When Vinnie Baksht left Moscow for America 25 years ago, the ominous sight of a ZiL, the limousine of choice among high-ranking Soviet officials, still struck fear in citizens. How sweet, then, is a new memory: winning a trophy for his own 1985 ZiL at the Greenwich Concours d’Élégance in Connecticut this past weekend. The black-as-Darth Vader limo took Best in Class for Special Interest entries.
Now living in New Jersey, Baksht networks online with émigrés from Russia and other parts of the Soviet Union who collect the cars of their former homeland. His ZiL is a rarity among that group, and, as in its Russian heyday, remains at the top of a hierarchy. It certainly has a presence: The 21-foot, 4-ton ZiL took up two parking spaces in a recent stop at a Starbucks in Edgewater, N.J., across the Hudson River from Manhattan, where three Driver’s Seat reporters enjoyed a ride in the expansive lightly armored rear cabin.
ZiL’s main business was building trucks and buses. Baksht’s 1985 limo was the last of 65 built in this variation, known as a 41045 and powered by a 7.7-liter V-8 that produced 315 horsepower. It’s also one of a few that got out; Baksht said most were dismantled under KGB supervision. His ZiL, he mentioned, had visited the U.S. before, serving as a backup car in Mikhail Gorbachev’s motorcade for the 1987 summit with President Ronald Reagan.
Far more common in the U.S. than a ZiL is Russia’s “peoples’ car,” the Lada made by VAZ. The small sedan could be mistaken for a late-1960s Fiat 124, the model on which it was based. Fiat set up the factory and provided technical assistance to adapt the car for Soviet weather and road conditions.
The Russian people, however, usually had to wait seven years to take delivery, explained Roman Grudinin, a 19-year-old from New City, N.Y., who restored a 1982 Lada 2103 model in Ukraine two years ago. The quality of his work was recognized with a class win at the 2014 Greenwich concours. With some 20 million built in several variations in 1972-2012, the original Lada series was the world’s second-most-produced car model, behind the original Volkswagen Beetle. More than half were exported.
Opportunities for Americans to one day see a ZiL, Lada and other Soviet or Russian automobiles may be improving. Simon Ross, who left Russia 23 years ago and lives in Sammamish, Wash., has assembled a collection of 30 Soviet and Eastern European vehicles and, inspired by LeMay: America’s Car Museum in Tacoma, wants to start a museum for his Cold War-era machines.
Among Ross’s growing collection are military vehicles, several Ladas and two Soviet cars influenced by Detroit designs, the GAZ-21 Volga, made in 1957-69, and a 1951 ZiM that melds 1940s Chevy and Cadillac design elements. Like the later ZiL, the ZiM was a big sedan that was reserved for top officials; Ross said his example was originally used by a Soviet ambassador to China.