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10 Unlikely Joint-Venture Vehicles

Automaker Collabs Prove Unpredictable

Joint Venture Vehicles

Automakers have been teaming up to create cars together since at least the 1950s. But the globalization of the auto industry has only accelerated the proliferation of the resulting “joint-venture vehicles.” This is particularly true in China, where there are currently 19 on-going joint ventures between domestic and foreign automakers (which would be a whole other article).

I detailed some of the licensing agreements between different manufacturers in my recent World’s Most Copied Cars article. But these usually involve straight-up copying of an existing model, rather than two automakers truly collaborating to create a new vehicle.

Sometimes two companies will work together on just a single model, and this is where the more interesting, and sometimes eccentric, outcomes occur. A jointly-developed vehicle can certainly be a best-of-both-worlds fusion of the innovation, tradition, engineering, and style of two established marques. But sometimes it instead produces half-cocked, marriage-of-convenience curiosities that provoke more scratched heads that turned ones.

10 Noteworthy Automotive Joint-Ventures

Let’s have a look at ten instances where automotive joint ventures spawned interesting results:

Chrysler TC by Maserati

Chrysler TC by Maserati

Perhaps the most lambasted of jointly-developed follies grew out of a friendship between then-Chrysler boss Lee Iacocca and Alejandro de Tomaso, owner of Maserati at the time. Their relationship had produced another collaborative flop while Iacocca was at Ford, the De Tomaso Pantera. But at least that was a mid-engined stunner. The next Iacocca/Tomaso bright idea was an unsalvageable dud.

Introduced in 1986, the “Chrysler TC by Maserati” was intended as a “halo” model which would elevate Chrysler’s blue-collar image by association with the legendary, if perpetually unstable, Italian marque. Though based on a shortened Dodge Daytona chassis, the TC really was built in Italy and had a lot of Maserati in it, including some models with Maserati engines.

But to consumers and critics, the TC was just a spruced-up Chrysler LeBaron Convertible, with a vaguely Maserati-ish front end, that sold for more than twice the price of even a top-spec LeB. And while it had been hoped that the TC would make Chrysler appear cool in the eyes of younger drivers, features like circular “opera” windows in its detachable hard-top had precisely the opposite effect.

Ultimately only 7,300 TCs were built – the minimum requirement under the contract between Chrysler and Maserati – for the 1989-1991 model years. Each TC ended up costing Chrysler around $80,000 in 1990 dollars, for a car that listed for $37,000 at the time (and can be found for under $4K today).

Kia Elan

Kia Elan

While the Chrysler TC required years of joint development, Kia’s Elan sports car resulted from the simplest of agreements between the Korean company and England’s renowned Lotus marque. While Kia and Lotus might be considered at opposite ends of the prestige and style spectrum – and even more so in the mid-1990s –, they briefly coexisted in a single car.

It went like this: In the late 1980s, General Motors had acquired Lotus with grand plans to boost its annual production to 5,000 cars. As part of this effort, they revived the Elan nameplate originally used on a beloved series of sports cars manufactured 1962-1975. Only the new Elan Roadster, introduced in 1989, was a very different animal. The only front-wheel-drive Lotus, it was powered by an Isuzu four-banger and looked more Japanese than English.

Predictably, Lotus purists largely snubbed the new Elan and, while it received critical praise for its road-holding and rigidity, only 4,655 were made before GM pulled the plug. This is where the unlikely Kia Elan took up the torch. The production tooling for the Elan was sold to Kia, who produced a further 1,000 almost identical cars for the South Korean market.

In a related footnote, GM’s ownership of Lotus also spawned the Lotus Carlton and Omega. Capable of 176 mph, these seriously upgraded turbo versions of the Vauxhall Carlton and Opel Omega were the fastest sedans of all time (in 1990). Only 950 were produced.

Aston Martin Cygnet

Aston Martin Cygnet

If there’s an opposite of a halo model (a “stigma model”?), Aston Martin’s Cygnet is surely it. Actually, just a rebadged, if considerably better-appointed, Toyota iQ city car, the ladybug-like Cygnet is a blight on an otherwise ultra-classy British institution.

