(first posted 10/17/2017) I saw this big blue monster on my very first day in Yerevan – how lucky can a CCurbivore be? No way to get a decent photo of the dash of course, or time to get that many pics in any case, but at least I bagged me a classic Chaika. It may seem like a Packard with a glandular condition, but there’s much more to it than that. Let’s peel the gauze and gaze at GAZ limos, and look at a few others along the way.
The really big Soviet limousines originally came from the ZIS factory (renamed ZIL after Stalin’s death) in Moscow. Those were the cream of the crop, entirely hand-made – about one or two per month – and featuring 6-litre 8-cyl. engines. But as the regime and its bureaucracy stabilized after 1945, there was a growing need for more luxury cars. So many generals, so many Party bigwigs and diplomats and so few limos, which had already started to look like a clone of the senior ’42 Packards by this point, complete with straight-8s. A few were even used as taxis, with a more utilitarian finish, or as ambulances, but this was clearly not cost-effective.
The solution was to get GAZ, which had mainly focused on mid-range cars and trucks until then, to produce a somewhat smaller executive sled. Before one could say “apparatchiks of the world, unite!” the GAZ 12 ZIM was born, doubtless causing many an ego to be flattered. The ZIM was still a fine car, but it made do with a more humble 3.5 litre 90 hp straight-6. ZIMs were comparatively common in Moscow’s traffic: GAZ made over 20,000 of these and a good number were used as taxis. Their rounded styling was adequate when production began in 1950, but about five years later, things were looking a bit different. The Americans were putting V8s with automatic transmission in Chevys and Plymouths now, and their looks had evolved significantly. Plus, both the Czechs and the East Germans, underwhelmed by the ZIMs they were saddled with, were planning to release home-grown executive cars – the Tatra 603 and the Horch P240 Sachsenring, respectively.
ZIS/ZIL were busy putting the finishing touches to a completely new car, which would ditch the straight-8 and the pre-war styling in favour of something more enticing. A first attempt was the above “Moskva” car, presented to the Politburo (i.e. the ZIL’s main clientele) in 1956. Dollops of Cadillac and Buick with a zest of Chrysler notwithstanding, this effort was rejected and ZIL went back to the drawing board.
Not to be outdone, GAZ started work on a new model, which would be called Chaika (“Seagull” – perhaps an homage to Chekhov?). The “ZIM” name may have been deemed too close to ZIS/ZIL, though early sketches still used it. GAZ designers Boris Lebedev and Lev Eremeev and their Politburo clientele were avowed Packard fans. It is rumoured that several American sedans made their way to Gorky circa 1956, and the latest Packard featured among these. ZIL also recruited Eremeev to redesign their new model, pretty much at the same time as he was working on the Chaika. Which is why when the Chaika came out in 1958, along with the new ZIL 111, they looked suspiciously similar to each other and to the ’55-‘56 Packard.
So let’s take a look at these cars and see. GAZ-13 Chaika, ZIL 111, 1955 Packard 400 – and let’s a few more American cars for symmetry – the 1955 Mercury, the 1955 Plymouth and the 1956 Lincoln, for example. The ZIL’s grille texture is very Packard-like, but the Chaika’s not so much. The Mercury’s straight grille top lip is closer to the Russian cars than the Packard’s curved one. The Plymouth’s wheel openings and greenhouse look remarkably similar to the Chaika’s – more so than the Packard anyway. These all have the same hooded lamp design. There were more hoodies in mid-‘50s showrooms than in an Eminem video.
Ford seems to have a claim to the hoodies’ paternity, as they were a distinctive feature of the Ford X-100 and Lincoln XL-500 show cars of 1953. This explains why Lincoln and Mercury got their hooded lights, but not how Packard and Plymouth did. Could it be that (shock horror) car designers constantly look over one another’s shoulders and “borrow” design features from the competition?
And just to throw a three-pointed monkey wrench into the whole thing, let’s remind ourselves of this Mercedes-Benz W122 styling proposal from late 1956 – i.e. about the same time as the Russians were designing their limos. Again with the hooded lamps and heavy eyeliner chrome strip. The Benz boys refrained from going further with this somewhat tasteless facelift of the “pontoon” Mercedes thanks to their buy-out of Auto-Union, which forced them to re-assess their spending plans. Another reason to love two-strokes.
Getting back to the subject at hand, let’s focus our attention on the Chaika 13’s august behind. No Packard “cathedral” lights influence there, it seems. If you only caught the Chaika going down the street out of the corner of your eye on a foggy morning (pre-coffee and without your glasses), you might well think “Oh, that looked like a ’55 Buick.” Or perhaps a 1957 Pontiac? Something about this rear end says “GM” in Cyrillic, with a soupçon of Studebaker – 1956 vintage, I’d reckon – spicing things up.
In summary, although the Packard kinship is pretty strong and undeniable, the Chaika had quite a variety of second and third American cousins. It’s a blessing that GAZ had a competent design department, or with that many influences on a single product, the end result could have looked downright ridiculous.
