- GAZ-13 Chaika - Credit: Oleg Polazhinets

The most important ship in the Soviet motor fleet

American style with Soviet charm. The favourite car of many USSR heads of state remains the most valued and legendary Eastern Bloc classic.

The dreaded Western stature

The Soviets won't admit it, but historically at the dawn of its existence, the automotive industry of the USSR largely originated from overseas. Only after an agreement with the Ford Motor Company in 1929, in the young state, thanks to technical assistance from foreign partners, mass production of passenger cars and trucks would become a viable asset. In addition, the top officials of the state also had a soft spot for American cars - in particular, Stalin loved the powerful 12-cylinder Packards since the twenties, therefore, when working on the future ZIS-110, an armoured Packard Twelve model was required as a "source" and donated by Roosevelt as a gesture of good will. The leader used the Packard until the end of his days.

Then Nikita Khrushchev, who debunked the personality cult of Stalin, also used an American vehicle. In the personal garage of the future First Secretary of the Central Committee from 1944 to 1949, there was a captured Cadillac Fleetwood 75 from Hitler's Vinnytsia headquarters. That is why, apart from the German plant for the production of Opel under the name Moskvitch 400-420, which was inherited by reparations after the end of World War II, in the USSR, when developing new models, they focused on the American automotive industry as a starting point. Especially when it came to high-class saloons, as the dreaded Yankees were able to produce comfortable and luxurious vehicles like no other in the world.

It is not surprising that both the pre-war ZIS and the later ZIM unambiguously resembled the products of the overseas automobile industry both in appearance and design.

GAZ-13 Chaika - Credit: Oleg Polazhinets

GAZ-13 Chaika - Credit: Oleg Polazhinets

Race to catch up

However, by the mid-50s, the initial batch of Opel and Packard-based cars were severely outdated and outclassed in comparison to their Western counterparts. After all, American fashion trends were very dynamic - in the battle for the affluent customer, designers and engineers representing various manufacturers staged a real "arms race", releasing more and more new models every year.

Already in the beginning of the 50s, mid-size American saloons have significantly increased in size, becoming not only longer, but also wider. In addition, the multi-litre engines became even more powerful and voluminous, and in appearance, aviation and even aerospace motives begun to emerge more regularly. Large panoramic windows, pronounced haunches, an abundance of chrome, long creases of the rear fenders, large fangs on the bumpers - all these were signs of the 50s and reached their apogee by the end of the decade. Against the background of the newest American dreadnoughts, the Soviet saloons no longer looked representative, but more like a simple-minded pensioners.

And technically, the Soviet cars were already noticeably losing to their latest overseas counterparts. For example, the 3.5 L engine developed only 90 hp - perhaps enough by the standards of the 40s, but . . its maximum speed was 120 km/h and the acceleration to 100 km/h took an astounding 37 seconds or four days, depending on how you count. On the one hand, the nomenclature β€œpersonal car” did not have to rush for anywhere, but both the designers and potential customers did not have enough dynamics for β€œin case of emergency” so the ZIM could quickly drive its high-ranking passenger to the Council of Ministers meeting.

GAZ-13 Chaika - Credit: Oleg Polazhinets

GAZ-13 Chaika - Credit: Oleg Polazhinets

Don't mind us, we're just "borrowing"

Work on the new Soviet limousine was preceded by an important event - the acquisition of a couple of Packards - Caribbean and Patrician. They were thoroughly studied both by the employees of the NAMI research institute and by the designers of GAZ and ZIL. This explains a certain similarity of the first GAZ-13 Chaika and ZIL-111 to each other - just both of these cars imperceptibly resembled the American "source". The new GAZ car had to become not only more modern than the ZIM - in the process of working on the future Chaika, the engineers had to get rid of the characteristic issues of the GAZ-12 ZIM. Firstly, this car was too heavy and difficult to drive for the driver, and secondly, it was rather noisy for its class and intended purpose. Based on the results of several years of operation, there were comments on both the chassis and the durability of the ZIM body.

