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Unfinished Business

January 3, 2005, by Bill Cawthon

Happy New Year! I hope you all enjoyed a pleasant holiday and will have a wonderful 2005.

Looking back on the topics from 2004, I find there are a couple of updates needed. As I started last year off with the Smart cars, it's probably best to begin these updates with the latest on the micro-cars from DaimlerChrysler.

Smart Fortwos being unloaded at Halifax, Nova Scotia. The tiny two-seater is now sold in all North American countries. Photo courtesy of Smart GmbH.

While DaimlerChrysler is still a year away from introducing the Smart to the U.S. market in the form of the Formore, a SUV based on the Forfour platform, the first Smarts legally sold in the States were one hundred Fortwos sold by California-based ZAP at the end of November, following the issuance of a certificate of compliance by the EPA. Another hundred vehicles were contracted in December.

Speaking of the Formore, companies supplying parts to DaimlerChrysler's Juiz de Fora plant in Brazil have been told to hold off on parts development while management conducts a three-to-four-month "global re-evaluation of the Smart brand." There's also the problem of the escalating exchange rate as the dollar slides in world currency markets and the fact the Formore is getting too big to really fit in the Smart concept. Gee, it might have been a good idea to build that new plant near Savannah, Georgia, after all.

In any event, with ZAP selling the Fortwo in the U.S. and DaimlerChrysler selling them in Canada and Mexico, the Busch models are now prototypical for North America.

Meanwhile, it looks like the U.S. will never see the A-Class, after all. We'll be getting the somewhat larger B-Class, which will be shown at the North American International Auto Show later this month. Too bad; the new A-Class is a nifty-looking car. I sometimes wonder where DaimlerChrysler gets its ideas about the American market, at least in terms of smaller cars.

I can't update "Bestsellers of 2003" until final numbers are released, but I can tell you the Ford F-Series pickup set a new sales record as it easily cruised to its twenty-eighth year as America's best-selling truck and its twenty-third year as America's best-selling light vehicle, car or truck. The last year any vehicle but a Ford truck topped the sales charts, Ronald Reagan was in his first term as President, there was still a Soviet Union, AT&T was still the phone company for most Americans and IBM had just launched the first personal computer.

The No. 023283 Volga M21 was one of the models announced by Herpa that did not make it into production last year. Photo courtesy of Herpa/Promotex.

2004 was a good year for new vehicle models, especially in 1:87 scale. There were a number of new trucks, including Athearn's eagerly-awaited Mack B and R models and Tonkin's new diecast Volvo VNL-780. New trailers included Promotex's new Livestock Trailer, which is very nice. What was especially welcome was the addition of other types of vehicles to the mix. Busch brought out new "Chopper" motorcycles and American-style travel trailers and Wiking introduced some new Polaris ATVs. Herpa's latest piece of heavy equipment, the Liebherr Mobile Crane, is one of their best models.

Although I can't discuss specifics until after the International Toy Fair in Nürnberg next month, I can tell you there are more great models on tap for 2005. Stay tuned for more details.

Not every model announced last year made it to the shelves of your favorite hobby source. The GMC bus and Toyota Land Cruiser unveiled by Busch were delayed by special projects and won't hit until the first quarter of this year. Model Power has canceled orders for a number of its new diecast Mini Models, though the company says the delay is only temporary.

Some of the models Herpa presented at Nürnberg last February are still in limbo. The Wings model of the de Havilland Comet and the large-scale model of the Mercedes-Benz SLK remain among Herpa's "Projects" with no definite introduction date. The same is true of the "Magic" series of passenger car models.

Another example of Herpa's unfinished 2004 business is the No. 023283 GAZ M21 Volga sedan, announced for a September-October 2004 introduction, but never shipped. There was a lot of discussion about Herpa's selection of the Volga, but after looking into the history of the car, it actually makes a lot of sense.

Named for the Russian river, the Volga was the most successful car ever produced by the former Soviet Union. Unlike the high-end Chaika, which was reserved for government officials and Communist party functionaries, the Volga was a car for the masses. At least, it was for those masses lucky enough to get a car at all. From 1956 to 1970, 638,875 Volga M21/M22 automobiles left assembly lines. While that's a fair number for home-brewed Soviet cars, it's only about 70% of the number of F-Series pickups Ford sold just last year.

A Series 3 Volga M21, the prototype for the Herpa model. Photo courtesy of GAZ.

The story of the Volga begins in the early 1950s, as the Cold War was getting fairly hot. In the fall of 1953, as Joseph McCarthy hunted Communists in the U.S. Army, Alexander Mihajlovich Nevzorov was making the first drawings of the Volga. Josef Stalin was dead and his successors, Nikita Khrushchev and Georgi Malenkov were eager to move the Soviet Union forward. Nevzorov was given carte blanche to develop a car that would rival those produced by the United States.

As GAZ ("Gorkovsky Avtomobilny Zavod" or Gorky Automobile Plant) was founded in 1929 as a joint venture between Ford and the Soviet Union, it's perhaps not surprising that some of stylist Lew Eremeev's early designs bore a strong resemblance to the then-current Ford sedans.

The first working prototype of the new Volga was completed in 1954. Its four-cylinder, four-stroke engine featured a chain-driven overhead camshaft and hemispherical combustion chambers. This engine could not be production-ready by the time the car was scheduled to be introduced, so an enlarged version of the side-valve engine from the M20 Pobieda was used.

The Volga was associated with some of the best and worst aspects of Soviet life. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was a proud Volga owner and visited the GAZ works in 1963. The black Volga sedan was also the standard ride for agents of the notorious KGB.

