(almost) Always a bad idea, when you’re in the automotive business.
Driven by opportunism, expediency or sheer desperation, motor manufacturers have often tried to pass off lightly reworked versions of competitors’ products as their own. It has rarely ended well.
The latest to have tried and failed at this game is Fiat, who announced in late 2019 that production of the Fiat 124 Spider for European markets was ending after just three years. There appears to be some confusion regarding the North American market, where the model is still listed on the Fiat.com website, but it is widely believed to be on its way out. Speaking to Autocar in August 2019, Fiat CEO Olivier François claimed that Fiat had “no legitimacy” in this segment, from which Autocar inferred that the 124 Spider would not be replaced.
Under its completely reworked skin, the 124 Spider was a Mk4 Mazda MX-5 with a Fiat engine. The turbocharged 1.4L Multiair unit was available with either 138bhp in the standard car or 168bhp in the Abarth version. The car was built by Mazda in Hiroshima, Japan alongside the MX-5.
The restyling was, to my eyes at least, pretty successful in that it reprised the proportions and some of the details of the classic 1968 Fiat roadster and was noticeably more substantial (and European) looking than the petite, oriental Mazda. The interior, however, was pure MX-5, apart from the badge on the steering wheel boss and welcome page of the infotainment system.
Fiat tried to give the standard 124 Spider a slightly softer feel than the MX-5, but only succeeded in blunting the latter’s pin-sharp steering somewhat, without noticeably improving the ride quality. This was partly a result of the heavier front end and Fiat engine upsetting the previously perfect 50:50 weight distribution.
The market’s reaction to the 124 Spider was lukewarm and Fiat sold just over 37,000 examples from 2016 to 2019. By comparison, the MX-5 sold over 137,000 units in the same period.
Another recent and resoundingly unsuccessful attempt at this practice was the 2005 Cadillac BLS. This was a rebodied version of the Saab 9-3 and was produced in saloon and estate forms alongside the 9-3 at the Saab plant in Trollhätten, Sweden. There is a delicious irony in the fact that the BLS is, allegedly, named in honour of Bob Lutz, then GM Vice-Chairman for Product Development. Lutz described the Cimarron by Cadillac, GM’s previous attempt at a smaller Cadillac and a car conceptually identical to the BLS, as “the ultimate shaming of this once-proud brand”. At least GM had the sense not to try and sell the BLS in North America.
The BLS drove pretty much like its Saab equivalent, which is to say fine, but resolutely unexceptional. The UK motoring weekly AutoExpress awarded the BLS just two stars and opined that it “offers nothing new in a market overflowing with talent”. During its five-year lifespan, fewer than 5,000 were sold. Like the 124 Spider, this was not just a badge-engineered version of the original but had a completely different exterior, so was a huge waste of development time and money for very little return. So rare is the BLS that they’re almost collectable*.
GM inflicted similar humiliations on its Swedish outpost with the 2004 ‘Saabaru’ 9-2X and 2005 ‘Saabrolet’ 9-7X, with similarly dismal results.
An extraordinary repurposing of an existing model was the 2011 Aston Martin Cygnet. The concept, revealed at the 2010 Geneva Motor Show, appeared either audacious or demented at launch. History, and risible sales, would adjudge it to be the latter.
The Cygnet was a Toyota iQ, a novel three-seater city car, with a new front end incorporating an Aston Martin grill, new tail lights and a hand-crafted leather and Alcantara interior, the latter reportedly taking 150 hours to complete. The car was priced ambitiously from around £31k, almost three times that of the iQ. Annual sales were projected at an apparently modest 4,000 units. The purpose of the Cygnet was to attract new customers to the marque, provide an Aston-branded city car for existing owners and, critically, to improve the average fuel economy and reduce CO2 emissions across Aston Martin’s range to meet anticipated EU targets, introduced in 2012.
The Cygnet was a huge flop. It was dropped after three years with total sales of less than 600. Those it did sell were likely to have been quite profitable, but it’s a car Aston-Martin would prefer to forget. The Cygnet has become the choice for some mildly eccentric collectors because of its sheer rarity.
Another much less famous case was the Volkswagen K70, launched in 1970. This was less an imposter and more an unloved orphan. NSU had developed the K70 as a conventionally engineered sibling to the Wankel-engined RO80. It was ready to launch in 1969 when NSU, in serious financial trouble, fell into the hands of VW and was merged with Audi, a wholly owned VW subsidiary since 1966. The K70 was initially shelved as it was uncomfortably close in size and price to both the 1968 C1 generation Audi 100 and VW’s own 412 model.
However, VW needed a car to replace the fading 412 and production of the K70 resumed in 1970 after the manufacturing equipment was transferred to a new VW plant at Saltzgitter. Just 23 NSU-badged pre-production cars had been produced at the NSU plant at Neckarsulm. The FWD K70 was unusually proportioned as a consequence of its longitudinal engine being installed directly above the differential. This dictated a tall bonnet line and that in turn led to a taller than usual glasshouse, giving the K70 a somewhat top-heavy appearance.
The K70 was launched with not a great deal of publicity and it was hard to escape the impression that VW’s heart was not really in it. The company had its own range of FWD cars in development and the first of these, the Passat, would be launched just two years later. The K70 was sold for five years and just 211,127 units were produced. A production-ready estate version designed by NSU was never offered.
There is often a glorious exception to a rule and, in this case, it’s the Triumph Acclaim, a British manufactured version of the Honda Ballade with minimal changes**. The car itself was wholly unremarkable and just 133,626 were made during its three-year lifespan. It was also the swansong for the Triumph brand.
Its significance lies in the fact that it proved that British assembly line workers could produce cars to a similar standard of quality and consistency as their Japanese counterparts, provided the car was properly designed for series production in the first place.
The Acclaim would usher in a successful era of co-operation between Rover and Honda during which the British company would enjoy a rare period of stability and success. The Acclaim remains an almost unique success story, but the truth is still incontrovertible for auto makers: don’t fake it, it doesn’t work.
* Only kidding, of course they’re not!
** One of the few changes was the installation of front seat frames designed for the Ford Cortina in place of the Honda. This was, allegedly, done to try and free up more space in the rather cramped interior.