Carchive Special: The European cars that caught me unawares

As we know, true car geeks will feverishly devour any relevant information that comes their way on their journey along the path to enlightenment. The thing is, though, that information doesn’t necessarily arrive in the order you expect it to.
When I was growing up, my local newsagent stocked all the most popular British car magazines, but I had to travel quite a lot farther afield to satisfy my appetite for info on American metal. By 1990 I was pretty well versed on what was happening the other side of the Atlantic – my friends in primary school were probably sick of me going on about the exciting new Chevy Corsica all the time.
I was shocked, then, when the ‘International Car Catalogue’ washed up in the newsagent, to reveal cars you could buy in Europe that I’d never even heard of. I had concentrated so far on automotive treasure near and far, that I’d totally ignored the middle distance.

I was a regular visitor to Neep BMW of Colchester, as my nearest dealer was then named, and had amassed brochures to cover much of the British BMW range. I had even sat behind the wheel of a Z1 while an extremely patient salesman supervised from nearby. But what was this? A four-wheel drive model? A diesel BMW 3 Series?
Such things were some way off appearing on British roads, but mainland Europe had been enjoying them for some time.

Citroen Axel? Something very strange was afoot here. The tiny Citroen AX was already well established, and its predecessor, the Citroen Visa was a familiar sight on British roads. My next door neighbour, Maureen, had a white one that suffered a puncture when she gave me a lift to school.
The Visa looked a lot like this, but was different enough to the Axel that, apparrently, very few parts were interchangeable. I soon learned that the car was a joint-venture between Citroen and the Romanian Oltcit concern, so I could perhaps be excused never having heard of the damn thing.

When I was 9, I thought I knew ’80s Ferrari inside out. During my lifetime I had seen the Ferrari 400 become the Ferrari 412 (my favourite), the Testarossa had succeeded the 512BB and there was a new king of the hill whose quoted top speed began with a two. Phenomenal stuff.
But the 208 Turbo had escaped me. I thought it was cool, though – even the 288 GTO, and F40, models that I knew had twin-turbochargers, didn’t have the incredibly cool ‘turbo’ distinction in their name. And look at the extra NACA duct ahead of the rear wheelarches. This represented a sudden spike in Ferrari awesomeness – it would be ages before I would learn that the whole point of the 208 was to help wealthy Italians pay less tax.

Finding models that were unfamiliar to my young English eyes was one thing, but finding whole marques I was unaware of was something completely different. In fact, not long after finding Innocenti listed in this publication – with a car that had found its basis in the old Mini, but with power by Daihatsu – I actually chanced upon an Innocenti in Colchester, parked outside the Hollytrees museum.
Up to that point, I had never been aware of a car sold with a smaller engine, either.

You see, I had heard of Isuzu – the Trooper SUV was making inroads among the British country set, and those who wanted to create an illusion of being included within that stereotypical societal grouping, and there were plenty of Isuzu vans doing the rounds. I was well aware of the Piazza, too.
God, I loved the Piazza. I was nine, so of course I did. It had semi-concealed headlamps and stickers that said ‘turbo’ on it – what’s not to like? But what on Earth was the Aska? Well, I always thought it looked curiously similar to the Vauxhall Cavalier / Opel Ascona, and it wasn’t until quite a while later that I found out why: Because it was. Yes, the Aska was Isuzu’s (a company with historic GM ties) interpretation of the global J-Car. However, if 16.0 seconds to 62.5 mph is really true of the 2.0-litre version, I didn’t really want to know much more about it.

Of course I knew about the Renault 4, the French company’s do-anything utility hatchback. I knew about the 6, the R4’s more demure sister that looked like a shrunken R16, too. But I had never seen a Frog before.
I instantly found it rather appealing. The fact that it was photographed on a beach helped its case – I was very fond of beach buggies at that time, and the British Mini Moke, about as close as we had to those carefree fibreglass VW-powered surfmobiles, was very similar in concept to the Frog.
And, hey, it was called a Frog, which meant that my younger sister liked it, too.

The Volvo 480 coupe had recently made a splash in Britain. A small one, admittedly, but its sharp looks were a welcome and rather provocative contrast from the huge, boxy saloons and estates that were the Swedish company’s stock in trade. But a soft top version? This was new.
New and, it seems, premature. In fact, despite being shown in the form above at the Geneva Motor Show, it never reached production.

