Part of the recent discussion about the Opel Manta A here on ViaRETRO touched on the issue of the small engines available in the car. Besides the 1.9, Opel offered a 1.6 and even a 1.2 – the latter resulting in a severely under-powered yet very stylish and cool-looking car. This got me thinking about other classic small-engined coupés from the 1960’s and ‘70’s, and although these small coupés might not have set the tarmac alight, they offered huge amounts of style and pose value, and many of them are available today for not crazy money.
When I started to look into this niche in more detail, it became apparent that the driver who wanted sporty looks but not necessarily the performance and cost of bigger-engined coupés was thoroughly spoilt for choice during those two decades. In fact, so great was the variety of options that instead of a comprehensive look at this sector, I’m going to focus on my personal favourites – so, dear reader, apologies in advance if I’ve neglected to mention one of your favourites. May I suggest you add to the discussion with a picture of your favourite in the comments section…
Small coupés came in essentially two types – two-door fastback versions of saloons, or coachbuilt bodies on saloon mechanicals. For the purposes of this piece I’m going to define small-engined as 1.3-litres and less, so US representation will inevitably be limited…
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the masters of style over performance in this genre (if I can call it that) of car were the Italians. Let’s start with one of my favourites, the Alfa Romeo GT Junior. The distinctive and purposeful body was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro for Bertone (as were a number of these small coupés), and a range of engines up to 2-litres eventually found their way under the bonnet, but our focus here is on the GT Junior.
Small saloon-based coupés were not new for Alfa Romeo, having previously offered the delightful little Giulietta Sprint and the dramatic Giulietta Sprint Speciale (another Bertone design), both with their rev-happy 1.3-litre twincam engine. Introduced in 1965 as a way of enabling Italians to buy into the style and glamour of a Giulia Sprint GT but avoiding the then-punitive taxes on larger-engined cars, the GT Junior came with a 1290cc, 89 bhp twincam engine that propelled it to a top speed of just over 100mph/160kmh, reaching 0-62mph/100kmh in 12.6 second – not too bad for a 1300. They’re very pretty cars and along with many cars I’m going to mention in this piece, I’d be very happy to have one in my garage.
Perhaps the ultimate version of the GT Junior came from the pen and factory of Zagato, with the kamm-tailed Junior Z. To my eyes, one of the more successful Zagato designs, just over 1100 were built, so they’re a rare sight these days.
This leads us nicely to another of my favourite small Italian coupés, the Lancia Fulvia 1.3S and not least its Zagato-built sibling, the Fulvia Sport, with its side-hinged bonnet and rear glass hatch. Initially sharing the same 1216cc engine, later upgraded to the 1298cc (just under the tax limit), I’m a big fan of both, with a preference for the delicate lines of the original, although it proved to be tougher than it looks, with much rallying success.
Still in Turin, numerous Fiat-based coupés appeared through the ‘60’s and’70’s, some from Fiat themselves, others from Moretti, Abarth, Innocenti and many other coachbuilders for that matter. There’s usually a couple of the pretty Vignale-bodied 850 coupés at most classic shows, as well as the occasional Abarth 1000 and Innocenti 1100, but I particularly want to mention two others, the first being the stunning Fiat 1300S Coupé – at least, it looks stunning in pictures, as I’ve yet to see one in the metal.
Like a number of small Fiat-based coupés, this was a Vignale-designed and bodied car, with mini-Ferrari looks, as well as being a baby brother to the Fiat Dino. There’s a lovely metallic green 1965 example with red leather interior for sale at Kucarfa in the Netherlands. They’re asking EUR 40,000 – not cheap by any means, but for such a rare jewel of a car?
