You’d have been forgiven for thinking that the Soviet Union must have been building some of the greatest cars of the Fifties. After all, it was an era that saw the country produce highly advanced MiG-15 and MiG-19 jet fighter planes, launch satellites into orbit and be the first nation to send a man to outer space. Technologically, it was leading the way. However, building cars wasn’t its forte.
Choices were limited to the Moskvitch, Pobeda and Lada — hardly brands to get excited about — but the 1956 Volga GAZ 21 had something going for it; its Fifties Americana-inspired looks.
The third-generation cars, built between 1962 and 1970, were like smaller versions of the Chevrolet Bel Air, minus a thumping V8. They had 2.4-litre inline four-cylinder engines, but the KGB had special versions fitted with a 5.5-litre V8. The first and last Soviet muscle car? Maybe.
It was easily identifiable — even by those who couldn’t care less about cars — thanks to its round headlights, large chrome grille and similarly shaped windscreen as the Chevy. Its prestige status grew when after his space escapade, Yuri Gagarin was rewarded with one, replete with a blue interior to symbolise the sky.
Designed for dirt roads (the raised suspension meant it sat quite high) and freezing temperatures (it was air-cooled), the 21 was as robust as a tank and required very little maintenance, making it very popular and over 450,000 units had been built by the end of production in 1970. Out of those, just 50 with an automatic gearbox are believed to have been made, while the rest received three-speed manuals with the gear lever on the steering column.
The leaping deer badge on the Volga’s bonnet was similar to that of the Impala’s, but the 21 didn’t nearly have the same output. It had around 80bhp coupled with a heavy steering and a whining transmission, but it looked like a winner. The beauty wasn’t just skin deep either; the interior featured a speedometer exactly like the one in the 1959 Corvette.
The four-door saloon has become quite collectible in the countries of the former Soviet bloc and though parts might be almost impossible to find, the fact you can own a piece of Soviet history for as little Dh15,000 is surely worth the hassle.