- Credit: Za Rulem

The story of the first Soviet People's limousine

Inspired by a Buick, designed for Party committee officials and sold freely to the Soviet people for the very first time

Simply sculpted

The solid, elegant car has become one of the symbols of the post-war industrial rise of the USSR. A tough monocoque, fluid coupling manual gearbox, front brakes with two cylinders per wheel, and most importantly - a unique style for a limousine, never mass-produced in the whole world before is what can describe the GAZ-12 ZIM. The car was designed in a record time of just over two years and had some advanced technical solutions that weren't available in any Soviet-made car at the time. And not just that - part of those features weren't available in some Western cars of that period. The vehicle was intended to serve mid-ranking Soviet nomenklatura, but was also readily available as a taxi and ambulance. Unlike its successors, this was the only Soviet executive class limousine that was actually made available for private ownership. Of course, the story goes much deeper so lets dive right in.

Credit: Za Rulem

Credit: Za Rulem

"Should we just build a Buick?"

GAZ began the design process for what became the M12 in May 1948, when the Soviet government requested a six-passenger sedan for the niche between the ZIS-110 and the Pobeda, with a deadline of twenty-nine months to produce it. Due to the lack of time, head designer Andrei Lipgart was given a choice between copying a Buick or developing an entirely new model. He chose the latter, despite receiving some high level Party support for simply badge engineering a Buick. Lipgart made a bold decision - using the experience gained during the creation of the Pobeda, he made the body a monocoque. The weight was only 1940 kg compared to the closest size competitor Cadillac 75's 2200-2300 kg. He even created a prototype to a convertible, but due to the lack of frame and consequently reduced structural rigidity that project never took off. GAZ-12 ZIM in 1950 looked fresh and elegant, less pompous and more modern than the ZIS-110, the main design motives of which were borrowed from the pre-war Packard. The car did not copy any American analogue directly, but borrowed some elements like the hood, the radiator grille, bumpers with massive fangs, chrome outlines. Some things made the design truly unique though - it was the world's first mass-produced ponton limousine, the first executive car produced by GAZ and the first one to have the famous leaping deer hood ornament.

Brave new world

A novelty in GAZ-12 ZIM, unusual for the Soviet car industry was a fluid coupling in the transmission that smoothed out the jerkiness from the inaccurate clutch pedal. The Soviet fluid coupling was a copy of Chrysler's pre-war Fluid Drive device. The limousine used about half the drivetrain components of the GAZ-51 and GAZ-63 trucks, or the smaller Pobeda, including the 3.5 L inline six engine, producing 95 hp rather than the usual 70 hp in the truck. Curiously, the compression ratio was increased to 6.7:1, but it was still able to employ the Soviet spicy water (70 octane petrol). The improved intake manifold and twin-choke carburetor were responsible for the increased power. The 0-100 km/h time was around four days or 37 seconds, depending on how you count. The suspensions were actually a copy of the design used on the Opel Kapitan from 1938, but a high-tech addition were the hydraulic shock absorbers. Despite the lack of power steering, a brilliant engineering decision with the 18.2:1 ratio steering box made turning the heavy beast fairly easy. GAZ-12 ZIM had one bizarre feature - the rear track was wider than the front by 10 cm to ensure the rear seat would accommodate three passengers.

The most American Soviet interior

The GAZ-12 ZIM interior was made in the general American style of those years. Moreover, the dashboard and the upper part of the doors were decorated with wood. The car had a clock, a radio receiver and for the first time for the GAZ vehicle - a steering wheel with a chrome-plated horn ring. Uniquely, the three-band AM radio was standard equipment at a time when radios were not standard on most American cars, even the most expensive ones. GAZ-12 ZIM was closely copying the American executive saloons, in particular Chevrolet cars in terms of the dashboard design. The interiors of many overseas cars were then made in the same style. The most unusual part behind the rear-hinged (suicide) back doors was the seating. It was an 8-seater car, with a front and rear bench for three, but the two extra foldable chairs were between the two benches! Up to date this is by far the most unusual place for two extra seats.

Credit: Za Rulem

Credit: Za Rulem

Soviet cancel culture

The ZIM abbreviation stands for "Zavod imeni Molotova". Prior to 1957, the GAZ factory was officially named as "Gorkovsky avtomobilny zavod imeni V.M. Molotova", or the Vyacheslav Molotov Gorky automotive factory, in honour of the Soviet Foreign Minister. Yes, the same guy that signed the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, believing Nazis were honorable people. All of the models carried the prefix M instead of GAZ. However, for a car of executive class, a new catchy abbreviation was introduced, coinciding with bigger ZIS limousines. In the style of American car fashion that the vehicle was inspired by, the ZIM was used laboriously to decorate the car - the hubcaps, the bonnet, the radiator grille, even the horn button on the steering wheel. However, the Soviet Minister's career was abruptly finished in May 1957, when he lost a political fallout with Nikita Khrushchev. Following his downfall, the country underwent a renaming spree, with cities, streets, ships and factories being hastily rid of the fallen politician's name. ZIM, which was in production, from the summer of 1957 was hurriedly re-christened as GAZ-12, and all of the badges and adornments replaced by the new abbreviation. Moreover, right up until the perestroika the car was officially named labelled only as the GAZ-12, whilst unofficially it was almost exclusively referred to as the ZIM. The car was produced between 1950 and 1960 with 21 527 vehicles being made.

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Comments (3)

  • Very understated and tasteful. It reminded me of the early-1950s Chrysler Crown Imperial limousine, like this '54.

      12 days ago
  • Interesting car. I saw it some advertised for sale in Australia few years ago. Can't remember the price, but remember that it was very high. There was a dealership in regional NSW that specialized in old Soviet cars. I think, it is online only nowadays. He had all sorts of cars, like Moskvitch, Volga M-21 and Chaika. I met someone at car meet who paid AUS$25,000 for Volga M-21. The car looks very spartan in comparison with Western counterparts, but what really shocked me was the requirement to lubricate front suspension every 1500 km at 22 grease points!

      11 days ago