By on February 25, 2011

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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41 Comments on “Project Car Hell, Soviet Edition: GAZ Volga 21 or ZAZ-966 Zaporozhets?...”

  • avatar

    Now tell me again.. WHY would you want to do this?

    • 0 avatar

      Uniqueness. Individuality. Both are admirable American qualities.

      I build my own cars and have friends who do the same. Two of them have built ca 10 each. I’m doing my third. The first was a 1975 Plymouth Valiant that my son found in a breaker’s yard. I bought it for € 450, paid € 452 to immatriculate it and then nearly € 40K to completely rebuild it. It has a slant 6 with performance parts from Australia and coil-over front and rear suspension, with a Strange Engineering limited-slip differential and 4 wheel Wilwood disc brakes. The interior is redone in leather.

      The second car is a 1981 Triumph TR7 with a 140hp 16v Sprint engine, also with 4 wheel discs and limited-slip. It just needs some interior work to complete.

      The third is a Moskvitch 412 (actually, an IZH 412) that I’m rebuilding from a 4-door to a 2-door (slightly lowered roof and steeper windscreen angle. A tuned engine is in the making (1.7l, Volga pistons, cylinder sleeves, valves, valve springs and a custom cam made in Finland). I’m installing a rebuilt Lada 5-speed transmission and rear axle with limited-slip and 4 wheel discs (all [somewhat unreliable] soviet tech. I hope to get a 65% increase in hp with Solex carbies and, later, I’ll add a turbo with Opel fuel injection. It won’t qualify for racing in the Moskvitch League or SU class but I can still race as an independent.

      Cars like these are hopeless money pits. But it’s fun to test one’s engineering skills. And they attract a good bit of attention too.

  • avatar

    I foresee few potential problems procuring parts via the local pic-n-pull.
    But, then, my visionary skills ARE rusty.
    Hemmings a friend?
    Goodeth lucketh  with thine effort!!!!!!!!!!
    Oh, paint it red akin to the “glorious revolution”?

  • avatar

    I guess that could be useful if we have another, increasingly rare, sub-zero snap in the Front Range.

  • avatar

    Get the Volga. It’s probably and inherently better car overall, and it certainly LOOKS better than the ZAZ.

  • avatar

    While I’m more of a Lada Niva guy myself, there is something Cold War cool about the Volga.

  • avatar

    And please inform the rest of us how to negotiate the importing/DOT/legal registration issues.
    TTAC would be a great place to post this kind of information, or even offer it as a service.
    There are lots of enthusiasts out there who would love to import a grey market new or classic car from a foreign source as long as they could do so legally.

    • 0 avatar

      Actually getting classic stuff through DOT etc. is pretty easy. There is an NHTSA exemption on anything more than 25 years old and an EPA exemption on anything over 21. As long as you can come up with some simple proof of age like a build date or registration documents it’s just a matter of filling out some forms and paying import duty. I’ve wanted a Landrover for years so l looked it up a while back. There are also a lot of specialists who can handle the detail work if you want to trade $$ for convenience.  Of course state regulations like California may complicate things so pre-75 is less hassle, or register in emissions testing exempt areas.

  • avatar

    Drop a small block Chevy into the Volga for the ultimate US/Soviet mashup. The overall vibe of the Volga to me is of an early 50’s Studebaker, I’d bet a SBC or even an early Caddy motor would fit…
    Stuff one of those replacement-motors-for-a-VW-bus Subaru motors in the back of the ZAZ and add some zizzle to the commie car. It would probably be as much fun as those Lancia Integrale powered Yugos I used to see on YouTube occasionally…

  • avatar

    Wow. Do it, MM! Make your avatar proud! I’m Russian (at least half), and I’m interested in this project. The top photo reminds me of a ’55 Ford. Stunning! Do it, do it, do it! You could probably build all the parts you need yourself, or adapt them from the boneyards you frequent. Are you absolutely sure there aren’t any in those? Check again.

    • 0 avatar

      There are already a few Volgas in the States. I know of one on the East Coast somewhere. An IT fella originally from the USSR fulfilled his childhood dream to own a Volga. The last time I checked his blog he also had a ZIM/GAZ-12.

  • avatar

    My first car when I lived and worked in Moscow was a Lada 06. Second vehicle was a Niva 4X4 — a little two-door similar to a Suzuki. I’ve yet to see one state-side, but it would be the perfect Russian Colorado vehicle.

  • avatar
    Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

    If you’re going to import anything Soviet, wouldn’t it be a Zil?

  • avatar

    ZAZ has never been “beloved”. There was a common saying about commuting in a “Zap” – 20 minutes of shame and you get there.

    Its only virtue was that from time to time it was possible to buy one without waiting in the line for 10 years, as was the case with others. They were also distributed among war veterans – again, no waiting – and many families who were desperate for any means of mobility, jumped on that option.

    It was designed without passion, built without care and had only two notable features: gas-powered heater and the engine developed with the below vehicle in mind.
    Also, don’t even think of stuffing anything V8 into it – I saw one with a Lada-1600 engine in it and it was almost undriveable at speeds of 50 mph+.

    Volga, on the contrary, is a proper car and it even enjoyed some modest popularity in Western and Northern Europe in the early to mid 60s.

