I tell them, ‘It drives like a 60-year old Russian car.’
Its hue, as dark as Darth Vader’s armour, perfectly suits a limousine built in what US President Ronald Reagan dubbed “the evil empire”. The leaden clouds, bracing breeze and brief snow flurry that seemed unfitting for a mid-April day only heightened the Cold War chill. Giddiness didn’t even begin to describe it; I was going to ride in a ZiL.
Zavod Iniemi Likhachev (sometimes spelled "Zavod imeni Likhachova"), named for Soviet auto industry pioneer Ivan Likhachev, built trucks, buses and until 2002, the big, intimidating limousines used by Soviet officials. According to Vinnie Baksht, owner of this particular ZiL, most were dismantled under KGB supervision after official usage. Baksht’s example is of Perestroika vintage, a 1985 model, the last of 65 built in this variation, known as a 41045. It’s also one of a few that made their way out to the West. Baksht says his car touched US soil before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, when it served as a backup car in President Mikhail Gorbachev’s motorcade for his 1987 summit with Reagan.
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“People would get scared at the sight of a ZiL,” says Baksht, who emigrated from Moscow in 1989.
The 6.3-metre-long mobile monolith packs light armouring in the doors and weighs four tonnes, but its 315 horsepower 7.7-litre gasoline V8 engine moves it smartly through midday traffic. Baksht says duplicated ignition, brake and fuel systems were necessities for the car’s original line of work.
I think better of probing Baksht for the “connections” that were required to secure the car’s passage to the US. All that is left to do is marvel at the incongruity of New Jersey car-dealer license plates on a Soviet limousine, and retire inside Starbucks to chat over coffee.
This debutante of détente is entered in this spring’s Greenwich Concours d’ Elegance in Connecticut. The distinguished event has featured several Soviet-era cars in recent years, a point of pride for Baksht and a community of collectors in the US, Europe and Russia who connect through various blogs and forums.
Dmitri Shvetsov, who lives in New York’s Brooklyn borough, has shown two GAZ-21 Volgas at Greenwich. The 45-year-old auto engineer left Chernogolovka, a scientific hub about 45km from Moscow, 25 years ago. He says he didn’t intend to buy a Soviet car when searching the internet for a classic vehicle in 2010. In disbelief, he stumbled on a black ’62 Volga for sale in southern California – coincidentally home to a famous Volga owner, television personality and renowned car collector Jay Leno.
“That started my obsession with Russian cars in America,” Shvetsov says. When flooding from Superstorm Sandy ruined his Volga in October 2012, he imported a fully restored 1957 model – the first year for the car – from Russia.
The GAZ-21, a compact pastiche of early ‘50s American sedans, was built with few changes through 1969 and was usually reserved for citizens of high standing within Soviet bureaucracy. Its engine is a 70hp 2.4-litre four cylinder with a 3-speed manual transmission. Onlookers inevitably ask Shvetsov what it’s like to drive.
“I tell them, ‘It drives like a 60-year old Russian car,’” he says with a chuckle.
Last year, 19-year-old Roman Grudinin won his class at Greenwich with a Soviet peoples’ car, the VAZ Lada. The teen, who lives 40km upriver in New City, New York, bought and restored his 1982 Lada in Ukraine when he was 17. Some locals mistake it for the Fiat 124 upon which it was based. Fiat configured the factory and supplied the tooling, and several variations were made between 1972-2012. Grudinin explains that VAZ made hundreds of changes to the basic 1966 Fiat design, including an engine transplant, to make it suitable for brutal Soviet weather and road conditions.
“The only thing they really share is the body shell,” Grudinin says. “You can't use any Italian parts.”
The Lada name was reserved for export branding; the car was called Zhiguli in Russia, for a mountain range near the factory. With more than 20m sold, the Fiat-based Lada was the world’s second-most-produced car, behind just the Volkswagen Beetle. More than half were exported. European and Canadian buyers attracted by the car’s low price were also disappointed by its low quality. Home-market drivers, however, were more willing to take advantage of the car’s relative ease of DIY repair.
Grudinin’s Lada is a 2103, a “luxury” upgrade distinguished by its four-headlight grille and plusher interior. The 8,600-ruble price was out of reach for most citizens, when the average monthly wage was 100 rubles. But the original owner, he says, paid just one ruble, winning the car in a state-run lottery.
Grudinin has built ties with a network of Lada collectors in Russia and Eastern Europe. One friend, Norbert Meleg in Dunaszeg, Hungary, owns 13 examples. His only Western car is a BMW 850i coupe.
“My childhood dream was to get a Lada 2103,” says Meleg, 42. “Back then, waiting years for a car, a telephone line or an apartment, or something as trivial as a freezer, was part of everyday life in the ‘worker’s paradise.’”
Meleg started his Lada collection four years ago and had many of them restored. With friends, he founded the Classic Zhiguli Club of Hungary, which estimates that 65,000 registered Ladas reside within the former Communist country’s borders.
In Moscow, photographer and television camera operator Alex Adoratsky collects low- mileage, original-condition Ladas. He owns five, plus two Volgas, including a 1969 model that he bought for about $200 and spent a year restoring.
“My dad had the same car when I was a kid,” he says.
Adoratsky’s first Lada was an orange 1984 model with just 2,200km showing on the odometer, bought from a friend’s father. He lends his cars for television and film productions; this one appeared in Archangel, a 2005 movie featuring Daniel Craig.
Outside the confines of a concours, few Americans have seen a Lada or any other Soviet or Russian automobile, a fact Simon Ross hopes to change. He left the Soviet Union shortly after its dissolution and settled in pastoral Sammamish, Washington, 32km east of Seattle. Inspired by The LeMay: America’s Car Museum in nearby Tacoma, Ross hopes to start a museum for Soviet vehicles. He’s off to a good start, with 20 examples – including two military machines – and 10 more on the way. He began importing them from Ukraine, the Baltics and Bulgaria four years ago, some with as little as 2,000km logged in their lifetimes.
“[Those residents] switched to driving foreign cars earlier than in Russia, so their Soviet cars sat in garages,” says Ross, who owns a seafood company.
In addition to several Ladas, Ross’s collection includes two GAZ-21 Volgas, a later GAZ-24 Volga station wagon, a Moskvitch and a 1951 ZIM, a big sedan with 1940s Cadillac-like styling. Its original owner was the Soviet ambassador to China, Ross says.
Among his favourites is the ZAZ, a tiny car with a rear-mounted air-cooled V4 engine. He has a photo of himself, at age six, at the wheel of his father’s nearly identical model; he recently replicated the shot with his own six-year-old son:
Unlike the grand social experiment that produced them, it seems these cars are assured of a robust second life.
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