The Vladmobile; Its a Zil, but the Russian Leaders Limo Scores Zilch for Modern Technology

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), April 23, 2000 | Go to article overview

The Vladmobile; Its a Zil, but the Russian Leaders Limo Scores Zilch for Modern Technology


IT'S so long that you could turn it round only in the Avenue of the Triumph of the Revolution. It's so heavy that it must be responsible for half the potholes in Moscow.

And it's so old that Bjorn Borg was Wimbledon champion when it was launched.

But when Russian president-elect Vladimir Putin came to London last week, it seemed that there was only one limousineski for him: the unbelievable and rather sinister Zil 4104.

So what is it like, and do they really still churn out this caricature of a Yank tank on the banks of the Volga?

Well, yes, claim Zil, they still do.

Inefficient and virtually bankrupt, then partly rescued by a consortium, then saved by the government and now supported by Lukoil, a Russian oil company, Zil says it increased production in 1997 by 250 per cent over 1996, but goes all vague about what the actual production figures are. And no information seems to be available after 1998.

A blatant copy of the Lincoln Continental, the current Zil model, the 4104, was launched in 1978.

Detailed styling 'improvements' followed in 1985, since when the design has remained frozen in a bygone age.

My only experience of travel in one was being chauffeured to a businessman's weekend dacha outside Moscow in the early Eighties.

Heavily chromed instruments with bad lighting dominated the dashboard and there was an assortment of unidentified knobs, chrome sliding levers for the heating and I ventilation and a radio that looked to have been inspired by old juke boxes.

The tyres were nearly bald and didn't seem to match, the rear passenger compartment was decorated in boudoir red with chrome fittings, side curtains and foot cushions that slid about, while the soft leather seats threatened to engulf you like an amorous clam.

Engine noise was low, but the ride was of the bouncy castle variety. A staggering 21ft long, its 52ft turning circle is rivalled by that of a double-decker bus.

Handling clearly wasn't a selling point. No wonder American presidents on state visits used to hand over a Cadillac or a Lincoln as a gesture of goodwill - and in the hope that they might ride around in it instead.

At one police checkpoint - this was pre-glasnost days, remember - our driver placed his non-working seatbelt across his chest and held it in position with his hand. But more alarming was when he dived abruptly under the dashboard while we were travelling at an indicated 70mph to 90mph, the swing of the speedometer needle making it impossible to be sure of our precise velocity.

I wondered if I should hit the floor to avoid what was sure to be a hail of bullets. Sparks suddenly flashed.

The chauffeur was lighting a foul-smelling cigarette by striking two bare wires together.

Zil's Moscow factory started life in 1924 building trucks. Then called AMO, it changed its name in 1933 to Zis - Zavod Imieni Stalina (Factory Named In Honour Of Stalin).

Its first car, the 5.6-litre Zis-101, appeared three years later. The 90bhp engine was based on a Buick, the start of the still-continuing American influence on top Russian cars.

In 1956 Stalin's fall from grace led to a change of name for the factory and its cars to Zavod Imieni Likacheva (Zil) after I.A. Likachev, a former transport minister.

Now costing an incredible [pounds sterling]125,000, the Zil has a huge 7. …

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