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A Volga – no doubt! But why is it yellow?

GAZ M21 C “Volga”

23/09/2014 08:32 | Comments: 

Editor-in-chief

The guy behind the idea of the English-language Totalcar site, the totalcarmagazine.com, also serving as an editor at the Hungarian totalcar.hu , our mother site. Serial collector of sorry old things that have internal combustion engines in them, as a newfound religion, Zsolt is keeping a family under the terror of rust. Being in the business for the best part of the last 19 years, he landed at Totalcar after serving at a huge round of printed automotive magazines. Has a wife, two small(ish) children and a pet rabbit.

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Putin might paint a rosy picture of his state but his forebears weren't as good at optical tuning – the USSR was and looked a grim, grey country. What the heck, this Volga comes from those years and it wears the colour it left the factory with!

Please welcome the Russian GAZ-M21, better known as the Volga. This one, glinting like an oversized lemon custard in the pictures, is the last incarnation (hence the “C” after the M21 designation) of the “fat” or “round” version, the adjective affectionately separating it from the later, square-bodied series. It's a car that was used most in the softer years of the Communist era – no wonder that many remember it with fondness.

“Such a Volga is always black, it must be black.” With this being the general way of thinking, it is hard to defend the fact that these cars had, in effect, been made in various colours, most of those being lighter shades of grey, blue and red. It is just a nasty twist of fate that only the Russians and maybe a handful of other customers in the Western markets received these cars in those heart-lifting colours. But in Eastern Europe, where most of them served as medium-sized vehicles of the government fleet or were used by company directors, they were black, with the rare exception of a few grey examples.

Zoltán Tóth dreamed of owning a black Volga from his childhood. Or maybe a grey one. You see, he spent his whole life in Balatonaliga (Balaton is the grand lake of Hungary, a well-known summer resort and also one of the star attractions of the country), just a few blocks away from the site of the ruling Party's summer resort, the place where we took the pictures. There must have been few youngsters in the country who spotted more Volgas (and Tchaikas and Pobiedas) than little Zoltán at the time. Half his life was a life-size, 3D GAZ-pamphlet, no wonder he got hooked on the brand.

In a few years little Zolika turned into big Zoltán and the passing of all that time was utilized properly: he became a car mechanic and a bloody good one at that. To get the hang of working on vintage Russian cars, he bought a Moskvitch 407 first, but that was just a warm-up exercise, a Volga was in the final plans for keeps. To reach his goal he really had to hold back his hands for a few years when edging towards the piggy bank with a hammer, but in the end he made ends meet, found a suitable car in Miskolc and in exchange of a not-too-considerable sum a Volga became his.

The vendor was the first owner's widow – that is the car never saw company use. They bought it for a princely sum of 115,000 Hungarian forints in May 1967 which was humongous money then – ten years later a Lada 1200 (an expensive car in Hungary) cost 80,000 forints. To put it in another perspective: that 115,000 forints would amount to about 40,000 Euros today. Only rich people, for example, factory directors could afford such a private car in those times. Somebody like the original owner of the grey Volga was.

Grey? What do you mean, grey? This car is yellow, anybody can see that who has eyes in his head. Well, the old lady almost certainly never knew this, because she and her husband missed the opportunity to scrape the surface of the gray paint. But when Zoltán started to cut back the dull layer on the Volga's rusty body, a grim recognition started to enter his thoughts. He would never own a grey M21 C.

See, there was a problem. He planned to restore the car to the state it had left the factory in, but while dismantling the dashboard he found large areas of yellow. Then, after lots of scraping and intensive use of the heat gun he discovered some more patches of yellow beneath the acres of dull grey, some of it so shiny that his earlier assumption that the yellow had been applied as some kind of base paint, went immediately. He began to investigate the matter, or better to say, a new obsession started.

Lake Balaton is a holiday area meaning that Zoltán is extremely busy during the summer but has all the time in the world when the season is over. In the autumn months he developed a new routine: in the daytime he was cutting and welding the car, in the evenings he was leafing through all the brochures of GAZ cars he bought on earlier weekend jumbles in search of a yellow Volga.

He quickly learned that Hungary was way more conservative in its choice of Volga-colours than the Soviet Union. They had peach-pink, mint-green, and yes, even light-yellow cars rolling down the line. But he couldn't find the reason why and how all these cars became so dull in hue by the time they hit the streets in Hungary. They were either repainted in the USSR at the request of the customer (that was the Hungarian state-owned car importing company, Mogürt), or it was a pre-sale respray locally, before licensing.

Since there was no way to determine the original shade of the car from the old prints and there certainly wasn't a promise of another yellow Volga showing up in Hungary in the near future, – taking the estimated fading of pictures into consideration – he settled at a somewhat darker hue than what he found on the photos.

The car went through an incredible restoration process but it took a mere sixteen months. The structure of the chassis and the bottom of the doors crumbled like apple pie, but the sub-frame holding the front suspension proved to be completely intact. The rusty areas could all be fixed, although it wasn't easy. The bigger problem concerned the shiny details. Everything that was originally chromed was rusty, only the stainless steel items could be salvaged – these are the stripes located at the top and the bottom of the doors. Most of the items could be welded, hammered, filled in and galvanized to near perfection, but the windshield surround was totally spoiled at the first attempt. It wasn't the easiest task to find another, you may guess.

