x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

A Cold War oddity fit for a president

But while Kennedy and Nixon travelled from state to state in the pampered comfort of Air Force One, Russian presidents made do with what looked like a stretched Lada.

The Russian Zil limousine looked so angular it could be used in a trigonometry examination.
The Russian Zil limousine looked so angular it could be used in a trigonometry examination.

The Cold War was more about political posturing than armed incursions. Gravitas, grimaces and grandiloquent gestures were the weapons of choice in a conflict that was often no more than lukewarm. With Mutually Assured Destruction preventing either side from flicking the nuclear switch the great superpowers of America and the USSR fought with hubris and hyperbole to gain the moral high ground and drive the destiny of the modern world.

With the stakes this high, the respective leaders assumed near-mythical status, imbued with an ethereal divinity that echoed in every vowel they uttered. But while Kennedy and Nixon travelled from state to state in the pampered comfort of Air Force One, their personal Boeing jet aeroplane, Russian presidents made do with what looked like a stretched Lada. Of course, as head of a communist regime, Brezhnev and Gorbachev could hardly drive around downtown Moscow in a gold-plated Rolls-Royce. After all, they were meant to share their wealth not flaunt it. And with Russian industry a core component of national pride, the purchase of a Cadillac or Lincoln would be a treasonous act, tantamount to desertion to the enemy. So they had no choice but to ask Zil, makers of tough yet turgid trucks and tractors, to make them a solid, socialist, and most importantly, stretched saloon. The result was a seven-seater monster with looks so angular it could be used in a trigonometry exam.

Curves and comfort were clearly viewed with scepticism; an example of Western capitalist indulgence. Technological advances were reserved solely for development of the Mir space station, so the Zil was big but basic. Its 7.5L engine was unhindered by fuel injection or turbo-chargers and produced a mere 300hp. And with a clunky three-speed automatic transmission, performance was cumbersome. There were no electronic gizmos on the list of optional extras; just bullet-proof glass and an armrest for when waving at the proletariat got a little tiring.

The Zil is an anachronism in a world that values style over substance and luxury over longevity, but therein lies its charm. Its illustrious passengers turned heads on their own and didn't need or seek validation from material trappings. That said, the Zil was kitted out like a honeymoon suite compared with the cracked plastic, vinyl seats and corroded wheel arches of provincial Russian runabouts.

Perhaps it is our arrogance that considers the Zil an outsider and an oddity. If JFK had a Zil, perhaps its armoured glass and weapons-grade steel would have deflected that bullet from the grassy knoll. Then again, maybe a car can't change history. But it can pay homage to it; the benefit of a lack of invention and innovation in Zil strategy is that the style of its limousines will always be timeless. Indeed, while Russian staples, like Smirnoff vodka, have successfully rebranded to be a hit in the West, Zil seem unaware of Glasnost and continue to produce 12 or so cars a year to a rich - and nostalgic - domestic market. With a price tag to match a Maybach or Mercedes, it is perhaps just as well that Zil have yet to open a showroom in Munich or Mayfair.

For such a long car, it appears to have a lot of shortcomings. But perhaps that is just to a Western eye. For many in Russia, it remains a symbol of national unity and a nostalgic emblem of a golden era. A car fit for a prince, certainly not; but perfectly adequate for a president. tbrooks@thenational.ae