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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Volga 21 Still Revs Up Russian Passion

It is a unique sports car, custom designed and built for one Russian multimillionaire, a black sleek dream with classic European lines. Yet the first time its designer took the car out on Moscow roads, it drew honks, waves of delight -- and smiles of recognition.

The sports car's design intentionally recalls the Volga 21, first introduced 45 years ago and the only Soviet automobile that transcended the bounds of grim functionality to encapsulate a dream.

In the Soviet Union, cars were merely means of transport, and designers churned out sturdy, ugly boxes on wheels. But somehow the Volga 21 rose above that. No other Russian car evokes such sentimental musings nor such happy associations. Volga 21s, many now 35 or 40 years old, still raise an affectionate smile as they ply the villages of Ukraine and Russia, bouncing from rut to rut in the Caucasus and Central Asia, toiling over rugged mountain tracks in Afghanistan and purring along the highways in Moscow.

Born of a culture that studiously avoided the cult of consumerism, the Volga 21 managed to capture the imagination of a generation and survived long enough to inspire a new generation with the possibilities of Russian design.

"It was the only beautiful car ever made in the U.S.S.R. in its entire history," said Ivan Shishkin, 28, one of a team of young car specialists who were so captivated by the old Volga 21 that they designed a remake for mobile phone magnate Dmitry Zimin. They made the design sportier, retained the old taillights, installed a V-12 BMW engine and called Zimin's sports car the Volga 12.

Describing the Volga 21 that inspired his team, Shishkin said it was "the only good car the average Soviet person could ever buy. This car became a cult object."

Zimin is chairman of Vimpelcom, the first Russian company to list on the New York Stock Exchange. His large car collection includes two Bentleys and a Volga 21.

Dmitry Lomakov, who runs Moscow's Volga 21 club, is a fanatic, a master of trivia associated with the old car. He said it symbolizes family life for older club members. One elderly woman brings her grandson to work on the family's Volga 21, which belonged to her late husband.

"It's like a family pet for them," Lomakov explained, standing in a large yard crammed with rusted, battered Volga 21s belonging to club members.

"The Volga is my childhood," said Yury Maximov, a 33-year-old member who has two Volga 21s. "My father lived for the car. And when I was 5 or 6, he even let me steer it. It was the biggest and the best car of all."

Maximov's 73-year-old neighbor, Gennady Kubrin, lives in his own vague world. But the old man brightens up when Maximov drives up in a Volga 21.

Kubrin bought one of the cars at age 30 and finally had to sell the beloved auto a year ago for want of somewhere to park it.

"When I drive my Volga into the yard, he comes down and asks for permission just to sit for a while in my car," said Maximov of his neighbor. The old man sits there for five minutes, transported into the past, then shuffles away.

Sofia Landau, 54, a professor of physics at the Moscow Aviation Institute, has been driving Volga 21s since the early 1980s. People often wander up to her car, full of questions.

"I love it like a living creature," she gushed about her car. "It's connected with all my warm memories of wonderful trips out into the country when my daughter was small. I'd call it the car that represents Russia's resurrection from the ashes after World War II."

Anton Smirnsky, an artist, never drove until five years ago, when he spotted a bright pink Volga 21.

"The moment I saw this car I knew I must have it. Its forms, lines, its curves and, of course, its fantastic color. I keep it as an object of beauty, as a work of art. Driving it is like sailing a wonderful boat."

"This car symbolizes all the best things we had in the past," said Anatoly Mikhailov, 33, who designed Zimin's Volga 12. "All the childhood and youth reminiscences are connected with it. That's why we decided to do a remake."

The Volga 21 was made available only to the Soviet elite: professors, scientists, managers, judges, KGB officers, party members.

The earliest model, the Festival, had a Soviet star on the grille and a leaping reindeer statuette on the hood -- always the first item to be stolen.

Production stopped in 1969, with many people still on a waiting list to buy. This led to a rash of homemade models, assembled in sheds from spare parts until the mid-1970s.

There was one model called the Volga 23-23, nicknamed the "Dogonyai-Dogonyai," or "Catchme-Catchme," because it had a V-8 motor from the Soviet Chaika limousine. It was used by the KGB or government ministers who wanted to mingle anonymously with masses but still go faster.

"In the Soviet Union, there was a very strict hierarchy, and this particularly concerned cars," said Lomakov, the club leader. "Party officials who did not have the right to drive a Chaika limousine tried to get the Volga 23-23 or modified their Volgas by implanting the V-shaped Chaika V-8 motor. You could always find a mechanic who would do it for you on the sly."

The Volga 21 station wagon, used for ambulances and taxis, was nicknamed "Sarai," or "The Shed," because of the voluminous interior.

But even the sedan was big inside. You could fold down the bench front seat to make a bed. Landau and her family camped in the car, sometimes getting bogged down in fields in the dark.

Mikhailov and his partner Shishkin personify a new generation of designers whose creed is perfection. They aim to shoot down the cliched view of mechanical design as functional but ugly and unreliable.

Catering to the rich, Mikhailov and Shishkin make custom cars that will never go into mass production. The Volga 12 was their first, and they are working on several other designs.

Putting the Volga 12 through some tough tests, the Russian car magazine AutoRevue was highly complimentary: "The pressure is wild, but it goes as if it's on rails." The magazine was not so flattering about the old Volga 21's capacities under similar stress. "It's scary, but it doesn't flip over."

The Volga 21, said Lomakov, is "not subtle in its steering. It feels more like a ship than a car."

When Mikhailov took the new Volga onto the streets, Russians saw something old and familiar in a modern, respectable reincarnation. It was a sunny spring day, and he drove the car round and round the city's outer ring road, logging 290 kilometers in a day.

"It was amazing to see people's faces. They looked as if they had seen a UFO land," he recalled. "Everyone was laughing, smiling. The feeling I experienced in that car was incomparable."

At a photo shoot of the car at Red Square, a crowd gathered.

"Very few of them could believe the car was made in Russia. When they found out it was, they felt proud. ... We have a lot of talented people. They just need minimum conditions to create a miracle."

Mikhailov and Shishkin see their Volga 12 not as a means of transport nor even a cult object but a work of art.

Sergei L. Loiko of the Los Angeles Times' Moscow bureau contributed to this report.