A trio from the French quarter.
Amid the less frequently visited outposts within automotive history’s archives, intriguing and fascinating things can sometimes be found.
Until fairly recently the family business of Automobiles Marsonetto was still active as a concessionaire of Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Lancia in Villeurbanne on the outskirts of Lyon. Founder of the company, Mario Marsonetto was the son of an Italian mason but was more interested in automobiles than following in his father’s footsteps. By his early twenties he had successfully trained to become a coachbuilder, having gained valuable work experience by rebodying passenger cars – mainly Renaults and Citroëns – as well as trucks.
The work carried out on those commercial vehicles helped, not only in terms of bodyworking experience, but also in constructing supporting frames and other underlying structures.
Unsurprisingly considering his automobile-loving background, in the 1950’s the young Marsonetto succumbed to the temptation of creating a car of his own. His first effort was the Panhard Dyna Z based Luciole (firefly) of 1957; the first examples had aluminium bodywork but Marsonetto soon switched to the relatively recently introduced fiberglass. Only about fifteen Lucioles were sold, after which Marsonetto stopped its production and opened an Alfa Romeo dealership.
The desire to have his own sportscar lingered however and in 1965 he commenced work on a new car that would initially be named the Mars 1 but later 1600GT. Utilising in its first guise a Renault 8 Gordini engine and assorted mechanicals and clothed in fiberglass bodywork on a tubular frame, Marsonetto’s new 2+2 was a decidedly more grown up proposition than the Luciole. Its styling showed a clear influence by Jaguar’s E-Type at the front and a mix of Ferrari and Maserati in the rest of the design- not unpleasant but a bit derivative and from certain angles ungainly.
This first Mars 1 remained a one-off and was used by Marsonetto who made several running changes, both mechanically and styling-wise, before he deemed the result good enough for an official offering. The 1968 Geneva Motor Show saw the official introduction of the car, which was now powered by the engine of the new Renault 16TS good for a claimed maximum speed of 124 mph.
Later that year, at the 1968 Paris Motor Show in October, the car was renamed 1600GT and there were some changes to the rear styling: the new large glass opening rear hatch complete with padded unzippable tonneau cover over the boot area was a notable and novel feature that predated the Porsche 924 and Renault Fuego by many years.
Maserati’s Mistral of 1963 did feature a similar glassy hatch but had no covering for the luggage area. Some 1600GTs had round taillights but a few were fitted with Renault 16 items – somewhat anachronistic were the sliding front side windows – a literal side-effect of giving interior space (the 1600GT was claimed to be a full four seater) preference in this matter.
The 1600GT’s chassis consisted of a steel platform chassis with duralinox reinforcements in the highly stressed areas. Engine, steering, suspension, brakes and other components came from the Renault 16TS but Marsonetto massaged the engine and fitted a different exhaust system resulting in a gain of 12-15 extra horses over the standard powerplant. A five speed gearbox was fitted, but it is unknown from what car it came, since no Renault 16 had such an item before the arrival of the 16TX in 1973.
By virtue of its low weight of less than 600 Kg and aerodynamic body the 1600GT boasted a claimed top speed of 136 mph. Impressive as this was, there was also the uncomfortable reality of the elevated price that Marsonetto charged for its handmade car: 38,000 Francs when for less than half of that you could drive away in an admittedly less swift, Matra M530.
Even so, Marsonetto claimed twenty orders were made at the Salon, but in reality and according to the source consulted only between six and sixteen 1600GTs were actually produced and sold, some as late as 1972.
The story would normally have ended there, but for many years the Marsonetto dealership showroom contained a car that likely was developed by Marsonetto as a possible replacement for the 1600GT. It is unclear exactly when this car was constructed but the 2.2 litre Douvrin engine points to a birthdate somewhere in the late seventies. What is clear is that the styling is quite sharp for the time and the rear end predicts the later Renault Fuego; the Alfa Romeo Alfasud Sprint taillights seen here were fitted later in its life to replace the original ones fitted.
