Notes From Hairenik
September 10, 2008

The Volga must be one of the loudest, crudest automobiles ever produced in the history of the automotive industry. I can usually identify one approaching the intersection below my apartment by the horrendous, deafening pounding sounds they tend to make while rolling down the street. It is a Soviet-era vehicle produced by the Russian GAZ company, which also makes light cargo trucks and passenger vans. GAZ manufactured many Volga models during its history, but the overwhelming number of cars still on the road today in Armenia are the models 24, 2410, 31, and 3110. All of these models are in fact the same car build on a virtually identical chassis, with small modifications to body design, door handles, interior trim, lights, and so forth. The engine and transmission design has changed very little or else not at all. They run on an inline 4-cyllender engine with a carburetor fuel system and a 4-speed manual transmission, although some special edition models were outfitted with 8-cyllender engines. The interior is a bit roomy but the suspension is rather loose on these cars giving way to a bumpy, often uncomfortable ride, especially when the driver is a maniac who doesn’t use his mirrors when navigating, which is most often the case. Indeed Volga drivers are the most dangerous ones, with little to no regard for who is in their way or who may be driving behind or beside them. It is not uncommon to see the windows of the cars covered by black shades for instance to block all sunlight. They are notorious for breaking down and falling apart. Much of the responsibility lies on the actual owners of these cars who tend to let things wear out and wait until it is impossible to continue driving with the defects. Or else, the driver simply ignores the problems altogether and simply keeps driving, regardless whether the exhaust system is riddled with holes or is coming undone, separating from the undercarriage.

Because the cars are so wide and thus very awkward often several dents and scratches are found on their bodies. They handle very badly and the turning radius is laughable. Speed is not a virtue of the Volga—they are fairly sluggish and have poor acceleration, especially those running on natural gas. Making wide turns while driving is a standard procedure for Volga drivers, they simply cannot handle tight corners. If a street is too narrow and a turn has to be made when coming towards a wall for instance, often the driver is required to perform a three-point turn to reposition the vehicle before continuing on.

The older 24 models can be found in good numbers throughout the rural areas of the country, as they are most often used to transport produce to market. It is common to see such vehicles packed with vegetables like cucumbers from floor to roof. Exactly how drivers manage to actually squeeze so much in the interior is anyone’s guess. As a result of so much cargo the rear of the car appears to drag across the road the entire way to the city.

Volgas are certainly resilient, tough cars, even tenacious as they don’t seem to die. Like practically all Russian automobiles they are built to take a beating, able to withstand all weather conditions, particularly the extreme cold, that most of Russia and the former Soviet Union endure. Parts are plentiful and cheap, and fixing one is not tremendously challenging to a mechanic with the slightest bit of experience in repairing Soviet-era cars. Nevertheless they are aesthetically bland with little style and virtually no pizzazz. Popular colors are black, white, or primer gray.

The exception is the Volga 21, which is a classic 1950s-era car reminiscent of stylish models produced by Detroit in the heyday of automobile design, and was manufactured through 1970. Inside and out, the 21 regardless of the minor style modifications made to it over the years was a stunning challenger to the classic American roadster. It is simply a gorgeous car and riding in one is an unforgettable experience.

Volgas are adored by Soviet-era nostalgists and taxi services. The overwhelming majority of Volga drivers are middle-aged males—I have yet to see a woman driving one. When completely necessary to hop into a Volga taxi make sure it looks fairly decent with no body damage—that is the first indication of whether the driver is sane. Also try to gage whether you are about to get into a newer model if possible. The latest Volgas have curved bumpers and corners, and the dashboard may have some faux wood trim on it. They tend to be a bit more comfortable and a tad quieter than older models, but not by much. The older 1970s-era 24 models look like cars made by GM during that same time—a dead giveaway is the push-button door handles. From experience people who drive them are generally lunatics. Be weary of the Volga.

Top photo: The Volga 3110.
Bottom photo: A poster advertising the Volga 21.

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