Moscow, March 2: Zil limousines, the weighty black status symbols favoured by the Kremlin’s occupants from Joseph Stalin to Vladimir Putin, have come to the end of the road, victims of Russia’s capitalist economy.
After almost 60 years, the factory in Moscow where model Soviet workers once assembled up to 24 Zils a year by hand has suspended production of the car indefinitely.
Since the fall of communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union, the popularity of the 3.5-ton behemoth — once seen as the acme of socialist technical prowess — has collapsed.
The armour-plated, bullet-proof and grenade-resistant 41052 model had remained popular in Moscow for a while after the end of the Soviet era despite its £380,000 price-tag, but more recently the Mercedes has stolen its thunder.
Now, 15 unwanted Zil 41047s, the most recent seven-seater models, stand unsold at the Likhachyov factory in south Moscow, with no buyers in sight. “They are equal to almost a year’s output,” lamented Vladislav Yevlampiyev, the assembly chief at the plant. “These are very tough times for us.”
Vitaly Mochedlovsky, the 67-year-old deputy head designer for Zil, said: “I’ve been here 45 years and have seen most of the Communist Party general secretaries come and go. I should retire myself now but I can’t leave Zil at this moment.”
The rise and fall of the Zil mirrors that of the Soviet Union. Originally modelled on Buick and Packard sedans from America, the car was born out of Stalin’s desire to match the vehicles turned out by the Soviet Union’s rival for superpower status.
He launched the project to create the 315hp Zil limousine at the height of the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942, in defiance of the Nazi invasion.
For more than 50 years, convoys of Zils were a familiar sight on the streets of Moscow and other Russian cities, whisking the elite along reserved lanes.
Designed for luxury rather than speed or fuel economy, the Zil managed a maximum 118mph and took 13 seconds to accelerate from 0 to 60mph, averaging just 10 miles to the gallon.
A few cars were also exported: their past and present owners include Fidel Castro of Cuba, the former Indonesian president Suharto and heads of state in Mongolia and Eastern Europe.
At the height of communism, two models a month came off the production line, destined for party bosses. The cars were returned to be scrapped after 10 years or 100,000 miles — and some were destroyed with only a few thousand miles on the clock, written off by the leaders as “excess” vehicles.
It was Boris Yeltsin who delivered the first of a series of fatal blows to the Zil when, in 1992, he opted for a German Mercedes. Although President Putin reverted to the Zil, and has two at his disposal— one, with white-walled tyres, built for Nikita Khrushchev in 1963, is used on foreign visits — government orders for the limousine have dwindled from 25 a year to 10.