Six automotive flops of 1980 – Axon’s Automotive Anorak

07th December 2020
Gary Axon

Forty years ago Alton Towers first opened its theme park, ice skater Robin Cousins won Britain’s only gold medal at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics and ex-Beetle John Lennon was shot dead in New York. The famous Abingdon MG car factory closed, too, while electric cars were regarded as a marginal distraction and hybrid vehicle power was virtually unheard of. A tidy selection of brand new ICE-powered motor cars were launched, however, covering most key sectors of the market.


Some of these 1980 debutants were soon (and best) forgotten, yet a handful made a useful and welcome contribution to furthering the automotive cause, not only for motorists, but also for the marques that developed and launched these important new models.

Here, in the first of a two-part review of a dozen noteworthy new cars first seen 40 years ago, I initially take a look back at a few new-for-1980 road machines that can charitably be classified as ‘duds’ with the historical benefit of 40 years of hindsight. Next week, I will recall half-a-dozen or so other 1980 automotive debutants that arguably fall more comfortably into the more positive ‘dudes’ category.

What follows is a potentially controversial selection, all of which did little, if anything, to advance motoring history, technology, design and the dynamic experience. Some you will possibly agree with, but be warned, others you might not…


Morris Ital

The first half of 1980 wasn’t a halcyon period for the part-nationalised yet loss-making British Leyland (or BL, as it was then known), with the late 1979 update of its Austin Allegro and the early 1980 revamp of the Maxi (incorrectly named Maxi 2, despite it being the model’s third iteration) failing to wrestle many new buyers away from Ford, Vauxhall and some imported car brands.

BL’s third model update in less than a year was the 1980 Morris Ital, an ambitious rework of the much-maligned Marina. It might seem like a cheap shot to take aim at the revised Morris (the last passenger car to carry this once-mighty badge), but the Ital was little more than a facelifted Marina with a new front and rear, not styled by Ital Design, despite the model’s rebranding.

Out-dated and out-classed by younger rivals (by 1980, these being increasingly front-wheel-drive hatchbacks), the Ital struggled on until 1984, when it (and Morris) were finally laid to rest, only to briefly resurface again in China in 1998 as the Huandu CAC6430 estate and van. A sorry end to a once great marque.   


Lancia Trevi

Unlike BL, Lancia was on a bit of a high in early 1980, its pleasing new Delta five-door hatch (launched the previous year) being awarded the prestigious 1980 European Car of the Year title.

By this time Lancia’s previous best-selling Beta range, first seen in 1972, was losing favour though, with a growing reputation for the Beta Saloon, Coupe, HPE and Spider models to be unusually rust prone, virtually killing sales overnight, especially in the UK. To quickly try and reverse this serious decline in reputation and sales (Lancia comfortably outsold premium rivals such as BMW and Audi in the late 1970s), 1980 saw the debut of a new Beta-based derivative, the booted three-box Trevi.

An interesting sporting saloon with ‘acquired taste’ styling in the best Lancia tradition, the front-drive Trevi came with a choice of 1.6- or 2.0-litre engines, plus a plush and distinctive interior (created by the influential Italian architect, Mario Bellini), featuring a busy but unique ‘Swiss cheese’ holed dash panel, enhanced by uncommonly simple but elegant seats and steering wheel. A high-point of the Trevi’s brief four-year career was the supercharged Volumex variant, with a twin-engined 300PS (221kW) prototype also built to as an early Delta Integrale/S4 development mule.


Talbot Solara

Following Peugeot’s (PSA Group’s) acquisition of Chrysler Europe’s bankrupt vehicle making operations in 1978 for a nominal $1, PSA rebranded all previous Chrysler and Simca models as Talbots from 1979, launching a pair of new saloon cars in 1980 to help establish this revived brand name (last used on British- and French-built Talbots in the 1950s).

The first of these two new Talbot saloons was the Solara, the conventional booted version of the existing Chrysler/Talbot Alpine hatch (a.k.a. the Simca 1308/Talbot 1510 in Continental Europe), aimed at popular rivals such as the Ford Cortina/Taunus, Vauxhall Cavalier, Fiat 131 Mirafiori, Renault 18, Toyota Carina, etc. Although not a bad car, the Solara failed to make its mark with disappointing sales halted by 1986, when the revived Talbot brand was withdrawn for all passenger cars.


Talbot Tagora

Talbot’s second new saloon for 1980 was the more ambitious (but flawed) Tagora, a sharp but bland and over-bodied executive four-door, aimed at the competitive Ford Granada, Rover SD1, BMW 5 Series, Citroën CX ‘prestige’ segment, in which it flopped spectacularly, with sales cancelled by PSA after a very short two years with just 20,000 examples built.


Renault Fuego

In the 1960s Renault brought sports coupe fans its so-so Caravelle/Floride range. For the 1970s these were replaced by the underwhelming 15/17 coupes, so third time lucky was Renault’s desire for the 1980s.

When first revealed at the 1980 Geneva Salon, Renault Iatest attempt at creating a successful sports coupe looked to be far more promising with its striking new Fuego.

Based on the strong-selling Renault 18 saloon, the new Fuego’s huge curved rear glass hatch, aggressive aerodynamic profile and unusual black plastic strip wrapped around the car’s waistline, made this new coupe look sensational, with a racy interior to match.

Initial demand was encouraging with heathy early sales, but the Fuego’s dull dynamics and ‘almost-but-not-quite’ performance soon hampered demand, with the later addition of a more powerful Turbo (plus a Turbo Diesel derivative in selected ‘derv’ markets, a coupe first) failing to address the Renault’s poor ‘style over substance’ package. Sales soon evaporated and the Fuego was dead by 1986 with little fuss or ceremony.


Ferrari Mondial

In 1973 Ferrari shocked the world by unveiling its Bertone-styled Dino 308 GT4 as the unsettled-looking 2+2 mid-engined successor to its acclaimed and beautiful Pininfarina-designed 1967-74 Dino 208/248 GT.

Facing a backlash of criticism for choosing Bertone over its preferred Pininfarina for the new 1973 Dino’s look, Ferrari returned to its more familiar design house to pen the 308 GT4’s replacement, the new Mondial being the result.

Proudly presented on both the Ferrari and Pininfarina exhibition stands at the March 1980 Geneva Show, the Mondial was also a mid-engined 2+2, like Bertone’s controversial 308 GT4, but with a larger V8 motor installed mid-ships. An debatable ‘improvement’ over its Bertone predecessor, by Pininfarina’s typically-high standards its new Ferrari was a styling disappointment, appearing too long, unbalanced and lacking the grace and elegance expected of the marque.      

Commercially, however, the Mondial served Ferrari well, the first incarnation quickly modified to the more resolved QV update of 1983, with the 2+2 model regularly improved for the better, enjoying a long 13-year production run with over 6,800 examples built, a strong result by Ferrari standards of the era.

Ferrari image courtesy of Bonhams.

  • Axon's Automotive Anorak

  • Morris

  • Ital

  • Lancia

  • Trevi

  • Talbot

  • Solara

  • Tagora

  • Renault

  • Fuego

  • Ferrari

  • Mondial

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