6 times when cars flopped in other countries

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1963 Hillman Minx Saloon Bonhams

The iconic WWII Willys Jeep and its later English rival, the Land Rover, have been sold around the world for almost 70 years. They make sense pretty much everywhere.

However, some cars just don’t translate to other countries, even if they were hugely successful where they were born. These include the tiny 1948–1990 two-cylinder Citroën 2CV, and the 1959–2000 British Motor Corporation Mini. Based on their domestic reputations, both sold more than five million copies in 40 years. Overseas, they appeal to contrarians, who don’t care that they are small and slow.

Cross-cultural efforts have produced an endless list of unsuccessful transplants. Whether the brand name is changed or not, they just don’t fit, and some of the more bizarre attempts have been quite recent. Even if the cars were mechanically sound, lack of parts and service support often proved insurmountable. Here are 6 such cases where cars in other markets got lost in translation.

1963-73 Sunbeam Minx and Arrow, Plymouth Cricket, Simca 1000

1963 Hillman Minx Saloon
1963 Hillman Minx Saloon Bonhams

Chrysler leapt into the European market in 1964 and immediately wondered what it could transfer to the U.S. The Shelby Cobra-like Sunbeam Tiger was the fastest option, packing a V-8 stuffed into an Alpine roadster. But Chrysler didn’t have a suitable substitute for Ford’s lightweight 260/289-cubic-inch engine, so the Tiger died off in 1967.

Moving downmarket, Chrysler branded British four-cylinder Hillman Minx and Hunter sedans as Sunbeams. The Hunter sold almost 500,000 examples worldwide in 10 years, but only a handful reached the U.S. in 1967, as Sunbeam Arrows. The underpowered Minx sedan was imported in 1966–67, with a pathetic automatic option. French Simca 1000-cc sedans dribbled in from 1963–69, but few survive, despite 1.6 million sales elsewhere. Hillman Avenger sedans and wagons arrived in 1971 as Plymouth Crickets to fight the Pinto and Vega, but with little support. Only 27,682 Crickets were sold in three years, and by Jiminy, it’s virtually extinct.

In a curious turn of fortunes, Chrysler was successful with Mitsubishi imports in the 1970s. It sold more than 300,000 Dodge Colts, Challengers (!), Plymouth Champs, Arrows, and Sapporos while developing its own Chrysler Le Baron, Plymouth Reliant, and Dodge Aries K-cars. Few 1970s captive imports survive and 1980s K-Cars are scarce, though no one cares.

1991 Lotus Elan M100

1991 Lotus Elan M100
1991 Lotus Elan M100 billo317 / Bring a Trailer

Reputedly the product of the Japanese team which lost out to Tom Matano’s American design for the Mazda Miata, the Lotus Elan M100 was a sturdy, if bland design. In that, it was similar to the unlamented Australian Mercury Capri of 1986–88, which was based on the Mazda 323 platform. The Elan offered a 162-bhp, 1588-cc, turbocharged DOHC fuel-injected Isuzu four-cylinder engine, and front-wheel drive with a five-speed manual gearbox. It weighed 2249 pounds and was capable of 135 mph. While it was quick and handled well, front-wheel drive was anathema to Lotus fans and only 528 were sold in the U.S, in 1991, at an uncompetitive MSRP of $33,900. Worldwide production totaled only 3855.

1975–76 Chevrolet Cosworth Vega

1976 Chevrolet Cosworth Vega
1976 Chevrolet Cosworth Vega RM Sotheby's

When the Chevrolet Vega was launched in 1971, John Z. DeLorean demanded a twin-cam version aimed at the BMW 2002 and the Alfa Romeo GTA in SCCA and European racing. Keith Duckworth of Cosworth Engineering designed a DOHC engine, 1000 of which were required for homologation. Cosworth’s engine developed 290 hp at 9000 rpm, but the high-silicon alloy blocks kept breaking, and Duckworth quit.

Cosworth’s Weber DCOE carburetors could not be smogged, so Bendix fuel injection was fitted, and the crankcase reinforced for 1974. But emissions demanded 8.5:1 compression instead of the planned 12:1 ratio, and horsepower plunged to a miserable 110 hp. Then the motor failed EPA testing and the project was delayed until 1975.

All 1975 Cosworth Vegas were black with gold trim, but cost $5916—double the cost of a standard Vega. They had a four-speed gearbox, unique alloy wheels, full instruments in a gold, engine-turned dashboard, and a numbered dash plaque. 1976 Cosworths came in seven other colors: Antique White, Dark Blue Metallic, Firethorn Metallic, Mahogany Metallic, Dark Green Metallic, Buckskin, Medium Orange, and Medium Saddle Metallic, and a five-speed was optional.

The muscular price tag and minimal performance meant that only 2061 Cosworths were built in 1975 and 1447 in 1976. Of 1492 leftover engines, a few were used for warranty, 500 disassembled for parts, and the rest scrapped for a tax write-off. Ironically, present-day technology can deliver on Cosworth’s original promise.