This did, though, and was well worth my waiting until I reached the last page of the catalogue. We had the Volvo 700 series in the UK, of course. I had a 1:63 scale matchbox 760GLE, and poor folk could buy a 740 with a mere four-cylinder engine. But 780? That was a new one, and not without appeal.
In fact, to this day, the 780 continues to be a bit of a favourite of mine, even though it’s probably as dull as dishwater to drive and to live with. But it looks kinda like a big, Swedish version of a Maserati Biturbo, and that’s enough for me.
(All images are of a genuine, and priceless 1990 copy of ‘International Car Catalogue’, which, frankly, suffered from extremely poor production values and no small number of errors. Copyright remains property of Car Catalogue International. Carchive will return next week with an actual brochure)

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41 responses to “Carchive Special: The European cars that caught me unawares”

  1. mdharrell Avatar

    “…which, frankly, suffered from extremely poor production values and no small number of errors.”
    No kidding. I am saddened to see the Volvo 480 listed under Sweden and attributed to Volvo AB instead of, correctly, under The Netherlands and attributed to Volvo Car BV. For shame, “International Car Catalogue 1990.” For shame.

    1. Vairship Avatar

      More intriguingly, the Renault 4 Frog appears to be attributed to Porsche AG. Perhaps the first Porsche CUV was made much earlier than most people think?!? 😉

      1. Ahnuc Onun Avatar
        Ahnuc Onun

        Wait a minute! Am I the only one that sees the irony of a French car named Frog? That would be like an American car named Beef, if Beef was a nickname for Americans.

        1. Vairship Avatar

          My guess would be that there was a wily Englishman working at Renault at the time, who had a bit of fun at the expense of his co-workers…

    2. Ahnuc Onun Avatar
      Ahnuc Onun

      RIGHT! In the former DAF factory!

  2. Sjalabais Avatar

    My love for the unfamiliar started the same way, and this spring I even bought another of these catalogues for my boy and another kid in the village that at age 7 had expressed interest in my Honda van – because he had never seen one like it before. Got to nurture that!
    The Isuzu Aska is something I have never seen before. The 780 though is also a favourite of mine…they’re expensive here. I have been wondering if it would be worth it to import them from the US, as I know a guy who does so who earns a fair little extra income this way, even though he’s specialized in 262’s. Alas, in the end I don’t dare to gamble like that.

    1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      Indeed. It actually troubles me that the 262c should be so popular. It drives no differently to a regular 264, and is, even to the most hardened optimist, hideous.

      1. Sjalabais Avatar

        Not Bertone’s finest work, for sure. If his ambition was to make people react with: “This 200 is special”, he succeeded. If their ambition was to sell, it failed. I can’t imagine anyboy but hardcore Volvo enthusiasts buying these new in their age. I guess with the more anonymous 780, there were some lessons learned. Especially in white though they are so anonymous, they might escape even the watchful eye when passing.

        1. Rover 1 Avatar
          Rover 1

          A 780 is on my ‘nice to have one, obscure Euro two doors list, to contrast with my Gamma and C124 – and if I can get the importation from Japan sorted- a Renault Avantime.

    2. tonyola Avatar

      I was already heading into being a car nut by the time I was 14 years old but my parents ruined me forever when they gave me this for Christmas 1968. I have never been the same since. 🙂

      1. Mr.Roadrage Avatar

        The book that captivated me was the annual World Car Catalogue, put out by the Automobile Club of Italy. At an impressionable age, I was introduced to the likes of the Otosan Anadol and Daewoo Daewoo Maepsy-Na. I haven’t been the same since.

