There are probably a million things the U.S. does better than Russia when it comes to automobiles. Yet, the last centuries have proved that there was more than just competition between the two countries – there was cooperation, support, and even mutual admiration.
And in between the copied style and design, Russia and the whole Soviet Union back in the 20th century, proved to be better at not few of the automobile production practices. Mechanics and construction durability come as no surprise to those who are familiar with Russia’s engineering ingenuity. But what no one had expected was to see Russia become better at creating legends – cars that ruled the past and continue to live in the presence.
East Meets West … The Legendary Volga
One can easily notice the American influence in many of the car models in Russia during the first half of the 20th century, especially that of Ford. Even the widely known Studebaker trucks, which gained the respect of the people during World War II, were designed after Ford truck models.
For those who are familiar with the automobile history, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Henry Ford had a great influence on Russian car manufacturers ever since his first visit to Imperial Russia. Moreover, he was one of the main advisers during the construction of Russia’s most famous automobile production plant GAZ, the Gorky Automobile Plant. Ford continued to be an influence for Russians even after the Great Depression which put an end to their cooperation.
Historian Lewis H. Siegelbaum even wrote that vehicles in the Soviet Union were following the design of cars produced in Detroit but also added the necessary twists to make the cars suitable for the local climate and road conditions. The Packard was Stalin’s favorite model during the 1930s – it served as an inspiration for the first limousine in the Soviet Union produced after the war. Buick and Cadillac were also two brands that influenced Russian automobile designers in their work for more modern and sophisticated models.
The most vehicles that came out of these Western inspirations were the Chaika (rus.Seagull), the ZIS 110, and… the Volga.
The rise and the fall of a legend
The Volga was the first car produced for the masses in the Soviet Union. In its design, it resembled the 1953 Ford and the Mercury Monterey built in the same year. In its significance and value for the Soviet people, however, it was unique. The car remained the most appreciated and loved vehicle until the very end of its existence in the second half of the 20th century.
The first Volga model was introduced in 1956 and it was considered as the better version of “Pobeda” GAZ-M-20 produced in 1946. Pobeda could not compete with western models for a long time and quickly became outdated. So the people needed a car that was technically and visually better developed.
It took several years to produce the first Volga. The design plan and manufacturing process had been planned for three years before the launch happened in 1956. The designer of the first Volga, Lev Yeremeev, had substantial experience behind his back by that time and knew how to combine world trends in vehicle manufacturing with the stylish American look. It carried the name Volga21. Comedian Jay Leno, who is a fan of classic cars, welcomed a 1966 Volga 21 model to his garage and said the car was not that well manufactured but it was strong “as a bull”.
The GAZ 21, the first car to carry the Volga name, gained huge popularity among westerners because of its high ground clearance and the extreme rustproofing never before seen in the Western world. It has become the biggest and most luxurious car in the Soviet Union intended for mass production to the individual owners. The model was released in three generations between 1956 and 1970, each with its distinctive design features.
The first series of the GAZ 21 were known as “The Star”. The name came from the shape of the lattice which featured three horizontal metal bars and a star on a medallion in the middle. They say that the Soviet war hero, Marshall Zhukov, had personally endorsed the design.
The Volga had a three-speed transmission, manual or automatic; it was equipped with lever shock absorbers and independent front suspension.
One thing that made Volga21 better than most American cars at that time was the radio. Sometimes a taximeter came in the place of the radio, which was due to the large use of the car in taxi service companies from the 1960s.
In the first year of production, only five cars were assembled; but in the following year the mass production has picked up, which set the price of the first Volga at around 4,500 rubles (which today is equal to less than $70).
Around halfway through 1959, GAZ introduced the second series of Volga. “The Shark” gained its nickname from the design of frontal structure – a grille with 16 vertical slits. Windscreen washers and tubeless tires were added to the vehicle for the first time, the lever type was replaced by telescopic shocks.
A changed grille led to the emergence of a new bonnet, while the mechanical part and the interior remained unchanged for the most part of production years (1959 – 1962). The car was remembered for its extremely high durability despite the lack of frills.
The third series of Volga had a distinguishable grille with 34 thin vertical rods. “The Baleen”, as it was called, was a largely exported car, but it was also the new vehicle used as ambulance. It was large, with a stable construction which allowed it to be used for institutional purposes.
The more it was seen, the more people wanted to be seen with it. The 25 years Volga was on the Soviet market, it became an indisputable legend. In 1970, however, production was ceased. Even after the official end of the Volga, fans of the car managed to assemble it from different parts still sold in some areas of the USSR.
In October of 2008, the owner of the GAZ plant, Oleg Deripaska, confirmed that the production of the car will be fully stopped within two months. The reason given to the press was purely economic – the high prices demanded by suppliers and the availability of cheap alternatives put the Volga on the dying bed. After all, the Volga was a poor competitor to Japanese and German cars that dominated the market in the post-communist era.
The glory continues
But the Volga didn’t die, of course. Legends live forever. It has become quite popular among western classic collectors and can still be seen in some classic shows in the United States. In 2005, the Russian President Vladimir Putin invited visiting U.S. President George Bush for a ride in his own Volga. Rumor has it, Bush was even invited to take the driver’s seat. At first, The American president had trouble using manual transmission, but after gaining some confidence made a few laps around Putin’s summer estate.
Some Russians who cannot part with the legend put continuous efforts and requests to bring back the model. Recently, two designers created their vision of what the Volga would look like today and revealed online their hopes for reviving the car. They shared their designs for a possible future model of the Volga, which they named the Volga 5000 GL.
The Volga proved not only that Russians can create a car just as beautiful and elite as American, but also that they can give this car a symbolic purpose capable of uniting the whole country in a patriotic pride. What is more important is that this feeling remained in people’s minds across the years and infected other nations who have recognized the beauty of the legend.