Concluding our retrospective on the vehicles that served the Soviet apparatus of state.
Beneath the imperious ZIS and ZIL limousines, sat the ZIM-12, manufactured by GAZ* between 1950 and 1960. This was a full-size saloon with pleasant styling influenced by contemporary American designs. It was powered by a 3.5 litre in-line six-cylinder engine producing a claimed 95bhp and weighed 1.9 tonnes. Unlike its successors, it was notionally available for private citizens to purchase but its price, at 2.5 times the cost of the GAZ Pobeda mid-size saloon, put it out of reach of all but the most prosperous.
There was no significant development of the ZIM-12 during its decade on sale, but it was hastily renamed GAZ-12 in 1957. The ‘M’ in ZIM was a tribute to Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov, the USSR’s powerful Stalinist Foreign Minister. When Molotov lost a power struggle with Nikita Khrushchev in May 1957 and was deposed, his name was obliterated from all public buildings and spaces, and GAZ duly followed suit.
The GAZ-12 was replaced by the Chaika**, which was manufactured by GAZ in two generations between 1959 and 1988. The first generation M13 was unveiled in 1958. It was produced in saloon, limousine and, in 1961 and 1962 only, convertible ‘parade car’ variants. An estate was also offered, mainly for conversion to an ambulance or hearse. This variant was manufactured by the Riga Autobus Factory (RAF) in Soviet controlled Latvia.
The M13 Chaika was again an official car, used by lower ranking but still senior bureaucrats and military officers in the capital, regional leaders elsewhere in Russia and Communist Party Chiefs in the Soviet satellite states. Like the ZIL, it was not available for private citizens to purchase.
The M13 was powered by a 5.5 litre V8 engine producing a claimed 195bhp and mated to a three-speed automatic gearbox. Overall length was 5.6 metres for the saloon and 6.1 metres for the limousine. It was quite similar in appearance to the ZIL-111 and shared its mid-1950’s American influenced styling, with heavily chromed front and rear ends. Unlike the short-lived ZIL-111, the M13 would remain in production until 1981, by which time its styling looked like a legacy from another age.
The replacement M14 Chaika was introduced in 1977 and production of both models ran in parallel for a few years. The M14 had a much more contemporary and square-cut body, but this flattered to deceive as the platform and drivetrain were lifted directly from its twenty-year-old predecessor.
The power output of the engine was raised to 220bhp and the interior was fitted with contemporary luxury features. A convertible was produced in small numbers in 1982. The M14’s ancient underpinnings finally caught up with it and the model was officially discontinued in 1988. A small number of cars were, however, assembled from spare parts in 1989, but the Chaika name died and GAZ withdrew from the limousine business.
The real automotive workhorse of the Soviet Union was also produced by GAZ, the Volga saloon. The Volga was launched in 1956 and lived on until 2010. During that time there were two distinct generations, each having a number of major updates during its lifespan.
The Volga replaced the mid-sized M20 Pobeda*** model which had been produced from 1946 to 1958. This was a handsome and thoroughly contemporary design, its ponton sides predating many European manufacturers’ switch to this style. Also novel were its indicator signals, electric wipers, hydraulic brakes, and AM radio.
The Pobeda was powered by a 2.1 litre inline four-cylinder engine producing 67bhp. Early cars were virtually hand-produced as the factory lacked both production machinery and consistent supplies of sheet steel. This led to serious quality and reliability problems and production was stopped for a year to allow for a redesign and refitting of the factory. A revised and much improved Pobeda was relaunched in 1949. A total of around 236,000 were produced. Although available to private buyers, many were bought by government departments, state-owned companies and for use as taxis.
The M21 Volga was launched in 1956 and replaced the Pobeda after two years. The production car was powered by a 2.5 litre inline four-cylinder OHV aluminium block engine mated to a three-speed manual or automatic transmission. It was manufactured in saloon and, from 1962, estate formats, including a taxi version of the former. The styling again aped contemporary American designs, although the M21 had noticeably greater ground clearance and longer travel suspension to cope with poor Russian road surfaces.
A notable feature was centralised lubrication, operated by a foot pump. The automatic transmission option was discontinued after only one year during which just 700 units were built. It proved too difficult for non-specialist mechanics to maintain. A year later, the unreliable centralised lubrication system was deleted in favour of conventional grease nipples.
The M21 was given a facelift in 1959 which introduced a rather plain painted front grille. These Series Two models developed a reputation for being very robust and reliable. The GAZ M21 Volga and M13 Chaika were exhibited at the 1958 Brussels motor show and export sales of the former began a year later, fitted with Western manufactured diesel engines.
A further Series Three facelift arrived in 1962 with another new grille and other cosmetic changes. The M21 was widely used as taxi and police cars because of its reliability and longevity. A special version, the M23, was fitted with the V8 engine from the Chaika and 603 such cars were supplied to the KGB. It was apparently capable of a top speed of 170km/h (105mph).
The M21, although a tough workhorse, was getting long in the tooth and was replaced by a new model, the GAZ-24 Volga. This was launched in 1970, although around 250 pre-production models had been built in the preceding two years. The new model had a longer wheelbase but was shorter and lower than the M21. It was a rather austere and already dated looking design reminiscent of mid-1960’s Opels, but it was roomy inside and just as tough and durable as its predecessor.
The aluminium block 95bhp OHV engine was carried over, mated to a four-speed manual gearbox with floor-mounted gear lever. The single trim level was well equipped, with an alternator, three-speed wipers, rear window defroster and a radio with electric aerial. As with the M21, a small number of V8 powered versions, the 24-24, was produced for the KGB and to accompany ZIL and Chaika government motorcades.
A new model, the GAZ-3102, arrived in 1982. The 24’s bodywork was heavily modified, gaining new front and rear ends with large rectangular lights, recessed door handles, deleted front quarter-lights and larger, more angular bumpers with rubber inserts. The interior was refreshed with a new dashboard and minor controls. The engine was again upgraded but a proposed 3 litre V6 unit that featured in the prototype did not make production. This model was positioned as upmarket of the GAZ-24 and would remain in production in parallel with it until 2009
The GAZ-24 was directly replaced in 1985 with a stop-gap interim model pending a more comprehensive overhaul for which approval had been delayed. The GAZ-24-10 had an uprated 98bhp engine, other mechanical upgrades and simplified exterior trim on the existing body. The V8 version was renamed 24-34.
This model would essentially remain in production until 2010, although it received three further facelifts and new model designations, GAZ-31029 (a de-contented 3102), GAZ-3110 and 31105. The collapse of the Soviet Union and implosion of the Russian economy meant that there was no money for replacement, but the Volga kept selling on account of its toughness and a ready availability of spare parts, not least from scrapped examples.
A final and ignominious attempt to replace the Volga came in 2008 when GAZ started building the US Dodge Stratus under licence and marketing it as the Volga Siber. The Global Financial Crisis (and the car’s mediocracy) saw the Siber discontinued after just two years. Only 9,000 examples were built. It was a wretched end for one of Russia’s most famous automotive model names.
* Gorkovsky Avtomobilny Zavod (Gorky Automobile Plant)
** Chaika translates to ‘Gull’ or ‘Seagull’ in English
*** Pobeda translates to ‘Victory’ in English, a reference to the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War Two