Research Diary: Soviet cars


One game we played when we were kids was spotting black Volgas that sped by the playgrounds. To procure one of these cars, especially for free and with a driver, one had to be not just a ranking official, but a ranking official with the right job in the right city. The rest of us plebes got a Zaporozhets. So as kids, we’d run after the Black Volgas and scream and keep daring each other to flip off the passenger. And when the car disappeared, we’d cough up its dust and someone would say that she’d really done it this time, that she’d flipped off the Volga. “Yeah, right,” we’d say. “Well, I did. Behind my back,” she’d tell us. At the end of the day, the girl who saw the most black Volgas won.

Of course, to an American visiting USSR, these cars looked dated. I’ve heard many of them say that all the cars looked ancient. The truth was that some of the vehicles were brand new, but they still looked old to a foreigner. Unlike in the West, in the USSR the car manufacturers did not offer a new and improved (and expensively redesigned) model every year. Year after year, they just kept making the same car.

This was why, as I tried to figure out what the Volga looked like in 1970 this morning, I half expected it to look just like it did when I was a kid in the 1980s. So what I found was a little surprising.

BEHOLD: a souped up Volga manufactured especially for the KGB.

Looks just like a Volga 21, doesn’t it? I gather they used the Volga model for camouflage, then gave it some muscle with a better engine, a 195 horsepower V8 that could get one of these babies up to 100 mph and from 0 to 60 in 16 seconds.

What’s that? That doesn’t sound quite like the super-powered, James Bond car you imagined KGB would be driving? Me either. Then I remembered that the car I drive today, in 2011, has a 115 horsepower engine. So in a drag race against my little Nissan Sentra, the KGB would still win.

My father, by the way, pulled a similar trick on his used Zaporozhets. He tinkered with that car until he was back to being able to overtake any other automobile on the road.

TANGENT: apparently, a few year ago, a Moscow oligarch had a Volga look-alike custom-built using BMW chassis and engine. Helloooo, gorgeous. Do you come in a hybrid?

A Volga coupe

Leave a Reply