend, U.S.S.R. The R was for Russia, we were erroneously informed, and thus a generation was conceived that couldn't see any distinction between Russia, Communism and the Soviet Republic.

Now, should you happen to voice your ignorance in public, the following weeks spent recuperating in a Polish state hospital should ensure you never refer to Poles as Commies, Ruskies or Soviets ever again, especially considering Poland was never included as part of the U.S.S.R. Loathe as they may the Germans for their wartime atrocities, a far more powerful word for the hatred they harbour against the Russians is required. It's unjustifiable in the forgive-and-forget 21st century culture we're supposed to be living in now. but nevertheless, Poles are almost sadistically proud of the abhorence they feel towards their East Slavonic cousins, which makes encountering an almost beautifully preserved example of one of their most iconic motors outside a thoroughly Polish restaurant almost incomprehensible. It would be a bit like having a Kubelwagen parked up outside a Jewish bistro.

The GAZ should feel eerily familiar; if you can remember the Warszawa, the spiritual granddaddy of Polish automobiling, it shares a direct ancestor to the GAZ-21, both being spawned on the back of the previous GAZ, the M20 Pobieda. But whilst the Poles had to make do with churning out M20 clones well into the 1970s, the mightier weight of Mother Russia took the next steps in terms of developing luxury saloons, and the result was the first edition GAZ-21, launched in 1956 and christened after that other symbol of Russia's staggering size, the Volga river which, like my geography books, chases a stark line through western Russia on its way to the Caspian.

It was a sizeable beast, like most things Russian; the Palace remains the tallest building in Poland, after all, and Moscow has seven similar structures.) And unsurprisingly, like the obvious source of inspiration for the Palace, the GAZ borrows heavily from American design cues of the time, albeit delayed by a few years. Where it did differ though, was its posture. Yank-wagons were low-slung wallowing boats designed for the most cushioned ride on the miles of smooth '50s highways being constructed; the Volga instead boasted a massive ground clearance and independant front suspension to cope with the rutted and holed trans-siberian lanes, and phenomenally, a radio as standard to while away the mind-numbing hours it takes to cruise across Kamchatka. There were also some ingenious engineering elements. Some were practical, like having the parking brake operate on the driveshaft rather than the wheels (making the wheel assemblies lighter, good for suspension), and others not so ingenious , like the fourth pedal; an almost ludicrous device that pumped up a central lubrication system for injecting grease onto all suspension and steering joints when needed. That might sound marvellous to start with, guaranteeing supple joints on even the longest journeys, but the downside was the habit of pumping grease all over the city streets as well, which makes a miracle how any of those 30,000 first editions ever survived.

Fast forward to 1962, skipping a generation, and the initial weirdness (like that pedal) and the last remants of any left-over Pobiedan mechanisms have finally been removed, to leave us with the paunchy, punchy motor standing here. If you have never seen a GAZ-21 before, the stylish haunches, massive chrome flashes and the aggressive snarling toothy grill will have you sni faster than you can say "Polyushka Polye". You'll stoop down at the bonnet end to admire the graceful and elegant prancing deer, whilst your finger, lucky person that you are, completely fails to translated the three Cyrillic characters that spell out the acronym of Gorkovsky Avtomobilny Zavod, or the Gorky Automobile Plant of Nizhny Novgorod, through which the mighty Volga river flows. But don't be fooled by the chrome and flash and three-bulb lights; underneath is a tank of a vehicle, rugged enough to chug its way across the entire Union.

Despite the snow and the salt of at least forty winters, this Volga is in unsurprising condition, by which I mean the paintwork is gleaming. One of the best things about these cars was the devotion that went into the metalwork to protect it against those harsh winters, demanding that the 1.1mm thick steel was etched and dipped twice in phosphate, primed, then coated in thick layers of synthetic enamal. Couple that with an iron-lined aluminium engine block and a design so simple you can fix it even when half-blind on home-made vodka, and you've got a true titan of Soviet motoring. In fact, it's a design so rugged that the engine and a fair portion of the mechanicals lived on for a few more decades under the skin of the UAZ-469.

Over its lifespan 640,000 units sauntered out of the N-N factory, and 75% of those were third-series 21's like the one here. A few estates were also cobbled together as the M22, and even an extremely rare, and absolutely terrifying, line of M23s were secretely manufactured. Cosmetically identical, the M23 housed a stomach-churning 5.5L V8 under the bonnet, and was used exclusively by the KGB for covert snooping and snatch-and-grab missions. Not knowing whether the GAZ behind you was an incognito agent who had declared you "disposable" put an added thrill into seeing one. Outrunning one wouldn't be an option; whilst the vanilla M21 had 65horses on tap, the M23 could muster 160hp. One can only be thankful that a mere 603 of these terrifying machines were ever built.

Now, as thrilling as statistics always are to bedroom mechanics, there's one important factor about the Volga that is lost on many. It was the machine that the proletariat aspired to own, a cowering beast of might and labour that promised freedom to move across the vast expanses of the Soviet Union. It replaced the Victory as the true people's car, and yet, considering its launch price of 5100 rubles, less than 2% of the country could afford to buy one.

Even more shocking is that previously quoted production figure of 640k If you want to split hairs, it's 638875, but so many were rehashed from spare parts and homebrew chassis that the real number isn't really known. What IS known, however, is that the only other Russian (not USSR) produced motors at the time, the far more mundane Moskvitches 407, 403 and 408, added up to about 467,000 all told. And you can also forget AutoVAZ, who wouldn't get round to rattling out the Lada Riva until 1970.
Once you've done your number-crunching, it means that, for the entire 1960s, there were only 1.1million cars, give a take a few thousand bloc imports, to serve Russia's 130 million people. That's 0.85% of the population having access to a vehicle, or one car for every 11 people. How's that for some-are-more-equal-than-others?

It is primarily for this reason that the GAZ-21 is such a cultural icon in the ex-USSR; only a car so desirable, yet so unobtainable, could develop into such a cult of personality. But if you have to love the Russians for something, love them for this.