1970–73 Opel GT

1971 Opel GT
1971 Opel GT RM Sotheby's

When the Opel GT concept was shown at the 1965 Frankfurt and Paris Motor Shows, it was hailed in Europe as a mini Corvette and reputedly delayed until the strikingly similar C3 Corvette was ready. The GT’s running gear came from the lowly Kadett, but the elegant bodies were built by Brissonneau and Lotz in Paris and shipped to Germany for assembly. Most had a 90-hp, 1897-cc, “high-cam” almost OHC engine. In all, 103,373 GTs were built, with about 70,000 sold in the U.S. by puzzled Buick dealers grateful for an automatic option.

The GT’s layout was intricate. Front suspension was by transverse-leaf with a live rear axle located by coil springs, trailing arms, and Panhard rod. Brakes were disc/drum and steering rack-and-pinion. Hidden headlights were manual and flipped over sideways. There were four round taillights but no opening trunk, for structural rigidity. Road & Track reported 0-60 mph in 10.8 seconds, but wind-tunnel research and ram-air induction produced 115 mph.

Bash-bumper laws of 1974 doomed the GT, which suffered chronic rust issues. The 1.9-liter engine had a tiny three-quart sump, so oil levels had to be checked regularly. “Flip-over” headlights demanded flexible wiring, but engine heat hardened plastic insulation, and cracks led to fires. With so many built, spares do exist and in a strange quirk, wrecking yards and hoarders rarely crush parts cars.

Volvo P1800 and Jensen

1962 Volvo P1800
1962 Volvo P1800 RM Sotheby's

Volvo’s first sports car was the disastrous P1900 roadster in 1955. A fiberglass blob with a pig snout, one tester listed 29 “must fix” problems. Volvo’s CEO Gunnar Engelau took the P1900 on a 447-mile trip and canceled it on his return, after only 68 had been sold.

The 1961 P1800 sports coupe was much better and derived from Virgil Exner Jr.’s Chrysler concepts built by Ghia in the 1950s. The design resembled Ghia’s Thomas Special and Volkswagen’s Karmann Ghia coupe with fins, a curved side spear, and “cow horn” front bumpers. A kitschy interior featured chrome and stylized gauges.

Already running at capacity, Volvo contracted the first 6000 cars to Jensen in the UK. However, chronic rust issues in the critical unibody forced a return to Sweden in 1964, as the company’s reputation wavered. Now called the 1800S, the grille was simplified and the bumper straightened. The curved front bumpers and side spear vanished the next year.

The 1800 was saved from obscurity by actor Roger Moore, who drove one in a seven-year British TV series, The Saint. The network wanted a Jaguar E-Type, but Sir William Lyons refused. The 1800 proved mechanically bulletproof, with a 1.8-liter B18, four-cylinder, OHV engine, front disc and rear drum brakes, independent front suspension, and vault-like unit construction. Production lasted until 1973 and retired teacher Irv Gordon drove his 1966 model 3,250,257 miles.

Saab 9-2X, 9-7X, 9-6

Saab 9-2X
Saab 9-2X

Considering Saab is such a well-defined brand, it’s amazing how many bizarre rebadged vehicles have carried the name since the egg-shaped 92 was launched in 1950. Never mind the Triumph engine in the 1967 Saab 99; the Saab 600 of 1978 was really a Lancia Delta, while the 9000 of 1985 shared mechanicals with Alfa Romeo 164, Fiat Croma, and Lancia Thema. GM bought 50 percent of Saab in 1989 for $600 million and that resulted in the Opel-based 900 of 1994. Both the 900 and 9000 were renamed in 1997 as the 9-3 and 9-5.

When GM bought the remaining 50 percent of Saab in 2000 for $125 million, it cast around for other ways to monetize the brand. Since GM owned 20 percent of Subaru (Fuji Heavy Industries), an obvious choice was the all-wheel drive, turbocharged WRX Impreza wagon. It was face-lifted forward of the windshield, weighed down with luxury options, improved in numerous mechanical aspects, but cost $3000 more than the Subaru. Launched in 2004, the 9-2X’s best year was 2005 when 5940 were sold, fading to three in 2008 and a total of only 9284 all told.

The Saab 9-7X was an expensive Saab variation of the Chevrolet Trailblazer, designed to replace the Oldsmobile Bravada. It debuted in 2005 and managed to catch a bit of the SUV wave, selling 85,994 units before succumbing in the 2008 crash, with 1209 leftovers sold in 2009. Mercifully perhaps, plans to sell a Saab-badged variation of Subaru’s unpopular Tribeca SUV (badged as the 9-6) were shelved when GM sold its share in Fuji Heavy Industries in 2005. The 9-6 plan was never officially revealed until a prototype was added to the Saab museum in Trollhattan in 2011.

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