(first posted 3/4/2014) The car business sometimes creates strange bedfellows. When an automaker lacks the knowledge or expertise to build a car in a previously unexplored segment, they will often go knocking on doors they’ve never looked at before. In the American market alone, we’ve seen Ford pair up with Nissan to produce the Mercury Villager; GM and Subaru producing the Saab 9-2X; and Honda and Isuzu sharing Odysseys, Rodeos and Troopers. But those examples are almost boring compared to what we have here today, in the second installment of Obscure Rebadges From Around The World!
Mazda Roadpacer AP
It’s always a bit jarring to see a plebeian family sedan being repurposed as a luxury flagship by another automaker, like the rebodied Dodge Aspen known as the Monteverdi Sierra. Here we have a Holden Belmont/Premier/Kingswood with Mazda badges slapped on so that Mazda could compete with the Toyota Century, Nissan President and Mitsubishi Debonair. Only, Mazda didn’t take the easy way out and put their badge on just anything. They had to make their mark more strongly than that, even if from outside you couldn’t tell.
The 1975 Mazda Roadpacer AP (short for anti-pollution) was the only GM vehicle ever brought to market with a rotary engine (sorry, Chevy Monza, it wasn’t meant to be). Mazda’s USP at the time was rotary engines, which they put in everything from coupes to pickup trucks to even busses, and they felt their flagship sedan should also get in on that high-revving, low-displacement action. So, HJ-series Holden Premiers – the most upscale of the short-wheelbase Holdens – were sent on boats to Japan without their standard 3.3 six. That cavernous engine bay was [barely] filled with a 1.3 twin-rotor 13B rotary engine. Added niceties over the Premier included a dictation system, audio controls for rear-seat passengers, and speed-activated central locking, as well as fender-mounted mirrors. There was also an available fridge!
The Roadpacer was considerably larger than the Cosmo, previously the brand’s flagship, yet utilized the same engine. 130 horsepower was a solid output from a small-displacement engine in 1975, rivaling the output of the Holden donor’s original 3.3 six. The difference is, you had to rev to 6,000 RPM to access that horsepower, and torque was 135 ft-lbs at 4,000 RPM (contrast this with the 3.3 six’s 194 ft-lbs at a comfortably low 2,000 RPM). This high-strung engine also had to lug around 3,472lb of Australian metal. You can see where this is going. Mazda put a rev-hungry, small engine in a large car intended to be executive and government transportation. Even if the 13B rotary had decent low-end torque, which it didn’t, the nature of the engine certainly didn’t suit the car. For chauffeur-driven transportation, you want smooth and quiet with nice low-end torque. The Holden bones could provide you with a fairly smooth ride, but the powertrain actively sabotaged the driving experience by forcing the poor driver to rev like hell to move this sled around. Did I mention the only transmission was a three-speed automatic? The end result was a car that could barely pull double-digit MPG. The original six got better gas mileage, and I’m sure even the V8 available in Holden Premiers would have achieved better fuel economy.
This thoroughly uneconomical and unpleasant to drive sedan had launched right after the first fuel crisis and thus, between 1975 and 1977, only 800 units were sold. Awful powertrain aside, the Holden bones were competent, providing a fairly smooth ride and a reasonably spacious interior. However, the HJ Holden wasn’t renowned for its handling and the interior, although well equipped, didn’t look as fancy as that of the rival Century, President and Debonair. Most Roadpacers were purchased by government departments and ended up crushed, so remaining cars are somewhat of an obscure collectors’ item and occasionally end up on the internet.
Isuzu Statesman de Ville
Some of you may have been wondering why Mazda chose the everyman Holden Belmont/Kingswood/Premier as the basis for their luxury flagship. After all, the short-wheelbase sedans weren’t the most prestigious Holdens available at the time, and were definitely less grand in appearance than the long-wheelbase Statesman series introduced in 1971. Statesman was, until the WB-series’ death in 1985, a sub-brand sold by General Motors Holden. They were sold in Holden dealers but marketed as “Statesman by General Motors.” Unlike the “Cimarron by Cadillac,” Holden used this marketing tactic to underscore the exclusivity of their most expensive sedan. The Statesman series rode on the 3 inch longer wheelbase used by mainstream Holden wagons, totaling 114 inches. The inaugural HQ Statesman series came in Custom or upscale de Ville trims. Yes, as well as Chevrolet and Cadillac styling cues, Holden was quite prone to using American market names such as Calais, Caprice, Brougham, Apollo, Sunbird and Nova. Engines ran the gamut from a lowly 3.3 (202 cubic inch) six, through 4.1 (253 cu in), 5.0 (308 cu in) and the range-topping small-block Chevy 5.7. These large Holdens were exported to South Africa as the Chevrolet Constantia and de Ville, but also to Japan to fill a gap at the top of Isuzu’s lineup: a flagship sedan to rival the Toyota Century.
