A limousine from a den of communist atheists in a catholic newspaper

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A Zavod Imeni Likhacheva ZIL-111 limousine, Moscow. Anon., “–.” L’Action catholique, 1 February 1959, 20.

What’s this, my reading friend? You wonder why our blog / bulletin / thingee, dedicated as it is to all things aeronautical and spacey, is once again dealing with something as mundane and boring as an automobile? Well, for starters, yours truly was intrigued by the presence of a photo of a Soviet automobile in a catholic newspaper from Québec, Québec, namely L’Action catholique. Was 1 February 1959, the day when said photo was published, a slow news day? We shall never know. In any event, the caption of the photo in L’Action catholique was pretty straightforward and non-derogatory. No word was spoken (typed?) on the evils of godless communism. So, let us begin. I shall be brief, and… Why are you laughing, my slightly impolite reading friend?

The aforementioned caption, by the way, went like this, once translated of course:

THE LATEST THING in the Soviet automobile field, but much like the old American Packard, the “ZIL-III” model, manufactured in Moscow, has an eight-cylinder and 220 horsepower engine; it can reach up to [c. 170 kilometres per hour] 105 miles an hour. One of the most luxurious cars in Russia, it has the following characteristics: button controlled transmission, power brakes and power steering, windscreen wipers, automatic windows, heater and radio. Some models also have air conditioning. This photo and this information are from an official Soviet source.

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, as the world struggled through the darkest days of the Cold War, few people would have heaped praise on the Soviet automobile industry. This was true even in the case of the ZIS-110 limousine used by the leadership of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). This outdated vehicle simply did not conform to the newly acquired image of that country. The leaders of a superpower deserved to have a limousine worthy of their status.

From 1948 onward, engineers at Zavod Imeni Stalina (ZIS), renamed Zavod Imeni Likhacheva (ZIL) in 1956, after the death of Josif Vissarionovich Stalin, born Ioseb Jughashvili, developed a few designs that were not entirely satisfactory, and… You remember that this monstrous leader of the USSR for almost a quarter century was mentioned in February 2018 and January 2019 s of our blog / bulletin / thingee, my reading friend? Good for you. Give yourself a gold star. May I continue, now?

The last of the aforementioned designs, the somewhat unimpressive ZIS-111 Moskva say I, was exhibited at a gigantic agricultural fair in Moscow, in 1956. It failed to impress the crowds. It is also likely that the country’s big wigs were not too thrilled either. In any event, the Moskva had been rendered obsolete by the introduction of drastically new automobiles by well known American automobile manufacturers. This automobile’s main claim to fame is that the Guinness Book of Records believed it was / is the largest passenger car in the world, and…

What’s this? Why should an automobile maker working in a progressive communist paradise like the USSR care about what was taking place in a decadent capitalist inferno like the United States, you ask? Well, the truth was / is that it cared a whole lot. Many / most Soviet automobile engineers greatly admired, or envied (?), their American counterparts, even though they might not have said so too loudly.

The management of ZIL understood also very well the need to keep abreast of automobile developments in the United States. It bought examples of several limousine type vehicles in that country throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. Its engineers examined them with a fine tooth comb, but back to our story.

Given the lacklustre reception given to the Moskva, the management of ZIL seemingly organised some sort of competition to come up with the best design for a limousine equal to the best American automobiles of the time. A winner was quickly chosen. A full size plasticine mock-up of the new automobile was ready before the end of 1956. The ZIL-111, as it was called, was more modern, less ponderous, sleeker and a lot less stalinian that the limousine it would replace.

Unsurprisingly, several design features found in the American limousine type vehicles imported by ZIL found their way into the ZIL-111. One or more rather distinctive models introduced in 1955-56 by Studebaker-Packard Corporation, the Packard Patricia perhaps, proved especially influential in that regard.

Incidentally, did you know that Packard Motor Car Company, as the company was called back then, produced no less than 55 000 aircraft engines during the Second World War? The engines in question were British-designed Rolls-Royce Merlins produced under license. Would you believe that British combat aircraft produced under license in Canada like the Avro Lancaster heavy bomber airplane, Hawker Hurricane fighter airplane, and de Havilland Mosquito multirole airplane, were powered by Packard Merlin engines? Examples of these world famous aircraft can be found in the stupendous collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario.

Said collection also includes other Merlin-powered aircraft, namely 1 American-made North American P-51 Mustang fighter airplane, 3 British-made Supermarine Spitfire fighter airplanes, 1 British-made Fairey Battle target tug airplane and 1 Canadian-made Canadair North Star military transport airplane. Sadly enough, the Lancaster, the Mustang and 1 Spitfire wear phony colours and markings.