    3. Rover 1 Avatar
      Rover 1

      We have seen quite a few Isuzu Askas over here in NZ as JDM used imports and they were sold here new, with Holden Camira badging from ’84 to 89. At the time, real, actual Camiras from Australia being too poorly made and expensive to bring over the Tasman Sea, apart from the wagons, for which there was never an Isuzu version.( Later currency changes switched back into Australia’s favour,and we got real Camiras again before their replacement by the Vectra. Currency exchange movements also killing GMHolden’s use of Nissan straight sixes in the Commodore and a switch to the US sourced Buick V6)
      (Trivia note 1 :All ‘J’ car wagons worldwide had their panel pressings made in Australia,where wagon demand is strongest, for export to Europe for Opel Asconas and Vauxhall Cavaliers and all the US versions, though not, of course, the Cadillac Cimmaron.)
      NZ new Holden Camira, actually a rebadged JJ model Isuzu Aska
      Trivia note 2 :Isuzu Askas were the first cars made with a clutch-pedal less automated manual transmission, familiar today to head nodding drivers of some Citroen and Peugeot and Smart Car products. Neither the software controlling it or the hardware being controlled were up to the task in those early days and the cars drove as though a three year old toddler was performing the gear and clutch operation.This lead to very non Japanese levels of reliability, and I would be surprised to find any still working. Inexplicably the French adopted the idea and later ‘perfected’ the technology as any driver of a Citroen or Peugeot thus equipped will, I’m sure, soon attest. ( I think they hoped that adding some electronics to their existing manuals would mean they could save the cost of an expensive, real automatic.)
      Later Isuzu Askas were not based on GM products at all, being based on Japanese made vehicles only and were startling examples of badge engineering only, to give Isuzu’s JDM dealer network something to sell. They realised how pointless it all was in ’02 and Isuzu withdrew from car sales and stuck to trucks and still does today after the split with GM after the GFC.
      See if you can tell what other manufacturers Isuzu partnered with?
      ’90-’93 Isuzu Aska CX (no wagons, no turbos, no engines bigger than 2.0 l)
      ’94-’97 Isuzu Aska( 2.0 l only, no wagon)
      ’98-’02 Isuzu Aska (2.0 l only no wagon)
      For US readers this is the European/British Accord and JDM Torneo, smaller than the (by now) too big, too wide, US Accord.

      1. Sjalabais Avatar

        For the Record, I think it makes sense to go on Accord with their Legacy if they try to sell a Japanese nameplate.

          1. Sjalabais Avatar

            To me, it is somewhat amazing to see how GM managed to plop out so many different nameplates with one design, yet none of the iterations come across as coherent. The proportions look a bit off on every single one of them.

          2. Ahnuc Onun Avatar
            Ahnuc Onun

            The General mastered badge engineering until they did it to death, literally, of Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Saab, etc. But it reveals something about the nature of the relationship consumers in North Americans have with cars and how they respond to branding and marketing, ie. the majority of them don’t know jack about shit! When you think about it, it’s wanting choice, but not realizing that it’s the same crap in 5 different wrappers.

          3. outback_ute Avatar

            The US versions have the bumper attached to the tailgate, so I wonder if that was enough, with presumably a decent domestic volume, to justify pressing their own panels?

          4. Rover 1 Avatar
            Rover 1

            Not when they were being already pressed in Australia, why pay the tooling cost twice?

          5. outback_ute Avatar

            Depends on the capacity – would the Australian factory have had the capacity to supply the US?

          6. Rover 1 Avatar
            Rover 1

            Apparently it did, all the wagons made had their panels pressed in Australia.

          7. Ahnuc Onun Avatar
            Ahnuc Onun

            Sorry my friend, that is incorrect. Having the bumper attached to the tailgate would not pass the 5-mph bumper requirements of the US/Canadian market, and having seen too many of these craptacular vehicles in my day, I can attest to the fact that it was NOT. Look carefully at the pic of the Buick Skyhawk (as opposed to the Groundhawk), first one posted by Rover 1, and you will see that it has body-coloured plastic end caps on a separate chrome bumper. Virtually all the US-market J-body wagons were configured thusly. Now if you had said this about the Holden Camira, I might have agreed with you, as it does appear so, and the less stringent bumper laws in Aus might have permitted this.

          8. outback_ute Avatar

            Yes you are correct and that is what I had intended to say. The European J-cars also have the bumper attached to the tailgate – it significantly lowers the cargo floor inside.
            Do you have any knowledge of whether the US wagons had their panels stamped in North America?

          9. Ahnuc Onun Avatar
            Ahnuc Onun

            I was surprised by this info myself, but I don’t know for sure. However, I would be willing to bet on yes simply based on two things. The Chevy, Pontiac, Buick, and Oldsmobile station wagons (there was no Cadillac Cimarron version) were virtually indistinguishable from each other when viewed from the rear. Second, malaise-era General Motors was notorious for lengths it would go to for cost-cutting and tooling, as we know, is very expensive. Now, when Rover 1 said the J-body station wagon body stampings were made in Aus for the US, it’s possible this did not include the Holden’s longer tailgate. As for the floor plan stamping, remember you can cut away (for the Holden), but you cannot add (for the US versions).

