Axon's Automotive Anorak: six ordinary cars with sportscar badges they didn't deserve

27th November 2018
Gary Axon

At the final Goodwood Breakfast Club of the 2018 season – early November’s Hot Hatch Sunday –  a couple of cars in attendance at the West Sussex motor circuit caught my eye, not only for their novelty, condition and rareness, but also for the fact that both wore the badges of other car brands, in addition to their own marque badging.


The hot hatches in question were the performance versions of the Proton Satria and a Fiat 500-derived Abarth 695. The Proton was the now rare and oft-overlooked Satria GTI, adorned with subtle ‘Handling by Lotus’ badging to reflect the impressive input from Lotus Engineering (owned by Proton at the time) to help create a surprisingly capable and fun-to-drive hot hatch.

The Abarth 695 at Goodwood was a special edition ‘Tributo Ferrari’, a £30,000 limited production pumped-up 500 model with Ferrari branding (offered along with a sister special edition Maserati-badged ‘Tributo’ variant), aimed at admirers and collectors of the exotic Italian supercar marques owned by Fiat’s FCA Group.

This pair of everyday production models, arguably made more glamourous and desirable by the added kudos of a respected and aspirational sports car brand, brought to mind a number of other cars that have benefitted (or otherwise) from some exotic car brand association.

The celebrated trio of sporting ‘regular’ family cars that benefitted with the halo association and input of Lotus (the Lotus Ford Cortina, Talbot Sunbeam, and Vauxhall Carlton) where exceptional yet practical performance derivatives in their day, all now rightly enjoying cult classic status.

The Mini Cooper, Innocenti De Tomaso Mini, Renault Clio Williams, Dodge Omni Shelby, Ford Sierra RS Cosworth, Rover 200 BRM, plus numerous others, have all successfully exploited the name of a well-known sporting marque, motor racing and/or engineering firm.

Using an exciting and exotic competition or supercar brand name doesn’t always guaranty sales success however, as optimised by the half-a-dozen examples highlighted here:


Chrysler TC by Maserati

The Chrysler TC by Maserati was assembled by Maserati in Italy – but that was virtually the extent of the fabled Modena marque’s involvement. The TC was the result of a questionable collaboration between Chrysler and Maserati, the arrangement rooted in the friendship of the charismatic men in charge of the two companies, Lee Iacocca and his supercar maker friend Alejandro de Tomaso, who owned Maserati at the time.

The basic idea behind the TC was to add some glamour to Chrysler, plus some profit for Maserati. The TC was conceived as a two-seater soft-top GT, to be Chrysler's image-building flagship. The TC’s initial announcement for the 1987 model year proved too premature however, with a subsequent two-year delay in getting the car into production proving to be a monumental public relations and marketing blunder, not helped by the model finally being launched after the similar-looking (and more affordable) Chrysler LeBaron convertible.

This meant that, rather than the LeBaron being seen as inheriting prestige cues from the range-topping TC, the TC was seen as being too similar to the regular LeBaron. The TC by Maserati finally made production for 1989, powered by a choice of a standard Chrysler 2.2 motor or a Mitsubishi V6, with no exotic bespoke Maserati engines to be seen. The TC’s bodyshell was made in Italy, with the whole car then shipped back to the USA for sale at selected Chrysler-Plymouth dealers.

Just 7,300 TCs were built over the three year life of the model, making this halo model anything but.


Vauxhall Viva Brabham

Vauxhall’s second-generation Viva HB model needed an image boost in the late 1960s, so the Luton firm sought the assistance of Formula 1 World Champion Jack Brabham to add some much-needed sizzle.

Via twin Stromberg carburettors, a special manifold and a straight-through exhaust, Brabham gave the Viva an extra 9bhp, with its sporting credentials helped by a go-faster stripe over the top of the bonnet and front wings. Not many buyers were convinced, however, and the 69bhp Viva Brabham was something of a sales flop in period, with less than 200 sold. Brabham also applied similar modifications to the Viva’s sister Holden Torano in Australia, with similar ‘none-event’ results.


Daihatsu Charade De Tomaso

To expand its successful transportation operations, in the early 1960s Lambretta scooter maker Innocenti began the production of the Austin A40, built under licence from BMC, with the production of other Austin and British Leyland passenger cars following, including the Mini. Leyland ultimately took control of the Italian firm, but with the financial difficulties experienced by the British transportation group in the early 1970s however, control of Innocenti passed over to Alejandro de Tomaso in 1976.

By this time, Innocenti had introduced its own Bertone-designed update of the Mini, with an attractive three-door hatchback body, including a De Tomaso ‘hot hatch’ performance model in 1976. Following Leyland’s departure and its withdrawal of mechanical component supply, Innocenti switched its hatchback ‘Mini’ over to three-cylinder Daihatsu engines in the early 1980s.