Like many automotive anomalies, the Cygnet was a response to regulations. In this case, it was Aston Martin’s need to comply with 2012 European Union-imposed fleet average emissions regulations when its existing model line-up consisted of gas-thirsty 8- and 12-cylinder supercars.

Nonetheless, Aston Martin CEO Ulrich Bez had a bold vision for the Cygnet. He also saw it as an affordable Aston Martin during tough times, and as a spare city runaround for existing AM owners who didn’t always want to drive their ultra-expensive DB9 or Rapide.

The Cygnet cost around three times as much as a regular iQ but, in fairness, boasted a bespoke interior and other high-end aesthetic appointments (though the guts were all Toyota). Bez announced expectations of 4,000 Cygnet sales annually upon its 2011 release, first in the UK, and then in other European markets. But real-world sales were disastrously low, with only around 300 Cygnets sold in total before it vanished in 2013.

However, the Cygnet has lately graduated from “lamest cars” lists to being so uncool, and so downright rare, that it’s actually cool. At the time of writing, five were for sale in the UK, starting at the equivalent of $39,000. Which for an Aston Martin of any description, never mind a roadworthy low-mileage example, is an absolute snip.

Alfa Romeo Arna

Alfa Romeo Arna

The Alfa Romeo Arna was a worst-of-both-worlds joint venture of epic proportions. Arna is a female Italian name but also stood for “Alfa Romeo Nissan Autoveicoli” in reference to this angular hatchback being a partnership between Alfa and Nissan.

When the two companies signed a cooperation memorandum in 1980, Alfa was keen to get into the lucrative European family hatchback market dominated by the VW Golf and Lancia Delta. Teaming with Nissan, which had experience with such vehicles, could expedite their developing of a competitive hatch.

Once again, regulations also factored in. Nissan was keen to keep a foothold in European countries that were growing increasingly protectionist of their domestic industries. The Alfa-Nissan deal was viewed by critics as a Trojan horse by which a Japanese automaker could continue to unfairly compete in Europe.

British Leyland and Honda had an ostensibly similar partnership at the time. But the Arna project ran deeper. Alfa and Nissan actually constructed a new plant together near Naples. Body panels were built in Japan by Nissan, to be assembled in Italy. Though based on the Nissan Pulsar/Cherry, the Arna featured Alfa engines, transmissions, front brakes, steering, and suspension.

But the Arna somehow combined all the weakest traits of its parents. Its utilitarian style and uninspiring handling were common to contemporary Japanese cars. Rust-prone bodywork, unpredictable mechanicals, and questionable build quality were Alfa’s signature contributions. Only 52,000 were sold in four years.

By 1984 Nissan had built a more solid European bridgehead with its Nissan Motor Manufacturing UK plant in England and no longer needed the Arna. When Fiat bought Alfa two years later, it mercy-killed the poor thing for good.

NUMMI

Toyota Voltz

New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI) was an automaker in California jointly owned by General Motors and Toyota. Between 1984 and 2010 it manufactured vehicles that were sold under both brands, including almost identical models that were variously branded Toyota, Chevrolet, Pontiac, or Geo.

Once again, the specter of import restrictions was an incentive (for Toyota), while GM was seeking to makeover its existing Fremont Assembly factory. Fremont employees had been deemed “the worst workforce in the automobile industry” by the United Auto Workers. With the creation of NUMMI, some were sent to Japan to learn the Toyota Production System, with its emphasis on quality and teamwork. Resulting cultural changes at the plant included the introduction of the same uniform for all employees and shared cafeterias and parking for all levels of staff.

Almost immediately upon opening, the NUMMI factory was producing cars as fast and as defect-free as those made in Japan. It would go on to build nearly eight million cars and trucks, with an annual peak of more than 428,000 units in 2006.

As well as actual Toyota Corollas, the NUMMI plant also produced rebadged Corolla-based variants such as the Geo/Chevrolet Prism and the 5th-gen Chevrolet Nova. It also built Toyota Hilux and Tacoma pickup trucks, and the jointly-developed Pontiac Vibe/Toyota Voltz (based on the Toyota Matrix).

