More Equal than Others (Part One)

DTW recalls the vehicles that served the apparatus of state in the former Soviet Union.

Leonid Brezhnev in a 1962 ZIL-111G Parade Car (c) rusmed-forever.ru

One of the many paradoxes of the Soviet Union was its tightly controlled and rigidly hierarchical society. The Bolsheviks who led the 1917 Russian Revolution dreamt of an egalitarian nirvana where ordinary workers would collectively govern the country through grassroots councils known as Soviets. No more would Russia be ruled by a hereditary monarchy, aristocracy and wealthy capitalist business leaders, all exploiting the proletariat. Instead, the new leaders would be servants of the people, appointed to execute their collective will.

Of course, it did not work out like that at all. As early as 1917, the Bolsheviks established a secret police force known as the Cheka, to root out enemies of the people: counter-revolutionaries who would seek to re-establish the old order, or even those who, while broadly supporting the new regime, might seek to diverge even marginally from its orthodoxies. That organisation ultimately became the KGB and lives on today in Putin’s Russia as the FSB.

It seems that the revolutionaries could not, after all, rely on the collective will of the people to decide what was good for themselves. They needed to be controlled from the top down. A new breed of bureaucrat emerged, one who was unquestioningly deferential and subservient to his seniors and expected the same from his subordinates.

Society was remodelled totally around this new hierarchy and visible signifiers of one’s rank and status became paramount. This included the car one drove or, for more senior officials, was driven in. A range of Russian cars emerged to align with the new hierarchy.

1946 ZIS-110 (c) drive-my.com

Right at the top of the pecking order was the ZIS/ZIL limousine, reserved for the top commissars, including Joseph Stalin. The Soviet leader was supposedly an admirer of the 1942 Packard Super Eight and allegedly owned several examples. The first post-WW2 model from ZIS, the 110, was launched in 1946 and was, in effect, a reverse-engineered Packard. The 110 was powered by a six-litre inline-eight engine, was six meters long and weighed 2.6 tonnes. It was built in a number of different variants including a convertible ‘parade car’ and an ambulance. Armour-plated and four-wheel-drive versions were also manufactured in small numbers. The 110 was produced for a decade and was used by Nikita Khrushchev after Stalin’s death in March 1953.

The ZIS-110 was succeeded by the ZIL*-111 in 1958. Although similar in style to mid-1950’s American cars with its panoramic windscreen, heavily cowled headlamps and plenty of chrome, it was an all-Russian design. It survived for only four years before receiving a major update to the body styling to bring it into the 1960’s. The new 111G (pictured, top) featured more formal styling with a full-width front grille encompassing dual round headlamps. Overall length was now 6.2 metres and the weight increased to 2.8 tonnes. The engine remained a six-litre V8, claimed to produce 200bhp, which was mated to a two-speed torque-converter automatic transmission. The 111G was produced in both limousine and convertible formats.

1958 ZIL-111 (c) picautos.com

When Leonid Brezhnev succeeded Khrushchev following Khrushchev’s removal from power in 1964, he ordered the construction of what were called ‘ZIL Lanes’ in place of the central reservation along some of Moscow’s major arterial roads. These were reserved for senior government and military figures travelling in ZIL and the lower-ranking Chaika limousines. They had absolute right of way over other vehicles and their use often caused long traffic hold-ups in the capital. One ZIL Lane led south-west to the Vnukovo International Airport. Another led west to the exclusive Dorogomilovo suburb, favoured by senior government officials, and continued to the outskirts of the city, where many of the Dachas, the summer lodges of the Communist Party elite, were situated.

The ZIL-111G remained in production until 1967 and, after a hiatus, was replaced by the ZIL-114 in 1969 or 1970. The new model was very square-cut and similar in appearance to the contemporary Lincoln Continental State Cars used by the US President. The V8 engine was enlarged to seven litres and produced a claimed 300bhp. The outdated two-speed automatic transmission was finally replaced by a three-speed unit in 1975.

Overall length and weight increased again to 6.3 metres and 3.1 tonnes. The ZIL-114 was still a lightweight compared to its US equivalent, which weighed five tonnes. Following the 1963 assassination of John F Kennedy, US Presidential State Cars were heavily reinforced to resist attack, hence their extraordinary weight.

The ZIL-114 remained reserved for the country’s leadership and members of the Politburo. A short-wheelbase version, the ZIL-117, was produced for lower ranking members of the Central Committee. This was a five-seat saloon with 580mm taken out of the wheelbase.

