European Cars You (Almost) Can’t Buy There

A title that’s quite self-explanatory – Len Frank, 1989

Walking out of any major airport in Europe is enough to convince the first-time visitor that not all Eurocars get to the US. With a little more time to look around, though, it become pretty clear that most of them are best off staying right where they are—”gray porridge cars” the Brits used to call them.

Some of the deprivation inflicted on automotive enthusiasts by the pollution and safety laws still exist—you can only get the V12 Jag sedan over there, Lancia and Citroen (for now, at least) have elected to sit it out, various homologation specials and English oddballs have been deemed un-American. What we do get weighs more than its European counterpart, and sometimes doesn’t run as well.

But because we tend to buy high line cars, and because Americans drive the way they drive, we get models that were never sold in Europe—sometimes porky and pokey, but now usually big-engined, high content cars. In a few cases we get body styles that were done with the US in mind. And for the rest of it we’ll try to ignore the big ugly bumpers, air pumps, thermal reactors and related smog trash, the after-market air conditioning, and the badly installed threshold-of-pain stereos that are the unfortunate facts of the U.S. used car market. These are all interesting cars, most of them are good cars, some of them are good buys—all are hard to find in Europe.

Here I’m going to have to ask for a favor—I want you all to pretend that southern California or the western part of the Sunbelt is really all there is to the US. Looking for some of these cars
In Charleston W.Va., or Charleston, S.C., or Charlestown, Mass., is going to be as frustrating as looking for them in their lands of origin. Certainly you can find a good BMW 2002Tii in the heart of our Rust Belt. And just as certainly you can find one still in Munich. But the odds are a whole lot better in L.A.

ALFA ROMEO

One of the few new cars on this list is the 3-liter version of the iconoclastic Alfa Milano. Based on the mid-’70s Alfetta chassis, the Milano is one of those cars that you fit or you don’t, you like or you don’t. People are seldom neutral about it.

The 1989 versions (and probably the last to be imported) are better finished than the earlier cars. The three-liter V-6 is one of the strongest of its kind, sound great, and it has a relatively small car to push around. It goes like hell. The five-speed transaxle shifts better than it used to—it’s somewhere on the “good” side of “fair” now. And there must be a really good reason for putting the electric window switches over the rear view mirror.

The eccentric styling has some positive effect on interior space and aerodynamics, although the trunk space is cut by moving the gas tank for the peace-of-mind of the Safety Establishment. The big bumpers are still too obtrusive. Milanos are seen in The Old Country (Alfa 75 over there), but mainly they have small engines—even diesels.

The whole series of 115 Alfas are worth looking at. It starts with the ugly-but-it-grows-on-you 4 door Giulia Super of 1967—dual Webers, twin cams, 5-speeds, 4-wheel discs, light alloy everywhere. Seats 4 as well as the Milano. A friend just sold one (considerably enhanced) for over $20,000 for use both as a vintage racer and an everyday unpleasant surprise for late-model street- driven, would-be, performance cars. It’s a cult car about to be “discovered.” You saw it here first.

Under the flying-shoebox-shaped Super is the same chassis used on the Alfa Spiders from the 1967 Duetto right up through today. The dual Webers gave way to Spica mechanical f.i. in 1969. That same year the engine went from 1600cc to 1750 (actually 1779), then to 2-liters in 1972. The round-tail Duettos have a higher top and more vertical windshield than the square-tail cars. The tops all fold beautifully, they have good handling, great brakes, Pininfarina styling based of the Superflow show cars of the early ’fifties.

After 1974, performance goes down, weight goes up. Some performance reappears later. The latest cars have a version of Bosch’s L-Jetronic f.i. and a variable-advance intake camshaft.

From 1966 through 1974 the same chassis was graced with a Bertone (Giugiaro-designed) coupe called variously GT or GTV—mechanicals are the same as in the Spiders. Later cars get
fussier trim, more chrome. One of the truly great cars of that era and highly usable now. About to become a collector car and too dear to drive. Do it now.

And, yes, you still see them in Italy—just about as often as you see Ferraris in Indiana.

AUDI COUPE QUATTRO/COUPE

For some reason the Quattro never really happened for the U.S. They had that wonderful all-wheel drive system—the first performance-GT all wheel drive combination (and don’t tell me about the Jensen FF), wonderful brakes, superb handling, especially on slippery surfaces, 0-50 in 5.3, a genuine 4-passenger car.

A friend who owned one for about a year paid $15,000—originally they were $35,000—spent $900 on parts, sold it for $15,000. He says that (here in California) it attracted more attention than his 928 or his present Ferrari 308. Says that when he passed another Audi he could read its driver’s lips saying, “It’s a real one.”

One the down side, he says he always had the feeling that he was driving the Ultimate Dasher, and in a way, he was. Under the gorgeous leather interior was a near standard Audi Coupe body with a nearly unenhanced instrument panel.