          10. outback_ute Avatar

            Yes the US wagons all look identical at the rear. The Holden tailgate was longer than the US one, and could be produced together as you say. Holden used that sort of method in the 2000’s when they were making many versions of the Commodore, eg the Crewman dual cab used a cut-down wagon door skin.
            The floor pan of the US vs Aust/Eur wagon would be quite different, but I suppose the US cargo floor could be added over the top. There would probably be space to store the spare tire in between!

          11. ptschett Avatar

            I didn’t realize till just now that the wagons had different rear doors than the sedans. (…or I forgot it a long time ago.)
            Also, props to Olds for trying their ’59 and ’67-’68 light arrangement one more time on that Firenza.

        1. Vairship Avatar

          If I ever see a better sentence than that, I will have to make a picture of it with my Camira, to submit it in a Torneo.

      2. jim Avatar

        Semi-automatics have been offered by a lot of automakers, starting way back in the 40s.
        Unless you meant that Askas were the first to offer them in NZ.

        1. Rover 1 Avatar
          Rover 1

          No. What I mean is a conventional manual gearbox with synchromesh and a clutch where the operation of the gearlever and clutch are controlled electronically. With all the gear lever and clutch movements, controlled by electronic or hydraulic actuators with no input from the driver. i.e.There is still a clutch and a gate pattern that the gearlever moves through but it’s controlled by the machinery fitted to the gearbox in the same way a driver would. The only thing the driver controls is the throttle/accelerator pedal and putting the trans in forward or reverse
          Slip clutch to start, move forward in first gear, dis-engage clutch, change from first to second gear, engage clutch, proceed through second as speed increases, clutch in, change to third etc through to top gear and back down again
          Operating the clutch and synchronising it’s engagement and matching engine revs and throttle control are what the electronics do. Other semi automatics , like the ones fitted to NSU RO80s and Porsches still need the gearlever moved by the driver to change gear and use a torque converter to control the slippage required for starting from rest, or like a Honda Cub use a centrifugally operated clutch.
          Mechanically they are a manual gearbox with extra controls,sensors and actuators bolted on.

      3. Ahnuc Onun Avatar
        Ahnuc Onun

        I did NOT know that all estate/station wagon pressings for world-wide J-body pressings were made in Aus. Mind = blown. Thank you for that! This is the kind of crazy-obscure information I love. Just like seeing cars I’m familiar with badge engineered with the least likely of brands. (Looking at you Saaburu Impreza 9-3X)

        1. Rover 1 Avatar
          Rover 1

          You’re welcome. One of the benefits of reading (Australian) Wheels magazine every month for 48 years.
          If you like obscure rebadgings, what about this…

          or this, with a J-car connection…

          which gives us this GM part.

          1. Ahnuc Onun Avatar
            Ahnuc Onun

            Leave town immediately! A Land Rover Discovery re-badged as a Honda??? Admittedly, I knew about the Toyota Cavalier. I remember this in 1996 when there was a huge trade deficit between the US and Japan. This was one of the, rather silly, attempts to market US made cars in Japan. Apparently, they only sold something like 1300 in the two years they converted P.O.S. Cavaliers to right-hand drive. I can attest to the shittiness as my fiance at the time had a 1997 version of this turd. Could you picture this lump in a Toyota showroom beside a JDM Celica? Japanese pride aside, is it any wonder that the project failed miserably? The Americans never really understood why. LOL! Cheers!

          2. Rover 1 Avatar
            Rover 1

            Still the only Honda badged vehicle ever sold, powered by a V8.
            Each Cavalier that arrived in Japan, on average, took as many hours to rectify faults as the number of hours required to make a same size Toyota Corona from scratch in Japan.
            There are other obscurities like the Ford Husky, the South African rebadge of the first gen Mitsubishi L300 van, or the Ford Maverick rebadge of the Nissan Patrol for Australia, in both wheelbases and with Nissan straight six power.

          3. Ahnuc Onun Avatar
            Ahnuc Onun

            We never got the Patrol in N.A. but I’m familiar with it form my time in Europe (quite the beast with a turbodiesel). The use of the “Maverick” moniker is hilarious, though, given the explode-y brother to the Pinto I knew from my youth…

          4. Mr.Roadrage Avatar

            Interesting, considering that In 1990s Europe there was a Ford Maverick sister to the Nissan Terrano, made in Spain.

