THE FIRST handful of Soviet luxury cars were assembled in Leningrad in 1933. The boxy, seven-seater saloon, called the "L-1", was based on he 1931 American Buick 90. In fact all Russian luxury car manufacture, from inception until 1941 (when the production of passenger cars was temporarily halted), was based on variations of John Dolza's straight-eight Buicks. The power unit was 5,650 c.c., ohv, with cast iron pistons, a Downdraught Marvel carburettor, a compression ratio of 4.4-to-1 and a claimed 105 bhp.
ZIS and ZIL
The original Leningrad factory, Krasny Putilovjets, was well-established in the manufacture of heavy industrial equipment, and it was eventually decided to increase the output of arming machinery there and move the manufacture of prestige cars to Moscow.
The works at Moscow would operate under three different names, starting with AMO (from 1916-1932); ZIS - Zavod imjeni Stalina (in English it means a factory named after Joseph Stalin, 1933-1956); and ZIL - Zavod imjeni Likchaceva (Ivan Likchacev was a director of the works and later became Minister of Transport and Highways).
Trucks were sold under all three names, but cars were built only under the names of ZIS and ZIL. These were all large, exclusive cars - never less than eight cylinders - and always tipping the scales at around 2½ tons. In the autumn of 1933 the yearly outputs for the ZIS factory were to be 80,000 trucks and 10,000 cars.
They needed a new car for this new factory and so all the usable bits and pieces were transfered from Leningrad to Moscow, and work began on a new design. A number of mechanical parts were to be retained for cost reasons but the original body shape of the L-1 was thought to be antiquated.
A group of designers under Engineer A. Vachinski were put in charge, and the result was the ZIS-101 of 1936 (series production started in 1937). Body dyes for this car were ordered from America, and, reputedly, were manufactured by Briggs in Detroit.
The Stately Soviet
This first ZIS had a stately appearance, a 142 in. wheelbase, was 222.5 in. long and weighed 49.2 cwt. A glass partition behind the driver made it a six-seater limousine for top State officials. The 101 had an eight-cylinder, a double barrelled carburettor, thermostatically controlled cooling system, synchromesh gearbox, double-acting shock absorbers, a heater and a car radio. Many of these features were previously unknown in the USSR.
Its engine was bored out to 5,750 c.c. Cast iron pistons were retained, the engine developed 90 bhp at 2,800 rpm, giving a claimed top speed of 68 mph. Aluminium pistons were under development and by 1940 a number of parts had been replaced. The twin-choke American Marvel carburettor was replaced by a domestic unit, fitted with three jets and an economizer. This engine had a compression ratio of 5.5-to-1 and 110 bhp. This was later further modernised for the ZIS 101 A with a compression ratio of 6.4-to-1, requiring higher octane petrol, that was not usually available in the USSR until the 1950s.
The updated models ZIS-101 A and ZIS-101 B (and a few open-bodied ZIS-102s) had servo-assisted brakes and worm and roller steering. Externally these cars differed only in the radiator grille in place of the shovel nose of the original 101 model they acquired a less pleasing rounded one.
It was 10 years before there was a completely new design from the ZIS factory. It is interesting that the USSR's post-war models ZIS-110 and Pobijeda (Victory) were unveiled earlier than most post-war American models. Production of the second generation ZIS started in August 1945, only 11 months after the prototypes got the Governments' blessing and a couple of months earlier than Packard launced its slippery Twenty-First series. The ZIS-110 was naturally very similar to its American counterpart and was to remain as the top motor car in the USSR until 1958. Many of the design group responsible for the car received a State Prize for their efforts.
The 6-litre engine produced a claimed 140 bhp at 3,600 rpm and the new ZIS would do 87 mph. A special brand of high octane petrol was developed for this car. Although not easy to manoeuve, it was the fastest car in Russia in the 1950s. Generously sprung, many were made into ambulances, fitted with Red Cross lamps and a searchlight. No major body modifications were needed for the car to accept a stretcher, which was loaded through the standard boot lid. The limousine also served as a taxi.