The M21 Volga made its press debut in 1955. While the Soviet government proudly pointed to the fact the Volga had gone from concept to drivable car in just two years, the reality was the Volga was nowhere near ready to be mass-produced. In fact, in 1956, the first official year of production, only five cars were built, with the first coming off the line on October tenth. It was not until 1957 that any average Soviet citizen who had 5400 rubles could sign up to buy a Volga.

The 1957 Volga was quite different from the car shown to the press in 1955. The biggest change was an entirely new 2.5-liter 4-cylinder OHV engine, the first engine to be produced at the ZMZ engine factory. While it was intended to rival American cars, the Volga was much smaller, being just four meters (a bit over thirteen feet) long. However, with seating for six adults, it was large for a European car and was the biggest Soviet passenger car ever produced for mass sale.

There were three distinct variants of the M21 Volga. The Series 1, built from 1956 to 1958, borrowed a number of American styling cues, mostly from Ford and Studebaker. The grille treatment was quite similar to the 1953 Ford Custom, except that the central "bullet" in the Ford grille was replaced by a Soviet star.

The Series 2, produced until 1962, featured a new grille with vertical bars. Based on customer preference (and pocketbook), the grille could either be painted to match the body color or chromed.

The final version was introduced in 1962. This was the model produced in the largest numbers and is also the basis of the Herpa model. Another new grille, with smaller vertical bars, new taillights and a more sharply-defined body treatment are the spotting features of the Series 3. In addition, the leaping deer hood ornament found on Volgas built for the home market finally disappeared. Volgas built for export never had the deer because of safety concerns.

The M21 was not the only Volga. There was also the M22, a station wagon version, built from 1962 to 1970 and the M23, a limited-production version with the V8 engine from the GAZ Chaika, power steering and automatic transmission. Though it was also in production from 1962 to 1970, only 603 M23s were built, all for the Soviet KGB. While the KGB didn't like the M23 because of its poor handling, it was quite fond of the Volga itself and the black sedans (like the Herpa model) became closely associated with the dreaded secret police.

Today's GAZ Volga 31105 . Image courtesy of GAZ.

Even though it resembled an American sedan, the Volga had to be designed and built to meet Russian realities. Good roads were rare, so the Volga had a 9-inch ground clearance to be able to navigate anything from highways to cow paths. In those pre-seatbelt days, there was also extra headroom so the occupants didn't get concussions while tackling those back roads. At the 1955 press introduction, reporters got to see the first Volgas plow through the kinds of roads we're more accustomed to seeing in SUV ads. Mud and shallow creeks were part of that first press junket and the Volga came through with flying colors.

Just as important as the ability to navigate bad roads, the car had to be simple enough to be serviced by the owner, as service stations were rare in the Soviet Union. Volgas were very rugged, with five main engine bearings, quite unusual for the time. Volgas also came with a complete set of tools and a detailed maintenance manual. The tool kits (that's right, there were two of them) included such items as a starting handle, tire pump and cans of paint.

Volgas were also raced in rallys, both in the Soviet Union and European competition. In 1959, a M21 took first place the 1600-kilometer "1000-Lakes" competition in Finland and third place in the Greek Acropolis Rally.

In July 1960, British automotive magazine "The Autocar" did a road test on the Volga and came away quite impressed. While the M21's performance was not exactly awe-inspiring, with an 80 mph top speed and 24-second quarter mile time, the big car's 22.8 mpg fuel consumption and rugged construction scored big points with reviewers. They were also impressed with the car's build quality, something for which most Soviet cars were not well-known.

In addition to Great Britain, Volgas were sold in a number of Western European countries. From 1962 to 1966, about 167 Volgas were assembled at SA Sobimpex, NV, in Brussels, Belgium. Volgas would be shipped to Sobimpex without engines and with a disassembled transmission in the trunk. There, a four-cylinder diesel engine and the transmission would be installed. Initially, the engine was a British Perkins Four 99. This was succeeded by diesels from Rover and the Indenour diesels used by Peugeot. These diesel Volgas were most popular in the Netherlands and Belgium, where they were put into service as taxicabs.

For all the efforts GAZ had put into the Volga, it did not sell well outside its home market. While it was rugged, it was also slow and had troubles on hills due to problems with the design of the carburetor. Its strengths were not needed in Western Europe, where roads were better and service easily obtained.

Probably the most famous owner of a Volga was cosmonaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, the first man to fly in space. Following his historic flight, he became one of the Soviet Union's hottest celebrities and the government presented him with a M21 that he kept until his death in a plane crash in 1968.

A fourth series of the M21 Volga was planned, but never made it past the styling stage. Further development of the M21 ended in 1965, when GAZ began to plan the M24, which was introduced in 1970 and remained in production until the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. GAZ survived the end of Communism and became a joint-stock company in 1992. Today, it is a major auto, truck and bus producer in Russia. GAZ is still producing a version of the Volga, the very modern-looking 31105.

For more information about the Volga, I would suggest a visit to GAZ website or to Jelle Jan Gerrits' website.

See you next time!

- Bill Cawthon

Bill Cawthon is a modeler and collector. His primary hobby interests are vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales and model railroading. He is senior editor of Route 1-87, the magazine of the 1/87 Vehicle Club, and a columnist and product reviewer for Model Railroad News. He is one of the creators of the award-winning "Grimy Gulch" model railroad layout.

In real life, Bill is a marketing and public relations consultant for MARK III Systems, a successful information technology company. He also writes for, an international auto industry publication, reporting on the U.S. light vehicle industry.

He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Marge, and their children.

Bill's columns appear twice monthly on Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.


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published by Cadabra Corp. This page was lasted updated: October 25, 2005