What about the technical side? Well, the engine proper was pretty much a home-grown effort. Originally, the Chaika’s all-alloy V8 was based on the Volga M-21’s engine, at least as far as their bore and stroke were identical (the Volga was a 2445cc 4-cyl., making the Chaika a 4890cc V8). There were few common parts between the two, so in late 1959 GAZ revisited the Chaika’s cylinder measurements to reach 5530cc and 195 hp @ 4600 rpm. The car was as heavy as anything made in the US (about 2 tons), so performance was somewhat sedate: Chaikas could reach about 100 mph, and that would have to do. Chrysler-like dash-mounted push buttons controlled the 3-speed automatic transmission (a Soviet first), which was essentially a reverse-engineered Fordomatic. Unlike the monocoque / subframe ZIM and Pobieda, the Chaika emulated Detroit even under the skin with its X-frame chassis, servo-assisted drum brakes, coil-sprung IFS and leaf-sprung live rear axle.
There are several things the Chaikas have that their American fore (or five)-fathers do not have. For one thing, Chaikas came with only one six-window limousine body as standard. The Riga Automobile Factory converted 20 to wagon-like servitude as ambulances or, should that prove unsuccessful, as hearses. And another dozen or so underwent a complete roof-oplasty, turning them into four-door convertibles, chiefly for the massive military parades so beloved by Soviet elites. I’m struggling to find these body styles in the ’56 Packard or Lincoln ranges. Sedans, two-door coupes and convertibles, sure, but no LWB limo, no wagon and no parade phaetons. Perhaps the two ranges ought to be seen as complementing each other?
The other big difference is longevity. The ’55 Packards were carried over to 1956 – just barely – and then became the much-ballyhooed Studebaker clones of 1957-58. Global styling trends, chiefly set by Detroit in those days, stubbornly refused to keep still. By 1960, quad headlamps and straight lines were the new thing, panoramic windshields and fins were out (though Virgil Exner didn’t get the memo). Keeping up with the Joneses, the ZIL 111 got an extensive Cadillac-inspired facelift, becoming the ZIL 111G in 1962.
A new ZIL model, the 114, was introduced five years later to keep the Politburo in stylistic step with their opposite numbers in Washington. It boasted a 7-litre V8 and all the comforts that a comparable Fleetwood 75 or Continental could muster. ZIL even proposed a short wheelbase version, the 117, in a rare display of modesty. Styling was modern and toned down – anonymized even – but remained transatlantic, just less obviously derivative. The Chaika, on the other hand, stretched its vast body over decades and passing fads, such as disc brakes or fuel efficiency, until the tail end of the glorious stagnation of the Brezhnev era.
The Chaika’s lower-spec nature may have played a part in its sticking with its mid-‘50s styling, though the GAZ designers did try a ’58 Plymouth-ish front end for size in 1961 or ’62. The decision-makers didn’t see the point of this exercise, as was often the case in planned economies. The oblivious Chaika glided through the ‘60s and ‘70s wearing its tailfins, wraparound windshield and heavy chrome trim. But few things are eternal in the automotive world. GAZ finally managed, after about ten years of making prototypes, to put a new GAZ 14 Chaika in production in 1977. GAZ 13s were still being made regardless – they had more cachet, it seems, to some apparatchiks’ eyes. Khrushchev certainly preferred the Chaika to the ZIL. A man of the people, our Nikita.
The end of the GAZ 13 came swiftly and in quite an unexpected manner. On a stretch of the Minsk-Moscow highway in October 1980, disaster– or rather, a GAZ 53 truck full of potatoes – was struck by the Chaika carrying Byelorussian bigwig Pietr Masherov, killing all the limo’s occupants instantly. Exact circumstances remain murky, but the accident triggered an outcry in the little circle of Chaika users, who lambasted GAZ for continuing to manufacture this dinosaur of a car. GAZ finished the Chaikas that were still on their assembly line and, by 1981, old model 13 was no longer in the lineup. A number of them ended up with the KGB, who appreciated using their capacious back seats as mobile interrogation rooms – ideal for the goon on the go.
A cull in “Seagull” stocks took place in the post-Soviet era: natural attrition claimed its fair share, as did foreign buyers. The story of the Yerevan car I photographed is not known to me, but it seems about ready for some TLC and perhaps a new owner (the paper in the windshield has a phone number on it). According to several sources, a total of just under 3200 GAZ 13 Chaikas were built from 1958 to 1981. The one I found in Yerevan could be a mid-to-late ‘70s model due to its side mirror, one of the few external changes ever applied throughout the model’s long life. Then again, Chaikas were regularly overhauled, sometimes extensively, at the Gorky factory.
The new Chaika’s career was also cut short – by the winds of change that buffeted the Kremlin in the late ‘80s. Gorbachev was not keen on these, it seems, and in 1988 ordered GAZ to quit making them and even specified that the blueprints should be destroyed. Only about 1100 GAZ 14s were made and a few of them are still in official use. The ZIL was redesigned as the 4104, going for a Lincoln-esque blend with a touch of Mercedes, and was facelifted several times from the mid-‘80s onwards. Production plummeted in the ‘90s, but ZIL episodically made a car or two until fairly recently, when the factory was dismantled and assets were auctioned off.
Back in their heyday, these cars were all state propriety; the people who drove them or rode them were not going to customize or accessorize their Chaika, but they could request GAZ to retrofit the latest features. Perhaps this one got its mirror later in life, perhaps it was like that to begin with. Same with the colour, which is pretty suspicious: most (but not all) Chaikas were black. I doubt we will ever know for sure. Either way, this is a very rare and high-class automobile. It’s not a Packard, it’s much more than that.