As Marsonetto has reportedly currently ceased all operations in the automotive field the exact whereabouts of this one-off are not known but the photos seem to suggest it is being cared for well enough.
Renault Alpine PPG Pace Car
Perhaps Franco-American oddity would be a more accurate description but let us not dwell on semantics: between 1979 and 1997, the American chemical firm PPG Industries was the main sponsor of CART racing in the country. The series was even officially renamed the PPG Indy Car World Series in their honour. One of the several divisions of PPG specialized in car paints which explains the sponsoring connection.
PPG even went as far as commissioning unique pace cars for the racing events; some were only mildly modified but others were concept cars that would also be on display at motor shows. The vast majority of these originated from domestic manufacturers but a few foreign makes also received the PPG pace car treatment –
a Renault was chosen three times during the 1980s and this car was one of them.
It had two predecessors: in 1982 a rebodied 5 Turbo, reportedly styled by AMC stylist Dick Teague, lead the field to be replaced the year after by the even more radically restyled gull winged 5 Aerowedge. Underneath their futuristic clothes both of these cars were mechanically identical to the stock Renault 5 Turbo. Sometime in the middle of the decade – the exact season is vague – the car you see here did the PPG pace car honours.
Based on the then new Renault Alpine V6 (GTA in the UK) it wears a thoroughly reworked body and seems (and to some extent is) a totally different vehicle; constructed by a company named Triad Targa Group (a joint venture between Triad Services and Car Craft); the changes were not limited to just the cosmetics. ASC/McLaren fitted an engine with twin turbochargers, according to the manager of Triad’s prototype shop at the time, but it is not clear if this was the Renault powerplant or something else entirely.
That is not the only question mark surrounding this vehicle; unlike most other PPG pace cars it somehow suffered severe neglect after its pace car career and ended up in the parking lot of an Ohio engineering college from which it has since disappeared without a trace not long after the photos seen here surfaced on the web.
By the end of the seventies, neither Chrysler nor Peugeot was in the best of health; the former sold its unprofitable European arm to PSA to counter the large financial losses Chrysler was suffering in its homeland. New Chrysler CEO Lee Iaccoca and his counterpart at PSA, Jean-Paul Parayre, found common ground on a plan to jointly design and develop a low-cost car – produced by Chrysler – that could be sold under both the Chrysler and Peugeot name.
This would provide Iaccoca with a compact, frugal car to help Chrysler comply with CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) requirements and give Peugeot a modern, smaller car to sell on the North American market alongside the ageing 504 and its soon to be introduced 505 successor. In early 1981 styling development started under the guidance of Paul Bracq. One of his design staff members was sent to the USA to monitor the stateside design efforts and ensure the result remained recognisable as a Peugeot.
Almost from the start of the project however, cracks began to appear in the relationship between the two manufacturers: Iaccoca pushed strongly to have the French variant positioned more upmarket and to be sold at a correspondingly higher price and allocated just a tenth of the planned production volume to be badged as a Peugeot.
The French firm who had until that point agreed to evenly share development costs was not amused and refused to invest more than 10% from that moment on as a result. Serious doubts were also raised by PSA’s financial marketing department whether the proposed new Peugeot could be produced profitably at a proposed price of around US $6000.
The worsening situation in Sochaux in 1981-82 saw management decide to kill off the project and cut their losses while it was still in the early stages; all hopes being on the upcoming 205 model which fortunately would indeed save the day for the French firm.
By 1990 Peugeot had retreated from the American market. Chrysler had by that time formed another alliance with a foreign car manufacturer (Mitsubishi) little more than a year after the Chrysler-Peugeot deal faltered: under the Diamond Star Motors umbrella several imported and rebadged cars were marketed with varying levels of success. The one car specifically co-developed and sold under three different brand names however (Plymouth Laser, Eagle Talon and Mitsubishi Eclipse) never really took off.
* ‘To each his own’