The Isuzu Statesman de Ville was sold from 1973-74, for a total of only 246 units. A sedan this large and expensive was never expected to shift many units in Japan, and it’s likely most were driven by Isuzu executives (or rather, their drivers). All came with a column-shifted automatic and the 5.0 V8, as well as rather fancy interior trim and the requisite fender-mounted mirrors. There’s not a lot of information specifically on the Isuzu Statesman, other than this excellent series of notes and scans, but the car was changed little from the Australian-market model and even kept its Holden lion badges.
The HQ series Holdens were very successful, which was fortunate as they were the most ambitious Holden in some time and the first ground-up redesign of the Holden since the 1940s. They featured new bodies and a brand new perimeter-frame chassis with coil suspension all round. The HQ Statesman was an elegant flagship sedan–even with its taillights Holden cleverly pilfered from lesser utes and wagons–and was tuned for a pillow-soft ride, thanks to then-Managing Director George Roberts insistence on Holdens riding like Cadillacs. Holden’s 1977 HZ update (confusingly, HJ and HX launched in the interim) brought Radial Tuned Suspension, as Holden called it, which vastly improved their handling. Softly sprung or not, though, the Isuzu Statesman de Ville was a very brief and obscure footnote in both Holden and Isuzu’s history and disappeared as quickly as it came, without any replacement.
Honda and Rover’s tie-up began with the Japanese company licensing the Honda Ballade to beleaguered British Leyland in the late 1970s. Rover saw the value in that tie-up, and their next venture was the co-developed Acura/Honda Legend and Rover 800/Sterling. Rover’s lineup eventually consisted almost entirely of Honda-derived cars, with the 200/400 (Civic/Concerto) and the 600 (Accord). If it seems like Honda wasn’t getting much in return, you would be close to the mark but likely forgetting about the Honda Crossroad. This Discovery clone was sold from 1993-98 in Japan and came only with one engine: the only eight-cylinder engine ever available in a production Honda, a 3.9 V8 with 180 horsepower. It filled a hole in Honda’s lineup, serving as a less reliable rival to the Toyota Landcruiser and Nissan Patrol, and was yet another example of Honda’s continued aversion to developing its own trucks (see: Acura SLX, Honda Passport).
Sadly, I wasn’t able to track down any sales numbers, but it would appear the Crossroad was not very successful. Two theories for this are: one, the Japanese preferring the cachet of both British nameplates–witness, for example, the success of the MG RV8 there–and two, for more exclusive cars to be in LHD format. Despite being an unusual trend, as Japan is a right-hand-drive nation, it has enjoyed an enduring popularity, especially with members of the Yakuza. For all the average Japanese consumer knew, the Crossroad had no English heritage and was simply a thirsty Honda with flighty reliability and the steering wheel on the right side. Many Crossroads ended up in New Zealand, which has quite broad car importation laws. The nameplate ended up being recycled on the awesome-looking box pictured above, apparently too obscure to have earned a really bad rap.
Alfa Romeo Arna
If you were to enlist two manufacturers to build a car together, who would you pick? Perhaps one company would be one renowned for the reliability and quality of its cars, such as a Japanese automaker like Honda. The other company should be one that makes fun-to-drive cars that ooze style and grace. Perhaps an English brand like Jaguar, or an Italian brand like Maserati. After all, it reasons that if you enlist a manufacturer known for quality and reliability and one known for style and excitement, you should end up with a pretty good car!
Or an Alfa Romeo Arna. This small hatchback combined the stylistic excellence of Nissan, along with their unparalleled handling genius, with Alfa Romeo’s brilliant quality control and reliability. Well, something like that. The Arna, which stood for Alfa Romeo Nissan Autoveicoli, was launched in 1983. Now, because this was a co-venture and not a simple case of licensing, there was actually some Alfa Romeo DNA infused in this anonymous hatchback. However, it still qualifies as a rebadge as the Arna was also sold with only detail changes as the Nissan Cherry Europe, or Nissan Cherry Milano in Japan. So, fair game!
