In 1928, Studebaker, the American car manufacturer with a long history of carriage building stretching back to the wagon trains of the Wild West, released its latest model saloon. It was known as The Dictator. It was to be one of its shortest lived models in US motoring history. For with the coming of the 1930s, real life dictators began to dominate political life across Europe.
Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin loved their cars. They saw motor vehicles as the engines of national pride and their own personal vehicles, not only as status symbols, but as icons of their ideologies.
Later dictators such as Mao sought to invent and then promote their national car industries. Middle Eastern dictators such as Saddam Hussein ordered custom model Mercedes , with unique shapes, complete with bespoke security devices such as armoured plating.
And lately Robert Mugabe, famed for his tirades against Zimbabwe’s old coloniser, Britain, prefers the comfort of a fleet of Rolls Royces!
We explore the love affair between some of the world’s most reviled and notorious leaders and their motor cars, from Hitler’s promotion of Volkswagen, the car of the people, to Stalin’s introduction of the communist car, including the Zil limousine.
Many of the dictators’ personal vehicles survive to this day as do the models they embraced and then hijacked to further the cause of their nationalist agendas. Looking back at dictators and their cars provides a dark reminder of the power of national icons to capture the imagination and hearts of countries and their people in troubled times.
Hitler’s Italian counterpart and leader of the National Fascist Party was an ardent admirier of the Italian Alfa Romeo brand. One of his favourite Alfa Romeo vehicles, a 1937 2300 MM, sold on eBay for $1,200,000!
Mussolini was known for his love of Alfa Romeo, Fiat and Lancia cars, all of which characterized his political career and his demise — Following his attempted escape in his Mistresses Alfa Romeo, they were both eventually captured in a convoy full of fleeing Fascist leaders during an ambush.
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
The first leader of the Soviet Union was a Rolls Royce man and owned nearly a dozen of them in his lifetime. One well known vehicle he owned was a Rolls Royce silver ghost. This special vehicle had several modifications designed to enable it to cope with the harsh Soviet climate. The car was capable of running on alcohol, a fuel better suited than petrol in cold climates, and had caterpillar tracks instead of regular tires.
Stalin had a much larger collection compared to his predecessor which included some American brands such as Packard and Cadillac. Stalin even received a 1937 Packard V12 as a gift from US president Frankin D. Roosevelt. So great was his love for Packard cars that he got the ZIS-110 built. A Soviet built car, the ZIS-110 was based entirely on the Packard Super Eight.
Idi Amin was the 3rd president of Uganda who seized power on January 1971 and remained head of the state until April 1979. The Ugandan dictator had thousands of vehicles to call his own, all of which had once belonged to people of Indian descent, who were forced to flee the country in 1972. Like many other dictators, Mercedes Benz is said to have been Amin’s favourite.
Of all the dictators to date, the Iraqi dictator perhaps had the most extensive collection of luxury cars. Although most of them are now lost due to the war, many claims suggest that he had more than 60 cars from every era imaginable. Sports cars, vintage vehicles, luxury sedans, luxury SUV’s, and even an authentic London black cab (taxi) were reported to have been found in underground parking spaces. Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay had their father’s taste for expensive and luxury cars, as well as terrible reproductions and odd-looking customs. The bloody dictatorial family also had a fondness fro customised Mercedes and rare classics. Among the haul found after American forces toppled the dictator was a pink Ferrari Testarossa, a Ferrari F40, a couple of Porsche 911s and the dictators delight, a Mercedes S600 limousine.
The Libyan dictator had the poorest taste when it came to cars and mostly resorted to building poorly designed replicas of luxury cars. However, one car that received a lot of attention was the “Libyan Rocket”. This funny looking sedan, shaped like a rocket, was built by the Libyan Arab Domestic Investment. Funnier still was the tagline behind the car, which the makers decided was to “preserve human life all over the world”. The Libyan Rocket car was clearly the product of a team of auto engineers laboring day and night, but when Gaddafi stepped up and claimed the design as his, no one felt inclined to disagree. The 5-seater was powered by a 260bhp V6 and had collapsible bumpers that Gaddafi claimed would make it safer in a crash…
Interestingly though, Gaddafi’s fleet also contained dozens of environmentally friendly vehicles, too. The most notable was the one-off Fiat 500, which was custom built in Italy for the modest sum of €200,000 by coachbuilders Castagna Milano, whose employees were kept in the dark about the identity of the buyer. Among it’s special details was a logo with a black silhouette of Africa, with Libya highlighted in green, where the Fiat logo would normally be found. The car was captured by rebels in 2011.
The Mercedes-Benz 770 was the favourite of several heads of state including both Hitler and Japan’s premier Emperor Hirohito.
Among many other military vehicles, Hitler also owned a 1942 Mercedes-Benz 320 Cabriolet D convertible, of which only eight were ever made, and all for Nazi party officials. Nowadays, Benz dreads the Hitler connection being raised.
The brain behind the Third Reich was also the brains behind the original VW Beetle of the 1930’s. Hitler had laid down a vision for a cheap and simple car that could be mass produced in order to use his new network of autobahns. Volkswagen was helped off the ground in 1933 by Hitler whose idea was to produce a car that the average German citizen could afford.
On multiple occasions, Mugabe has opened an inaugural Parliamentary session by arriving in a vintage Rolls Royce, flanked by police on horseback wearing 100-year old uniforms — not forgetting the guard of honour, the military jets and the gun salute, which “pomp and circumstance” is barely able to describe! The British car makes for a strange choice given Mugabe’s vehement anti-West stance and open criticism of the UK, but it appears that the pull of the Rolls Royce is just too strong to resist.
The ZIL-111 was introduced in 1958 after unsuccessful tests with the ZIL Moscow prototype two years before. The very first ZIL-111D – a convertible version of the limousine – was built in 1963 and given to Fidel Castro as a personal gift from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
Castro typically stuck to a military-style jeep for his own personal transportation and used his fleet of black Soviet cars to ferry around visiting dignitaries. These days, many of the former presidential ZIL and GAZ cars have been converted into Havana taxicabs that ferry around visiting tourists instead!