An American In Red Square

Goodness, it’s May already. I started writing this in BC-19, that’s Before Covid-19 and planned it as a light-hearted retrospective on otherwise terrifying geopolitical matters. Well, how was I to know?

(c) Thetimes.co.uk

Leonid Brezhnev was astute in having cars offered as sweeteners for diplomatic (or otherwise) talks to occur. Thus, wildly differing guesses flit anywhere from fifty to five hundred cars being accrued by the former Soviet Leader.

With the Russian Bear (as always) rather keen on security, most of the information is speculative at best, we simply do not know what happened to the majority of those automotive gifts. Those we do however, have quite the  story to tell. Brezhnev preferred the foreign motor but would occasionally stoop to driving a home grown affair, with his puffed-out, medal-adorned chest, at high speed, regardless of conditions. Pity the poor traffic officers charged with keeping the way clear.

We’ve all been there; visitors arriving soon and what to offer as a gift. Panic buying rarely works and here’s another instance of that.

When political tensions were as high as they could be during the Cold War, any form of diplomatic easing was seen to be a good move. When Leonid Brezhnev popped over to France in the June of 1977, what better offer than a car could there be? On a previous visit en France in 1971, the powers that be gave he of the bushiest of eyebrows a Citroen SM. Hopes then, were high.

Hoping to outdo the SM episode, Brezhnev was given not one but two cars from the Matra-Simca company, a Bagheera and a Rancho. It would appear the vodka-riven main man was most unimpressed. The Bagheera was airily dismissed whereas the Rancho was wrong as wrong could be. Green was considered unlucky and the tan interior simply not to his taste. Hasty whispers were, if a blue car with brown seats could be had… only the factory didn’t offer these colours.

Where is the Bagheera designer, pozhaluysta? (Russian for please) (c) Hybrid tech car.com

Not to miss an opportunity but with extraordinarily fortuitous timing, a security brief later informed the US president Jimmy Carter that the horrid green Rancho had been hauled back to the Méchanique Aviation Traction factory and had it hastily resprayed blue. With friends in high places, you can have any spec you wish. Mere mortals must wait in line for the blue MSR.

As a starter from other international contingents: From the Italians, a 1968 Maserati Quattroporte in burgundy was probably the jewel of the crown. It would have certainly been one of the most powerful and stylish. With those boulevard straights found near the politburo offices, one wonders if he managed to hit the rev limiter of that glorious sounding V8 before retiring for another vodka.

The Queen of England also features in this story with a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow. Leonid had been given another Shadow by Great friend of the Soviet Union, Armand Hammer but it’s HRH’s offering that became famous for the wrong reasons. Possibly being driven by him under the influence, this black Shadow was broken by the Commisariat or maybe stuffed by his garage mechanics. Either way, this car still exists, still in battered form in a Riga museum along with a Brezhnev mannequin behind the wheel looking somewhat surprised. 

The Brezhnev’s on Tour. (c) Hybridtechcar.com.

From Germany, an Opel Kapitan which ended up in Russia when his daughter Galina, who was married at the time to circus artist Yevgeney Milaev, had been touring Germany in 1960. And what else could there be but a Grosser from the Three Pointed Star? If ever a car was to be had by a leader who needed a drinks cabinet and make that a six door model, comrade: You would expect nothing less.

Brezhnev’s eyes also looked longingly at cars hailing from arch-nemesis the United States of America. Communist and Capitalist avenues are remarkably similar when the automobile is chiefly at the top of the agenda. His love affair with Detroit iron started early in his political career. Spring 1955 saw Nikita Khrushchev shopping in Vienna for goods to take back for distinguished party members. A white and green Chevrolet Bel Air Sport Coupe Hardtop was chosen for Leonid IIyich who was then Communist head in Kazakstan. Scratching each other’s backs propelled the Ukrainian forward along with his rather basic Bel Air that had no power windows; oh, the indignity. He passed the Chevvy to daughter, Galina.

A Chrysler 300 came to a fiery end (after Brezhnev’s death) when the car was torched after an attempted theft; the cars keys and documents do remain though. 