The GAZ designers A. Prosvirin and N. Yumashev did not disappoint. The Chaika not only looked completely different from its predecessor, but also differed significantly in technical terms. Instead of the not-so-well-proven monocoque, a separate X-shaped frame was used on the new limousine, to which an impressively designed body was attached through rubber spacers - the work of the designer B. Lebedev. Other innovations included an automatic transmission with push-buttons, hydraulic power steering, vacuum brake booster, tubeless tires . . such an impressive array of modern innovations ensured the Chaika's ease of operation and high levels of comfort, like a proper luxury car. It was clear that the new car required a fundamentally different heart. Without further ado, the designers used the Chrysler V8 engine as a prototype, but for the purpose of unification they used the pistons from the GAZ-M21 Volga, multiplying by two the number of cylinders. Such a V8 with a volume of 4.9 L kicked out 180 hp. However, the trials of prototypes showed that the power needs to be raised to a level of about 200 hp. This was achieved by increasing the working volume to 5.5 litre and the total power was raised to 195 hp. Curious detail - the V8 engine turned out to be so good that it was used in both GAZ-53A and GAZ-66 trucks.

GAZ-13 Chaika - Credit: Oleg Polazhinets

GAZ-13 Chaika - Credit: Oleg Polazhinets

Building the Soviet Packard

There were also enough electronics innovations, including power windows, as well as a five-band radio with automatic tuning and an electric pop-up for the aerial. In fact, Chaika has absorbed almost all the possible achievements from the best examples of the world car industry - of course, we are talking about American sedans of those years. It was very unlike the utilitarian and even somewhat primitive cars that were used in Europe at the time. In the summer of 1955 the first prototype of the GAZ-13 was assembled. It had a distinct combination of colours - a white cream top and a dark cherry bottom. In some details of the finish, the prototype almost completely copied Packard's vehicles - this also applied to the famous seagull logo on the radiator grille, to which the car owes the name Chaika. At the same time, the characteristic birdie on the Packard indicated only the V-shaped engine. The later prototypes of 1958, used in full-scale tests were somewhat modified in detail - in particular the final design of the seagull appeared on the conveyor at the beginning of 1959.

Of course, the production of the GAZ-13 was initially small-scale and was timed to coincide with a significant event - the 21st Congress of the Soviet Central Committee, famous for the fact that it proclaimed the final victory of socialism in the USSR and the course towards communism by the 1980s. As for the Chaika, a year earlier, in a pre-production version, it received a prestigious international award - the Grand Prix at the EXPO-58 World Industrial Exhibition in Brussels. Meanwhile, the playful color scheme of the pre-production prototypes has given way to the protocol black. It is understandable - the car had to work in the service in various ministries and regional committees, where according to the precepts of Henry Ford himself, could be of any color, provided that it was black.

Soon after the start of production, Chaika began not only to serve the party-nomenklatura elite of the USSR, but also to work in various representative offices of the Soviet state abroad. And almost half of Moscow's diplomatic corps in the 60s traveled with Chaika's - ambassadors and consuls of Finland, Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Mongolia, North Korea, Ethiopia, Indonesia and many other countries used the GAZ-13 as a service vehicle. Moreover, one limousine of the Gorky Automobile Plant even got into the fleet of the American Embassy!

More Western upgrades

A few years after the start of production, in 1962, the car was updated in detail - the Chaika received a new K-114 carburetor and a different interior trim. In the next decade, a dual-circuit braking system, seat belts and a shortwave radio began to be installed on the GAZ-13. In addition, other mustard-coloured materials were again used for interior decoration instead of the previous grey. The minimal innovations can be easily explained - both technically and in design, the Chaika was made well enough that practically didn't need any improvements. The interior by the standards of the 60s looked modern, stylish and even luxurious, corresponding to the level of American counterparts even in the smallest details. In addition, the main consumers of the GAZ-13 were not only a conservatives, but also stayed at duty, which was the initial aim of the vehicle. The nominal seven-seater capacity of the roomy cabin did not imply the constant use of Chaika for the transportation of such a number of passengers. After all, thin folding seats in the centre of the cabin were intended for escorting security personnel of dignitaries, who were supposed to be accommodated on a comfortable back sofa. At their service were commodities such as an ashtray, rope handrails and revolving rear windows. Very sparse by the standards of our time, but quite enough for a short business trip in the 60s.

