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The GAZ M21 Volga, the first car to carry the Volga name, was developed in the early 1950s. Volgas were built to last in the harsh climate and rough roads of the Soviet Union, with high ground clearance, rugged suspension, a strong and forgiving engine, and rustproofing on a scale unheard of in the 1950s.
The Volga was stylistically in line with the major United States manufacturers of the period, and incorporated many luxury features that moved GAZ back upmarket. The Volga M21 was the most luxurious car any Soviet citizen was permitted to own (though due its high price, only about 2% could afford to buy one).
The car's size and construction made it popular in the police and taxi trades, and V8-engined versions were produced for the KGB secret service. An automatic transmission was briefly offered in the early 1960s when GAZ was contemplating entering the US market. The Volga M21 was produced in saloon form from 1956-70 and estate form (GAZ M22 Universal) from 1962-70. Today, it is considered a motoring icon with fans all over the world, including at least a handful in the USA.
Popular as it was, the M21 was quite outdated by the 1960s, leading GAZ to develop a boxier, more modern replacement.
The GAZ M24 Volga (similar in appearance to 1960s era Chevrolets or Fords) entered limited production in 1967, and full-scale manufacturing in 1970. The station wagon form (GAZ M24-02 Universal) arrived in 1972. GAZ M24 production continued in original form until 1992. This Volga enjoyed moderate success in export markets, and is the best-selling model in GAZ history with over 600,000 made.
During the 1960s-80s the Volga was also assembled in Belgium, with the model M21 at first. This took place at SA Sobimpex, NV, in Brussels. The cars came to the harbour in Antwerp without engine and with the gearbox, disassembled, in the boot. At Sobimpex they initially built in a Perkins Four-99 diesel engine. Later on the Perkins diesel engine was succeeded by a Rover engine (found also in the Land Rover), which was succeeded for the M24 by an Indenor engine from Peugeot (found also in Peugeot J 7 Diésel); the model now gained the designation "D", for Diesel.
Almost all GAZ passenger cars introduced since the 1970s are based on the venerable GAZ-24 platform, right down to the central body shell. In the 1970s, Volga also introduced a convertible "24" model which had a limited, but very successful run. Minor differences from the original "24" included bonnet-mounted wing mirrors, instead of the door-mounted mirrors on the hardtop.
The M24-10 (basically an M24 with a more modern plastic grille) was produced from 1985-92. An estate, the M24-12 Universal, was also produced.
An updated and more luxurious version of the M24, the Volga 3102, arrived in 1982 and continues in production to the present.
The Volga 31029, featuring more aerodynamic front bodywork, was produced from 1991-96.
A still more modern derivative of the GAZ M24, the Volvo-inspired Volga 3110, arrived in 1997 and remained on sale until 2003. The estate version of the 3110, the Volga 310221 Universal, remains in production as of 2005. The saloon received a minor front restyle for the final year of production, while the estate continued with the 1997 front styling, with everything from the A-pillar back dating to 1972.
The 3110's replacement, the Volga 31105, entered production in early 2004 and represents the most heavily restyled and modernized version of the GAZ M24 yet. In addition, even more heavily restyled GAZ M24 versions in both saloon and estate form are planned for the near future.
Besides the M24 derivatives, GAZ has also produced two truly modern Volga models in recent years. The all-wheel drive Volga 3105 luxury sedan powered by the all-new OHC V8 engine was produced in limited quantities (primarily for experimental use) from 1994-97, when production ceased after only a few hundred had been built.
The 3105 was succeeded by the rear-wheel drive Volga 3111 produced from 1998-2003. The 3111 was a modern luxury sedan targeted against used western cars on the ex-Soviet market. It featured GAZ M21-influenced retro styling cues and was developed in collaboration with US-based Venture Industries. Though very modern in appearance and packaging, the 3111 was still built on the same chassis introduced with the 1967 M24. 3111 production ceased after a short run caused by high production costs, and lacklustre sales due in part to the car's uncompetetive $8,800 base price.
The GAZ 31105 Volga entered production in 2004 as a replacement for the one year-only Mark II version of the 3110. The car features a more heavily revised front, with a grille and headlights inspired by the modern, but discontinued, 3111. New, more conventional looking, body-coloured door handles were also instituted. The 31105 is available only as a saloon, with the estate continuing with the old 3110 styling.
The current three-model Volga range, based on the 1967 GAZ M24, consists of the top-range 3102 (since 1982), the 310221 Universal estate (since 1997), and the most modern, yet lowest-priced 31105 (since 2004). Volga 31105 pricing starts at around $7,000.
Although GAZ was developing a "spiritual successor" to the 3111, the Volga 3115, in December 2005 RusPromAvto, the parent company of GAZ, announced that production of Volga passenger cars would be phased out over a 2-year period, with production to end in 2007. GAZ stated that they would instead concentrate on their more profitable truck, bus, and commercial vehicle businesses. However, in the summer of 2006, GAZ reversed its earlier decision, announcing that further investments would be made in upgrading the styling and technology of the Volga saloons, keeping them in production as "retro" or "historical" vehicles. In early 2006, GAZ signed a deal with DaimlerChrysler to acquire the tooling and intellectual property rights for the Dodge Stratus and Chrysler Sebring mid-size cars, which will enter production in Russia, presumably under the name Volga Siber. GAZ owns the car's platform outright, allowing all-new future vehicles to be developed on the same underpinnings.
Volga production peaked at well over 100,000 units per year during the early-to-mid 1990s, then fell sharply due to Russia's worsening economic crises, reaching just 56,000 cars in 2000. With a gradually reviving export network, the Volga has made progress on the road to recovery, with nearly 70,000 cars produced in 2004.
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