Everything mechanical was different though. Three differentials, two of them with locks, a 156 bhp version of the Audi turbo five SOHC, shafts and U-joints everywhere. Getting parts is no problem—having them installed is another story. In four years (1982/85) well under a thousand were sold in the U.S. It just didn’t look like $35,000 to the average all-on-the-outside US buyer.

The car has been popular in England where its wet road traction must be tested often. The latest version has the 20-valve, 220 bhp version of the five. Considering the price new, the price now, and the level of performance, the Coupe Quattro has to be a great car to drive and a sure bet to appreciate for the future.

A much easier car to buy and to own is the normal Coupe GT. Its mechanicals are pretty much standard Audi, a combination of 4000 and 5000.The late versions of the Coupe have close ratio gearboxes and a bit more horsepower. Not the most impressive car on a dragstrip, it makes a wonderful cross-country car with very good gas mileage and exceptionally well-balanced road-holding. That’s “road-holding,” as opposed to skid-pad holding or slalom handling. Another car that one seldom sees, here or in Europe. Resale in the US has been worse than average so prices (used)are very reasonable.

BMW 1600/2002

There was the Ford Cortina GT and its Lotus counterpart, the Alfa sedan mentioned above, the Volvo 544, the Renault R8 Gordini, even the Mini-Cooper S—they all got here before the BMW 2002 (or the earlier 1600 in most cases), but somehow it was the 2002 that became the mechanical personification of “sports sedan” for a whole generation of enthusiasts.

The 1600/2002s rust badly, so they’re rare in Germany and even more so in the rest of Europe. The rarest (and best performers) were the 1600TI with dual side draft Solexes and the 2002 Tii with Kugelfischer mechanical f.i.

Although thought of as sporting vehicles here—replacements for Porsches when the family came—in Europe they were really perceived as middle-class transport like an Opel or a VW 1500. So we saved ours and they let theirs turn into iron oxide.

The mid-seventies versions had smog bothers, reduced power and more weight, but the earlier (1973 and before) cars are good performers, simple, and fairly rugged cars with the potential for outstanding handling.

Thanks to Hoffman’s (the original importer) invention of the mandatory option, most of the cars have sway bars, reclining seats, tachometers, many with sun roofs, alloy wheels. There are automatics (reliable but slow) and four speed manuals, the early ones with Porsche-style synchros, the later ones with B-W synchros. Steering is heavy by today’s standards, but with modern tires, accurate. The seats don’t have much lateral support but visibility is great, the back seat is almost useful. Prices are stable now butt the high performance early (round taillight) models are already gathering momentum.

BMW 3.0CS

I don’t know why the price on these hasn’t gone out of sight already. The senior Bimmer coupes are probably the finest cars built by Karmann since the original VW K-Gs fifteen years before. Mechanically the 3.0 coupes are the descendants of the 2500/2800/Bavaria/3.0S family of sedans.

The six cylinder coupes bodies were descended from the four cylinder 2000CS—the same body from the cowl back—which used the running gear from the predecessors of the 2002, the 1800/2000 sedans.

The 3.0S coupes have a higher level of finish than the 2800 coupe, although the looks are the same, but the injected (K-Jetronic) is much less temperamental than the earlier carbureted six. Bought for looks alone, the big BMW Coupe is a better performing, better handling car than the 280C equivalent MBz. Better looking too.

FIAT 124 COUPE & SPIDER

Okay, okay, I know all of the Fix It Again Tony jokes and the generally low opinion of any Fiat product in the US. But damn it, the sporty 124s have all of the elements that it takes to make an outstanding car.

They did have rust problems and electrical problems and oil leaks. But in California they don’t rust and the other problems were in large part the result of the wrong people buying them from the
wrong people. They look good—Spiders by Pininfarina (compare with a Ferrari 275GTS), coupes were an in-house design (perhaps copied by GM). The updates—heavy bumpers, restyled coupe nose—are not so well handled.

The smogging wasn’t too intelligent (in concert with most of the other European manufacturers) until it was too late. In fact, the whole recent history of Fiat in the US is one of good intentions followed by no attention. But the cars have rigid unit bodies, well designed suspension (A-arms front, four bar solid rear axle), four wheel discs, twin cam engines, and, except for the earliest coupes, five speed gear-boxes.

The original cars had 1438cc engines with a single 2-bbl Weber. The last cars a 2-liter with L Jetronic f.i. Between came 1600 and an 1800—the first and the last run best. The best advice here is to watch for rust, for signs of haphazard maintenance, ham-fisted repairs, careless owners. These are tinkerer’s cars that will reward careful workmanship and patient understanding.

JAGUAR Mk II & XJ6C

These are cars that were appreciated in Europe and a fair number were sold both in England and Germany—but they have been eaten by the vicious tinworm.

