It may not be the most common car you’d expect to catch sight of in Cambridge or anywhere else these days but the 2.5-litre GAZ Volga M21 has also got connections with grace, ‘space’ and pace…
Produced in the Soviet Union 1956 – 1970, the sinister-looking GAZ Volga M21 is not only extremely rare, but it was also the preferred transport of famous Soviet Air Forces pilot and cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin following his return to earth in the early 60s.
We say ‘preferred’ but, in reality, the first man to travel into space, orbiting Earth once in 1 hour 29 minutes was never going to turn down what was at the time, the most expensive car available to the Soviet Joe public.
Hailed by many as the ‘Russian Mercedes’, the Volga was a decadent machine and boasted flamboyant 50s American styling and comfort with a sprinkling of basic Russian ‘nuts and bolts’, which isn’t surprising given the car was aimed at the US luxury market.
Nowadays, there are less than 20 of these things left in the UK, so why would anyone in their right mind decide they needed a GAZ (Gorkovsky Avtomobilny Zavod) Volga M21 in 2016?
Could it be the GAZ M21 was the first to brandish the Volga moniker, or even that Vladimir Putin owns one of the original models produced?
GAZ Volga M21 – Yuri Gagarin
The most likely answer to the Russian automotive conundrum was all of the above for passionate Bulgarian, Kiril Vitanov, who as a naive young boy of only 10 years old recalls his father’s wise words, “My boy, a black Volga is a car for special people. It is the car of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in the space“.
His wise dad wasn’t far off the mark, this was at the time a lavish car for ‘the’ people – Major Yuri Gagarin being just one of them after receiving his spacious M21 as a reward for risking his life in outer space, 1961.
Like most youngsters of a similar age, the dream of being an astronaut was real, but for Vitanov it was the ‘space’ connection which attracted him to the car more than anything else. Sadly, money was even more scarce than work which meant his dream was put on hold for many years to follow.
Fast forward to 2011 and Kiril was able to afford his first ‘real’ classic car – a glorious FSO Warszawa 223 with a history longer than the car itself. Manufactured in Warsaw, Poland between 1951–1973, the Warszawa seemed an obvious choice, drawing inspiration from the GAZ-M20 Pobeda and was a gift from the Soviet Union to bolster the struggling Polish economy after the Second World War.
Smitten by the classic FSO, Vitanov went on to purchase three Warszawas and was sure with a little time and money invested, he could reunite these sturdy classics back with the streets of Sofia, Bulgaria.
Then, like many, Vitanov’s life radically changed direction with London calling in 2015 which meant the Warszawa trio needed either relocating or selling – following some negotiating, the cars ended up in Poland with new owners.
2016 became another landmark for London based Vitanov, who eventually tracked down his beloved ‘factory black’ GAZ Volga M21 back in Bulgaria, where it had resided under its slightly worn cover for more than 5 long years. The mysterious classic M21 was owned by a dedicated Bulgarian who had purchased it from an official dealer – after being on an 8-year waiting list!
It’s a completely different style to the cars that they produced at that time here in the UK because the Soviet Union was making strong, heavy cars in a different style. It’s not a fast car and it’s not a very beautiful car, in my opinion, but it’s a car produced to make a statement after the Second World War.
Cambridge is a good place for a unique car: there are a lot of people, a lot of tourists, and even those who come to London for a week try to visit our old university city.
Originally produced for the likes of Government hierarchy, the black model C boasted a refined cabin area which could easily seat 6 passengers and included a front bench-seat which could also be used as a double bed, cigarette lighter and a sophisticated push-button radio centrally integrated within the dashboard. Instrumentation is clear and concise with an emphasis on the large speedometer binnacle in front of the driver, with fuel, voltmeter, temperature and oil pressure all easily visible.
Power comes from a powerful 2.5-litre four-cylinder lump delivered to the rear wheels via the 3-speed gearbox, operated by a rather large column change, much like the Czechoslovakian Tatra 603 system.
Whilst the Volga M21 had only covered 14000km, like many older classics, problems can develop quickly with electricals, fuel pipes and other essential mechanical items either rotten badly, non-functional or had seriously perished. The car was carefully checked over and fully serviced but still required one further but an essential upgrade. The fuel tank was in poor condition and needed urgent attention – this became the most difficult thing to locate.
In 2019 Kiril and his dedicated girlfriend decided it was time to visit the official GAZ shop in St. Petersburg, Russia. Retaining as much integrity as possible, the idea was to buy original parts for the tired interior and also replace the existing black carpet. Seating was reinvigorated with new leather but the decision to keep the original colour was unanimous.
TLC was extended to the wheels which were replaced with period-correct rims and finally that obligatory wax coating to give the shining overcoat some much-needed protection from the relentless UK weather.
Safely transported to the UK in May 2019, the classic GAZ Volga M21 is now reunited with 17 more of its Russian brothers here in Blighty, so if you happen to catch sight of it while on your travels around Cambridge, give him a wave…
Who knows if it was his dream too?
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You can catch up with Kiril on his Instagram here.