(first posted 1/10/2017)
Very few automakers can afford to be jacks of all trades. For smaller companies, there are often market segments where they have little expertise or experience and where they must enlist rival automakers to provide them with product. Daihatsu, Saab, Alfa Romeo and Innocenti have all done just this, selling others’ product with a new badge and occasionally a new grille. Here are some examples.
The Austin Allegro is perhaps one of the most maligned English cars in automotive history. Indifferently assembled, inelegantly styled and unnecessarily strange, the Allegro is a frequent fixture on lists of the worst cars ever made (although one would argue its in-house rival, the low-tech Morris Marina, was worse).
As was the norm in the bad old days of British Leyland, there was a rebadged version. The Allegro’s styling was pudgy and almost universally unappealing, and the Vanden Plas edition’s nauseatingly gauche grille further upset the aesthetic applecart. What was unusual about the Allegro was that there was only one rebadged (or rather, re-grilled) version in the UK. A trip to Italy, however, revealed another Allegro: the Innocenti Regent.
Innocenti and British Leyland’s relationship dated back to the 1960s, when the former had built cars of the latter under license. Ties continued to strengthen until British Leyland ultimately bought the Italian outfit for £3 million in 1972. At the time, Innocenti had a decent amount of market share in Italy and manufactured a derivative of BLMC’s Mini. It was decided they needed a larger model, and with its front-wheel-drive and somewhat avant-garde design elements, the Allegro appeared to be a good fit.
The Regent was launched in 1974 and was offered with a choice of 1.3 and 1.5 four-cylinder engines but only the four-door body. Every Regent, like the early Allegros, had the controversial quartic steering wheel, an ungainly, squared-off looking piece of polyurethane. There was some differentiation from the Allegro but little that was immediately clear: some Italian-made interior components and electricals and a different grille. Top-spec Lusso versions also received a two-tone paintjob, with the roof painted black to resemble a vinyl roof treatment. The four-cylinder engines were more powerful than their UK counterparts thanks to twin carburettors, but what was even more powerful was the sudden price hike shortly after the Regent’s launch. That, and the arrival of the conceptually similar and instantly popular Alfa Romeo Alfasud.
Despite its flaws, the Allegro was a strong seller in the UK. The same could not be said for the Regent, whose disastrous sales led to it being yanked from the market after just 18 months. By then, British Leyland was being nationalized and offshore holdings were being either shuttered or sold off. Innocenti was snapped up by Alejandro de Tomaso, and the Regent was promptly forgotten about by everybody.
Alfa Romeo Dauphine
Speaking of Italy, here’s another Italian rebadge that you may not be aware of: the Alfa Romeo Dauphine. Retaining the name of the Renault on which it was based, the Alfa Romeo Dauphine was the fruit of an agreement between Alfa Romeo and Renault. This allowed Renault to build and sell the Dauphine and its plusher Ondine variant in Italy through its own network, retaining exclusive rights to spare part sales.
Production commenced in Alfa Romeo’s Portello factory in Milan in 1959, where the Dauphine was manufactured next to Alfa’s own Giulietta. There were only minor differences, such as different lighting and electricals.
The Dauphine’s rear-engine layout and poor roadholding made it an odd fit for the Alfa Romeo lineup. This awkward rebadging proved to underscore the fundamental differences between the Italian and French companies, whose working relationship quickly became tempestuous. Renault, bizarrely, continued to import French-made Dauphines into Italy and was reluctant to uphold their end of the bargain and sell Alfa Romeos in France. To further undermine this uneasy partnership, Fiat started rattling cages with both the Italian government and Alfa Romeo’s owners. The Italian giant threatened layoffs, claiming the Dauphine was a direct competitor to its own vehicles.
Despite being scarcely smaller than the Giulietta – a couple of inches shorter and one inch wider – the Alfa Dauphine sold relatively well at first. However, sales collapsed after just a few years – a direct result of new tax legislation supported by Fiat – and production ceased in 1964; leftover examples continued to trickle out of showrooms until 1965.
The best-known fruits of the collaboration between Saab and the Fiat Group were the Type 4 vehicles: the Saab 9000, Alfa Romeo 164, Fiat Croma and Lancia Thema. But there was another product of that collaboration, sold only in Scandinavian countries: the Saab-Lancia 600.
Saab lacked the capital to replace its dated 96 with a modern rival to the Volvo 300-Series, a product of Volvo’s acquisition of Dutch automaker DAF. The Fiat Group had a more than satisfactory product to offer Saab: the 1980 European Car of the Year, the front-wheel-drive, Giugario-styled Lancia Delta.
While the Delta is best known for its later, legendary, turbocharged HF and four-wheel-drive HF integrale models, the early years of the Delta were lacking in such hot models. The Delta was a humble family hatch, available with a choice of naturally-aspirated 1.1, 1.3 and 1.5 four-cylinder engines. Saab received only the largest of those engines, offering a choice of GL, GLS and luxurious GLE trim, although the GLE was later discontinued due to slow sales.
With its crisp styling, good handling and efficient packaging, the Saab-Lancia 600 was a much more compelling offering than the rather stodgy Volvo 300-series. As the Delta’s development was well underway when Saab called Fiat for help, little was done to make the Saab-Lancia 600 more Saab-esque and therefore the 600 and Delta differed only in minor trim details. All promotional material and badges retained the Lancia name, further underscoring the fact this wasn’t a real Saab.
Although the 600 was launched to slot under the 99, keen pricing of the latter hindered the 600’s sales. Early 600s also suffered from quality issues that tarnished the car’s reputation. After three model years, the 600 was quietly dropped from the Saab lineup. Just a few years later, the real jewel of the Saab/Fiat partnership was launched: the 9000.
Daihatsu Altis and Mebius
When Daihatsu axed their ageing Applause, a ‘hidden hatchback’ slightly smaller than a Toyota Corolla, they had a gaping hole in their lineup. See, Daihatsu’s specialty had always been minicars and microcars and Kei cars, and the Applause and its predecessor, the Charmant, had always been somewhat of an anomaly. Evidently, they still saw a need to satisfy these buyers but they didn’t have much experience making larger cars. Their corporate parent, Toyota, found them a replacement. No, it wasn’t the Corolla, or any JDM C-Segment model. They replaced their small Applause with the jumbo-sized, made-for-America Camry.
Considering the narrow roads of Japan and their vehicle taxation system, not to mention Daihatsu’s relatively downmarket positioning, it was a puzzling choice. And yet, each subsequent generation of Camry has had a Daihatsu Altis clone.
For many years, there was an immense gap between the subcompact hatches and Kei cars in Daihatsu’s lineup and the large-for-Japan Altis. This has been remedied somewhat by the arrival of another rebadged Toyota, the Mebius. This time, Daihatsu rebadged the Prius V.
The Altis nowadays is available only as a hybrid, priced identically to the Camry Hybrid. As the Prius is currently Japan’s best-selling car, Daihatsu’s offering of these hybrid Toyotas makes a little more sense.
The Mebius is simply a Prius V with a different logo. But while the Altis may look quite different from the North American Camry, it is still a simple swap of logos away from being a Camry—specifically, the ‘prestige’ Camry sold in Russia and Asia. This variation on the Camry is similar to the Australian-market V6 Aurion, which did not receive a redesigned body like its North American-market and Australian 4-cylinder Camry counterpart.
In the next instalment, we shall take a look at some cars that were rebadged for entirely different reasons.