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)

By |2017-09-01T15:00:39+00:00September 1st, 2017|Cars You Should Know, The Carchive|41 Comments

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RoadworkUK is the online persona of Gianni Hirsch, a tall, awkward gentleman with a home office full of gently decomposing paper and a garage full of worthless scrap metal. He lives in the village of Moistly, which is a safe distance from London and is surrounded by enough water and scenery to be interesting. In another life, he has designed, sold, worked on and written about cars in exchange for small quantities of money.
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