Back in May, at the Auto Italia Day at Brooklands, I came across a name previously unknown to me – as a car, at least; I’m more familiar with the birra – and that was Moretti. Moretti made coach-built versions of a whole variety of Fiats, from the 750 and 1500 through 124, 125, 127, 128 and up to the 2300, some of which – including a truly spectacular 2300SS, were at the event that day. In my humble opinion, every one of these is a considerable improvement on the base Fiat, and in the world of small coupés, perhaps the nicest of the Moretti’s, and therefore one of the nicest of its kind, is the 850-based Sportiva, which shares a lot of styling cues with the beautiful (and later) Fiat Dino Spyder.
Of course, the Italians were not the only nationality to build delightful small coupés, although they did have a direct hand in several of the non-Italian ones. From France came Simca’s 1000 Coupé and even more so, it’s successor, the 1200S Coupé. Again from the pen of Giugiaro, built by Bertone and based on the humble Simca 1000 saloon, these superbly styled cars are among my absolute favourites of this type. At the time, they were pitched against Renault’s Dauphine-based Floride, another trés chic French coupé with Italian styling, this time by Pietro Frua at Ghia.
Also out of France came the Alpine A106 and the dramatic A108 (like the Floride, based on the Dauphine), the latter coming with engines of just 845, 904 and 998cc, leading up to the astonishing A110, which came with 1.1, 1.2 and 1.3-litre engines and later taking on board more powerful and larger engines as it conquered the rally world.
A much more unconventional design was the Panhard 24, with its advanced, aerodynamic coupé body, it looked 25 years ahead of its time – unfortunately, its 848cc air-cooled 2-cylinder boxer engine came with a maximum of just 50 horses in harness, but what style!
Yet another unconventional car in this class was the Matra Bagheera – with its innovative 3-seat arrangement, 1294cc mid-mounted engine and pop-up headlights, it was a real looker. Unfortunately, it was plagued with problems relating mostly to its finish, and in 1975 the ADAC awarded it its Silver Lemon prize.
I’m not forgetting Peugeot’s 204 & 304 Coupés, but in the company of the super-stylish cars mentioned above, they’re a little, dare I say it, ordinary?
Of course, the Germans could also turn their hands to small coupés – in the late 1950’s and early ‘60’s, Goggomobil built possibly the minutest and least powerful coupés ever made, boasting engines of 245, 293 and 392cc, with the 2-cylinder, 2-stroke, 245cc version pumping out all of 13.6hp to propel this tiny two-door to a top speed of 47mph/75kmh on its 10-inch wheels.
However, Goggomobil’s parent company, Glas, reached a bit higher. Between 1963 and 1968, Glas built a range of stylish coupés that went all the way up to a 3-litre V8. The Glas coupé that belongs in this company is of course the 1300GT, designed by Frua (that Italian connection yet again) and built by Maggiora before final assembly at the Glas factory in Dingolfing. These were proper small sports coupés, topping 106mph/170kmh, and the later 1700GT was obviously faster still. In 1967, following the acquisition of Glas by BMW, all Glas coupés were given the 1573cc engine from the 1600ti, and became the BMW 1600GT.
BMW itself also had a small – actually very small – coupé on its books; the dainty 700 Coupé, introduced along with its saloon equivalent at the end of 1959. These two basically kept BMW afloat after production of both the fabulous 503 and 507 models had been terminated until the introduction of the Neue Klasse range in 1962, making the 700-series perhaps the most important car BMW ever made? Discuss…!
One of the ultimate “more show than go” small coupés is of course the VW Beetle-based Karmann Ghia (those Italians again!), whose rounded curves still look cool today and despite the less than inspiring performance generated by its air-cooled 1295cc and especially the 1192cc engines, the Karmann Ghia was produced over a 19 year period with over 445,000 of these Typ-14’s built.
VW followed this with the Scirocco, basically a lower, sleeker and sportier Golf, although in 1.1 and 1.3-litre form, it was less than sporty in performance terms. Yet another Giugiaro design (as was the Golf – possibly the single most significant car of the many he designed), it actually appeared six months before the Golf, and was a great image boost for VW and an even bigger sales success than its predecessor.