The black doctor GAZ-13C - Credit: DriveRu

The black doctor GAZ-13C - Credit: DriveRu

Kremlin-style diversity

In addition to the traditional three-row, there were several unusual varieties of the Chaika. Perhaps the most famous is the "black doctor" - a medical station wagon GAZ-13C, built on the basis of a conventional car commissioned by the Ministry of Health. The β€œkremlyovkas” served as ambulances for high-ranking officials - both the current party elite and members of their families, and honoured nomenklatura workers. Even more rare modifications include partially open-top Chaikas, the bodies of which have been converted into landau and phaetons, used mostly in military parades. But the GAZ-13 did not undergo serious modernisation - despite an attempt in 1961 to release a more modern version of the car with a different front end in the style of more modern Americans. So until 1981 the Chaika was produced unchanged.

Since 1977, the Chaika was produced in parallel with the GAZ-14, the next generation of the executive limousine from the Gorky factory. At the same time, with the release of the "fourteenth", the previous model took a lower position in the unspoken table of ranks, although the car was still used in transportation for high-ranking officials. Of course, no Chaika fell into private hands, with the rare exceptions like the writer Mikhail Sholokhov or the first female conqueror of space Valentina Tereshkova.

GAZ-13 Chaika - Credit: Oleg Polazhinets

GAZ-13 Chaika - Credit: Oleg Polazhinets

A rare classic status

Annually, GAZ produced about 150 GAZ-13 Chaikas and in just a little over two decades it was possible to produce a little more than 3000 vehicles of which only a few have survived, and their cost is measured by the owners themselves in tens of thousands of dollars. In the early 80s, the outdated model was completely replaced by the more modern GAZ-14, which deserves a separate story. Well, some of the less important passengers moved from the out-of-date Chaika's to the new personal model GAZ-3102, the so called "Motherland's Mercedes", which will also be a topic on a later stage. Finally, in the USSR there was also a "caste of untouchables" that even drove in Moscow limousines produced at the ZIL factory. Pictured in the gallery below are photos of the first prototype (1955), the landau open-top version and some Soviet nostalgia monochrome photos, used by GAZ for their advertising from the 50s all the way into the 80s.

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Comments (24)

  • I'd definitely prefer a Tatra 603 if I were a high ranking official but the Tatras weren't available everywhere and probably had some subtle stigma against arriving in a non-Russian designed car.

      6 days ago
  • There's something about this car I really like... Truly one of the best, if not the best, Soviet car.

      6 days ago
  • Interesting article! Was it technically as bad as American cars of the era, i.e. heavy cars, massive engines, but unassisted drum brakes?

      8 days ago
    • Just remembered something, about 3 years ago one of the was advertised for sale on British site "Car and Classic" for a whooping €110,000. Owner was from Estonia. History, interesting car, pristine conditions, etc., but €110,000?...

      Read more
        8 days ago
    • Say what? 110 000 Euro?! This is ridiculous! Is there a Brezhnev included? πŸ˜‚Or Zhivkov? I can understand the historical value, but that's still insane asking price! By the way, the Chaika had brake assistance. I've used the term "vacuum...

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        8 days ago
  • That first prototype and the convertible models and glorious!! I also love the Black Doctor model because wagon! And what nice-looking gauges and dashboard! The front end of the updated model in which Brezhnev is parading reminds me a bit of a '61'-'62 Cadillac.

    So much fascinating infoβ€”I'm glad you're doing this series! πŸ˜€

      8 days ago
    • Two more are coming for sure, three if I could find more context for a certain non-soviet, but still Eastern Bloc vehicle. The extensive interior gallery is from the Chaika of the Bulgarian communist dictator Todor Zhivkov. It's the later...

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        8 days ago
    • These are like the Mercedes 600 and 770 Großer...intriguing vehicles yoked with some tragically unfortunate provenance. πŸ˜’

      That interior upholstery material is interestingβ€”perhaps a mohair velvet? The leather prevalent today is...

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        8 days ago
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