Geez, Russia: What gives? You make awesome airplanes, ships, submarines, helicopters, artillery, rifles…not to mention invent new forms of transportation like the Ekranoplan.
Cars, though…cars aren't exactly your strong suit.
I'm no sociologist but I would imagine that, especially post-Second World War when the Iron Curtain was drawn shut, factories were pressed into stockpiling military armaments in case of the seemingly inevitable Third World War.*
In comparison, the rest of the world not under Communist rule was more like a group of teenagers partying at the beach. Advertising, fashion, Hollywood, Kustoms, sex, drugs, and rock and roll!
Picking a fight with Russia and its allies would have been like kicking a hibernating bear.
I would also bet that a lack of an auto industry was somewhat forced, in the form of trade sanctions. When you consider, however, that Russian factories often produced civilian vehicles alongside tanks, rifles, and other military hardware, it makes sense that the government would want to limit the movement of its population.
Travellers are hard to control. They see things. They can talk to others. They can pass information. Better to just keep people in their town, often with some sort of factory, working.
That isn't to say that Russians didn't want to make cars to compete with the rest of the world in speed and styling, because what trickled through the Curtain must have shocked Russian automotive enthusiasts.
Seen in six versions—but only two cars built in total—the 112 was modified over the years in order to compete in rudimentary officially-sanctioned races, often on highways. Sort of like Avus, in Germany, but without the massive banking.
As I understand it, here are the different versions of the car:
- 112/1: Original long wheelbase coupe, eventually shortened and lightened to be more competitive
- 112/2: Built in 1955 using fiberglass and with an open top, it was reportedly built to the FIA rulebook and had a top speed of 200 km/h (125 mph.)
- 112/3: After racing was over, 112/2 was fitted with a new, more powerful engine for testing. The engine would find its way into the ZIL-111 limousine.
It's not a good idea to base a race car off of a Motorama car, for a few reasons. The first version of the car was apparently 6 metres (19.6 feet) long and was overbuilt to the tune of 2450 kg (5100 lbs)…200 kg (440 lbs) more than the current Land Rover Range Rover.
With a 140 horsepower straight-8 engine, at least it afforded spectators ample opportunity for photography as it chugged away.
That engine was updated to a 186 horsepower straight-8, but was still too slow—only hitting 200 km/h (125 mph) and handled terribly because of the added weight over the front axle, so they ripped everything apart and shortened the 112.
Dropping 500kg (1102 lbs) and now with even more power for 1955—now 192 horses!—the car was finally fast enough to hit 210 km/h (130 mph)! Amazing, right?
As a point of comparison, the fastest Western racing car in 1955 was the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR. It could hit 290 km/h (180 mph) with its light weight and up to 310 horsepower engine. Advanced features like air brakes made the car suitable in a number of different events, from Le Mans to the Mille Miglia and Carrera Panamericana.
Sadly, there's little information on any older Russian racing cars (a problem made worse by the language barrier, especially here on the Internet) but I've been slowly accumulating information for the next featured on Car of the Day.
With a little bit more government support, maybe the Soviets could have taken on the West on the world's race tracks.
At least someone makes scale models of these old machines!
Tomorrow, I'll keep the racing theme going with a dedicated track car…based on something a little bit different.
Sources / Recommended reading
- ZIS-112: Jalopy Journal, autopuzzles.com, kustomrama.com, carstyling.ru, DIP Models
- ZIS: Wikipedia
- Ekranoplan: Wikipedia
- Iron Curtain: Wikipedia
* Reader (and Jalopnik commenter) JayHova says:
"I've also some additions about the ZIS (which also apply to basically every Russian car).
The problem about the whole deal wasn't the arms stockpiling with reduced civilian production, which was a mere symptom. The problem was the economical system—the Soviet Union had a centrally planned economy.
This meant, that the state (or a few people on the head of state) dictated what was being produced. If people wanted cars, fancy clothing or whatever, this demand had to make its way through the whole bureaucratic shebang of the soviet hierarchy to the very top (right to Khrushchev etc.) Often it fell to deaf ears or was denied or couldn't be done due to a lack of resources.
When the demand was 'accepted', the whole thing had to go all the way down—they tasked one of the many design bureaus, had to set up production (preferably in a resource saving way) and maintenance facilities etc. per person.
The process usually took several years, in which the demand already could have shifted to something else.
That's also the reason why the Russians took the old Fiat 124 factory so happily from the Italians: there was high demand for a modern car. The deal with the (then) communist Italy gave them a nearly finished product, which only needed a few tweaks to adapt to Russian conditions and the whole production facilities were shipped to the Soviet Union…all in exchange for a few thousand tons of scrap metal."