15 October 2021

More than an old car #180: ZIS-110

With travel plans put on the back burner currently, I figured that it would be a good time to reminisce about my trip to South Korea. It has been a while since I wrote about a vehicle not in Singapore, and I was reminded of this unique rarity while scrolling through my archives. Given its novel background and history, this 1948 ZIS-110 would mot likely be your first exposure to a Soviet-era classic car!

The history of ZIS spans back to 1916, where it was first known as the Avtomobilnoe Moskovskoe Obshchestvo (AMO), or the Moscow Automotive Society. It was part of a government program to establish an automotive industry in Russia: it started out producing Fiat trucks under licence before designing its own vehicle, the AMO F-15 truck in 1924. The company had its name changed to Avtomobil'n'iy zavod Nomjar 2 - Zavod Imeni Stalina [ZIS] (i.e. Automotive Factory No. 2 - Factory named after Stalin) in 1931, after it was re-equipped and expanded with the help of the American firm A.J.Brant Company. As it was during the reign of Stalin, his name had to be incorporated in it somehow.

The first production car known as the ZIS-101 began in 1936: while different car models were made, the company continued to predominantly manufacture trucks and buses instead. Its name was changed in 1956 to Zavod imeni Likhachyova [ZIL], which was named after its former director Ivan Alekseevich Likhachov. However, as the years went by, its vehicles became severely outdated and the company went bankrupt in 2013. It continued to survive as a joint-stock company without producing any vehicles under the name MSC 6 AMO ZIL until its liquidation in 2019, by which time the original factory buildings had been demolished for residential usage.

The 110 was first conceived back in 1943 under the guidance of chief designer Boris Fitterman. Its design was heavily inspired by the pre-war Packard Super Eight 180, which Stalin received as a gift from Franklin D. Roosevelt. Stalin apparently loved the Packard so much that he wanted something similar on Soviet roads, and the task fell on lead designer Andrei Ostrovsev. While it has been claimed that the dies for the 110 were originally from the Packard, it is noted that the production of the 110 used the metric system compared to the imperial system in Packards, resulting in both cars being actually distinct from each other. Body panels were not transferrable and there were slight variations in lengths due to the varied systems used. However, it is undeniable that the decorative trim, fittings and interior design carried Packard DNA, so to speak.

On the exterior, the 110 was fitted with 2 rear lights even though traffic rules at that time only required 1 to be placed on the left. It also had headlight lamps, where the bulb itself was both a reflector and a diffuser: this was different from conventional headlights with separate components. It was also the first Soviet car with direction indicators (made in the American style), which could be turned on by switches on the dashboard or via the left steering column lever. 

The dashboard was fitted with the standard gauges (speedometer, thermometer etc), but an interesting feature was the speedometer needle changing colour at different speeds: it was green up to 60 km/h, yellow from 60-120 km/h and red above 120 km/h. The numbers on the speedometer scale also did not have the last zeroes i.e. "8, 10, 12" instead of "80, 100, 120". As the flagship Soviet car, the interior was fitted with a radio receiver, hydraulic windows and a cigarette lighter among other luxuries.

2 main body styles, namely a 4-door sedan and a 4-door convertible (phaeton) were produced although an ambulance version was also available. Sedans were painted in black, burgundy and blue, although 1 unit was painted in green and gifted to the then-Patriarch of Moscow Alexy I by Stalin. Phaetons were available in black, gray, gray-blue and beige. The 110s were primarily distributed to government branches and was out of reach for the typical peasant unsurprisingly, though some were also gifted to foreign communist leaders like Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh. Interestingly, some also saw use as inter-city taxis, where they were painted in dual-tone white and brown. An armoured version known as the ZIS-115 was commissioned by Stalin, which featured reinforced aviation armour and bulletproof glass.

The car was powered by a hefty 6002 cc inline-8 engine, allowing it to reach a top speed of 140 km/h with an acceleration of 23.1 seconds [0-60 mph]. Naturally, whoever owned it would probably not be terribly concerned with the eye-popping fuel consumption of 23 litres / 100 km. With a length of 6000 mm, height of 1730 mm and weighing in at 2575 kg, it was simply The Car to be in. There is a saying that goes "don't measure by the miles per gallon, but the smiles per gallon", which rings true for this instance, but I would probably be feeling like a literal god and forget about the dollars being converted to exhaust gases.

Production of the 110 ended in 1958 (or 1961 as some sources suggest) with just 2,083 cars made. It is estimated that about 200 still exist today, with half of them still on the road. This unit was noted to be a gift by the Soviets to Kim Il Sung, the first leader of the DPRK. It was captured by the ROK forces on 22 October 1950 near the Chongchon river in Pyongyang, where it was subsequently gifted to the widow of General Walton Walker. It made an appearance at the 1951 Los Angeles Motorama, but after that its history became quite murky. Nothing was heard of until 1982, where the UN Korean War Allies Association (UNKWAA) discovered it in the possession of a car collector in New Jersey. The UNKWAA returned the vehicle in 2013, where it has since resided in the War Museum of Korea in Seoul. 

It goes without saying that none of them existed in Singapore: in fact the only time a Russian car brand entered the local market was the short-lived Lada between 1977 to 1981, and subsequently in the 1990s under Togliatti Cars. The lack of maintenance knowledge (and trying to decipher potentially useful manuals in Cyrillic) effectively puts these Soviet-era cars out of reach from even the most enthusiastic collector in this part of the world. The fact that there was one right here in Seoul was a big surprise as I had never heard of its existence before...I hope that this has been a fresh insight to Soviet classic cars, especially one as illustrious as this. Hopefully, you may be able to see it some day!

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