The single biggest gap in Russian manufacturing of consumer products, and the one which more than any other is responsible for the distorted opinion much of the world has of Russian industrial prowess, is the absence of high end passenger cars.
Passenger cars are by far the biggest, most complex and most expensive goods which most consumers will buy. At the very highest end they are the object of many people’s fantasies. The technological and industrial prowess of a country is therefore all too often bound up with them. Consider for example what Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini have done for the image of Italy, what Mercedes, BMW and Audi have done for that of Germany, what Rolls Royce and Bentley have done for Britain, what Toyota has done for Japan, what Citroen and Peugeot have done for France, and what Cadillac and Lincoln have done for the USA.
Prior to the 1917 Revolution Russia took the very first tentative steps to create what might have evolved into a comparable model of car in Russia in the form of the Russo-Balt car, whose design however depended heavily on imported technology
Nicholas II preferred Delaunay-Belleville cars imported from France. Here is a picture of his son the Tsarevich Alexey behind the wheel of one
Lenin famously preferred Rolls Royce Silver Ghosts imported from Britain, of which the Kremlin car pool at one time had nine. Here is Lenin at the back of one.
and here is a picture of what may be the same car. Note the still intact original Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in the background.
The lack of interest and support for the Russo-Balt meant that development and production ceased around 1923. Only a few examples are left in a few museums.
Stalin preferred American cars, his favourites being imported Packards. Unlike subsequent Soviet leaders Stalin however took a strong personal interest in motor cars and was an active supporter of the Soviet car industry, whose development he saw as vital to the country’s industrial future. During his rule the Soviet car industry boomed, being built up essentially on American lines, with US engineers and technology being brought in to create the factories.
This was reflected in what became Stalin’s own car, the first Russian made car used by a Russian leader, the Zis101, which was designed by a Moscow factory rebuilt and retooled with help from the US, and which clearly shows American and specifically Packard influence.
Here is Stalin inspecting his Zis101 in a picture from the late 1930s.
Subsequently the Zis factory (renamed ZIL during the de-Stalinisation period of the 1950s) became the sole producer of limousine cars for the top Soviet leaders, though the GAZ factory in Nizhny Novgorod (at that time named Gorky) also produced a series of limousine cars for middle rank officials under the brand name Chaika, as well as the USSR’s closest approximation to an executive car for the USSR’s middle classes, the Volga.
Here is a picture of a ZIL-117 as produced from the late 1960s
and here is a picture of a GAZ Chaika limousine from roughly the same period
and of a GAZ Volga, of which examples can still sometimes be found on Russian roads
The American influence on all these cars is very obvious.
In the 1960s when production of these cars was launched they were competitive with cars produced elsewhere. However apart from the Volga, which was exported in limited numbers to the rest of the former Soviet bloc – the distribution system for these cars – with allocation within the USSR being through a centralised state run distribution system for designated officials – would have worked against their export even if there had been a Western market for them, which of course there wasn’t.
By the late 1970s all these cars were becoming outdated. Production of the Chaika seems to have stopped in 1988, shortly before the USSR collapsed, production of the ZIL apparently staggered on to about 2002 but then stopped entirely, whilst the Volga, despite multiple relaunches and redesigns, could not compete with imported Western executive cars – especially the Mercedes E class and the BMW 5 class – and was discontinued in 2004.
Since then Russia’s domestic volume car manufacturer Avtovaz (maker of the Lada series of cars) has staged a strong recovery, and Russia makes some very capable off-road vehicles, but production of top end luxury and executive passenger cars has ended. Though Russia’s Defence Ministry retains a few open top ZIL cars for use in parades, the Kremlin car pool today uses mainly Mercedes cars, with President Putin’s personal limousine being a stretched Mercedes S600 Pullman.
For a country as proud as Russia this is an unacceptable situation, and around 2010 discussion began of the need for a new top end car. Dmitry Medvedev, who was at that time Russia’s President, in his typically unimaginative way, suggested this could be achieved by putting the old ZIL back into production. On returning to the Presidency Vladimir Putin however – very properly – vetoed this idea, rejecting the re-engineered ZIL with which he was presented. Since then a programme has been underway supervised by Russia’s Industry Ministry and specifically by its Industry Minister Denis Manturov, to develop a new line of top end Russian passenger cars.
The reason Putin rejected the proposal to return to the ZIL has nothing to do with personal vanity. The key difference between the cars which are being designed today and the ZIL-Chaika-Volga trinity of the 1960s is that the new cars are intended to be commercial cars, competitive with top end Western luxury and executive cars and attractive to private Russian consumers on the Russian market, and potentially capable of export. In order for this to be possible they must be at least equal in quality and specifications to the best Western cars.
The result is a programme known in Russia as Project Kortezh.
The Russians have gone about this programme in a very characteristic way. The Industry Ministry has focused Russia’s huge engineering resources on developing a range of car engines, with development centred on NAMI, Russia’s state scientific and motor research centre. Little is known about these engines, of which there are known to be several. However the most powerful is known to be a big and hugely powerful 6 litre V12 850 hp engine, which the media is already calling “the Tsar engine”.
Once these engines are fully developed they will be serially produced by NAMI or licensed for production to factories supervised by the Industry Ministry, from whence they will be made available for use by Russia’s various domestic car manufacturers who will be able to build their own individual car bodies around them.
This methodical and modular approach, combining the resources of both state and private industry in a carefully structured industrial partnership, is very characteristic of contemporary Russian industrial policy.
The launch of series production of these engines is expected to take place this year, for use in a series of cars principally designed for use by the Kremlin car pool (thus the designation Project Kortezh – ie. the “cortege” or vehicle convoy put together from the Kremlin car fleet). This initial series is known to include a large luxury saloon car comparable to the Mercedes S Class or a Bentley, a newly designed state limousine for use by Russia’s President based on the saloon car, a large luxury SUV, and a luxury minivan.
The manufacturer selected to build the first series of cars for the Kremlin car pool, including the new state limousine, is Russia’s giant Severstal group, whose car manufacturing branch Sollers makes the well known series of UAZ off road vehicles both for the Russian civilian market and for the Russian military.
Sollers has displayed models of what some of these cars may look like, with particular stress on the state limousine, which will definitely use the V12 850 hp engine. Here is a picture
The more commercially important car however will be the saloon, which has now been seen being test driven in camouflage paint
The fact that the saloon is being tested over snow shows the tough conditions dictated by the extremes of the Russian climate these cars are being designed to contend with. It is known that all of these cars – including the state limousine and the saloon – will use four wheel drive.
The first order for these cars from the Kremlin car pool numbers 5,000 and is mainly intended for official use. However – unlike the ZIL and the Chaika – the saloon and the SUV will also be available for purchase by private buyers.
It remains to be seen whether the cars produced by Project Kortezh will be internationally competitive. However care is clearly being taken to ensure that they represent a fully up to date quality design, and the Russian government is uniquely placed to ‘persuade’ wealthy Russian buyers of the wisdom of buying them. Besides many Russian buyers will not need such ‘persuasion’ to buy them if their quality is good since they are strongly patriotic people who are highly motivated to buy Russian cars.
That ought to ensure a strong domestic market for these cars, which experience shows is essential both for their future development and for their subsequent success on the export market.
If Project Kortezh really does deliver a high end product – and there is no reason to think that it won’t – and if it does produce cars that can compete successfully in the international car market, then the days when Russia was ridiculed for its inability to produce successful high quality consumer products may soon be over.