Other German manufacturers to try their hand in this market sector included Auto-Union, producing a contender for prettiest in class with the mini-Ford Thunderbird 1000SP, and Opel who, besides being the spark for this piece with the under-powered Manta A 1200 and 1.1-litre Opel GT, also made coupé versions of its Kadett A, B and C saloons, with engines from 998cc through 1196cc and up to 1979cc at the very top end, but the vast majority of Kadetts used the smaller engines. Personally, I quite like the styling of the Kadett Coupés, but as with the Manta A, I must confess to preferring the bigger engined versions. We featured a very tidy Kadett B coupé recently in our Prime Find of the Week series, which looked pretty good at £6,000.
The Brits also had a go at producing coupé versions of some of their saloons, though in some cases, the results were generally less than inspiring. The Marina 1300TC Coupé definitely looked better than its base saloon but compared poorly to the plethora of Italian-designed small coupés – at least to my eyes.
Better was the Vauxhall Firenza, based on the Viva HC, which had an entry-level power unit of 1159cc at launch, later upgraded to 1256cc. During its 4-year production run from 1971 to 1975, a number of larger engines were also made available in the Firenza, culminating in the 2229cc “Droop-Snoot”, which also proved to be the basis for a very successful touring car racer with Gerry Marshall at the wheel. Fun fact – the Droop-Snoot shared its headlamp lenses with the Alpine A310.
From the Rootes stable came the Sunbeam Stiletto, the most powerful of its lookalike stablemates, the Singer Chamois Coupé and Hillman Imp Californian, with a top speed of 90mph. Some of the British specialist manufacturers also got in on the act such as Ginetta with their rear-engined, Imp-powered and very neat G15.
Of course, we mustn’t forget the Ford Capri. Marketed as “The car you always promised yourself”, the Capri could be all things to all men (and it was mostly targeted at men). Across three iterations over a 17-year period, almost 1.9m Capri’s were produced, with engines ranging from a 1.3-litre 4-cylinder to the mighty 3.1-litre “Essex” V6. Viewed by many as Europe’s answer to the American “pony cars”, the Capri was a huge success, and even the 1.3-litre made its drivers feel cool, even if they could only reach a top speed of 84mph while posing.
And let’s not forget the Japanese (or our International Editor will be very unhappy, and I wouldn’t want that!). Honda in particular made a range of high-revving, stylish small coupés through the 1960’s and ‘70’s, starting with the 90mph, 606cc Honda S600, the iconic Honda S800, and up to the little known outside of Japan 1300 7S. All were quicker than you might expect – the S800 could achieve 100mph – and have fans among the ViaRETRO editorial team; our own Claus Ebberfield chose an S800 from all the goodies available at the Gstaad Auction.
Datsun also entered the small coupé market with – among others – its first-generation 1000 Coupé from 1969 and the following second-generation 1200S Coupé, both based on the Sunny saloon. Yet Toyota beat them to it, and only two years after introducing its successful Corolla range they gave us a coupé version in 1968, and continued to do so for several generations of the Corolla thereafter. Both the Datsuns and Toyotas were neat little coupés that added some style cachet to their relatively mundane small saloons.
Finally, and possibly one of the most unconventional small coupés of all, let’s not forget the amazing Mazda Cosmo! As futuristic as its name implied when launched in 1967, this 982cc Wankel Rotary-engined car produced as much as 130bhp, and subsequent generations of the Cosmo, while stylistically less adventurous, continued to offer rotary power combined with a sleek coupé body. Mazda also offered the more conventional-looking Grand Familia Coupé if the Cosmos was too scary…
I know I’ve missed a few during this whistle-stop tour of the small coupé sector, and I’m sure there will be a ViaRETRO reader or two who will remind me! I have to admit that when my thoughts first turned to this market niche, I hadn’t realised just how many choices where there for the picking, nor how much I would want some of them in my dream garage. Personal favourites are the gorgeous Fiat 1300S, the Simca 1200S, the Moretti Sportiva and the Glas 1300GT; choosing just one would be very difficult. One thing all four have in common, though, is superb Italian design and style…