Nixon gives Brezhnev the keys to a brand new Continental. Hold on tight. (c) autoweek.com

Richard Nixon had several encounters with Brezhnev; a Lincoln Continental was the presidential car and Comrade B also wanted one, which he acquired later. Prior to this eventful trip, indirectly (the Ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin no less) asked for a Cadillac Eldorado to be brought over. Three days into Nixon’s trip, clearance was given for a US Air Force transport plane to land at Moscow with its precious cargo. A year later, Henry Kissinger was given a taxi ride in that very same Caddy, “at high speed to the pier, along the narrowest of country lanes, through town and no thought to stop at lights or intersections.” It’s difficult to imagine Henry Kissinger as being afraid but for once, here, my belief is that he was petrified. “We boarded the boat but thankfully Brezhnev didn’t drive that.

Let’s see what this babushka can do. (c) Hybridcartech.com

And more panic stricken rides were given, this time in the States at Camp David in 1973. Over there for more diplomatic meetings, Richard Nixon offered Brezhnev the keys to a brand new Lincoln Continental. Extremely keen to sample his new ride, Brezhnev swung behind the wheel but only after offering Nixon a lift around the base’s perimeter roads.

With secret agents turning white with fear at the possibilities, the two most powerful men on earth went for a drive, once more at high speed. Having never seen Camp David’s roads before perturbed the Ukrainian not one jot, ploughing on regardless even after Nixon’s advice to slow down, steep bend went unheeded. Nixon is reported as stating “’We reached the end of the descent, piercingly screeching tires, when he slammed on the brakes and turned. After our trip, Brezhnev told me: “This is a very good car. He’s great on the road.” “You are a great driver,” I replied. “I could never turn here at the speed you drove. Diplomacy is not always an easy art.‘”

Russia’s hot new rally driver takes the helm. (c) Hybridcartech.com

Homegrown machines include heavily modified Gaz cars which could off-road and even swim if these pictures are to be believed. Which, quite possibly are true. Or not. 

Just before Christmas 2019, his driving license was auctioned for approximately $24,000 dollars – only it’s a fake. But a known fake. Once Brezhnev had risen to the heady Party heights, he no longer needed any kind of licence. The license was a 70th birthday gift from Interior Minister Nikolay Shchelkov, a joke which, it seems, Brezhnev approved. 

Some of his car collection has been siphoned off, sold over time but records and most of the cars are lost, presumably somewhere in the depths of Russia. No mention of the Bagheera, Rancho or SM could these eyes find. 

A fuller dip into the short life of the Rancho, here.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

8 thoughts on “An American In Red Square”

  1. A good story, Andrew. I’m unsurprised that Brezhnev was corrupt, but surprised that he could be bought so cheaply. I can’t imagine Putin selling himself for a Caddy or a Lincoln.

  2. Andrew, great stuff. A few years back, staying with a local family in Riga, we asked to go to the car museum – which they’d never heard of . Well worthwhile, a purpose built modern building, hidden away in a suburb, very few visitors. Including many of those Iron Curtain models that one has only seen in pictures, plus Leonard Cohen on the music system .

    And yes …. Deliberately shoved into a corner, the crumpled, dusty RR Shadow, with its Brezhnev waxwork at the wheel. Neatly symbolic, of the regard in which today’s Latvia holds the former USSR. I have a picture, somewhere. How on earth did they get hold of it ? Probably, an interesting tale.

    1. Good morning, RichardF. Please let me save you the trouble of searching for that photo:

      The wax dummy of Brezhnev looks appropriately startled, as well it might!

  3. I can understand his disappointment with the Rancho compared to other offerings. I liked the Rancho. Never driven one but liked the look of them, something a bit different and a trend setter. Pity they never went down the 4×4 route. Not seen one for years.

  4. As far as I know Brezhnev’s SM is restored and resides in the Netherlands at the moment.

  5. Ah yes, he had a few big Mercedes’ squirrelled away too, I believe. Don’t think Kosygin, his supposed equal until Prague 1968, was a car nut. A tin of cashews and brazil nuts was all he asked. That Roller is in a bad way – nobody ever accused Leonid of being a good driver!

    So far as I know, no ’55 Chevy had power windows. That was a Cadillac exclusive along with Mark 1 air conditioning. Can’t remember power windows in Chevrolets before the 1970s. Note, it’s Chevy, not Chevvy, never ever. Where did the second v spring from? I’ve noted this before in UK writings. In Canada we call them Chevs, omitting the y. Of course we did have Pooh-joes outside Quebec but never called them Puggs for short. Or is that Pug?

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