Although it was employed mostly in cities it really belonged to the open road and before mini-buses were available the big ZIS's were in regular service between Moscow and the Black Sea holiday resorts. Its reputation remained untarnished in the minds of retired taxi drivers as a dependable, reliable, easy-to-live-with motor car. The ZIS-110 kept rofling off its slow production line for about 12 years. The cars weren't always black of course, biege and grey dominated on ambulances and the open top models. Even the formal limousines were sometimes painted in blue or turquoise hues. From 1956 the ZIS-110 became known as the ZIL-110 when Stalin (the "S" in "ZIS") had fallen out of favour...
Ending The American Link
The 110 ended the marque's direct association with the American automobile industry. In the mid-1950s the design studios were busy preparing the first prototype of a modern design car called the Moska (Moscow). Though it had been uprated to 182 bhp, it was then decided that the straight eight engine was not the right engine for this new generation of Russian top cars. A proper V8, mated to an automatic gearbox via a torque converter, was to be the answer. The Moscow was, however, eventually shelved, and three new American cars were purchased - two late model Packards (the Caribbean and the Patrician) and a 1956 Imperial. When the first new ZIL-111 prototype appeared in 1958, it was said by a number of American experts that it was merely a Packard copy - of course this was strongly denied.
Its 5,980 c.c. vee-engine with wedge shaped combustion chambers still had a cast iron block and a single domestic carburettor. Initially the output was said to be 220 bhp, but the production versions claimed only 200 bhp. A two-speed automatic transmission, coupled to a torque-converter similar to the American Powerflite had a push-button control on the facia under the driver's left hand. The torque converter diameter surpassed that of the most powerful Chrysler cars and was suitable to take more power than was then available.
The ZIL-111 was to remain in limited series production for 10 years. Production was limited because other cars and minibuses for taxi and ambulance service became available and because another car called the Chaika (seagull) was introduced by the Gorky Automobile Works. The "One-Eleven" would be improved and updated on a number of occasions. The ZIL-111 A got Russia's first car air-conditioning unit, and the ZIL-111 V was fitted with an open body and an electrically operated soft-top.
In the early 1960s the car's body was completely redesigned. With softer lines and four horizontally-mounted headlamps, the ZIL-111 D accentuated the styling theme of the period. One year later it was changed again. The ZIL-111 G was stretched to over 20 feet (243.7 in.) and weighed 55.4 cwt. Top speed was claimed to be the same as the 1957 prototypes 106 mph.
Box Car Styling, the Rodionov Way
The Deputy Chief Designer at ZIL, V. Rodionov, designed the ZIL-114 - stoic, proud and stately, it took "box-car" styling to its fullest. The car's sheer size - and the quality of assembly - was unsurpassed by the whole of the Russian automotive industry. The gargantuan 248.25 in. long seven-seater weighed 60.6 cwt despite having the cast iron engine block replaced by a shorter aluminium one. With one four-barrelled carburettor the output was a claimed 300 bhp with a top speed of around 118 mph.
Transistorized ignition and electric fuel pump were significant novelties in Russia in 1967. With the 9.5-to-1 compression ratio only special high octane petrol could be poured into the large 26.5 gallon tank. The official fuel consumption figure at a constant 50 mph was 14.9 mpg. The transmission continued unchanged, but the front suspension was now fitted with longitudinal torsion bars, and at the rear a conventional live axle was fitted. The brakes - four servo-assisted ventilated discs - were developed on a sport-racing car (ZIL 1125) some years before.
The 114's list of standard equipment was long: electric windows; electrically adjusted seats; air-conditioning; vacuum door locks; remote control rear view mirror; adjustable steering wheel; stereo radio; fog lamps; and tinted glass. A heavy duty generator and two large batteries coped with all the power needs. Assembly of these handmade cars was carried out in a special hall at ZIL. Each engine ran on a dynamometer for 32 hours. Then every assembled car was put through its paces over a 1,250 mile road test, re-checked on return and delivered only if in perfect order.
The need for a compact more manoeuvrable car of the same quality meant that by 1971 some five-seater saloon bodied ZIL-117s were produced. This baby ZIL was similar in size to Gorky's Chaika (130 in. wheelbase, 225 in. overall-length), but was heavier, at 56.7 cwt. Thanks to the claimed 300 bhp engine its top speed appeared to be higher than on any other Soviet passenger car previously made, surpassing the magic 200 kph (125 mph) mark.
A little later a third, drop head version, the ZIL 117V, joined the ranks of these coveted USSR cars. The figures concerning the actual numbers of cars built were never released in the USSR.