Project Car Hell, Soviet Edition: GAZ Volga 21 or ZAZ-966 Zaporozhets?

Murilee Martin
by Murilee Martin
project car hell soviet edition gaz volga 21 or zaz 966 zaporozhets

I’ve already got a custom-van project and a basket-case Toyota 20R-powered Sprite project, but what I really want is a genuine, red-flag-waving Warsaw Pact machine to cruise around Denver. I don’t mean any Lada, either— it’s got to be a genuine, designed-and-built-in-the-USSR car, not a Fiat clone! Fortunately, I have a car-freak friend in the Czech Republic who can get such a machine into a shipping container in Bremerhaven for a reasonable price, so all that would remain for me would be to negotiate the Kafkaesque maze of registering the thing in Colorado. How hard could it be?

The GAZ 21 Volga is sort of the ’55 Chevy of the former Soviet Union, a real icon, the only Soviet car that might be identified even by those who don’t care about Soviet cars. They’ve become quite collectible in the countries of the former Soviet bloc, but you can still pick up a running, not-too-rusty 21 in the Czech Republic for a reasonable price. For example, this 1962 Volga 21 for 60,000 Kč, or about 3,400 US bucks. I think I might prefer a later, Brezhnev-era “box Volga,” what with all the Soviet Malaise Era connotations and all, but there’s something to be said for driving the classic Volga. Oh, sure, parts might be utterly impossible challenging to find, but the 21 was made to be operated on dirt roads in minus-60 temperatures, with little maintenance. What’s gonna break? Naturally, I’d need to get some Red Star wheels, just like the Stalinmobile, and there must be some way to obtain a genuine ZIL-41047 V8 to swap into it.

One thing the GAZ Volga 21 doesn’t have in common with the 1955 Chevrolet is its exclusivity when new; you had to have some pull with the Communist Party machine to get one back in the day. When Khrushchev and cronies decided that they’d better start getting some consumer goods to the public in the post-Stalin era, the order went down that a cheap workers’ car would be built, something like a Volkswagen but made for Soviet road conditions. That car was the beloved Zaporozhets, a rattly air-cooled heap that looks ominously similar to the Chevy Corvair. ZAZ engineers were told to rip off emulate the air-cooled VW’s engine design, but they ended up changing the configuration from a boxer four to a V4. Why? So that the valve adjustors would be more accessible when working on the car in a mud-floored garage! Needless to say, I would love to own an example of this historically significant vehicle, and the good news is that this 1970 ZAZ-966 can be had for a mere 39,000 Czech Koruna, or about two grand in US dollars. Were I to get this car, I’d make sure to obtain a Tatra V8 while I was over there, because a rear-engined, air-cooled hemi V8 in a Zaporozhets would be even better than a Tatra-engined Trabant. How hard could it be?

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  • LvivUa LvivUa on Apr 23, 2012

    HI All. I found this article because I am about to do some work on a zaz 965. Going to try to modify it to a mini looking car. Now in the original post the guy says he can get these cars from Czech, but the price is crazy ridiculous. The zaz 965, 966, and 968 are 500 US dollars to buy here, and up to a 1000 for one that is in good shape. A Volga 21, as pictured start at about a 1000 dollars. If anyone really wants a car to restore or modify, I would be more then willing to help for a reasonable fee. If anyone wants old motorcycles like a Dniepr or Ural they are easy to come by also. They are based on the old BMW motorcycles and the Ural is still built new today, so all parts are available for them. I am in Ukraine so if I can help anyone let me know.

  • Marcd Marcd on Nov 21, 2012

    I'm looking at bringing 3 Soviet-made GAZ 21's to the US presently and checking interest in the one I`m not using for parts. I`m buying them as running cars and have connections to get parts, as in a shipping container full of them. Let me know ! Marc

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