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Carchive Special: The European cars that caught me unawares

Chris Haining September 1, 2017 Cars You Should Know, The Carchive 41 Comments

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)

  • “…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.

    • Vairship

      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?!? 😉

      • 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.

        • Vairship

          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…

    • Ahnuc Onun

      RIGHT! In the former DAF factory!

  • Sjalabais

    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.

  • Manic_King

    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.

  • JayP

    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,

  • 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!