In 1978 the 114 chassis and mechanical package was rebodied and renamed the ZIL-4104. Additional security features including triple-layered glass to resist nuclear radiation increased the weight to 3.4 tonnes. The engine capacity was raised again to 7.7 litres, which had little impact on the claimed power output but improved the torque from 559Nm to 608Nm.

Despite the apparent luxury and prestige of the ZIL limousines, the increasingly aged underpinnings were beginning to atrophy. ZIL’s weak finances and small production volumes meant that there were not the resources to update it meaningfully. Unlike in the US, where Lincoln and Cadillac have historically vied for the prestige of supplying the Presidential State Car, ZIL was primarily a commercial vehicle manufacturer, so enjoyed no ‘halo’ effect from its limousine production.

1985 ZIL-41047 (c) 1cars.org

1985 brought a further visual update and renaming, this time to ZIL-41047. Mechanically, the car was virtually unchanged over its predecessor and remained so until the end of production in 2002. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later, Russia’s leaders increasingly favoured Western limousines for state transport, notably the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, instead of the wholly outdated ZIL.

In 2006 a one-off limousine, the ZIL-4112R, was commissioned for the President of Russia, the increasingly nationalistic Vladimir Putin. Again, this was mainly a cosmetic update but allegedly still took six years to complete. The faltering ZIL company was finally declared bankrupt in 2013.

2018 Aurus Senat (c) Christopher Butt

Russia then lacked a home-grown state limousine until the Aurus Senat was unveiled in September 2018. The Senat was designed by NAMI, the state controlled Central Scientific Research Automobile and Automotive Engines Institute. Its style draws heavily on BMW-era Rolls-Royce models. The Senat is powered by a 4.4 litre V8 engine and comes in standard and limousine versions. The standard version is 5.6 metres long and weighs 2.7 tonnes. The limousine is a metre longer and weighs a hefty 6.2 tonnes in fully-armoured Presidential guise.

* The company name was changed from Zavod Imeni Stalina (ZIS) to Zavod Imeni Likhachyova (ZIL) in 1956 after Khrushchev denounced the cult of personality surrounding Stalin.  Ivan Likhachov, after whom the company was renamed, was a former director.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

12 thoughts on “More Equal than Others (Part One)”

  1. Hello Daniel,
    Great article once again, and already looking forward to part 2.
    Your mention of the ZIL-111 being an “all-Russian” design however is (at least in my view) somewhat doubtful; the first version of 1958 bears more than a passing resemblance to the 1955-56 Packard:

    For the later ZIL 111G Mother Russia seems to have changed her focus from Packard to Cadillac, specifically the 1961 version- at least for the front end styling:

    How this likenesses exactly came to be (buying old tooling from Packard / Cadillac or simply copying) was and is the subject of lively debate and nobody has been able to come up with the definitive, proven verdict so far- and nobody probably ever will.

    1. Good morning Bruno, and thank you for your kind words. You’re right, I’m probably being charitable in describing The ZIL-111 as “all-Russian”. The ZIS-110 really was a blatant copy of the Packard Super Eight. Here’s the Packard (top) and ZIS (bottom) for direct comparison :

      Subsequent models were clearly styled to resemble American cars but, as I understand it, the engineering was no longer identical. As you say, it’s difficult to know definitively , but I doubt that there was any commercial deals done between US makers and ZIL at the height of the Cold War for tooling or intellectual property.

  2. Wonderful stuff to start my busy day with!

    I imagine you could do a bank ram-raid with the Aurus and get away with it.

    1. Good morning Vic. If you want something suitable for a gangster lifestyle, Aurus can also oblige with the Komendant SUV:

      Dare I say it, but I think it’s better resolved than the Cullinan and the hideous Bentayga.

      Plenty of room for your accomplices in the Arsenal MPV:

  3. Nice article, Daniel. I’d take my Aurus Senat limo in SWB, KGB black over Romanov tan, please. I must confess that the idea of one of those instead of a RR/Bentley/Maybach is very appealing to me.

    Just one detail must be corrected in your text, and it is when you say “When Leonid Brezhnev succeeded Khrushchev following his death in 1964”. Actually, Khrushchev was the only Soviet leader to be ousted by the Politburo whilst still alive. Brezhnev and his mates developed a year-long plan to remove Khruschev and succeeded in doing so. Khruschev was granted an apartment and a dacha, fell into depression, started writing his memories (and got tracked by the KGB) and died in 1971.

    1. Hi Eduardo. Yes, the Senat would be a great left-field choice, as would the Komendant. It would be fascinating to see them tested back-to-back against the Phantom and Cullinan. As for the Arsenal, the less said about it, the better.

      Thank you for the correction. Annoyingly, I actually knew that, but my addled brain let me down! Text amended accordingly.

