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