The MK II was the first of the small postwar Jag sedans—it started with the 2.4 (seldom seen here), then the 3.4, then the 3.8, then the 3.8S (with independent rear suspension), then the 420, then the XJ6.

To explain: all of the cars use versions of the same DOHC inline six first seen in the 1949 XK120 and used until two years ago. Starting with the original 2.4 (1956), and going through to the recently retired XJ6, the cars were always luxuriously appointed, well finished, pleasant to drive, slightly impractical.

The 2.4 soon got the 3.4 engine (210 hp in some versions), then bigger windows and the 3.8 engine. When the independent rear was added (3.8S), the rear quarters of the body were stretched to cover. When it became the 420, the front was restyled to match the 420G (restyled Mk 10).

At the end of the ‘sixties the car was restyled and redesigned and became the XJ6, soon followed by the XJ6C—the coupe version. The early coupes all have vinyl tops (to cover body seams). Most of the cars are automatics but it fits their character.

They are all high maintenance, sometimes fragile, mostly difficult to work on. They are also some of the most sensually pleasing automobiles ever built. The ride gets better with the independent rear models. Due to a narrow rear track, the handling of the solid axle cars can be twitchy but no one really much cares about that any more. One of the most satisfying roads to poverty.

MERKUR XR4Ti

This one was never sold in Europe but it certainly was raced there. The XR4Ti was simply the high performance version of the European Ford Sierra redone (conversion by Karmann) for the US market.

Ford was trying to advance the idea that they were high tech car builders, so they jerked the 60o V6 (ex-Capri) used in Europe and installed an engine very similar to the one used in the T-Bird Turbo Coupe. Somehow the SOHC turbo 2.3 sounded better to them than the pushrod V6 that had been around forever (and still is in the Ranger and Bronco II).

The body is roomy, useful (big hatchback, full rear seat), reasonably well put together with great seats. It has supple suspension and an excellent ride. Handling is good and can be made better but at some sacrifice in ride. Manual gearboxes are a bit fragile. There is some driveline lash that disappears with the automatic tranny.

Ford has pieces to considerably improve horsepower and still keep the Merkur smog legal. Styling with the extra window pillar and the biplane spoiler put some people off. Later cars have a single spoiler.

BMW buyers simply went looking for BMWs in the BMW store—logical enough. Why would they have gone looking for BMWs in a Lincoln-Mercury store? So the Merkur didn’t sell well and Ford has put their effort behind the upscale Scorpio. Anyway, lots of Merkurs available for far less money than an average economy car.

MGB & GT

A staple subject in the British classic car and restoration magazines is rust repair–replacing floors, trunk bottoms, inner and outer wheel wells, patching doors…it goes on and on. And the runaway favorite for repairing rust on(in, around, everywhere) is the MGB. It’s gotten so bad they’re manufacturing MGB body shells again.

There must be a good reason why a mass produced car that is only a moderate performer, doesn’t ride or handle especially well, is, except for its unit body, essentially stone age, causes so many people to expend so much money and effort.

Well, for starters, it looks right. The ’Bs are handsome cars.

Secondly, the world is a confusing enough place without owning a car that requires the ministrations of a brain surgeon. It may be a dumb car but it’s a dumb simple car.

Thirdly, it’s pretty easy to improve, to make it handle better, go better, even to make it look better.

Most of the ’Bs were sent here. Terrible things were done to them in the name of smog and safety–avoid the black bumper models. The best would be a 1969/71 with overdrive, wire wheels and a factory hardtop.

The GTs are heavier, quieter, more comfortable, handsome, and considerably more rare than the roadsters. Of course the wire wheels do develop loose spokes, and the overdrives are hard to fix…

PORSCHE 914 2.0

We probably didn’t appreciate the 914 when we had it. It was sold in Europe as a VW-Porsche, in the US as just a Porsche. Probably we should have had it as a VW—VW had a great reputation here (shakier in Europe) and the Europeans lead to believe it was a real Porsche. Remember that those original 1.7 liter cars sold for $3500 here and about $2500 over there. A Porsche for $2500—maybe even the Europeans wouldn’t have believed it.

The 1.7-liter models had a whole host of problems, not the least of which were that it was slow, ungainly looking, and unreliable. And, of course, like everything else from that era, it rusted.
By the time the last 2.0 liter (VW Type 4) cars came along pre-924, they were pretty good cars. Porsche had done quite a reason-able job of integrating the bumpers—certainly better by far than Pininfarina had done with the Fiat Spyder—the seats and interior were generally better, the shift linkage was better, the battery no longer leaked directly onto the engine computer…if you read this magazine you know all this stuff.