  4. Interesting summary of one of the Soviet Union’s continuing state secrets.

    These ZIS/ZIL cars were essentially handbuilt “prototypes” made in the multiple dozens (!) in a good year and in total secrecy. Talk about exclusive — for the leaders of a professed proletariatian nation no less — they may well have cost the equivalent of millions a copy. But no doubt the more than equal leaders of the Soviet Union felt they deserved special treatment for being, well, special themselves. Besides, they could boast that anything Detroit could churn out, well, good old Soviet knowhow could do the same thing. The price and availability were of course never mentioned.

    Comrade Brezhnev is rather well-documented as a Mercedes-Benz nut and an avid car collector. He used to wheedle the latest big Benz out of the West Germans every chance he got. No doubt reproducing the hydraulics or pneumatics that ran the power windows and what have you were more than ZIL could comfortably handle. Well before that, the 1956 Packard interconnected front-to-rear torsion bar suspension with automatic rear self-levelling no doubt flummoxed the elves slaving away making one-off ZIL limos. The Packard mechanical solution to fore-and-aft interconnection was apparently reliable enough, and predated Mouton’s Hydrolastic by years, but poor old Packard were in the deep doldrums by the mid 1950s. Much as Jowett was broken by Briggs Motor bodies being bought up by Ford UK, a similar fate befell Packard in the USA, which led to their amalgamation with that other struggling company, Studebaker, and final commercial doom.

    Speaking of which, I think that first 1946 ZIS 110 had a copy of the Packard Straight 8 engine, not a V8. Packard were about the last US manufacturer to design and make a modern OHV V-8 engine in the mid 1950s. When ZIL made their first V8 at about the same time, who knows who they copied. There not being a lot of old ZILs rusting away in scrapyards to examine and for the mavens to go “Aha!”, I don’t think anyone in the West knows what “inspiration” they drew on for their V8 “design”. What a charade.

    Fast-forwarding to today, hat Komendant SUV is about the best looking giganto crossover (not close to being an SUV) I’ve ever seen, right up there with the Lincolns designed by that British bloke David Woodhouse who left unaccountably in June last year for Nissan. Makes the Kia Telluride look ordinary, and no Benz crossover looks anywhere near as good. Well done whoever you are.

    I use Totota’s definition for the difference between a crossover and an SUV:

    https://www.toyota.ca/toyota/en/connect/3671/crossover-vs-suv

    However, the front of the Arsenal looks like a pig snout stuck on the last Generation long wheelbase Chrysler Town and Country minivan, not good at all. Of course, they also had to put the two generations ago Toyota RAV4 rear window upsweep on the T&C lines, and thereby ruin the rear profile as well. On a further look, the front reminds me of a modern take on the old Guy lorries of the 1950s – as a child car nut I used to think of them as piggy and almost frighteningly ugly, like an ogre out of a fairy tale.

    1. Good morning Bill. Your accurate description of the ZIS/ZIL cars as “handbuilt prototypes” might equally apply to the new Aurus models. It’s interesting that the Russian government did not entrust their design and build to a major automaker like Lada, but instead to a research institute. I agree with your assessment of the Komendant: it’s a really nice design. The Senat looks fine in SWB form, but its proportions are awkward in LWB form, the bonnet in particular being too short. I could live with the grille on the Arsenal, but the uptick in the DLO is a really jarring detail. I suppose the MPV is primarily designed for transporting the security personnel accompanying Putin, so asthetics are not so important.

      Thanks for the correction on the ZIS-110. The engine was, of course, a straight eight. Text amended accordingly.

  5. There’s one thing former Eastern bloc leaders and modern day Greens have in common: they need a certain level of personal luxury to comfortably fantasise about re-educating the rest of the population.

  6. I’ve seen the Senat and it’s impressive in a restrained ‘nothing to prove’ way.

    The same was true of the Aurus stand at Geneva last year, in marked contrast to Bavarian Ghoul Rolls Royce’s display, which concentrated on the company’s ability to pander to every crass whim of the vulgar rich.

    Above all, I enjoyed the Senat’s amazing-looking drivetrain, which looks straight out of a tank or a Trans-Siberian locomotive.

  7. I don’t know if DTW will keep writing about the former Soviet Union and especially prototypes made there, but here’s something interesting I came across last night on YouTube:

    1. Hi Eduardo, and thanks for sharing the video. There was certainly no shortage of ideas and enthusiasm amongst Eastern Bloc auto engineers, but rarely the money or political will to develop their concepts to the point of being viable for sale. We have some more Pieces on Soviet autos in the pipeline, so stay tuned.

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