De Tomaso’s contract with Daihatsu to supply engines to Innocenti soon lead to some closer connections, with a prototype mid-engined Daihatsu Charade Group B rally car being revealed in 1985, branded as the 926R de Tomaso.

Sadly the 926R never made production. However, the de Tomaso tag was soon added to the 69bhp ‘performance’ versions of the 993cc Daihatsu Charade in the domestic Japanese market, upgraded with a small turbocharger, thicker anti-roll bars and slightly stiffer suspension. The Charade de Tomaso also received alloy wheels rather than the standard steel items.


Chevrolet Vega Cosworth

The Chevrolet Vega was a mediocre American sub-compact, launched in 1971. Despite a promising start, the GM model quickly became known for a range of problems related to its engineering, reliability, safety, engine durability and propensity to rust while still quite new.

With an increasingly tarnished image, and resultant declining sales, Chevrolet desperately needed to give the Vega an image boost. GM appointed the respected English engineering firm Cosworth to develop a more potent four-cylinder two-litre engine for the Vega. The result was the short-lived Vega Cosworth, powered by a twin-cam 16-valve, two-litre EFI engine, developing 110bhp.

Somewhat inevitably, the model didn’t sell well, the Vega Cosworth being dropped from the Chevrolet range just 18 months after launch. In total 3,508 of the 5,000 Cosworth twin-cam engines built were used. GM disassembled about 500 motors, and scrapped the remainder!


Renault Wind Gordini

Italian-born Amédée Gordini was a racer and engine tuning genius, based in Paris and working with Simca initially, before changing his allegiance to Renault in the late 1950s.

The Gordini-tuned version of the Renault Dauphine, R8 and R12 have become the stuff of legend over the years, enjoying a cult following, particularly in France. The Gordini name was last used for a performance Renault model derivative, exclusively for the UK-market R5, in the early 1980s, as the R5 Alpine name used elsewhere was under copyright to Peugeot’s rival PSA Group at the time.

After a long interval, the Gordini sub-brand name was (briefly) revived in 2010, applied to a handful of the frisky RenaultSport versions of the Twingo and Clio, painted in an update of the iconic ‘Gordini Blue’ with matching double white stripes over the bonnet and roof. These cars were well received with the Gordini name seemingly set to remain part of the Renault’s portfolio.

The release of the Renault Wind Gordini in 2011, however, didn’t live up to the expectations and promise of the hallowed Gordini name. The Wind Gordini was a mild ‘makeover’ of cosmetic changes, sold for a hefty £2,000 premium over the standard model, with 17” black alloy wheels, leather seats and steering wheel, gratuitous blue and white body detailing, plus a Bluetooth phone connection, USB media playback and a more powerful 2 x 35W sound system, but no mechanical or power upgrades. Demand for the model proved to be weak, with the derivative withdrawn after just a few months of its launch, sadly taking the Gordini branding with it.


Isuzu Big Horn, Handling by Lotus

In the 1990s, many Japanese car makers believed that releasing special edition models with exciting or strangely evocative words in their titles would be an effective way to build extra value and sales into what might otherwise be considered a worthy but dull car.

The Isuzu Big Horn Lotus Edition was arguably the ultimate example of the genre in how not to do it, failing to conjur up the thrilling combination of Lotus Formula 1 dynamics and its fine-handling sportscars.

The unfortunately-named Big Horn was understandably rebranded Trooper in export markets, with this capable but agricultural 4x4 SUV being one of a range of 1990s Isuzu models sold in the domestic Japanese market, using the kudos of its Lotus connection; the Hethal sportscar maker using an Isuzu Gemini engine in its front-wheel-drive Elan.

Isuzu’s ‘Lotus’ Gemini, Aska and Piazza models almost achieved a degree of credibility, but the large and lollopy Big Horn was never going to form a suitable base for a sporting SUV. With a 0-60mph acceleration time exceeding 16 seconds, and top-heavy handling, adorning the Big Horn with a Lotus badge did little to help the 4x4’s sporting potential.

The model’s attractive metallic British Racing Green paintwork and gratuitous Lotus branding on the Isuzu’s grille, rump, natty leather Momo steering wheel, floor mats, and so on may have helped to give the Big Horn more showroom appeal but, sadly, this didn’t translate in the model’s dynamic qualities on the road, which were as sloppy as most 1990s SUVs..

  • Axon's Automotive Anorak

  • Chrysler

  • Cosworth

  • Vauxhall

  • Brabham

  • Chevrolet

  • Daihatsu

  • De Tomaso

  • Renault

  • Gordini

  • Isuzu

  • Lotus

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