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Hooniverse Bookshelf: Russian Motor Vehicles: Soviet Limousines 1930-2003

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If you saw the 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale, you may have noticed a very interesting car in that film that should have immediately caused you to wake up and pay attention. Amidst the parkour infomercial and the product placement overload, gearheads were treated to a very brief cameo by a vintage Russian limousine. If you immediately recognized it as a ZiL when watching the film for the first time, give yourself a pat on the back. If you jumped out of your seat during the theater screening and yelled “That’s a ZiL 117!!! There were only like fifty of ‘em made!!!” give yourself another pat on the back, not only for your command of obscure Eastern Euro sedans, but also for educating the terrified moviegoers around you. Now they will also know that that was a ZiL 117, a V8-powered short-wheelbase version of the ZiL 114 limousine, only about 50 of which were made in the early 1970s as escort cars for government motorcades.

If, on the other hand, you didn’t know what that black sedan was, but you wanted to read more about Russian limousines, there’s a book out there that should help. Maurice A. Kelly’s Russian Motor Vehicles: Soviet Limousines 1930-2003 is a solid though not particularly all-encompassing effort by the British author to shed light on the somewhat obscure topic of Russian state limousines. Let’s take a look inside.

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Maurice A. Kelly’s Russian Motor Vehicles: Soviet Limousines 1930-2003 examines the history and production of limousines and other official cars by Russia’s automakers, starting with the Leningrad L-1 prototypes of the 1930s, and ending with the ZiL 41047s of the early 2000s. The text is pretty accessible, as it presumes no prior knowledge on the topic, and doesn’t try to saddle the reader with long histories of automotive plants that produced these cars. The book spends most of its time examining the ZiLs and GAZes of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, but doesn’t go into too much detail when it comes to the later cars. Curiously, the book consumes a couple pages with experimental ZiL racing cars (arguably not limousines) while almost completely ignoring the ZiL 118 and 119 luxury MPVs which actually did serve as limos and rode on ZiL limo chassis. The MPVs appear as illustrations at various points in the book, but no effort is made to explain their histories.  

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The strangest thing about this book is that despite the title Russian Motor Vehicles: Soviet Limousines 1930-2003, the last quarter of the book is somehow devoted entirely to Chinese limousines. Huh? How did we get to Chinese limos of the 1950s through the 1980s all of a sudden? Closing the book and looking at the dust jacket confirms that this book is called Russian Motor Vehicles: Soviet Limousines 1930-2003. The sudden switch to Chinese limos for the last twenty odd pages of the book smells like a book project of its own that somehow didn’t quite make it, and was cut-&-pasted into the last quarter of book about Soviet limos to fill up space.

I’m not going to try to deny the influence of Soviet limousines on their Chinese counterparts, as one only has to take a look at the GAZ 21 front fascia that has been grafted onto the very latest Hong Qi model, but the still-random inclusion of Tatras would have made a little more sense. Chinese limousines, despite borrowing exterior styling cues from ZiLs and GAZes, were their own thing entirely, and warrant their own book. This was almost like finding a chapter on Czech motorcycles in a barbecue book by Guy Fieri. Not to imply that a Guy Fieri cookbook couldn’t use a nice chapter on Jawa motorcycles, along with some quality illustrations.

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Perhaps the best thing about this book is the rarity of some of the photos. For the most part, the photos aren’t numerous, large, or well printed, but there are definitely some rare photos of Soviet limos, ones that haven’t really made the rounds on the interwebs. If there’s one thing this book can’t be accused of, it’s of being written around a collection of brochures, because there almost weren’t any at the time. The Soviets didn’t push ZiLs and GAZes in Avtoexport ads, with some extremely limited exceptions. The most common way these limos found their way overseas is by being given as gifts to foreign heads of state. This is how over time Fidel Castro came into possession of an impressive collection of Soviet and Eastern Euro machinery, with A/C units that have been retrofitted from American cars. Nothing wrong with that, by the way, as heaters were a much bigger priority in Soviet limos. If you wanted cold air, you drove an open GAZ 13 Chaika, a variant which miraculously escaped being pictured in this book, in addition to other GAZ 13 variants like, uhh, the GAZ 13 station wagon. Or the GAZ 14 station wagon, now that I think about it. The types of illustrations that this book lacks are of these cars in the wild, which there are literally thousands of on the interwebs. Several 365 daily calendars could be made with crowdsourced snapshots of rare Russian sedans trudging through traffic alone, so their absence from this book is difficult to explain.