Flashback to 1983. State-owned Alfa Romeo hadn’t earned a profit in five years. European automakers were becoming increasingly nervous about the threat of Japanese automakers gaining a foothold on the continent and eating their lunch, so various European governments had engaged in protectionism to keep the imports at bay. With government approval, Alfa Romeo and Nissan built a plant together in Pratola Serra and each owned a 50% stake. This facility would build 60,000 Arnas and almost identical Nissan Cherry Europes annually, and Alfa Romeo would learn some Japanese manufacturing practices much like General Motors would intend to do a few years later with its NUMMI facility. Nissan, in return, would get more of a foothold in the European market. Under the strict terms of the contract, Japanese workers would provide 20% of the labor, which amounted to the body and most of the interior, and Alfa Romeo would provide a significant amount of components including the use of Alfa Romeo engines. Despite these specific terms, Fiat and the European Economic Community were thoroughly aggravated by this joint-venture, fearing Nissan would somehow use loopholes to flood the market with its own vehicles.
Although the EEC and European automakers were wise to fear Japanese competition, they misjudged the Arna. See, the Arna wasn’t quite as terrible as all those wretched “Worst Cars” books pumped out by bitter British authors claimed it to be. It’s very easy to just roundly criticize everything if you don’t have all the facts (which those books so rarely do!). The fact is, the Arna did have Alfa DNA. Underneath the plain-jane but modern body, the only major Nissan componentry was an independent rear suspension. Up front, the Arna had the Alfasud’s engine, five-speed-manual transmission and front suspension. That engine was a 1.2, 63hp flat four, which would be joined later by a tweaked version with a handful more horsepower, and then finally by a sportier 1.5, 94hp flat four in the Ti version. It handled quite competently and the engines were nice, although the overall driving experience was diluted from the Alfasud. Of course, much to European automakers’ collective relief, it had two fatal flaws.
One, it looked like this.
For perspective, here’s a picture of the Alfa-designed and more upscale 33, which the Arna slotted below.
And two, it still had the same indifferent build quality and capricious electrics that Alfa Romeos had been known for. By 1987, Alfa Romeo had shifted only 53,047 units, which fell far short of sales expectations even if its Nissan Cherry Europe sibling had been a sales success (unlikely). The end result was Alfa Romeo was put up for sale in 1986 and scooped up by Fiat. One of the new owner’s first decisions was to can the Arna and end the Nissan alliance. Although the Arna had vastly better rustproofing than its Alfasud predecessor, there aren’t many out there now. The British website How Many Left (don’t you wish there was an American version of it?) had only one, non-running Arna listed as being in existence in the UK in 2013. Maybe in the south of Italy there are still some Arnas pottering around, a reminder of when the Japanese used to own half of a factory in Pratola Serra.
And I almost forgot. Jeremy Clarkson blew one up on television!
Ssangyong is a South Korean company best known for its range of boldly (and sometimes bizarrely) styled SUVs that often use Mercedes mechanicals. There’s the odious Rodius…
The striking Actyon…
The first popular Ssangyong, the long-running Musso…
And then there’s the Ssangyong Kallista.
Wait, what? One year before the Musso was launched, Ssangyong bought the license for the neo-classical Kallista roadster from British boutique automaker Panther. Panther was experiencing a cash flow crisis as they tried to bring their modern, mid-engined Solo sports car to market. They chose to axe the Kallista, and Ssangyong was happy to take its first steps into automotive production and pick up after them. Only 73 units were produced in 1992 by the Korean firm and it is very hard to find information on how they were sold or marketed.
The real question about this automobile is probably: what the hell is underneath? Ford Capri mechanicals mostly, with Ford-supplied engines ranging from a 1.6 four to 2.8 and 2.9 Cologne V6s. This retro, aluminum-bodied roadster hit the American market in small volumes in the mid-80s powered by the 2.3 Lima four doing duty in base Mustangs. Surprisingly, the Kallista was reasonably popular in the UK for a boutique automaker offering coach-built cars, shifting 400 units in its best year. The ease of servicing and the low parts costs afforded by using Ford mechanicals no doubt contributed to its relative success. The US Kallista, though, was a disaster: would you pay $23k in 1986 for an 88hp two-seater?
Had you heard of any of these Obscure Rebadges before today? The Arna and Roadpacer enjoy quite a deal of infamy today, but I must confess I knew nothing of the Crossroad, Isuzu Statesman and Kallista until very recently. Better yet, have any of you actually seen one of these in the metal?