The NUMMI factory was sold to Tesla in 2010 and is now known as the Tesla Fremont Factory. But one legacy of its NUMMI years is that while Toyotas famously hold their value, a much cheaper NUMMI-made used Chevy, Geo or Pontiac should be of identical quality.

Isuzu ‘Handling by Lotus’ Impulse

Isuzu ‘Handling by Lotus’ Impulse

In the 1980s, General Motors-owned both Lotus and a chunk of Isuzu. This spawned considerable cross-pollination between the two brands, including an Isuzu engine powering the revived Lotus Elan, as mentioned above.

But another Isuzu-Lotus link-up created possibly the most attainable vehicle to ever carry a Lotus badge. This would be the Isuzu Impulse ‘Handling by Lotus’ models. Known as the Piazza outside of the U.S., the Impulse was a sporty liftback coupe based on a design by the legendary Giorgetto Giugiaro. First appearing overseas in 1980, it debuted stateside in 1983.

One problem with early Impulses was their inept suspension, including a dated rear live axle arrangement, and related poor handling. GM turned to Lotus, who duly transformed Impulse handling through modified suspension layouts, larger brakes, specially-produced dampers, and Goodyear tires. (Ironically, the live axle remained.)

Isuzu was working hard to establish itself in global passenger car markets, so loudly trumpeted the Lotus connection with numerous exterior changes to the improved Impulse, including ‘Handling by Lotus’ badges from 1988 on. All of the second-generation Impulses (1990-1992) boasted Lotus-tuned suspension and badging.

The Impulse is a rare find in the U.S. Only 13,000 were manufactured in total, with only 2,300 registered in North America as of 2010. The most sought-after version today is the second-gen RS, with its potent 1.6-liter turbocharged engine and optional all-wheel drive. Only 602 of these were built for the American market, but might be worth the search if you simply must have a Lotus logo.

Volvo 262C & 780

Volvo 262C & 780

While Volvo has long been associated with solidity and safety, aesthetic panache is hardly brand-synonymous (with the exception of its P1800 sports cars). But the Swedish company addressed this perception in the late 1970s by teaming with storied Italian coachbuilder Bertone for the 262C.

Based on the boringly boxy Volvo 200 Series, the 262C was the marque’s first luxury coupe upon its 1977 introduction. Lacking facilities for a low-volume project, Volvo entered into a contract with Bertone to build it.

A true joint effort, the 262C used the drivetrain, suspension, floor pan and numerous body panels from a Volvo 260 sedan. Bertone created the roof pillars, roof pan, windshield surround, and upper door parts. These differed from those of a standard 260 because the roof of a 262C is almost four inches lower than that of its parent model.

Initially available only in silver with a black vinyl roof, other 262C exterior colors were later offered. Its V6 engine was also a collaborative effort, developed jointly by Volvo, Peugeot, and Renault. Partially inspired by American luxury cars of the era, most of the 6622 examples of this identity crisis on wheels were intended for the U.S. market, before production ceased after just two years.

Volvo revisited the luxury coupe, and Bertone, with its elegant 780 in 1985. This time Bertone worked miracles on the apparently irredeemably wedge-y 760 sedan. They lowered the hood, trunk, and rooflines, and introduced a wider, more gradually-sloped C-pillar. These combined to make the 780 a seriously handsome beast.

Just over 8,500 780s were produced before its 1990 demise. They retain a cult following, with a dedicated website that includes examples for sale worldwide.

Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren

Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren

While McLaren and Mercedes-Benz have frequently been rivals on the track, they’ve often collaborated under the hood. McLaren’s Formula One racing team used Mercedes engines 1995-2014, and the two will be reunited for the 2021 season.

Outside of Formula One, the most visible face of the MBZ-McLaren marriage has been the mouthwatering Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren grand tourer. This scissor-doored supercar was available as coupe, roadster, or (limited edition) speedster, 2003-2010.

The ‘SLR’ of the name harks back to Mercedes’ racing heyday in the 1950s when it also developed the iconic 300 SLR sports car. The initials stood for Sport, Leicht, Rennsport (‘Sport, Light, Racing’), a reference to its lightweight construction, and Mercedes’ dominance on global circuits at the time.