This book didn’t launch one of the most enduring myths about Soviet cars (in the UK at least), the notion that Packard 180 dies were used in the production of similar-looking ZiS 110 limousines, but this book does a good job of perpetuating it. In fact, when walking around 1940s Packards at concours events stateside, it is perhaps one of the top three things that I hear people say about Packards. “D’ya know they shipped the production line to the Soviets?” Well, I certainly didn’t. Cue facepalm.

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Immediately following what I’m going to refer to as a Bonus Section on Chinese limos and an epilogue, are some twenty pages of not particularly detailed tables of technical specs of the various cars, sprinkled with liberal guesstimates of their production numbers. Speaking of which, model index designations are not one this book’s strengths. The section delineating the whole ZiL 115 family of cars is somewhat truncated in light of all that was known in 2011 when this book came out, and is also about 1/3 incorrect. I don’t have to tell you how that ratio of model designation incorrectness would go over in a book about Ferraris.

I’m not going to take issue with the start date of 1930 when talking about Soviet limos, though it’s perhaps a stretch to say that what they were making back then really qualified as limousines in the modern sense of the word. The largest Russian sedans of that era were pretty modest saloons, nothing that compared to LaSalles, Caddys, Buicks, or Duesenbergs. But the end date of 2003 is quite curious. No new GAZ or ZiL limousine bodystyles were released after 1986 (not counting a few stillborn prototypes), when the ZiL 41047 became the last facelift of the 4104 family of cars. The year 1986 also marked the debut of a short-wheelbase variant of the 41047, called the 41041. As far as bodystyles and facelifts went, 1986 was pretty much the end of virtually all evolution and development when it came to Russian-made limos. A few dozen 41047s and their variants were made throughout the 90s, and something like thirteen 41041s were also sporadically assembled. The last examples of the carb-fed 7.6 liter V8-powered 41047s were built in 2002 (or 2003 depending on your source) from shells that have sat around for a few years, after a series of production hiatuses that went on for months or even years.  So where do we get 2003 as the end date of Soviet limousines? More importantly, why would ZiLs assembled in 2002 or 2003 be termed “Soviet”? In a nutshell, the author’s time span for Soviet limousines of 1930-2003 is open to argument, and I don’t agree with it 100%. And I’m sure each fan of the ZiL factory also has his or her own opinion regarding the “proper” start and end date of Soviet limousine production.

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The overall impression this book left is an honest effort to shed light on limousines that only a few people in the western world have seen up close. Therefore, a fair amount of lenience has to be given to the author for researching Soviet limousines in a country where ZiLs almost never set foot. The author has to be commended for uncovering some rare photos of Russian limousines, though the level of detail in the text is a tad bit lacking for a book that went to press in February 2011, which, if my watch is correct, was not even two years ago. The book did not seem to take advantage of the ridiculously massive amount of information and media that has come to light about Soviet limousines since the collapse of the USSR (which this book at one point puts at 1989, a typo I’m sure) and perhaps more importantly, the spread of this information in all its forms through The Intertubes. In short, it feels like a book that was completed sometime in the early 1990s, and had found its way into print only recently.

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The verdict: a solid effort that delivers to its target audience, but perhaps won’t win too many awards for depth from the more savvy anoraks or marque experts. At 126 pages and a US MSRP $49.95 (though you should be able to find it for as low as $32.00 new) it’s a bit light on info, as the text is not exactly crammed with detail. Not really a coffeetable book either, so if you want a giant Audubon-size picturebook about Soviet machinery to freak out the inlaws when they come up to visit from Florida, this probably isn’t it. But if you’ve always wanted to read about limousines from behind the Iron Curtain, this book just may be for you, and would also make a nice holiday gift.

Book Info:
Author: Maurice A. Kelly
ISBN: 1845843002
Publisher: Veloce
Language: English
Pages: 128, hardcover
MSRP: $49.95 ($32.29 new on Amazon)

 

Currently there are "3 comments" on this Article:

  1. Synchromesh says:

    I recognized the ZIL in the Bond movie. Couldn't believe it myself for a minute. I mean out of all sedans they could score they had to use that one!

    • Jay says:

      I think most of the exterior photography of that part of the film was done in the Czech Republic, around Prague, so I think this was a case where the production company put out a call to classic car clubs to bring whatever was available, and out of what was available they wanted a car with a large trunk so that a body could be put inside.

      Would have been funny if it was a Tatra 613 and the hood would have popped open : )

  2. david42 says:

    I own this book and agree with the review: a must for fans of Soviet limos, but more detail would've been nice.

    FWIW, I don't take issue with calling the later models "Soviet" limos. I own a couple model ZiL 40147s, and even the newer one says "Made in USSR"!

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