Cold War Cars

Cold War Cars
Written by Matthew Hocker

ZIL-110 Limousine driving in front of the Kremlin and St. Basil's Cathedral (Circa 1956-1959)
ZIL-110 Limousine driving in front of the Kremlin and St. Basil’s Cathedral (Circa 1956-1959)

During the Second World War, the United States and Soviet Union had formed an uneasy alliance.  After the conflict ended, the relationship between these two nations would disintegrate into the Cold War.  This drawn-out period of competing ideologies galvanized the nuclear arms and space races.  For the Russian automobile industry, it meant building cars which would rival those of their Western counterparts.  One of the most iconic Soviet vehicles from this era was the ZIS-110.

The ZIS-110 received its name from the Moscow-based factory which manufactured it, Zavod Imeni Stalina (Factory named after Stalin).  The origins of the company can be traced back to 1916 when it was known as AMO (Avtomobilnoe Moskovskoe Obshchestvo). At the time, it functioned as a repair depot for World War I military vehicles, but within the next two years the plant also built a handful of Fiat F-15 1 ½ ton trucks.  Elements of the F-15’s design found their way into the 1924 AMO-F-15, which is considered to be the first true vehicle of Soviet origin (Russia became a communist country following the October Revolution in 1917).

1924 also marked the year of Vladimir Lenin’s death.  Joseph Stalin established himself as the USSR’s undisputed leader and ruled with an iron fist, ready to snuff out any perceived political enemies standing in his way.  To soften his image in the eyes of the Soviet populace, Stalin created one the most prolific personality cults the world had ever seen.  In 1931 AMO was renamed to Zavod Imeni Stalina, sending a clear message that vehicles built by the plant would not be possible without the leadership of Comrade Stalin.

Stalin (right) talking to Lickhachova (left) about the new ZIS-101 (1936)
Stalin (right) talking to Lickhachova (left) about the new ZIS-101 (1936)

Given that he named a factory after himself, Stalin was not afraid to make demands of Russia’s motor vehicle industry.  Since disobedience could lead to one’s execution, it was generally considered best practice to follow the dictator’s orders.  In particular, Stalin was bent on achieving passenger car production and his wish came true in 1936 with the unveiling of the ZIS-101 limousine.  Stylistically, the ZIS-101 drew heavily from American cars of the day, and it was manufactured under the direction of Ivan Lickhachov.  Stalin was reportedly pleased with the final product.

[ezcol_1quarter]ZIS-110 taxicabs (1947)[/ezcol_1quarter] [ezcol_3quarter_end]During World War II the company designed what would become the ZIS-110.  In 1946 a year had passed since the conflict ended, and manufacture of the ZIS-110 commenced and continued through the late 50s.  For the vast majority of the USSR’s population, poverty was a way of life and purchasing a vehicle was out of the question.  Consequently, the ZIS-110 was built as a luxury car aimed at serving the needs of the Soviet elite at home and abroad.  Eventually, an ambulance joined the lineup and several others would be used as taxicabs.[/ezcol_3quarter_end]

Following the car’s unveiling, the Western press frequently remarked that the ZIS-110 bore a striking resemblance to the 1942 Packard 180.  These similarities were intentional, as Stalin had asked engineers to develop the Russian equivalent of the 180.  The dictator had owned Packard cars before the war and developed an affinity for the marque.

Woman from the design department sketching out designs for the hood ornament, which was a stylized version of the Soviet flag. (Circa 1956-1959)This resemblance would spark an on-going rumor that Packard sold its 1942 body dies to the USSR during World War II at the request of F.D.R.  It was believed the deal was made to strengthen ties between the allied nations.  Given how often the press referred to the car as a Packard clone it is easy to see how this theory took hold.

Research indicates the rumors were exactly that.  George L. Hamlin wrote an article on the controversy for the Spring 2004 issue of The Packard Cormorant.  During the 1970s, the magazine’s editor Bud Juneau corresponded with Packard engineers who claimed no such deal took place and that they had a chance to thoroughly examine a ZIS-110.  According to Packard’s chief engineer William H. Graves, “Packard had nothing to do with the design, tooling, or manufacturing of the car.  It was a copy as close as they could come.”

[ezcol_1half]In 1952, automotive journalist, Joseph H. Wherry test drove the car analyzed by Packard and published his findings in magazines such as Modern Man and Speed Age.  Wherry labeled the vehicle as “Stalin’s sloppy copy” and mentioned that all parts were Russian-made with the exception of the Stromberg carburetor and sealed beam headlights.  Heavily influenced by Cold War rhetoric, the author also described the car as “…an emblem of a regime that thinks nothing good of our way of life, but evidently everything of an American car designed a dozen years ago.”

[/ezcol_1half] [ezcol_1half_end]Wherry's article compared the ZIS-110 with the 1942 Packard[/ezcol_1half_end]

While the car was found to have imitated mechanical components of Packards, such as the radio, shift levers and transmission, it was by no means an identical copy.  The wheelbase was longer and the chassis was thicker, making it significantly heavier than the 180.  Moreover, the body was not an exact replica of a Packard, as it appeared to have also lifted elements of design from Cadillac.

The ZIS-110 captured by the U.S. military during the Korean War.  Note the emblem on the side of the car - Later photos of the car suggest it was removed.
The captured ZIS-110

The ZIS-110 analyzed by Packard employees and Wherry was a war prize from the Korean War, captured by the U.S. military from the North Koreans in 1950.  Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s first president, presented the car as a gift to General Walker.  After falling victim to a traffic accident later that year, the car was shipped to Walker’s widow in America.

After Stalin’s death in 1952, Nikita Krushchev rose to power and increasingly spoke out against the practices of his predecessor and, in 1956, delivered his infamous speech denouncing Stalin’s personality cult.  Soon after, Stalin was dropped from the company’s name in favor of that of its former director, Ivan Likhachov.  The company would now be known as Zavod Imeni Lichachova, and the ZIS-110 would be rebranded as the ZIL-110 for the remainder of its production.

In addition to cars, the plant also made trucks, buses, bicycles and even refrigerators. (Circa 1956-1959)
In addition to cars, the plant also made trucks, buses, bicycles and even refrigerators. (Circa 1956-1959)

To learn more about ZIS/ZIL or any other cars from the Cold War era, be sure to contact the AACA Library or pay us a visit.  The story of these cars comes to life through sales literature and articles published during the period.  If you have any additional information or literature regarding these unusual cars, we’d love to hear from you!

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