Putin's Zaporozhets Steals the Show at Avtoville

MTPutin took Bush for a spin in this tiny, 36-year-old Zaporozhets, now on display in the Avtoville car museum, during the 2006 G8 summit in St. Petersburg.
A tiny 36-year-old car with vinyl seats and an interior that reeks of petrol attracts far more attention than the Cadillacs and Rolls-Royces at Avtoville, a glossy new car museum that opened in August.

The clunky Zaporozhets is the star exhibit only because of its famous owner, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who showed it off to U.S. President George W. Bush at the 2006 Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg in 2006.

Putin has only lent the car for the exhibition, and the keys still sit in the glove box, with a souvenir key ring from the summit. A carefully preserved manual from 1980 is packed on top of the toolbox.

The museum has other links with power. It is on the ground floor of an office and residential complex built by construction company Inteko, whose president is Yelena Baturina, the wife of Mayor Yury Luzhkov.

She and her husband are car enthusiasts, and one of the exhibits is a black 1936 Lagonda that they drove at a rally in Italy this year. It's unclear how many of the exhibits belong to Luzhkov and Baturina.

The cars are officially described as part of a "private collection." No ownership is mentioned on labels except in the case of Putin's Zaporozhets. A museum guide and a spokeswoman for Inteko said information on the owners was not being made public.

A spokeswoman for the mayor referred the question to the city transport department, which had no information on the museum.

Some of the cars are painted with the Inteko logo, including a jeep that took part in a Trans-Siberian rally this year.

The museum officially opened in August this year with a party at country club, but it's not open to the public every day. To get a place on a free excursion, you need to call in advance.

The museum also acts as a vintage car club, offering restoration and storage of cars, and taking part in rallies.

The building has ornate gilded light fittings and black-and-white marble on the top floor. Security guards hover around the exhibits, which include a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, a brand-new Aston Martin DBS and a Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray from 1968.

Far more impressive than Putin's Zaporozhets are huge ZIS and ZIM cars from the 1950s. The black cars with fins and gleaming chrome work were distributed to top officials, although by the 1970s the ZIM was used as a taxi, too. The ZIS car on display once belonged to the Soviet ambassador in Germany.

Avtoville is located at 1 Malaya Trubetskaya Ulitsa. M. Frunzenskaya. To book a place on a free excursion, call Natalya Lapitskaya on 232-2303, extension 1292.