To his great surprise Zoltán found many of the mechanical components of the car in great shape. The former owner had meticulously greased the suspension and kept everything well adjusted, there was no need for mechanical repairs there. The diff only received a good cleanup, painting and lubricants, the gearbox required just one new bearing and the radiator was left as it is apart from some painting. It was the engine that needed lots of work.

Although the car could be driven and stopped at the time of the purchase, the bearings in the engine were shot, the block was cracked because the former owner didn't notice a drain tap and the water froze. The cylinder head had to be renewed, a new engine block was found and it was re-sleeved to the basic bore size. Of course, the brake system needed a complete overhaul but this was an easy task because in Hungary it is still possible to purchase the items for the UAZ off-roaders and those are 100 percent compatible with the Volga's. Only the master cylinder had to be re-honed, because it is different from the one in the UAZ.

As with all USSR-made cars of the time, the plastics in Volgas have a tendency to disintegrate before all the other components. The light blue, transparent Plexiglas cover of the odometer all but evaporated. Due to its special shape it would have necessitated the making of a special production tool to produce it, so Zoltán looked for a replacement instead. The fitting piece proved to be a uniquely cut piece of a Yamaha R1's windshield.

GAZ made the steering wheel of the Volgas from a special, natural plastic – some say the material was derived from cottage cheese... True or not one thing can be taken for granted with an old and untouched Volga: the steering wheel will need replacement or some very tricky resto. Zoltán's had some plastic left on the metallic rim, so he turned to boat-building techniques: a modern plastic that is used to make boat hulls was utilized to fill up the deep cracks. Strangely the buttons at the lower edge of the dashboard survived the ravage of the years well, only the knob for moving the aerial around had to be re-manufactured.

Good news started ebbing from this point, since all electric components proved to be in rude health. The electric fan in the heater, the starting motor, even the complicated vacuum tube radio could escape restoration.

After it was finally decided that the car would be painted yellow, it took only three months to prepare the fully re-welded body for spraying. Up to this point Zoltán did everything himself but refurbishment of the interior was above his skills. Luckily the upholsterer he knew was well into old cars and he could readily obtain the furniture fabric with a special vintage pattern and he also found a roll of synthetic leather that is very close to the originals. The seats were ready in no time, with all the stitches located where they should be.

The toughest job here proved to be the headlining. The cloth is held in place with American-style claws with which assembly must have been a tremendously simple task but dismantling was just the opposite. It took many days of nervously uttered swear words between gritted teeth until the fabric was separated from the Volga, but all rips and tears were avoided. In less than one and a half years the brand-new Michelin 6,70-15-size belted tyres could go on the wheels and the car was ready to drive at the first turn of the ignition.

Based on the shape, the age and style of the car and knowing how awful Soviet-made vehicles were, the Volga comes up as a surprise. A massive one at that. A roly-poly ride, dead brakes (after all, you've only got four drums, a single circuit and no servo aid), a wheezy engine and a steering as direct as a steam roller's is what you'd expect.

It's true that the engine doesn't show the slightest glimpse of sportiness, but it is punchy low down and until you keep the revs at an acceptable level, it never feels strained. You get the notion that it could serenely drive off the map at a cruising speed of 100kph (62mph). And it doesn't lose much of its velocity on inclines either.

The Volga might wear drum brakes, but those at the front are of a twin leading-shoe design so they are much more effective than the combination of this ancient mechanism and the 1.4-ton weight of the car would suggest. The steering is direct and from above walking pace it isn't too heavy either. The column shift is also a joy to use, although you won't find more than three forward gears with it.

If – and this is a very strong if, because Volgas can become really nasty when neglected – a car like this is properly kept in shape, it can make a soothing drive, one that makes you want to use the car on every single occasion you can find a reason. It runs straight, it has its own, unstressed, acceptably swift pace, and while there is a lot of lean in the corners, it doesn't translate into clumsiness, probably due to the exactness of the steering.

Sitting high on the bench seat, your eyes taking in the panoramic view obstructed by the transparent, blue odometer just as a wedding cake is spoiled by a Maraschino cherry, keeping a light but alert hand on the steering wheel, with Frank Sinatra on the wireless - 1967 suddenly looks very right from here. All the Volga asks for this time-travel trick is nine litres of low-octane petrol every one-hundred kilometres and some greasing at the end of each season. Otherwise it is a low-maintenance, trouble-free car – very different from Moskvitches, Zaporozhets's, Tchaikas and Pobiedas of the same era, as the experts of the brand say.

There's just one problem. If you had the urge to pick one up from the market ten years ago, prices were down on the ground and there was proper offering in the advertisements, so you got yourself a bargain. It's different today: there has been a fourfold increase in prices. Although classic cars have become considerably more expensive in these years, the hike in value in the case of the Volga M21 C is exceptional, going from 1600 to 6400 Euros in the case of usable cars and from 4000 to above 17.000 in the case of exceptional restorations. Is it because it took all these years for the model to find its rightful place in the market?

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