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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 12 March, 2003, 07:23 GMT
Russian limos near end of road
By Helen Fawkes
BBC News in Moscow

From the back of a limousine that used to belong to the former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev I watch the sights of Moscow fly past.

My driver proudly points out the Kremlin and St Basil's Cathedral.

The Zil limousine:
Transport fit for a president

But one of the ultimate symbols of Soviet power - the Zil limousine I am riding in - could be about to disappear from the streets of Russia.

It is feared that the company which makes the car could soon suspend production following a downturn in sales.

So to see why every leader from Stalin to Putin has used a Zil limo, I hired one for the night.

Alexander Pavlovich was my driver. He became a Zil chauffeur after a career as a racing driver.

The car itself is huge - it is over 6 metres (20 feet) long, with a seven-litre capacity and weighs 3.5 tonnes - but inside the seven-seater limo I sink into a beige velvet seat.


"This car was made in 1982 for the leaders of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. This was in the time of Brezhnev and it was one of the last cars he used," Mr Pavlovich explained.

For almost 60 years, these limousines have been assembled by hand at the Zil Moscow factory.

Stalin came up with the idea for the Zil
Stalin wanted to demonstrate that the USSR was a superpower by producing its own top-of-the-range car.

And Russian motor historian Lev Shugurov says that from the start the Zil limousine was eagerly awaited.

"The first car, which was built in 1936, was still in chassis form in the factory when the director decided to take it for a test drive. He drove for about 80 kilometres (50 miles) in the middle of the winter. He then declared it was a good car," Mr Shugurov said.

Perhaps the most famous model is the 41052. It is armour-plated, bullet-proof, grenade-resistant and costs $600,000.

The Zil limo was used to transport Communist party bosses along reserved traffic lanes in the capital.

Foreign usurpers

Mr Pavlovich says as a result when people now see his car it can bring out strong feelings.

"In the early days people were afraid of this car because it was the government car. Now it is just a simple car, but people remember their fear and some drivers now try to cut me up," he said.

As the Soviet Union broke up, the love affair with Zil also ended.

Stalin's dream car could no longer compete with luxury foreign models. In 1992 Boris Yeltsin dumped his Zil and used a Mercedes instead.

This car is like an airplane - you have a beautiful feeling when you drive the Zil because of the comfort inside the car and the engine is so powerful
Alexander Pavlovich, driver
Although President Vladimir Putin still has two Zils, the Russian Government has more than halved its orders. At its peak workers at Zil assembled up to 24 cars a year but now they only have six cars on their books.

The problem has been steadily getting worse, according to Mr Shugurov.

"Zil is the greatest part of our motoring history but in the past 10 years, they have only produced 10 a year."

As Mr Pavlovich dropped me off outside the Bolshoi Theatre, he said it will be a sad day if these limousines are not made any more.

"This car is like an airplane - you have a beautiful feeling when you drive the Zil because of the comfort inside the car and the engine is so powerful," he declared.

"It's the best car for Russian roads, for bad Russian roads."

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