Volga will soon be a thing of the past

Moscow, October 29:

Sleek, low-slung and preferably black, it was once an object of desire for every Soviet bureaucrat. Now, more than half a century after it was first produced, Russia is stopping production of the legendary Volga saloon.

Once a symbol of stylish living and the preferred car of mid-level apparatchiki, the Volga has struggled to compete with the inomarki - foreign cars — that have flooded the automobile market since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The car manufacturer, Gaz, owned by Oleg Deripaska, confirmed this week that mass production of the famous limousine will end within two months.

A spokeswoman for the company denied the decision was linked to the global financial crisis. “The decision was taken earlier,” she said. High prices demanded by suppliers of components and tough competition from cheap imported cars had sounded the Volga’s death knell.

Production of the Volga began in the “thaw” period in 1956, the year that the Soviet leader Khrushchev publicly denounced Stalin for his brutal rule.

The first model, the Gaz-21, remains a classic and still has numerous fan clubs dedicated to it throughout Russia. Early models featured a five-pointed star on the radiator, a design personally endorsed by the Soviet war hero Marshall Zhukov.

Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir Putin, is an enthusiast and a Volga was the first car he owned. In 2005, he showed off the immaculately restored saloon to President Bush at a summit in Moscow. Bush initially had trouble using the manual gearstick mounted on the steering column, but then sped off across Putin’s summer estate.

“When it first appeared we were proud that our country was capable of producing such a beautiful, elite car that was no worse than an American or British one,” Vladislav Lazarenko, the founder of a Volga lovers’ fan club in the central Russian city of Kostroma, said yesterday.

“There was a feeling of patriotism.”

But as the years went by production quality began to decline and after 1970 the basic product design, or “platform”, hardly changed. “They started to use cheaper and cheaper parts,” said Lazarenko.

“The Volga got left behind as the global automobile industry took giant leaps forward,” he said.

With its woeful handling and shoddy interior the Volga was a poor competitor to Japanese and German cars that dominated the market in the post-communist era.

Until recently, Moscow’s New Yellow Taxi company had a large fleet of Volgas operating all over the city. Asked for his opinion on the demise of the car, one driver said: “We don’t use that piece of junk any more. We’ve got about 10 left but we want to get shot of them. Now we’ve got Fords. They’re miles better.”