Fast-forward to the turn of the Millennium, when Mercedes-powered McLarens had enjoyed considerable F1 success on the track, and Mercedes’ parent company DaimlerChrysler held a majority of McLaren Group shares. Almost inevitably, the union spilled out onto the streets in the shape of the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren.

But while this was a big deal among gearheads, the market reality for such an expensive car, originally costing around $450,000, was sobering. Mercedes initially announced that total production would be limited to 3,500 units. But they needn’t have worried, as only 2,157 Mercedes-Benz SLR McLarens were ever made. Only once, in 2005, did the Mercedes-McLaren exceed its annual sales goal of 500 units.

But this rarity has only made the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren more sought after as a millionaires plaything today, with used examples still fetching $300-$400K stateside.

Fiat 124 Spider

Fiat 124 Spider

To auto enthusiasts, there are few things more quintessentially European than a little Italian convertible. Unless, that is, that “Italian” convertible is actually Japanese.

The original Fiat 124 Sport Spider, produced 1966-1985, really was Italian through-and-through. A timeless beauty that changed little over its two-decade production run, it was designed and built by Pininfarina in Turin and San Giorgio Canavese, Italy. Even when Fiat retired what was by then called the Spider 2000 in 1982, Pininfarina continued producing the model as the Pininfarina Azzura Spider (in North America) and Pininfarina Spidereuropa (in Europe).

But since Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) revived the model in 2015, as the Fiat 124 Spider, it has been manufactured in Hiroshima, Japan. It’s built by Mazda and largely based on that company’s popular MX-5 Miata roadster (albeit with uniquely-tuned shocks and exterior styling, plus slightly increased length and cargo space). FCA’s chief contribution to the 124 Spider is its turbo Multiair engine.

The so-called “Fiata” received mixed reviews, with Jeremy Clarkson criticizing it for being actually less sporty than the MX-5. But the 124 Spider both boosted Fiat’s brand identity and, intentionally or otherwise, may have saved the Miata – the best-selling car of its type in history, but perhaps outstaying its welcome after more than a quarter-century in production.

“The possibility exists that without our partnership with FCA, there may not have been a business case to produce the fourth-generation MX-5 Miata,” Robert Davis, then Mazda’s senior vice president of U.S. operations, told The Detroit News in 2016.

Chrysler Crossfire

 Joint-Venture Vehicles: Chrysler Crossfire

While the Fiat 124 Spider’s “Fiata” nickname poked fun at its being a joint-venture vehicle, Chrysler loudly boasted about the collaborative nature of its Crossfire sports car. The very name “Crossfire” is a reference, in part, to the car being a collab with Chrysler’s then owners Daimler-Benz.

Because while someone craving an Italian roadster might be deflated to discover that it’s actually a Mazda, a prospective Crossfire buyer would probably be thrilled to learn that it shares a platform and many components with the upscale Mercedes-Benz SLK. It was even built by Karmann in Germany.

Produced for the 2004-2008 model years, the boat-tailed Crossfire was a bold attempt to refresh Chrysler’s grandma-ish image. To this day it looks like a concept car, and the production model really was amazingly faithful to the show car first unveiled at the 2001 North American International Auto Show.

Available as a two-seater convertible or fastback coupe, the Crossfire has a purposeful air that suggests forward motion even when stationary. But many drivers appeared simply confused by a Chrysler badge appearing on a somewhat outlandish-looking sports car, and not all were aware of its MBZ heritage and first-rate Karmann build quality. Sales were disappointingly slow, with just over 76,000 Crossfires produced in total.

Coming full circle from the first car on this list, the Crossfire was in a way the successor to Chrysler’s dismal attempt at a halo car 15 years earlier, the TC. So even if it didn’t sell as well as intended, the Crossfire was indicative of the huge strides that the company had made as Daimler-Chrysler.







Paul Rogers
About Paul Rogers

A transplanted Brit living in L.A., I have a passion for cars of the 1970s and '80s; obscure automakers; and vehicles from unlikely and far-flung places. Yet somehow I drive a Jaguar XK8 coupe and a sun-faded Mitsu Montero.