    Also in the mid 60s there was a short period of time when buying a car – even a Volga – was not as difficult as in later years. Actually, my dad’s friend bought the Volga then and still has it now – with around 1 million miles on it. A couple of engine rebuilds and welding jobs on sills and some such – but that’s about it.
    Volgas were virtually hand-built, rust protection (for the time) was excellent. I’d say that it was a pinnacle of Soviet passenger car design/construction.
    Also, there are known V8 official conversions with Chaika GAZ-13 engine and tranny (3-speed auto), built to KGB order as chase cars. I saw a couple of web pages of these and one actual car at Exotica festival in Moscow a few years ago.

  • avatar

    You know, my understanding is that Russian cars are every bit as user friendly as Russian toilet paper, which can also be used to sand rust spots from Russian cars. Maybe if you held your $2K in hand while imagining the various things you could do with it . . .

  • avatar

    This would be the coolest thing since a college friend smuggled a Soviet army officer’s overcoat home from Moscow in the late 80’s (He bought it on the black market, carefully removed all the insignia, buttons, etc., mailed them home, then took it home in his suitcase as a plain overcoat, whereupon he sewed everything back on. He was the only Russian major on campus with a Red Army overcoat as his winter gear.).
    I’d love to have a ZIL or the Chinese equivalent (probably still in production).

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    Hm, does your friend have a line on any LWB Tatra 613s?

    And as for favorite GAZ vehicles, I’d love to obtain their GPA-clone model 46 – although it would most definitely be a summer driver.

    I’m torn on both suggestions although my overall preference is for the Volga.

  • avatar

    You know, maybe your criteria are a bit too tight. Built in the Soviet Union, okay, that one’s easy. But designed there, and not a FIAT clone. That is gonna be a bit harder.
    I don’t mean to bash the Soviet auto industry, but particularly products of ZAZ were hardly very original. The first one a rip-off of a Fiat 600, the one you feature quite similar to NSU’s Prinz. I also doubt GAZ did a lot of engineering themselves – at least in the “create from scratch” sense of the word.
    Still, I like the idea.

  • avatar

    Let me help you with the Czech text a little: that 39,000 Czech Koruna Zaporozhets is already sold. You can still have that nice 1962 Volga, though. Good luck.

  • avatar

    As long as it’s not a Moskvich, you’re in good shape. I remember the factory used to sell them in pairs back in the early 90’s, with one partially unfinished – probably the only new car to ever come with a parts car from the factory.

  • avatar

    ok murilee, the zaz-966 is cooler but there are a couple of problems: the body doesn’t look to be in good shape even in the one picture supplied and it is even more of a deathtrap than your dodge van. besides, it’s sold. the volga on the other hand appears to be have well taken care of and has a proper number of pix. you might even get it out of the garage occasionally for a drive.

  • avatar

    what you really want to do is make a low-ball bid for the tatra 613:

  • avatar

    Just make sure that the car is older that 25 years in order to qualify as a “classic car”. If it’s newer, you need a letter from the manufacturer that it complies with all FMVSS regulations (good luck on that) in addition to other reams of paperwork. In other words: Forget it.

  • avatar

    I’d definitely give my vote to the ZAZ, if it weren’t apparently already sold.

  • avatar

    I agree with Acubra in general. Most importantly, Volga is something you actually can drive, although it tops out at about 75 mph. However, try to be patient and don’t jump on the first deal.

    • 0 avatar

      Spasibo, tovarisch! (:

      Also, considering your budget, you’ll probably spend close to that on added costs of restoration/mods.
      Your best bet would be getting in touch with fun clubs in Mother Russia, where these cars are most common and parts are still possible to find. But exporting from Russia might be a whole different story – long, sad and expensive.

  • avatar

    Either one is fine, as long as you don’t buy a Lada 110 – a car designed by socialists and built by capitalists.
    OK, I lied, the ZAZ is not fine. Get the Volga, or if possible, a GAZ Pobeda. It was surprisingly modern in it’s day.

    • 0 avatar

      M-20 Pobeda was a pre-classic classic. It’s like restoring a 1941 Packard or something, while M-21 Volga was more like 1957 Chevy. My neighbour drove a Pobeda as late as 1993, mostly thanks to its thick metal and him re-rustproofing its bottom every Spring. I suspect that dealing with a Pobeda would be too much even for Mr. Martin. Also, they are much rarer than Volga.

  • avatar

    Some customization ideas for your project car. My Russian stepson thinks these are pretty cool.
    Saw quite a few of these last time I was over there.

  • avatar
    John Fritz

    Murilee, color me impressed! I love that GAZ. If you don’t already have one, you might want to consider rolling a Bridgeport into your garage in anticipation of parts replacement.

  • avatar

    Volga is near worthless without the nanocatalyst.

  • avatar
    Dave W

    And I thought I was crazy when I owned a ’63 Citroen ID19 in 1978-84.

    • 0 avatar

      This is the kind of insanity that makes me feel better about buying a 23 year old Volvo as a daily driver!
      1st. option, Get a Russian snow car. Lada Niva or bust.
      2nd. option Chaika. And drop that bitch. I’m talking east L.A. lowrider style.
      3rd, Stick with commie, but skip Russia, Tatra anyone?

    • 0 avatar

      or this, I’m sure with no pictures NOTHING can go wrong!

      “Don’t hesitate and make an offer before this deal slips you by the fingers.”

      (Two words GUNNERS TURRET!!!!)

  • avatar

    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.
    [email protected]

  • avatar

    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 !

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