Over There though, they were not going to buy anything as stigmatized as a VW-badged car so, like the MGs, most of them came here. Even in car-crazy cities like Gothenburg or Paris (where you are more likely to see a ’58 Corvette or a ’59 Cadillac) do you see a 914 a day. So, we’re beginning to see them exported to other parts of the world where they didn’t have them to begin with. Prices on the 914-6 make it impractical as everyday transport. Buy a cheap 914 before they all go that way.

SUNBEAM TIGER

Well, I had to throw this one in here. I own one. It’s legitimate enough—it’s rare in England and unknown on the Continent. The Tiger was a hot rod conceived in the US by Rootes management, the first ones executed by race driver Ken Miles and (more carefully) by Carroll Shelby`s crew.

Rootes (Hillman, Sunbeam, Singer, Humber—later bought by Chrysler) began importing their little Alpine–a sporty convertible in 1959. It sold pretty well but was overshadowed by the other Brits—MG, Triumph, and Austin Healey. The answer, in 1964, was to stuff a 260 (later 289)cu.in. Ford V8 in where the 1725cc four had originally been. Along with it went either a B-W or Ford “toploader” gearbox, a stronger rear axle, and rack and pinion steering.

The potential was enormous. The Ford was capable of an easy 300 hp—stock, the 260 had 164. The problem was getting all that power to the ground—a problem not completely solved to this day without major surgery.

The Ford parts are easy, the Rootes parts are, for the most part, available through the various Tiger owners clubs. There are wind-up windows, a good soft top, a great hardtop, The cars are more reliable than their 4-cylinder counterparts, more pleasant to drive, appreciating like crazy thanks to
certain unscrupulous speculators who keep pointing to the stratospheric prices achieved by Shelby’s other car, the Cobra. You’ll never read that here.

VARIOUS VOLVOS

Saab and Volvo (as well as Porsche) have both leaned more on the U.S. market than is probably good for them. The upshot, without going into a numbers game are models that are built with the US in mind first, the rest of the world after—just the way we build our own cars. Not too surprisingly the interesting ones are those that translate European-ness best for the Americans.

First must be the P1800/1800ES sports coupes and sports wagons. They are rare in Europe—less common than Ferrari 208/308s by my eyeball survey. The earliest coupes (designed by Frua in Italy and built by Jensen in England) are the most troublesome—rust (again), electrical leaks, poor trim quality. As in all Volvos of that era, the rest of it is hell for stout with a simple push-rod iron engine that did everything better than the similar MGB.

The P1800s had a surprisingly good competition record (several SCCA championships) over the years considering its sedan origins and boulevard intentions. Volvo has been trying to replace it
ever since they retired it—without success.

By the time the last 1800ES sports wagon (Why doesn’t Volvo get more credit for producing this body style copied by a host from Honda to Volvo itself?) came along more than a dozen years after the first coupes, they looked less dated than had the coupes on their introduction—they had Bosch f.i., an uprated 2-liter, good quality everywhere, fair handling, surprising speed, the stronger 4-speed-plus-overdrive originally developed for the 164. A neat car—why don’t I have one?

The Bertone 262C is a dumb car but somehow intriguing. It was a half-hearted attempt to replace the P1800 or perhaps represented a whole new direction for Volvo. In concept it’s closest to the MBz coupes. In execution it’s all it’s own car. Six cylinder 200-series Volvos were “chopped” and finished by Bertone. A fat, sumptuous “loose-look” leather interior was the best part, lack of
headroom the worst—except for the crimes committed against the PRV V6in the name of smog. It was not especially smooth or powerful but it was thirsty. It would be interesting to have a 262C—a Swedish car made for America in Italy with the latest 3.0 liter version of the engine (from an Eagle Premier or a Peugeot) installed.

In an attempt to displace the stodgy image engendered by building “responsible” cars Volvo has produced cars like the 142GT, the 242GT, the 240 and 740 Turbos. These are all cars that entail very little sacrifice—they have all the room, all of the practicality of the non-GT, non-Turbos. Volvo prides itself on safety concerns but can’t make up its corporate mind about performance. Ironically, it is these cars with their extra measure of handling—the result of wider wheels, bigger tires, sway bars, springs, shocks—that are the safest.


Top image: Porsche celebrates the 50-year-anniversary of the 914 (Porsche Newsroom photo)

Len Frank
Len Frank

The late Len Frank was the legendary co-host of “The Car Show”—the first and longest-running automotive broadcast program on the airwaves. Len was also a highly regarded journalist, having served in editorial roles with Motor TrendSports Car GraphicPopular Mechanics, and a number of other publications. LA Car is proud to once again host “Look Down the Road – The Writings of Len Frank” within its pages. Special thanks to another long-time automotive journalist, Matt Stone, who has been serving as the curator of Len Frank’s archives since his passing in 1996. Now, you’ll be able to view them all in one location under the simple search term “Len Frank”, or just click this link: Look Down The Road. – Roy Nakano

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