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 (what gives it a specific "high" look, contrary to "low-long-sleek" look of Western cars of resembling design), rugged suspension, 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 such then-luxury features as the reclining front seat, cigarette lighter, heater, windshield washer and 3-wave radio.

When in 1959 the 6-cylinder line of GAZ cars was discontinued, Volga M-21 became the biggest and most luxurious car officially sold to individual owners in the USSR in large quantities, though its price was very high and made it unavailable for most car buyers.

Also, in the fall of 1958 there were produced cars that combined features of the Ist and the IInd series; in 1 - cars that combined features of the IInd and the IIId series (very few built).

The car's large size and tough construction made it popular in the police and taxi trades, and V8-engined versions (designated GAZ M23) were produced for the KGB secret service. An automatic transmission was briefly offered in the late 1950s, but later discontinued due to lack of service stations, and then through the 1960s on the KGB's V8 version only, with the driver's controls being very similar to the discontinued "civil" automatic. 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 (one having appeared in 1999–2001 in Boston and at The car is famous for its unusual features: front bench seat, column transmission shifter, smooth 1950s design.

"Volga dvadtsat' odin" ("Volga Twenty One" in Russian) was produced nearly as long as the Citroën DS in France, and playes the same role in Russian automotive culture: a legend-on-wheels. But it became quite outdated by the 1960s, leading the GAZ to develop a boxier, more modern replacement. In 1970, the "21" platform was discontinued by the GAZ. But, however, till late 1970s spare parts were produced by different plants all over the USSR, and some plants were re-building "21" cars using spare parts, wrecked and junked cars. In 1988, about 80,000 "21" Volgas were registered in the USSR.

UAZ-469 all-terrain vehicle uses a breed of GAZ-21A engine, so spare parts never were a big problem.

Also the RAF-977 minibus from Rīgas Autobusu Fabrika was based on GAZ-21's engine and drivetrain.

A special variant GAZ-23 Volga was produced for Soviet special services only, with 195 kp V8 engine from GAZ-13 Chaika, developing 170 km/h.