          5. Rover 1 Avatar
            Rover 1

            Correct.Thus making three separate uses of the Maverick name by Ford in three different markets

          6. Mr.Roadrage Avatar

            They did the same thing with the Galaxy name. Big US saloon, European people carrier, and bizarre re-badged Volkswagen Santana sold in Argentina.

          7. Rover 1 Avatar
            Rover 1

            Even odder, the reuse of the Lincoln name,’ Versailles’ on the top versions.
            And the Portuguese Sharan rebadge gave us a Ford badged VR6 motor.
            Another Euro only oddity was the VW/Toyota joint venture that rebadged the Toyota Hilux as a VW Taro, before VW realised what a big market the medium size ute was worldwide and brought out the Amarok. Even odder is not selling it in North America, though the Amarok is made in South America.

          8. Mr.Roadrage Avatar

            I remember seeing a few Cavalier police cars in Japan around 20 years ago. Nobody can say the Japanese didn’t make sacrifices to even out their trade balance!

  3. Manic_King Avatar

    I had similar catalogue, even same year probably, but it was in Swedish, language I didn’t understand much. Still, it had also all kinds of very exotic tuning co.-s listed, exactly when cocaine crazy bankers and lawyers wanted their cars with 345 width tires, bespoke red leather interiors and crazy wings, which ABC Exclusive, Koenig Specials, Gemballa etc. provided. I also learned that there’s car industry in Malaysia, India and Australia. And British co.-s like Hooper and Panther, Solo was new then.

  4. JayP Avatar

    I was just telling a pal about the E30 AWD.
    A neighbor of my high school bud had a sedan which had a vibration issue. Shop out it on the lift, started the car and engaged the drivetrain. Bounced off the lift.
    “Sir, we need you to come to the shop”
    What a call that must have been,

  5. Ahnuc Onun Avatar
    Ahnuc Onun

    No frickin way! I did NOT know that there were English language magazines like this! And I’m even more surprised to find out that someone other than myself devoured these things as a kid! My experience with them was when I would go to Portugal during summer break through the eighties and nineties to visit my relatives there for several weeks at a time. Like many (the majority?) of Portuguese people, my uncles were avid auto enthusiasts. At my grandparents’ place I would rummage through stacks of French car magazines going back to the early seventies. The issues I loved most were these annual special editions of L’Autojournal and L’Automobile Magazine that were a centimetre or more in thickness and featuring, like the ones in the pics Chris Haining posted and wrote about, and listed every production car in the world with stats and sorted by country (with France being first, of course). My uncles had stashed the 1971/1972 editions right up to 1981/1982 and I absolutely devoured them. My father bought me the 1982/1983 edition of L’Automobile, and, thereafter, every year I went to Portugal and would buy the annual special edition at a newstand or bookstore right up to the 1991/1992 editions when I stopped going to Portugal in the summertime. I absolutely consumed every piece of data, I ended up teaching myself rudimentary French over the years. I was already adept at identifying cars by make and model from a young kid, but the detailed and revealing information in these special editions taught me incredible knowledge of cars in general, the worldwide car industry, production cars, and vehicle manufacturing and I ended up going into car sales. Unfortunately, though, the vast majority of North Americans had, and continue to have, a completely different regard for cars than Europeans, so I wasn’t really relateable to the majority of kids my age. I could only really “talk shop” with my family and friends in Portugal. Back in Canada during the school year, I remember having ridiculous arguments with the Italian-Canadian kids in my class who claimed that Ferraris and Lamborghinis where the best cars in the world and never broke down! Bwahaha! My own kids told me the other day that they had this argument with one their friends! Another “myth” that persists from the eighties to this day is due to the use of the word “Turbo” in marketing or graphic design of things not related to cars. It’s become such a trope that Ford markets their turbocharged models as Ecoboost. I remember back in the day having another ridiculous argument with a kid who claimed that “Turbo” was the fancier version of something didn’t matter what. He absolutely could not wrap his head around what I was telling him about a turbo was short for turboCHARGER, being a device installed on a car’s engine that would force-feed it and give it more power! The more things change, the more they stay the same. Thank God for the internet where the few real car enthusiast can discuss the minutiae of cardom!