Would you believe that Ford Motor Company was to be the American maker of Merlin engines? This automobile giant was seemingly appalled by the mount of tinkering involved in the mass production of what could be described as a watchmaker’s nightmare. Rolls-Royce Limited was not amused by Ford Motor’s desire to redesign the Merlin. In turn, Henry Ford soon indicated that he would not produce military equipment for foreign countries. As a result, Ford Motor’s Merlin production project fell through. Ironically, Ford Motor Company Limited made 32 000 or so Merlin engines during the Second World War. This British subsidiary of Ford Motor had to produce its own sets of drawings to achieve this, as the ones provided by Rolls-Royce were not satisfactory. Would you believe that Packard Motor Car also had to redesign the Merlin for mass production?If I may be permitted to digress for a brief moment, after the collapse of the Merlin production project, Ford Motor designed an aircraft engine similar to it. This impressive design was not put in production. This being said (typed?), a V-8 version of this engine, known as the Ford Model GAA, was mass produced during the Second World War, for use in tanks. And yes, my reading friend, this was all the aeronautical and spacey content you can expect from yours truly today. Where was I? Oh yes, the ZIL-111 and its American look and feel.

Even though this Soviet limousine was inspired by one or more Packard automobiles, it was certainly not a copy of these vehicles. It was larger and boxier for example. The ZIL-111 also had a pretty strict, dare one say borderline sinister, appearance, especially when it was painted black. It should be noted that the tail fins found on more than a few American automobiles between the late 1940s and early 1960s were not among the features copied by ZIL’s engineers. They may have been perceived as being too flashy or decadent, if not extravagant and delirious, for the leadership of a progressive communist paradise like the USSR. And yes, my observant if slightly annoying reading friend, one could argue that the aforementioned tail fins were seemingly inspired by various aircraft types or, perhaps, by the fins of spaceships found in many comic books.

If I may be permitted to digress for a moment, again, it looks as if some Soviet big wigs took umbrage to the fact that some features of the ZIL-111 found their way into an automobile destined for lower level government officials, the GAZ-13 Chaika. Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev may, I repeat may, have been so annoyed by this infringement to the unspoken design rules within the Soviet automobile industry that he ordered, around 1961, that the ZIL-111 be made distinct again. Mind you, one could also argue that the looks of the Soviet limousine seemed a tad old fashioned by that time, when compared to that of similar sized American automobiles. In any event, the engineers reacted quickly. The new version of the ZIL-111 got a massive chrome grille, as well as small tail fins.

A minibus derivative of the ZIL-111, known as the ZIL-118 Yunost, was introduced in 1961. This internally sponsored project did not find favour within government circles. No more than 85 or so were produced, in a few versions, between 1961 and 1994.

Now that we’ve begun to touch upon the nitty gritty of the ZIL-111’s design, would you mind if I pontificated on a few of its features? No? Wonderful. The ZIL-111, say I, was a 6 / 7-seat vehicle fitted with a windshield and front window defrosting system, electric windows, a radio set and, in some cases, an air conditioning system. The front and back of the passenger compartment were separated by a safety glass partition. The finish of that compartment was nothing short of superb (polished wooden fittings, thick pile carpet, as well as top quality leather and broadcloth). Only the very best was good enough for the leadership of a proletarian paradise.

Indeed, the ZIL-111 won a Diplôme d’honneur, a second prize as far as I can tell, in 1958, at the Exposition universelle et internationale de Bruxelles. Said prize was awarded in recognition of the superb finish and design of this automobile. American car manufacturers might have been, how can I put this, angry enough to chew up furniture when they heard of this. This award might have been especially galling given that the styling of the ZIL-111 looked almost old fashioned when compared to that of the 1959 models that the American automobiles makers were about to introduce. Given the types of automobiles produced in Western Europe in 1958, automobile journalists in that neck of the woods and judges at the world fair seemingly looked upon the ZIL-111 as a modern automobile worthy of respect. Oh well, such is life. And yes, Expo 58, as this world fair was commonly called, was mentioned in a January 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

As you may well imagine, the ZIL-111 was displayed in the Soviet pavilion, as were other wonders of Soviet engineering, including a model of Sputnik I or Sputnik II, a pair of artificial satellites mentioned in several issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since July 2018.

If I may digress for a moment, the use of the word austere in a Soviet brochure describing the supremely luxurious ZIL-111 on display in Brussels was a textbook case of false advertising. Imagine that, inaccurate information in a Soviet brochure. If you can’t trust the USSR, who can you trust?

In its day, the ZIL-111 was the flagship design of the Soviet automobile industry. This innovative limousine was used exclusively for state occasions and by government officials, including several / many Soviet ambassadors. Did you know that the first human being to go into space, in April 1961, was paraded through the streets of Moscow in a convertible ZIL-111? And yes, my spacey reading friend, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was mentioned in July and September 2018 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

Do you have a question? How many ZIL-111s were produced, you ask? Would you believe that precisely 111 of these limousines were made between 1958 and 1967? No? You are correct in not believing this odiously inaccurate statement made by a lackey of decadent capitalism. ZIL manufactured precisely 112 ZIL-111s.

Ironically, 2 090 or so ZIS-110s were produced between 1946 and 1961.

Ta ta for now.

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Rénald Fortier